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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

On 11/23, ABC's Primetime broadcast a show titled "Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto' Mayan Legacy. Here's a key passage from the transcript:


(Voiceover) But they and their gods were getting hungrier. The Maya civilization was destroying itself from within with greed.


They were burning more trees than needed to. They were laying this plaster floor like, instead of a floor this thick, they were laying the 20, 30 centimeters thick, you see. Why do you need a floor that thick when you already have an existing floor? It's that kind of abuse of the system that I think caused them tremendous grief in the long run.


(Voiceover) Their rapacious appetite began to corrode their own greatness. And after 100 of years of conquest, their empire began to crumble.


(Off-camera) Most archeologists believe its collapse was a result of warfare with neighboring states. Wars over scarce resources like food and especially water. But there was something else, excessive consumption of those resources by a population that wound up destroying its ecosystem.


And why were they doing that? Because they could.


(Voiceover) Destroying ourselves from within.


Why do people urinate in gold-plated toilets today? Because they can. Why do you need a Hummer in downtown LA? Because you can.


Disposable razors, you can understand, but disposable telephones? They got them. It's like, 'I'll use it for a month and throw it away." It's conspicuous consumption because we can.


(Off-camera) You literally are shouting that message out.


That's right. And I have to confess. I have urinated in a gold-plated toilet. But that was at my agent's house.


(Off-camera) Gibson's "Apocalypto" may be a warning to us all, but it echoes from the memories of the Mayas' own corrupted past. Today, the children of these god-like kings are scattered, impoverished by the excesses of their ancestors.

Here's a response to the broadcast, especially Quinones's final comment:

Regarding Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto":

By Jokay Dowell, SGF Affiliate Project, Eagle and Condor Indigenous Peoples Alliance

The movie, "Apolcalypto" (according to the NY Post, a movie about human sacrifice among the ancient Maya), is about to premiere tonight at Chickasaw Nation's River Wind Casino amidst Hollywood-style hoopla. Oklahoma Indian actors have been wooed by Mel Gibson and are about to make a big splash on the big screen with potential for even bigger and better roles for Natives in film.

I understand Gibson's claim that the movie is about a society's excesses and the costs of war (the movie has also been billed as an anti-war film). I can stand with him on those aspects.

But what message is "Apocalypto" really sending about Native peoples of Mexico and Central America? This is but one thing we Indian people in the North must consider and question before we jump on Gibson's bandwagon.

I have been to Central America. I have visited the Maya in their homes where I saw mountains of beautiful fruits and vegetables being grown, not for the Mayas' consumption, but for export, most likely to the U.S. The Maya could not eat those fruits of their labor. They cannot afford to. In the village I visited, the Maya shared a communal kitchen where most days the women cooked meals of beans and tortillas because that is what the family's hard labor in the fields afford them.

I heard the cries of women whose husbands had been "disappeared" and murdered by government troops or by paramilitaries. In Guatemala they are struggling to recover after almost 40 years of civil war incited by the 1954 U.S. CIA overthrow of a democratic government subsequently wiping from the face of the earth 140 Mayan villages. The Maya fled to bordering countries and some were held in death camps for removal, much like our own ancestors' Trails of Tears. This is contemporary history! Today! Intertwined with our own!

No, the extreme impoverished lives most Mayans live are not due to the "excesses of their ancestors," as stated in an ABC segment with Mel Gibson about "Apocalypto," but rather to the same institutionalized racism of church, military, and government, which could not even recognize our own Indian ancestors as human, justifying their wholesale slaughter, Christian conversion via boarding schools, and the taking of our lands.

Before we rush to pat Gibson on the back we should understand that the same religious, government, military, and corporate institutions who systematically conspired to take our lands and destroy our culture here in the North, also have had a hand in the demise of the ancient and contemporary Maya people. When the Spaniards invaded Central America in the 16th century, ancient Maya texts were burned so that the people would forget their history and a new history, more palatable to Europeans, could replace it.

Because my community work gives me the opportunity to occasionally network with Indigenous peoples from below the imposed U.S. border with Mexico, I have been made aware that some Maya people are not happy with this film. This pretty much answers the question why Mr. Gibson chose to hire North American Indians, making it necessary to teach them a Mayan language, when if the film was thought to be welcomed by the Maya, he could have hired Maya people since the film was made in their territories.

As with our own struggles here in the North, Indigenous peoples in Mexico, Central, and South America are still struggling to regain their languages, cultures, and to protect and maintain their lands.

How will a film, which depicts the Maya as blood-thirsty primitives, impact their work, their lives, their image, our perception of them? What impacts will that portrayal have on the people in power who have an obligation to make policy for the Maya in Mexico or Guatemala, or elsewhere in Central America, where most policy is implemented at the business end of a gun?

So, because we have a genetic, cultural, and historical relationship with all the peoples of Turtle Island, we have an obligation to view this film with discerning eyes and a critical mind. Since the movie is done and will premiere nationally next Friday, we can use this as an opportunity for consciousness-raising and education about our commonalities with the Indigenous peoples from below the border.

For instance, do you know that in some of those countries Indigenous peoples comprise 40-80% of the population? In the case of the Maya, a lot if not most, speak Maya as their first language. The women still dress in the traditional huipil. In Chiapas, where the Maya communities are occupied by the Mexican government (with aid from the U.S.), a large part of the region's resources are sucked out from under the Mayas' feet to generate electrical power for the rest of the country while the Chiapas Maya live without running water or electricity.

The atrocities against the Maya are not of their own making. Christian conversion is not the cure (also implied by the ABC piece), for if that were true their struggle would not be ongoing today since they have been invaded by missionaries for 500+ years.

We should remember, if we haven't already recognized, that some of the Brown people coming across the lower border as "illegals" are probably Maya as well as descendants of other Native Nations. To justify atrocities against Native peoples, (and to manipulate the citizenry into looking the other way) the elite have historically sought ways to portray us as less than human.

The Mayan peoples of Central America are still caught in the cross- fires of war as are many Indigenous communities throughout "Latin America." Please take this occasion to research the School of the Americas where torture was (is) taught to Latin American military (and others from around the world) and carried out against Indigenous peoples such as the Maya. It will profoundly affect you.

Let's make this an opportunity to learn more about contemporary Mayan struggles as well as the current struggles of Indian communities throughout the Americas. They are among the thousands of Indigenous peoples who are going to the international community to seek redress for their grievances.

As we watch this new movie we are obligated to do so with an informed mind. Our history is the Mayan history.

JK Dowell Founder/Director Eagle and Condor
Indigenous Peoples' Alliance
Tahlequah, OK

Rob's comment
There are several problems with this broadcast. First and foremost is the assertion that the Maya were to blame for their own downfall. Since we don't know why the Maya civilization collapsed, or even whether it collapsed, any assertions on this point are bogus. Primetime, Gibson, and Hansen are promoting an ideological belief, not a scientific theory with the corresponding doubts and qualifications.

Here's the actual current thinking on the so-called collapse:

Classic Maya collapse

The Maya collapse refers to the decline and abandonment of the Classic period Maya cities of the southern Maya lowlands of Mesoamerica between the 8th and 9th centuries. In popular culture, the phrase refers to the commonly-held notion that all Maya cities (in all areas) were abandoned at this time and that their people "disappeared." In this, the phrase is a misnomer, because the Maya people did not actually disappear and, although many of the southern Maya centers did decline and were subsequently abandoned, other cities continued through this transitional period while new ones were founded.

Theories concerning the "collapse"

For reasons that are still debated, the Maya centers of the southern lowlands went into decline during the 8th and 9th centuries and were abandoned shortly thereafter. Archaeologically, this decline is indicated by the cessation of monumental inscriptions and the reduction of large-scale architectural construction.

Although there is no universally accepted theory to explain this "collapse," current theories fall into two categories: non-ecological and ecological. Non-ecological theories of Maya decline are divided into several subcategories, such as foreign invasion, peasant revolt, and the collapse of key trade routes. Ecological hypotheses include environmental catastrophe, epidemic disease, and climate change. A final theory proposes that the Maya decline was related to the consequences of Maya activities and their impact on the local environment. These activities are largely related to agriculture, and include clear-cutting and general deforestation.

Foreign invasion

The archaeological evidence of the Toltec intrusion into Yucatán in Seibal, Peten supports the theory of foreign invasion. However, most Mayanists don't believe that foreign invasion was the main cause of collapse; they postulate that no one military defeat can explain or be the cause of the protracted and complex Classic collapse process.

Peasant revolt

Archaeological evidence indicates that Maya building projects and expansion was at its peak from c. 730 to 790, with constant enlargement and building. The majority of the burden was placed on peasant workers in the cities. One theory attributes the collapse of the classic Maya to a hypothesized revolution among these lower classes. As life became more burdensome, work began to undermine the religious development and collective enterprise of ordinary people. The increased burden of work is what many believe caused Maya people to abandon their values and revolt against the elite of society. This would explain the abrupt collapse of elite functions as well as unfinished buildings, and ceremonial centers. Peasant revolt also explains the evidence of the burning of temples and smashing of thrones. It is believed that once the elite lost ceremonial centers they no longer had the power to sway people with religion through demonstrations and sacrifices. Peasant revolts throughout the empire would have happened slowly and at different times, which explains the gradual decay of Maya culture and power from c. 750 to 1050. However, even though the internal revolt theory may be convincing, it still has its flaws. It is not directly documented in the surviving written record. Also, some have trouble crediting that a religious ideology strong enough to lead to the impressive surviving monuments would have been abandoned so violently and abruptly.

Collapse of trade routes

It is also possible that the decay of the Maya is related to the collapse of their intricate trade systems, especially those connected to the northern city of Teotihuacán. Teotihuacán abruptly declined around c. 650 to 700, the fall of this city is believed to have contributed to the sudden change in Mayan economic and trade functions in the highlands, which resulted in a ripple effect of decline across the entire empire. Mayan kings relied heavily on tribute from the city of Teotihuacán as essential to their dominance and control of subjects. It is also believed that as cities grew in the late classic (c. 700 to 900), periods, they could no longer sustain themselves and were forced to become more specialized. As cities became more specialized they relied more heavily on trade. However, Mayans were not equipped to handle trade at such a magnitude because the absence of the wheel and beasts of burden made it difficult to move heavy amounts of goods from one place to another.

Environmental catastrophe

The catastrophic event theory focuses on one or more natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, as the cause of the collapse of the Mayans. However, the lack of archaeological evidence makes it unlikely that a single natural disaster caused the long collapse. At the same time, several successive natural disasters, each of less than catastrophic proportions, might have caused the collapse.

Epidemic disease

The disease theory is also a contender for explaining the Mayan collapse. Widespread disease could explain the rapid depopulation of the classic Maya civilization and the lack of recovery over the long run. But the difficulty of getting archaeological evidence makes this theory not universally accepted.

Climate change

A still further theory is that rapid climate change and severe drought contributed to the Classic collapse, based on the evidence of the Lake Chichancanab. This evidence, found in shells recovered from Lake Chichancanab (in modern Quintana Roo state in Mexico) by a team from the University of Florida, suggests that the area suffered the worst drought in 7,000 years in the 9th century. This meteorological event is apparently connected to that of northern Europe, which suffered extremely low temperatures around the same time (the same connection between drought in the Maya areas and extreme cold in northern Europe was found again at the beginning of the 20th century). This evidence seems to support the theory that an unusually severe drought leading to a catastrophic decimation of the population was the driving force behind the collapse of Maya civilization

Environmental impact

The ecological theories of Mayan decline usually focus on the worsening relationship between Mayan civilization and agricultural conditions in the late classic period. The archaeological evidence has shown that the majority of Mayan agriculture was dependent on a simple slash-and-burn system. Based on it, the hypothesis of Soil Exhaustion was advanced by O.F. Cook in 1921. Similar assumptions are erosion and intensive agricultural and Savanna grass competition. Advocates of an ecological underpinning for the collapse point out that this does not in any way preclude simultaneous revolts, wars, disasters, or diseases, caused or exacerbated by the ecological strain.

To summarize:

In Apocalypto and in his published remarks, Mel Gibson has implied the Maya were responsible for their own downfall. He ignores the fact that Maya civilization continued for centuries in a different form—that the Maya continued to produce accomplishments in art, architecture, and astronomy. Instead, he portrays all the Maya—elite and masses alike—as blood-crazed, death-dealing barbarians. Their depravity doomed them to die at the hands of the arriving Spanish—another historical falsehood.

As reflected in the Primetime interview, Gibson's position is a classic example of blaming the victim. It's also an example of stereotyping Indians as savage and uncivilized. In Gibson's mind, the Maya got what they deserved for being inhuman monsters. Only the villagers untouched by the Maya civilization were noble and pure and innocent.

Quinones's final comment about the impoverished Maya takes Gibson's position to its logical extreme. Whether it's because of their "primitive" religion or the reservation system, Indians are criticized for being unable to cope with modern life. They're not intelligent or versatile enough to adapt, goes this thinking, so they remain mired in the past, suffering because of their inadequacies.

Gibson seems to buy into this thinking. He certainly didn't object to Quinones's statement during or after the interview. And Hansen, who spoke more directly on the point, is Gibson's hired hand. Gibson's views are based on Hansen's research.

What's amazing is that he claims to have studied the Maya. Judging by this interview and others, he doesn't know jack about them. Apparently he fantasized why the Maya civilization "collapsed," then cherry-picked Hansen's research to validate his fantasies.

He can do what he wants, but no one should mistake that for putting the archaeological evidence on the screen. Gibson seems to have done the same thing Dick Cheney did with WMDs: invent a story to justify his beliefs regardless of the facts.

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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