Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” a movie about human sacrifice among the ancient Maya, premiered Dec. 1 at Chickasaw Nation’s Riverwind Casino amidst Hollywood-style hoopla. Oklahoma Indian actors have been wooed by director Mel Gibson and are about to make a big splash on the big screen with the 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 been billed as an anti-war film). I can stand with him on those aspects. But what message is “Apocalypto” really sending about the 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 Mayan consumption, but for export, most likely to the United States. 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 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.
The extreme, impoverished lives most Mayans live are not due to the “excesses of their ancestors,” as stated in a recent “20/20” special on ABC. It is due rather to the institutionalized racism of the church, military and government, which could not 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 that systematically conspired to take our lands and destroy our culture here in the North also 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 U.S.-imposed border with Mexico, I am aware that some Maya people are not happy with this film. This pretty much answers the question why Gibson chose to hire North American Indians, making it necessary to teach them a Mayan language. If the film was welcomed by the Maya, he could have hired Maya people, since the film was made in their territories.
How will a film, which depicts the Maya as bloodthirsty primitives, impact their work, their lives, their image and 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?
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. The movie opened nationally on Dec. 8. We can use this as an opportunity for raising consciousness and educating 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 percent to 80 percent 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 United States), 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.
We should remember that some of the brown people coming across the lower border as “illegals” are probably Maya, or 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.
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.
J.K. Dowell, Quapaw/Cherokee, is founder and director of the Eagle and Condor Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance and lives in Tahlequah, Okla.