Exploring Native America

October 19, 2018
Professor David Carrasco touching a stone wall
HDS Professor Davíd Carrasco points to the face of the Aztec God of Rain, whose likeness was hidden in plain sight on the wall of a colonial church in Tlaltelolco, Mexico City. Photo courtesy Providence Pictures.

PBS’s latest series, Native America, explores the world created by America’s first peoples. The four-part series, which premieres October 23, reaches back 15,000 years to reveal massive cities aligned to the stars, unique systems of science and spirituality, and over 100 million people connected by social networks spanning two continents.

Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at HDS and director of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project, appears in the third and fourth episodes of the series, offering insight regarding the religious world views of pre-Hispanic cultures. Below, he explains the spiritual beliefs that connected America’s native peoples, how some native beliefs are being kept alive centuries later, and how recent discoveries have shaped a new perspective regarding the peoples of North and South America.

Harvard Divinity School: One of the themes of the series is the spiritual beliefs that connected millions of the Americas native peoples. What were some of the similarities of the religious beliefs shared across the Americas? Where do they come from?

Davíd Carrasco: As my colleague Jim Enote from the Zuni community says, this series reveals the great diversity of Native American cultures and beliefs. We learn about skilled hunters and horsemen, farmers and canyon peoples and mountain communities, city builders and long distance walkers. The series, under the direction of Gary Glassman, who won the trust of many Native American colleagues, does a magical act by covering the geography of the Americas from far south to north. I want to make it clear that Native American folks are the real informants and interpreters in the series. I was included for my work in the religious world views of pre-Hispanic cultures of central Mexico and the story of the conquest/encuentro of the sixteenth century.

Threading through all the diversity are shared beliefs and ritual practices, such as careful observation of lunar cycles and solar pathways. There is a worship of other celestial bodies and the great vault of heaven itself. Sacred animals are everywhere in Native America, and water is valued and imagined as an ancestor from deep in mythical time who gives life with immense force and dynamism.

One omission I made in my on-camera interview was the central role of the sacred hills and mountains in Mesoamerican societies. I mention six shared beliefs, but they are all integrated in the notion of the sacred mountain.

HDS: Mayas, Incans, Aztecs, and other peoples built massive cities like Teotihuacan in Mexico that were inspired by and aligned to celestial activity. What is the significance of that and why go to such lengths when it was a massive undertaking? Some archeologists estimate that to build the Sun Temple in Teotihuacan, civilizations moved nearly 1 million cubic meters of stone within a generation.

DC: I've just returned from Teotihuacan (meaning place where the gods are born) where my colleague Bill Fash and I led a Harvard group in touring this monumental capital city of ancient Mexico (100-650CE). It appears a number of times in the series because it is a nexus of the complex cosmovision of Mesoamerican history. Teotihuacan, Palenque, and many of the other Native American cities, such as Copan in Honduras and El Mirador in Guatemala, were organized around symbolic sacred mountains, or what we call pyramids, which had shrines on top and often burials within. In the Native American societies of Mexico, these pyramids/mountains were the dwelling place of ancestors guarding the seeds or hearts of corn, rain, humans, animals, and plants. Inwardly they were symbolic granaries while outwardly they were used as stages for colorful theatrical ceremonies where the great myths and political ideas were acted out for the priesthoods and wider population to witness.

Cities like Teotihuacan reveal that Native Americans were able to create urban societies of immense complexities where market places, large apartment compounds, palaces, pyramid-temples and huge ceremonial areas organized the lives of over a million people in the surrounding countryside. My teacher at the University of Chicago, Paul Wheatley, gave us a very simple but accurate definition of the traditional city. A city is “an effective organization of space—social, economic, cultural and religious space.” These ceremonial centers concentrated the lives and productivity of thousands and thousands of people into effective systems of interaction and diffusion of goods and ideas, beliefs, and practices. The intellectual and spiritual lynch pin of the society in these parts of Native America was a cosmovision, a dynamic world view where human, animal, ancestral, celestial, and plant life were woven together into a systematic whole by imagery and ritual.

Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun, one of the largest anywhere on earth, covers an area of two football fields - larger than the base at the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Photo courtesy Providence Pictures

HDS: The series recounts that in 1521 Spanish conquistadors killed 40,000 native warriors, ended a century of Aztec rule in Mexico, and then forced Aztec workers to destroy their own temple and in its place construct a church with the temple’s stones. Since then, there have been efforts to keep Aztec beliefs alive. How has that been done, and how is it being done today? Where can we still see these beliefs?

DC: Actually, it was the Spaniards with their cannons who did great damage to the pyramids, as well as native workers forced into slave labor. The Spanish wars of invasion in Mexico came up against societies built on top of 2,000 years of urban history that had the capacity to resist in varying degrees the Catholic imperial program to destroy the indigenous world view and religious practices. There was a catastrophic loss of life (80 percent of the native population in the first 100 years) and destruction of ceremonial practices and places. But Native Americans also had the upper hand in local knowledge of landscape and social ties, which proved essential to the well-being of that Spanish-run colonial society. When the Spanish army (joined by some indigenous warriors) ventured south into areas like Oaxaca and Chiapas, they met withering counterattacks and were sometimes defeated, and so their “conquest” was uneven and incomplete. Native American practices and beliefs have lived on with varying degrees of Catholic influence up until today.

I was recently in Chiapas, Mexico and visited the San Juan Chamula church in the center of town. It was an astonishing site inside. A glowing example of how indigenous peoples took an invading Catholicism and turned it to be in league with their own indigenous beliefs and practices. The entire sanctuary was transformed by different arrangements of candles and pine branches covering the floors to represent La Madre Tierra (Mother Earth). There were shamans and families kneeling and sitting in groups on the floor, praying in native languages in healing ceremonies. No pews lined up worshipers in rows listening to a priest by the altar. Rather, the Chamula people turned the church into a living creation story of their own, mixing their jaguar symbols with the saints.

In Mexican colonial history, new ethnic groups made of biological and cultural mixtures developed, thereby insuring that some native identities and practices lived on alongside of Catholic beliefs. In fact, Native Americans continued to outnumber the Spaniards for many decades in Mexico, and today there are millions of Nahuatl speakers and many, many other native languages are spoken. Mexico identifies with its indigenous history in ways unimaginable in the United States. For instance, the national flag, the "tri-color" that is beloved in Mexico, has the image of the Aztec foundation myth on it. In the U.S., we have a flag with stars and stripes representing settlements by migrants who set up societies on top of many Native American lands. Archaeological discoveries of Native American religious objects, sites, and sacred places are daily news and the museums often display and celebrate the indigenous parts of Mesoamerican history.

HDS: What are some of the recent discoveries that have shaped a new perspective regarding the peoples of North and South America? How does this change how we understand Native Americans?

DC: I’ve been so fortunate to be associated with the now 40-year excavation and museum of the Templo Mayor, the great Aztec temple in Mexico City. Led by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and through the skillful interpretive work of Leonardo Lopez Lujan among many others, this excavation revealed that the central ceremonial structure of the Aztec empire was both a religious cosmogram and the central magnet of religious and political iconography from all over Mesoamerica, including the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. I call this the “Center and Periphery Dynamics” of an empire.

Buried in the floors of the Great Temple and out of sight of the daily life of the capital were over 100,000 ritual objects believed to be filled with the divine fire of the Aztec gods. These ritual burials were incorporated into each rebuilding of the Great Temple between 1390-1503 (seven times) by means of fabulous public ceremonies. The great majority of these buried objects (eagles, jaguars, alligators, wolfs, jade, gold, coral, necklaces, sculptures, beautiful urns with human remains, masks from throughout the empire, and much more) came from all over the Aztec empire, survived the Spanish onslaught, and have been excavated and made available to the Mexican and worldwide public in the fabulous museum at the site, the Museum of the Great Temple. That is where I want all the readers of this interview to go!

The Native America series shows the historical range of Native American lives as well as the geographical range. It’s a shame and a kind of history-writing-crime that Native American presences and contributions are still in the shadows of our educational traditions. Native America is both “then” and “now” throughout the Americas—damaged and struggling, beautiful and ritualized, hidden and revealed, forgotten and remembered.

Mexican writer and essayist Carlos Fuentes made a statement that in Mexico "we have to imagine the past and remember the future." He meant that the colonial destruction of indigenous and colonial-era native communities suffered such calamities that the art, rites of passage, and even many of the sacred stories were damaged or destroyed. So we have to imagine the past through the recovery of images and gestures, colors and plants, and the remaining story tellers and dancers, excavations, and displays of respect and support for the native peoples of today. The second part of Fuentes' phrase "remember the future" meant that the membership in our present and future society depends on knowing, understanding, respecting and, when appropriate, embracing what has been recovered so there is space and place for all Americans.

Excavations like the Templo Mayor teaches us is that many indigenous peoples built cities and some built empires. They had the ability to integrate into their cosmovisions and social worlds hundreds of thousands of people who cooperated, competed, argued, and renewed their vows to integrate their human worlds with the worlds of nature and the gods.

What do we know now that we didn't know before these discoveries? Watch all four episodes of Native America and tell each other the new knowledge. For as Jim Enote of the Zuni says, this series was made with strong native voices, visions, and leadership, and in a way it is a new “encounter” for our viewing public.

—by Michael Naughton