Reclaiming their deep history

A question from a school girl in Central America has indirectly led to tens of thousands of Maya people connecting with their distant heritage in a new and engaging way, thanks to UNC archaeologist Patricia McAnany.

McAnany was working at the site of an ancient Maya settlement in northern Belize nearly two decades ago when the young girl caught McAnany off guard.

“The little girl looked up at me and asked ‘why did all the Maya have to die?’” McAnany recalls. She fumbled for an answer about the past Maya civilization, which once dominated portions of Mexico and Central America before its mysterious collapse. For McAnany, the question was indicative of how alienated indigenous Maya people must have felt. Researchers from around the world had studied Maya history while Maya peoples, now relegated to second-class citizens in their own lands, often felt far removed from their distant past.

McAnany, Kenan Eminent Professor of Anthropology, returned to the issue years later. During her research in the Maya region, she had seen ancient Maya settlements and artifacts destroyed or stolen. She also saw that Maya heritage was fading. A private family foundation interested in halting the looting of Maya artifacts and improving the lives of descendant Maya people offered McAnany a grant to develop projects that would engage Maya people in the work she and others were doing.

McAnany’s research and work stemming from that grant led to the award of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. As part of the fellowship, McAnany is writing a book, “Heritage without Irony: Transcultural Dialogue at a Busy Intersection.” The irony, she says, is that Maya peoples have a very valorized past yet live in a stigmatized present.

The book will focus on the programs of InHerit: Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present, an organization that she co-founded at UNC. InHerit forms partnerships with local organizations and schools to educate, conserve and advocate for Maya cultural heritage in the form of material remains but also native languages and traditions. Building equal opportunity for Maya peoples to manage and participate in research about their past is a central tenet of InHerit programs.

For example, a group of grade-school students in western Honduras participated in the excavation of a recently abandoned house as a way to learn about archaeological techniques. In a project in Guatemala, Maya people are creating maps of their communities—including sacred sites. The maps document the location, cultural significance and oral histories that go along with places that have been used over many centuries. The maps also give archaeologists a sense of cultural values and priorities on a very local context. “It gives us a level of understanding that is just not possible if you are in a relationship of researcher and the researched,” McAnany says.

In addition, InHerit has developed school curriculum that uses examples and concepts from Maya archaeology and heritage and produced a film of Yucatec Mayan-speaking marionettes that features two siblings on a mission to learn more about their ancestors. InHerit also sponsors grant competitions – one that challenges local communities throughout the Maya region to propose plans for heritage conservation and another that encourages archaeologists to work with Maya peoples on cultural heritage projects.

“Communities with which we work all have very intense feelings and knowledge about their histories and so their history is not unknown to them. What we do is provide a space for a dialogue about a more distant time that is sometimes archaeologically driven and sometimes not,” McAnany says. “People often ask me ‘are you giving people back their history,’ and no, that’s not what we are doing. We are making different kinds of educational and research opportunities available to people that they wouldn’t have had before, but people already have a very strong sense of their history.”

Another important part of the work is that it may help prevent the looting of Maya artifacts. In areas of high poverty, there is a temptation to loot and sell artifacts, even though it is illegal. McAnany says empowering Maya people—who live nearby thousands of vulnerable archaeological sites—is the only way to stop the looting and enhance conservation of Maya archaeological sites.

“They are on the ground and they are the stewards, the local stewards of these landscapes on which archaeological sites are situated, and they are the ones who ultimately will be able to save them,” McAnany says.

Story by Natalie Vizuete and video by Rob Holliday of University Relations.

Published May 2, 2014.