Maya culture recognized as part of Native American heritage

Though cultures can go through dramatic changes after migration, some of them are able to hold on to their heritage.

The 1980s movement of a population of Mayan people from Guatemala to the United States caused their culture to stay alive, said Roberto Barrios, an associate professor of anthropology. Barrios spoke Tuesday at the Student Center as a part of Native American Heritage Month. While some people may not think of Guatemalans as Native Americans, they are still a part of the same heritage, said Serina Cinnamon, a doctoral student in education from Milwaukee and president of the Native American Student Organization.

Barrios said between 300,000 and 600,000 Mayan people left Guatemala as refugees because the Guatemalan military, with support from the United States government, carried out political persecution and ethnic cleansing, which is the process of removing religious or ethnic groups through forcible deportation or mass murder.

Barrios’ presentation was based on research he conducted from 1997 to 1999 in Lake Worth, Fla., which he said focused on how these refugees created a new space for themselves in the United States and continued to pass down their culture to the next generation.

“For many folks, there is the idea that people who speak Mayan languages are no longer present with us, and that people who speak Mayan languages vanished in the 10th century, but the truth is there has been continuous habitation (of Mayan people),” Barrios said

Though some people may not think of the Mayan people as Native Americans, Cinnamon said, they still deserve to be represented.

“The term Native American is a very imperial term and it’s also very complex,” she said. “A lot of people, when they hear the word America, they think the United States and forget the fact that there are lots of other countries and that the Maya, the Inca, and the Aztecs were here as well.”

Cinnamon said heritage month activities included the event in order to maintain an awareness about the Mayan culture. She said Barrios was chosen to speak because of work he conducted and because he teaches at the university.

Rod Sievers, university spokesman, said the university offers services to help students cultivate these cultures.

“SIU has set aside this time to recognize the students who have come to the university who are Native Americans and the contributions they provide to the university,” Sievers said. “They make an important contribution to the work that goes on here at SIU.”

Sievers said it is important to recognize the various ethnic groups’ cultures and achievements of, which is why the university offers events such as Native American Heritage Month.

Even though SIU recognizes the month, Cinnamon said she thinks the university could do more to support Native American students and their culture.

“I think SIU could improve its efforts to recruit Native American students and … even if you can’t get people here, there are still things you can do to maintain a presence and awareness,” she said.

Cinnamon said southern Illinois is home to Native American landmarks such as the Cahokia Mounds, and the Native American culture is still important to talk about.

“Native Americans in southern Illinois were obliterated,” she said. “If we don’t maintain a voice, regardless whether or not there are physically Native American students on campus, then we’ve effectively obliterated them from our consciousness.”


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