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January 09, 2012

Living in the Practice: Introduction to "This Day in the Maya Calendar"

The ongoing series "This Day in the Maya Calendar" is about the Cholq'ij, the cycle of the Maya ceremonial calendar. My wife, Katsi Cook, who is a midwife from the Mohawk community at Akwesasne, and I have followed these days since the late 1970s. Our primary source of instruction has been Roderico Teni, a calendar priest, or sacerdote, from the Q'eqchi Maya people of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Don Roderico has been our formal teacher and guide in the Maya Days since fall 1982. At that time, I was an editor at the national Native journal Akwesasne Notes, and Katsi was developing her midwifery work. Maya delegations would occasionally visit the journal, seeking to denounce the brutal military violence they were enduring in the early 1980s. 

One evening, don Roderico showed up on a Greyhound bus, carrying a message from a Q'eqchi traditional elders' circle, Indian to Indian, that not only were their villages being exterminated, but their medicine people were being assassinated, by both the military and by the guerrillas. I remember his telling the Longhouse at Akwesasne, and later at the Grand Council at Onondaga, "We are losing treasures with the death of these elders.” It was a message that northern Indians could understand, and over the decades since many Mohawks and other Haudenosaunee have sustained relations with Maya people and communities.

The concept of learning from don Roderico has been "in the practice." For 30 years, he has instructed us in his knowledge and observance of the days, as they serve him and as he serves them, in the tradition of the Valley of the Polochic River in Alta Verapaz and specifically in the oral tradition of his family. His father and mother were both very strong practitioners in the day-keeping tradition; both were largely non-literate and genuine sources of direct oral knowledge around the ceremony of the days and of the use of the days in spiritual and medicinal contexts for the people and for the other elements of the natural world. 

Katsi and I did not enter this way of knowledge to "do research," nor to "become daykeepers." We simply love and respect don Roderico and treasure his friendship and the friendship he offers on behalf of his family and his people. In this way we have come to learn volumes from his keen perception of the world. Don Roderico has been a constant in our learning and in our lives as we raised a family and shared not a few adventures among Maya communities and in Indian Country generally. It is in the context of family, of mission, of birthings and dyings, of illness and fortitude, and of the gathering of energies needed to achieve that we have come to love and assimilate the calendar and its practical wisdom. 

My purpose in starting to write about the calendar for the first time in 30 years is to record and track at least a portion of what has been shared. I won't focus the Maya Days in historical, anthropological, or archeological disciplines that study this ancient calendric tradition. Having followed the context of the days in the practice, I would rather tell than analyze, as truthfully as possible, some of the range of experience we have perceived and lived. 

The Maya world is very large, and millions of people practice the daykeeping ceremonies. There is every kind of person and approach to engaging the calendar. It is of unbroken continuity and a vortex of intense oral knowledge, with practical application and cosmological depth. These interpretations are based on sustained conversations and participation over three decades with Maya Q'eqchi daykeeping families in the area of Coban, Alta Verapaz. 

There is a lot to know and apply about each of the 20 days, which are deities or day lords. The ways of relating to them in the Medicine of Time are multi-layered, informed by dreams and nature signs and the sincerity and experience of many elders.

I am particularly moved to write these interpretations of the Maya Days because there is growing confusion about the actual, living Maya calendric tradition. This compelling indigenous lifeway is obscured by loud and superficial static fueled by Hollywood, apocalyptic preachers and not a few academics. Some of the early readers of these entries have asked, “Are you a Maya expert?” "Expertise" is too big a word for learning about an ancient tradition such as that practiced by the Maya. I heard an elder say once that the Maya knowledge is in the people, who are a large, vast field of corn stalks ripe with thousands of ears of the four sacred colors. “Each kernel is a world of knowledge and each kernel is like no other,” he said.  In a large field of corn, one is lucky to hold one or two kernels.

Jose Marti wrote, “All the glory in the world fits in a kernel of corn.”  

—Jose Barreiro  

Jose Barreiro (Taíno) is head of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office for Latin America. Throughout 2012 he will post notes on the Maya daykeeping tradition and his interpretations of the days.



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