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  • Pan-Maya and “Trans-Indigenous”The Living Voice of the Chilam Balam in Victor Montejo and Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Paul Worley (bio)

One of the foremost challenges that indigenous literatures present to nonindigenous readers and critics is, quite simply, the category of literature itself. Insofar as the Western literary histories and verbal aesthetic practices “literature” denotes are by no means universal, the application of the term “literature” all too frequently precludes an approach that recognizes non-Western and indigenous verbal arts as things-in-themselves in favor of analyses that correspond to preexisting notions of literariness and what constitutes literature. For example, while some scholars begrudgingly and in many cases problematically explore the relationships of indigenous oral traditions to indigenous written works, Chadwick Allen observes that scant attention has been paid to the complex interrelation between indigenous verbal arts and works in media such as wood, textiles, and painting (xxii). Along these lines, Muskogee Creek / Cherokee Craig S. Womack argues that even theoretical movements like postcolonialism have tended to overlook basic questions such as “How do Indians view Indians?” in favor of endlessly interrogating colonial constructions of indigenous peoples and non-Western others (13). That is, in their criticism many scholars tend to eschew examining texts, and non-Western texts in particular, by these “others” in favor of ever more sophisticated ways of reading the canon, a phenomenon that, despite its liberal, antiracist underpinnings, reproduces white privilege. Given that “Cherokee wampum belts were made as texts” (Cushman 117), that “Truly tales [among the Iroquois] were (and are) often told with the aid of a wampum belt” (Mann 30), and that “Native Americans of North America have been keeping birch-bark scrolls for centuries” (Parins 9), this lack of attention to non-Western texts and textualities becomes all the more glaring. Of particular note with regard to this article, [End Page 1] the Kaqchikel Maya scholar Irma Otzoy describes Maya textiles as “provid[ing] the world with a text to be read” (147), and Q’anjob’al Maya novelist and poet Gaspar Pedro González describes writing (in his text tz’ib’) as encompassing everything from painted codices to stone monuments and textiles (34–37). By turning the tables and recognizing non-Western writing systems and non-Western textualities, one begins to understand both the role of literary scholarship within European imperialism and the consequences, noted by Birgit Brander Rasmussen, of scholars’ continued insistence upon basing the field of literature on notions of alphabetic literacy (3). In her words, Native American and indigenous “forms of recording knowledge and narrative” are quite literally “defin[ed] . . . out of existence” (3).

In this spirit, in the present article I seek to move beyond the typical constraints of Western literature and Western literary criticism through an analysis of the presence of the Yucatec Maya prophetic books of the Chilam Balam, or “Jaguar Prophet,” in two works by non-Yucatec indigenous authors, Oxlanh b’aqtun (2003) by the Jakaltek Maya writer Victor Montejo and Almanac of the Dead (1991) by the Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko. Using the books of the Chilam Balam and the performatic tradition they embody as my point of departure, I argue that each author’s work constitutes a reperformance of the books in keeping with broader Yucatec Maya traditions and that each text therefore constitutes a contemporary book of the Chilam Balam. Through their individual uses of an indigenous tradition that originates from beyond their respective author’s particular ethnic group, each work plays a role in the transnational, interethnic consciousness raising that scholars note has characterized many indigenous movements in the Americas during the past few decades (Adamson, “‘¡Todos!’”; Huhndorf). Arising from this performatic tradition and articulating broader “trans-Indigenous” and interethnic ethnic affiliations, Montejo’s and Silko’s texts situate their prophecies within the context of previous things prophesied and realized, a move that decenters colonial histories and explodes Western literary categories in its insistence upon continuities of indigenous thought and the ultimate vitality of indigenous ways of knowing for indigenous and nonindigenous readers alike.1 [End Page 2]

reading performatic texts: the performatic tradition of the books of the chilam balam

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