Mayan culture…then and now

The Mayan culture is one that has been around for thousands of years, and has rich history and traditions that are still celebrated today. However, the culture that was present centuries ago is different from the culture that we see today. One way that the differences have come about is due to the impacts that the Europeans had when they colonized the region. These differences can be best explored through the “modern and traditional” intersection of Chesapeake semester.

When many people think of the traditional Mayan they think of the large temples and pyramids that they built and the rituals that go along with them. Many of these rituals included the higher ranking members of the society performing auto sacrifice, which is the practice of causing harm to oneself to seek help from any one of their many deities or an ancestor. Other large parts of the traditional Mayan culture include the languages they spoke (Mopan, k’ekchi, and others), the traditional ecological knowledge that they demonstrated, and their beliefs about the world that defined many ways that they lived their daily life. The end of the post classic period of the Mayans around 800 A.D. brought about many changes that have shaped the way that the modern Mayan live today.

After the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization, many ways of life for the Mayan stopped. Some of the elements of the culture that were lost include the building of temples, the political structure, the auto sacrifice rituals, and many others. When the Spanish came to Central America and encountered the Mayan people who remained in the region, they forced Christianity upon them. Victor, a teacher we met with at Tumul k’in explained the Spanish would convert the Mayans by giving them the Spanish “truth” which was as Victor put it: “here is the bible–it is the truth. If you don’t believe that then here is another truth… A sword going through your neck.” With the threat of death if they did not convert, many of the Mayan claimed to be Christians. However, due to the fact that the Mayan religion and Christianity have many similarities, the Mayans would seem to the Spanish as Christians when in actuality they were still able to practice elements of their own belief systems.

These belief systems, though not practiced strictly, are still talked about and taught to some of the younger Mayan generation at schools like Tumul k’in in Blue Creek. From other experiences that I have had during the Chesapeake Semester it seems to me that this is a rare function in a society that has experienced colonization. During our first journey we visited with the Pamunkey Indians, and from what we were told by leaders and the youth of the community, their traditional culture has been almost entirely eradicated due to the oppression that they have faced ever since the Europeans came to the new world. Warren Cook, a Pamunkey youth, told us a story about a time when he asked his grandfather if he could teach him everything that he knows about their heritage. His grandfather responded by saying he did not know much about it. The reason that Warren’s grandfather did not know anything about their traditional history is because his own father refused to teach him. This is due to the fact that when Warren’s grandfather was a child, anything that had to deal with Indians and their culture was considered wrong and shameful. They had to assimilate in order to survive and be accepted by society.

No matter why the Mayans were able to keep their culture alive, it is obvious that they are still here and not going anywhere anytime soon.


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