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Garry Sparks

by Garry Sparks

As a result of archival research this past summer in Guatemala, I have been translating sixteenth-century highland Mayan notarial manuscripts—such as land deeds, wills, and court petitions—in K’iche’ and Kaqchikel Maya with particular attention on the explicit and implicit use of religious (Mayan or Catholic) language, motifs, or rationale. On one hand, these types of documents and nominally non-religious genres are overlooked and undervalued by scholars of religion. On the other hand, the highland Maya were among the first Native American groups to learn the missionary alphabet and produce their own texts in their own indigenous languages for their own purposes often for their own primary audiences of other indigenous elites (with the Spanish Crown or Church officials as a secondary or later audience). While these texts focus on highly local concerns, agendas, and strategies, the extent to which they draw from both pre-Hispanic Mayan religious traditions and pre-Reformations Hispano-Catholicism I refer to this domain as “hyperlocal” theological production. Based on these documents and other sources I construct an ethnohistorical context (a context from the indigenous perspective and sources rather than the dominant Spanish accounts alone); I then align these Mayan texts with contemporaneous texts by Catholic mendicant missioaries who learned and wrote in Mayan languages. This intertextual analysis—the earliest possible in the history of Christianity—helps me re-examine the period of first contact between indigenous Mesoamericans and Europeans as well as reconstruct the first documented inter-religious dialogue as the highland Maya elites pulled from (accommodated, corrected, rejected, etc.) mendicant concepts and claims, and mendicant missionaries pulled from (accommodated, corrected, rejected, etc.) Mayan religious narratives and symbols.

In November 2013 I will present my findings on an intertextual analysis between the first Christian theology written in the Americas (the Theologia Indorum (“Theology of the Indians”) of 1553) and the oldest written Native American myth, the Popol Vuh (ca. 1554-8) – both written in K’iche’ Maya – at the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland. This paper is to be a new chapter in a manuscript that I am completing on the Theologia Indorum and its principal author, Friar Domingo de Vico, O.P., for submission by later next year 2014.

In February 2014 I will present a paper at a conference at Arizona State University on Mayan moral and religious discourse as it appears in both these sixteenth-century notorial texts that I am translating and in current Mayan ceremonial and ritual practices (based on my fieldwork among the highland Maya since 1995) demonstrating such discourse as the basis for current Mayan consuetudinary law (aka customary or traditional law). This paper will be an invited contribution in new anthology on current moral voices in 21-century Latin America.

I am also working on a selected volume of English translations of these 16th-century Mayan and Dominican texts for an academic publisher that aims to increase the availability of such primary sources to undergraduate college students. I hope to have this volume submitted to the publisher for review by 2015.

Garry Sparks, PhD
Assist. Prof. in Humanities of Global Studies of Christianity