PUBlic Professor Series | Dr. James MacKenzie

Being Maya: Reflections on Ethnicity, Religion and Place

Dr. James MacKenzie, Department of Anthropology

From 19th century white explorers to 21st century New Age seekers—with platoons of archaeologists and anthropologists in between—interest in Maya culture has rarely ebbed. Of course, what comes to mind for most when they hear the word “Maya” are images of abandoned temples, soaring from rainforest canopies. The inevitable question follows: “Where did they all go?”

The short answer, of course, is nowhere. The Maya (as classified by scholars at least) are among the most populous indigenous peoples of the Americas, with some six million living in and around Guatemala and Southern Mexico (not to mention hundreds of thousands who have migrated to the United States in recent years). It is more interesting, if less dramatic, to reframe the question to ask what a “Maya” identity means to the people concerned.

In this talk, Dr. MacKenzie reflects upon what he has learned from contemporary indigenous Guatemalans—many of whom now identify in some way as “Maya”—since the mid-1990s, when he began researching religion and ethnicity in their country and beyond. For indigenous people themselves, it seems that adopting a Maya identity can involve choices with important consequences which involve religion, politics, and community. Their choices are also informed by the way they are represented, valued and appropriated by non-indigenous others. The global hype surrounding the 2012 Phenomenon (the so-called “end” of the Maya Calendar) quickened these discussions, which continue to resonate in a country where being indigenous can also mean being poor, disenfranchised and subject to the violence of the state and extractive industries.

Jamie MacKenzie was born and raised in Red Deer, and took his BA and MA, both in Anthropology, at the University of Alberta. He first travelled to Guatemala in 1994 for Spanish language study and subsequently concentrated his ethnographic research in that country. Since first visiting Guatemala, he has spent close to five years studying and conducting research in that country, including eight months of K’iche’ Maya language training, and almost two years of continuous research in the K’iche’ community of San Andrés Xecul [ShayCOOL], conducted for his doctoral degree which he took at the State University of New York at Albany. After graduating in 2006, he expanded his research to include the experiences of economic migrants from Xecul living in the United States and has conducted fieldwork to that end in San Diego, California. He has returned often to Guatemala and has recently expanded his research focus to include the way indigenous Guatemalans relate to members of global New Age networks, as well as activist indigenous religious leaders from outside of Guatemala, in developing their identities and practices.

His work has focussed on issues of religion, politics and ethnic identity, and the way that broad national and global institutions, movements and ideologies intersect with and are transformed by local attachments and experiences. He has been interested in the way plural religious and ethnic landscapes are managed at local levels and beyond. Some of the religious practices he has investigated include shamanism; Evangelical and Charismatic Christianity; a Catholic style of evangelization called “inculturation” which seeks to adapt that “universal” religion to “local” indigenous spirituality and practices; and a revitalized “Maya Spirituality” which aims to purify and institutionalize traditional community-level indigenous religious practices like shamanism. He has published his research in a wide range of academic journals and is the author of a well-reviewed book, Indigenous Bodies, Maya Minds: Religion and Modernity in a Transnational K’iche’ Community, for which he receives no royalties because he didn’t read the contract closely, and which synthesizes much of this research.

He has worked at the University of Lethbridge since 2005, where he has taught courses relating to the anthropology of religion and ritual, as well as ethnographic methods, linguistic anthropology, the cultures of Mesoamerica, popular culture, and a range of advanced seminars treating themes ranging from migration to anarchism. He is currently teaching a seminar on the Anthropology of Death and is planning a new research project to begin following his service as Department Chair, should the powers-that-be grant him Study Leave. Finally, he is familiar with the dark side of Guatemalan shamanic practice, AKA witchcraft, should the powers-that-be choose to be stingy with their decisions.