BY LARS ÅKERSON
Lars Åkerson is an interpreter and a Coalition member.
WHEN MAYA COMMUNITY educator Wilma Esquivel Pat opened a recent forum on the autonomy of Indigenous peoples, her remarks recalled her people’s struggle for self-determination in the Caste War of Yucatán—175 years ago.
European descendants had built lucrative sugar cane and henequen plantations on the peninsula that depended on Maya peasant farmers’ bonded labor. While the abolition movement was washing across the Americas, landholders on the Yucatán Peninsula began selling Maya prisoners of war and debtors into slavery in Cuba. In 1847, the Maya revolted and established an autonomous government in the eastern part of the peninsula that lasted through the turn of the century.
The era Esquivel Pat brought to mind remains recent, in generational time, for many Maya in attendance at the forum. Elders who held them as children may have themselves been cradled in the arms of elders who participated in that historic struggle. In them, their ancestors’ legacy reaches into the present. It’s a birthright they recall with pain and pride—the generations who resisted, as well as the white settlers and upper echelons of the colonial caste system who privatized land, exploited labor, and extracted returns at the expense of most of the region’s people.
Today, Esquivel Pat is part of a coalition of Indigenous groups organizing against new, yet familiar, threats: fresh waves of settlers and rounds of capital investment in development projects surrounding a high-speed tourism project called the “Maya Train,” a name that belies its lack of Indigenous support. Ezer May, a Maya anthropologist, told the Inter Press Service news agency that the train, the first leg of which is scheduled to open in 2023, “is an attempt to transform Indigenous peoples and integrate them into the tourism-based economic model.”
‘Our people are created from Water’
IN THE REGION of the Yucatán called the Chenes—a local place name that alludes to the region’s plentiful, subterranean waters—the Maya remember. Their ancestors have long been considered another resource to exploit.
Maya elders teach that land and water are not things that can be owned. Neither are they a “commons,” nor ejido—terms passed down from English and Spanish feudal law, respectively, to designate resources managed for collective benefit. Yoók’ol Kab, the Maya name for land-water, is not property at all.
Representatives of Ka’ Kuxtal Much Meyaj—a community-building organization whose name in Maya means “The Revival of our Common Work”—say that for the Maya, land, water, and everything therein are integral members of their social and spiritual world. Even naming these parts of the world as discrete legal entities and rights-holders fails to convey the depth of their interconnection and the robustness of their agency.
Ka’ Kuxtal Much Meyaj argues that the integrity of Water—which they choose to capitalize as they do the names of other members of their community—is essential to their own existence as a people. “When we speak of the sacred Water, we’re referring to a living being,” say representatives of the organization’s leadership group, the assembly. The assembly, which guides the organization by consensus, requested that its members not be identified by name, in recognition of the collective nature of their vision and work and because the Indigenous group has seen foreign interests exploit differences and divisions within their communities to gain advantage in territorial struggles. Group members agreed to participate in this article on the condition of a commitment to a decolonial and nonextractive writing process.
One member, an international scholar and soft-spoken polyglot, shrinks at being identified as an “expert” in Maya heritage and cultural memory. They defer to the elders, ancestors, and collective of community leaders who they say continue to teach and inform their study of Maya sacred writings and inscriptions. Yet evidence of the scholar’s attentive study is readily apparent, as they cite oral tradition alongside archeological findings from across the peninsula and studies of Maya writings, including fragments smuggled to Europe during the Caste War. “Our people are created from Water. Water gives us life and shapes our understanding of the world.”
Conflicts with dominant Christianity
THESE TRUTHS HAVE been passed from generation to generation despite doctrinal opposition from now-dominant Christianity. One member recalls growing up in the Christian church where they were taught “simplistic ideas” in conflict with Maya understandings of the world. For example, they say that while many Christians associate serpents with evil and the Genesis account of the Fall, the animals have a respected place in the Maya world. In one Maya liturgical text, mythical water serpents appear alongside the deity Cháak and steward the flow of the waters over the earth. While they may not always be safe, snakes are also seen as guardians of the home. Ka’ Kuxtal elders tell how traditional Maya households had a place in the storehouse rafters where a snake might take up residence to protect the kumche´ (granary) from mice and rats. They learned to honor this social order from their own elders but acknowledge that “many Maya communities struggle with this complexity.”
These longstanding tensions were among those that brought community elders together a dozen years ago to launch Ka’ Kuxtal Much Meyaj. The organization was established in 2010 because its founders saw the old ways fading from community consciousness.
The council of two dozen women and men, representing communities across the Chenes region in the Mexican state of Campeche, first convened to promote seedkeeping and collective reflection on the challenges their communities faced. Since then, the group has continued its commitment to “build, as a Maya people, the necessary educational and organizational conditions for our autonomy and self-determination.”
It’s a vision they see requiring both inward and outward work. Through festivals, forums, exchanges, workshops, community assemblies, and independent media, they create space for ancestral knowledge to be celebrated, used, and shared within their communities. At the same time, the organization coordinates regional, national, and international advocacy campaigns to defend the integrity of their multispecies communities.
A colonial partnership of church and state
IN THE CHENES, there are Maya who remember. Their homeland has long been an object of foreign desire—to settle the land and extract its value. For just as long, Maya have resisted these incursions, whether from Europe or the Mexican state.
It was on this peninsula that the colonial endeavor faced an early test of its capacity for internal dissonance. It was here that Bishop Diego de Landa, a Franciscan friar sent from Spain in 1549, led an obsessive crusade against Maya scholarship and religious culture. Landa’s devotion to destroying the Maya written record was so complete that his notes about the Mayan script are among the only remaining historical references regarding their written language. The books and codices he found “contained but superstition and lies of the devil,” he wrote from Spain, after having been exonerated of overseeing torture in his campaigns. “We burned them all.”
For the half century prior to Landa, his compatriot Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas had gained renown for denouncing abuses against Indigenous people and advocating a more pacific approach to evangelism. The Dominican priest opposed coerced confessions of faith and argued that the Indigenous people the Spanish encountered were human and therefore capable of reason and worthy of respect.
During his tenure as Protector of the Indians for the Spanish crown, Las Casas became convinced that enslaving people indigenous to the Americas was unjust and that enslaving Africans was also wrong. His earnest dedication to reforming the colonial apparatus from within ultimately put him at odds with European landholders and precipitated his return to Spain.
Despite their differences, both bishops were welcome in the big-tent partnership of church and state to overthrow “the barbarous nations” and bring them “to the faith.” The religious and legal mandate extended in a 1493 declaration by Pope Alexander VI (a papal bull titled “Inter caetera”) granted the empire dominion over lands they found not already under Christian rule. The land grant also assigned guardianship over the lands’ peoples—all in direct recompense for Spanish and Portuguese faithfulness in expelling Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.
Battling the Doctrine of Discovery
THIS MANDATE, FORGED in violent antisemitism and Islamophobia and tempered in the paternalistic colonial project through subsequent treaties, became a pillar of the emerging theological and legal theory known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine continues to disenfranchise Indigenous people of their legal standing—and theological integrity—by imposing foreign laws upon them, depriving them of rights to their territories, and undermining their systems of knowledge and structures of relation…
Lizy Peralta, a lawyer with the Roman Catholic National Indigenous Mission Assistance Center in Mexico City and a panelist in the forum with Esquivel Pat, says the discovery doctrine continues to impose “a notion of theological, political, economic, and social order” that justifies indifference to Indigenous territorial rights in national and international courts.
Yet a growing body of Indigenous legal scholars are working to translate their peoples’ ancestral knowledge into judicial frameworks that support their ontological and territorial defense efforts. These critical Indigenous legal theorists aim to amplify voices that have historically been excluded from courts of law. In turn, they hope to establish grounds not merely for natural resource use rights and the legal personhood of rivers or forests within existing legal frameworks, but also for what some call “territorial rights,” or rights in relation.
These legal theorists say intervention is necessary because the supremacist discovery doctrine deprives Indigenous peoples of their agency and full self-determination by demanding they comply with legal frameworks built on systems imported by European colonizing powers. These racist frameworks privilege colonial institutions and give little credence to Indigenous judicial and religious systems.
In the Maya world, even the legal notion of “sovereignty”—a cornerstone of many Indigenous claims to self-determination as well as the free, prior, and informed consent granted by international law—is fraught. On one hand, the Maya want their desires recognized and respected in legal matters concerning their ancestral territory. On the other, representatives of Ka’ Kuxtal say their people do not understand themselves as having dominion over Yoók’ol Kab—land-water—in the way sovereignty is often understood. They say the people’s relationship with their native land is better characterized as one of mutual responsibility.
This perspective is a far cry from the approach the group sees prevailing now on their home peninsula. They say a spike in development projects and an expansion of industrial agriculture are overdrawing and polluting the aquifer that mediates life to Maya communities. They also name the discovery doctrine’s influence on intellectual property law and international treaties that have opened the region to genetically modified seed without regard for either the contamination of ancestral corn cultivars or for human health. Studies have linked the engineered seed to the appearance of glyphosate, also known by the trade name Roundup, in tortillas and mothers’ milk in the Yucatán Peninsula.
The Mennonites arrive
IN THE CHENES, there are Maya who still remember. They are responsible to Yoók’ol Kab and to all who dwell in it.
Chenes is a Spanish rendering of the Mayan word ch´e´eno´ob, or “wells.” The Chenes is a region in the central Yucatán Peninsula where water is abundant and wells are bountiful. It is here, in this storied place, amid Maya communities organizing their revival, that in the past 20 years a new wave of settler-colonists has begun to arrive. This time, they are German-speaking Mennonites in search of religious freedom and arable land, convinced that, by God’s providence and their own industry, they will prosper.
But Ka’ Kuxtal representatives say some of their new neighbors are responsible for depleting and defiling local groundwater. They are concerned by some of the new settlers’ agricultural practices and inattention to the region’s delicate ecosystem, which are already harming members of the broader community, including native Melipona honeybees.
Without Water, the representatives say, their people will cease to exist. Yet the Ka’ Kuxtal assembly resists enmity with the Mennonite colonists. While seeking injunctions against abuse of the aquifer, the Maya group still hopes to build common cause with their new neighbors in what they see as a larger struggle for survival. They say Mennonites have also been poisoned by groundwater contamination and that a shared concern for their families’ well-being has opened initial avenues for dialogue. From their own efforts within Maya communities, the assembly has come to value the solidarity built through small, consistent actions done with honesty and transparency—which they have seen emerge in surprising places.
This approach led the assembly to reach out to the Mennonite Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition in 2018 to learn more about Mennonites and begin conversation about the theological and legal roots of their struggle. While the Mennonite coalition, whose membership is largely North American, shares only the most remote denominational connection with German-speaking Mennonite colonies in Mexico, the outreach effort has grown into a partnership to advance community education and structural change. For the Mennonites involved in this alliance, the Maya invitation—anchored in collective memory, shared struggle, and concrete goals to improve their communities’ health and self-determination—has arrived as an extension of grace and an opportunity to grow in restorative solidarity.
Despite their reputation as a Christian peace tradition, European Mennonites, like many white people, have tended to dwell on narratives of their own innocence and God’s providence at the expense of reckoning with the histories of harms in which they are implicated. Restorative solidarity with Indigenous peoples, a practice outlined by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers in Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization, offers Christians a means of recognizing the complexity of their own histories and responding with their whole selves by participating in the work of repair.
Katerina Friesen, an organizer with the Mennonite coalition working to dismantle the discovery doctrine, is grateful for the opportunity Ka’ Kuxtal has offered for this kind of recognition and response. She sees the relationship as a space “to learn to follow Indigenous community self-determination and collective wisdom.” Friesen adds, “As a Christian and a Mennonite, I’ve been struck by their compassion toward their Low-German Mennonite settler neighbors who are actively destroying the land.”
She sees the colonists as her “distant cousins in faith” and hopes both Mennonite groups—the coalition and the Low-German Mennonites settling in southern Mexico—hear and respond to the Maya invitation to “choose life, and not the deadly ways of colonization, so that all of our descendants might live.”
The invitation into restorative solidarity is a call back into membership in the world for people who have become estranged from it. In the Chenes, there are Maya who are remembering—and even re-membering us.
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