Gibson's film is far from a tribute to the Mayans
December 21, 2006
When I first heard about Mel Gibson's new film, "Apocalypto," I was curious. As someone who is Mexican Indian, I was struck by Gibson's investment in a project about an ancient Mesoamerican civilization.
The film is visually stunning with its reconstruction of Mayan architecture. And it casts mostly Native American actors who speak in the Mayan Yucatec language. But the plot fills me with disgust, rage and indignation.
What is so offensive is the film's violence. Gibson shows a head falling from the steps of the central Mayan pyramid. He also shows several scenes of sharp obsidian blades plunging into human flesh to extract pulsating hearts.
This nonstop carnage portrays the Mayans as bloodthirsty savages, a stereotype that is painfully familiar to Native people.
While sacrifice was an important and mostly symbolic part of Aztec and Mayan spirituality, many of the accounts given by Spanish soldiers and priests were grossly exaggerated. Archeologists have been unable to find the mass numbers of sacrifices that Spanish accounts claimed.
What's more, scholars who study the art of warfare of Mesoamerican societies, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, acknowledge that these civilizations followed strict rules of war. While warrior societies did set out to find captives, they did not raid villages or burn houses or rape women or dispose of children. Such cowardly acts would have brought them shame and dishonor.
The Mayans were one of the greatest civilizations in the Americas, as Gibson's film rightly acknowledges. They were advanced in astronomy, architecture, the arts and mathematics. They gave the world the concept of zero, came up with the most advanced writing system in the Western Hemisphere and designed a calendar far more accurate than the Gregorian one we live by today.
Unfortunately, instead of paying tribute to these contributions from Mayan society, Gibson chose to highlight only sacrifice.
But if carnage was what Gibson was after, why not focus on the mass genocide of Mayans during the Spanish Conquest?
Or the contemporary genocide Mayans suffered during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, which the U.S. government helped fuel?
At a time when the portrayals of Native Americans in the mainstream media are scarce, Gibson chose to depict the Mayans as exotic, violent and ultimately disposable. He has done Native people no favor.
Gabriela Erandi Rico is a P'urhepecha Indian scholar, poet and activist. She is currently completing her third year in U.C. Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Ph.D. program, where her scholarly work focuses on Mexican indigenous performance as well as Mexican Indian relations with the Mexican nation-state. She can be reached at email@example.com.