“We Are Not Myths…”

Mayan women at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Mayan women at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and a woman I deeply admire for her courage, said of the indigenous people she represented, “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected.” Her statement affirms one of the main goals of my teaching when it comes to indigenous religions: to make it clear that these are living religions, parts of existing and present cultures.

A friend of mine recently posted this clip from the Daily Show interviewing Washington NFL fans about their team name. The fans have trouble identifying the name with little more than a piece of ancient history–one asks, somewhat disbelievingly, “Do you know any Native Americans?”–seemingly oblivious to the many Native Americans that live and work in our country today.

I think it is a challenge for many United States citizens to see Native Americans as a living, breathing, people. This year as I taught about the Maya, I was thankful that so many students had clearly paid attention in World History or U.S. History and could easily tell me about European settlement and the first encounter with natives. They knew about diseases like smallpox wiping out populations, the search for gold by the conquistadores, and the process of assimilation that took place in late 19th century boarding schools in the U.S. Knowing that history is wonderful, but I wondered to myself about how much they knew about contemporary indigenous peoples–be they Native Americans, indigenous Maya, or others. For that matter, how much do I really know?

Visiting the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, one experiences this same tension. As an institution, it aims to capture both the contemporary experience of Native Americans while also sharing their history, as well as the record of their interactions with the U.S. government. They try to connect visitors with the wide diversity of Native American tribes and stories. The experience, in person, can be somewhat overwhelming–it’s hard to keep track when you hop from one tribe to the next. While planning my unit on indigenous religions, I felt that same dizzying feeling return: how could I give a sense of the global diversity of indigenous religions and emphasize their present state, without glossing over their different histories?

In structuring the unit, I turned to case studies, in a hope to be able to simplify without reducing the unit to a series of generalizations. We looked at some common characteristics of indigenous belief systems, and then dove into a study of the Maya, which I feel more familiar with from traveling in Mexico. So many students know about the ancient Maya from pictures of the stepped pyramids, or movies like Apocalypto, but they’ve given little thought to the people still living in Central America today. (Although more and more, some of my students are from Central America and as such, are more familiar with the lives of the Maya). We look at Mayan religion “Then” (in the Classic period) and “Now.” What has changed? How do religious traditions, including the notorious human sacrifice and blood-letting, evolve into the modern period? How did the Spanish introduction of Catholicism impact the religion?

These are all really cool and complicated questions. The Smithsonian site on the Maya does a nice job of making that comparison and connections between ancient traditions and current beliefs. I’m lucky to have traveled a fair amount in Mexico too, and I’ve included some of my photos below. I’ll share next time about a church in a town called San Juan Chamula, where I was able to see some of the syncretism of the traditional Mayan beliefs and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in action…..and my attempts to bring this home to my students.

What do you think are the challenges when teaching about Native Americans or other indigenous groups? What resources have you found to help? How can educators make sure that they are not just myths or ruins, but studied as people? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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7 thoughts on ““We Are Not Myths…”

  1. Thank you for this post. It chills me to the bone when I hear some of the justifications these individuals are suggesting for the AP History course… and yet I am not surprised. Many Americans can’t sit with the total truth of US history. I was glad to see the Colorado students protesting and hope that there are other young and old people are standing with them.

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  2. Poetry can help make the connection between Native American past and present. Leslie Marmon Silko’s poem about her grandmother, “It was a long time before…” would be an example, as would Simon Ortiz’s “For Our Brothers.”

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