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Mesoamerican Ethnography in the Movie ‘Apocalypto’ Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: May 27th, 2020

Introduction

There has been an explosion of issues related to the representation of history by modern means of communication and especially art. It was previously believed that representation was where an object was depicted or portrayed through another subject or medium (Williams 72). However, this was disputed as there was the suggestion that the depiction of an object through another medium could not be held as evidence of the original existence of the object, and this led to the conflict of representation. This paper seeks to explore how the Maya people are depicted by the movie ‘Apocalypto’ in the quest to understand how modern forms of communication have preserved or chanced the way we understand history, and more so the Maya people.

Crisis of Representation

As far as the movie ‘Apocalypto’ is concerned, the depiction of Mayan history through film has also been disputed as being flawed, as it represents some out of context facts about the original Mayan history. Though some might argue that the medium chosen, that is film, created a representation of the Mayan as they were in history cannot possibly capture the true picture as intended by its original creators, others may say that the use of film leaves out the sense of accurateness that was previously captured well by traditional forms of representation such as books. This is because film doesn’t give the exact description of a subject, but a vague idea for the viewer to interpret as the original.

Considering that the scenes in the film will be interpreted differently by different people depending on their beliefs, gender, educational background and their general perception especially of the violent and barbaric scenes, then, it is obvious that there cannot be a definite depiction of the Mayan tradition, but rather many depictions for any viewer to choose from. There has also been the issue of which takes preference, the production of the media used to represent history or the history itself. It is often the case especially in films that the producers concentrate on scenes, and especially the ones that will interest viewers more than telling the story in its original form (Kuiper 172).

This is usually followed by selective concentration by the viewer, which renders the whole concept of explaining historical content useless. This means that producers and viewers alike will concentrate on specific scenes such as violent ones or sex scenes. This ends up distorting the information as is in this case. The film has been used to depict a barbaric Mayan nation that has no shred of humanity.

Ethnographic Present

The depiction by modern modes of communication of the Mayan people is that of a cosmopolitan nation like any other, and they struggle with the same challenges of differentiation that other nations have. It is important to note that the difference in tribes is often the catalyst behind the many conflicts that they struggle with. On the other hand, there is also the sense of pride that forces a group of people anywhere on earth to assert themselves as being the dominant group among their neighbors. This often leads to even more conflict as the different groups struggle for superiority, often with brutal means of dominating others. There is also intra-tribe dominance as those who have not been blessed with children or even sons are regarded inferior by the rest of society.

Conflicts over Representations of Native American Voices

Among the topics that have led to unbound criticism of anthropologists and the way they have represented the Native Americans over time, there is the question of culture. Most authors and artists alike have been challenged for their selective explanation of the Native American culture, where most have been expressed as surviving communities that struggled with their basic needs (Erickson 134). On the other hand, critics have been quick to point out that the culture of the Native Americans goes beyond their basic economic activities to religious and social aspects. These two have, however, not solicited much interest as artists and authors only give shallow information on the subject which then leads to questions of those who are best suited to provide information on the Native Americans.

Artists like Edward Curtis are often criticized for the photos that depict the Native American way of life as a dying one. In his bid to salvage his art, he depicted the Native American way of life in a romantic context in his collection of photos called “the vanishing race”. The main contention here was the depiction of Indian people as romantic which then could have led to possible stereotypes and the dehumanization of the people by suggesting their doom. In the movie ‘Apocalypto’, the same has been repeated with the depiction of a romantic community that could only have been saved by the arrival of the Europeans in the Mayan nation. It depicts a nation that probably destroyed itself from within without any influence from outsiders.

The other topic that has led to conflict on the representation of native America is the authenticity of the information as provided by different authors and artists. It is identified that many authors of modern Native American content try to modernize their culture by leaving out the basic aspects of the cultures. This has led to questions of authenticity being raised as many authors loose their credibility on the subject (Little-Siebold 127).

Hubris of Authorship

The works of Little-Siebold (48) inform us of a flawed representation of the Mayan people as there have been many authors who believe that they know too much about the culture of the Maya while in fact they don’t. It has been the challenge of anthropologists to investigate and sieve out texts that give a flawed representation of the Mayan people. This hubris of authorship has been contributed by the Europeans who came in as colonizers and felt that they knew more about the Maya and believed they had the authority to give information about them (Little-Siebold 60).

The Language Paradox

It has been identified that most Native Americans have adopted the use of English which has made it even easier for the populations of the world to integrate with them. It is some what puzzling to realize that there are more secondary speakers of English than even the original speakers with their roots in Europe. How the English people manage to influence others is yet to extensively explained (Hastrup 62).

Role of colonialism and conquest in the representations of indigenous peoples

It is often observed that most of the representations of indigenous communities are based on the information provided by their colonizers. These colonizers on the other hand based their reports on the first perceptions that they had when they first got to see the indigenous people. This has led to a negative representation of indigenous communities as the motives of the colonizers at the time were obviously hostile to natives which led the natives to reciprocate with hostility.

In the movie we see the European colonizers as a threat to the Mayan community as the young man leads his family away from them and into the forest. This rejection would have obviously led those who used the colonizers as a source of information in their quest to explain more about the Mayan way of life, to portray them as in-human and resistant to any foreign influence (Kuiper 28). If the recent developments among the Mayan community are considered, it is noted that the Mayan people are open to external influences as they have adopted other cultures and languages over the years.

Pan-Maya identity

According to Montejo (34) the pan-Maya identity of the last century could probably be lost based on the current assimilation of the Mayan people. It was previously identified especially in Guatemala that the Mayan still hold on to their traditional ways of life especially with the way women and young girls dress. The ethnification of the Maya in modern times has its roots in the 1940s as the leading Ladinos attempted to integrate the population into the Guatemalan state. This was, however, challenging as the reformist Ladinos were overthrown by the army, which was mainly due to the concerns of conservative Ladinos who felt threatened by the integration of the Maya.

This led to more than a decade of civil war where the rising of the evangelists above the previously recognized Catholics helped to unify the Maya as they sought to improve their lives above the social marginalization, lack of property and the challenges posed by migration and urbanization. The evangelists gained a lot of support from the Maya since, unlike the Catholics before, they, were willing to integrate into their culture though they still opposed the syncretism religion of the Maya.

The civil war served to strengthen the ethnicity of the people of Guatemala as the Ladinos and the Maya became even more segregated by the government that later came to power. The Maya were viewed as second class citizens as the government tried to destroy their indigenous identity, though this later strengthened them even more. The massacre of 100 Mayans in 1979 started the strong politicization of the Mayan community. It became a wakeup call for all Mayans as they came together to advocate for the observance of human rights especially in Guatemala.

There was also the murder of a radio personality who was considered by the Maya as their voice since he used to broadcast in their language. In the 1980s there was the formation of the Academy of Mayan Languages in Guatemala that combined with the funding provided to it by the government, managed to resurrect the Mayan spirit of togetherness as they felt empowered to face the challenge of differentiation and strengthening their culture.

There were other organizations that were later formed and more specifically, the truth commission that was mandated with rewriting the Mayan history besides the known facts about their survival. It is also observed that the spirit of pan-Maya has encouraged the Maya people to join Guatemala politics which serves to give them a voice and strengthen them even further. This will also ensure that their culture is preserved.

There is an obvious threat posed to the Mayan culture as the people adopt modern ways of living. It has been observed that most of the traditional aspects of their culture that were previously famous for exhibiting their strong culture such as the clothing that was common with the women in the last century, are slowly disappearing as the young become more modernized and adopt the cultures of the white people (Montejo 35). There is, however, much that still has to be done to strengthen the Mayan culture in a bid to save it from extinction.

Works Cited

Erickson, Paul. Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2010. Print.

Kuiper, Kathleen. Native American Culture. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group. 2010. Print.

Williams, Lucy, Fowler et al. Native American voices on identity, art, and culture: objects of everlasting esteem. New York: UPenn Museum of Archaeology. 2005. Print.

Little-Siebold, Christa. En la tierra de San Francisco el conquistador: Identity, faith, and livelihood in Quezaltepeque, Chiquimula. New York: ProQuest. 2006. Print.

Hastrup, Kirsten. Action: anthropology in the company of Shakespeare. New York: Museum Tusculanum Press. 2004. Print.

Montejo, Víctor. Maya intellectual renaissance: identity, representation, and leadership. New York: University of Texas Press. 2005. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Mesoamerican Ethnography in the Movie ‘Apocalypto’." May 27, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mesoamerican-ethnography-in-the-movie-apocalypto/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Mesoamerican Ethnography in the Movie ‘Apocalypto’'. 27 May.

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