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Through the Eyes of a Nation, Research Paper Example

Pages: 9

Words: 2354

Research Paper

Pre-Columbian Native American cultures were as diverse as they were vibrant, with tribes and nations exhibiting different aptitudes to progress, evolve and develop in the centuries preceding European influence. These Native American societies would incorporate each others thoughts and beliefs, influenced by necessities of survival, and also through their strong religious beliefs. The purpose of this paper is to enhance the understanding of Native American history by describing the society, culture and religious environment of three of the most accomplished and culturally enduring Native American nations within Central America and the American Southwest: The Maya, The Anasazi, and The Aztecs. Through this enhancement, the lessons learned from these societies become clear and reinforce why learning Native American history remains important in modern times.

It is important to understand the culture of these advanced Native American societies because their influences, accomplishments and values have been built and improved upon through the many centuries that have followed continue to influence us today. For example, the Anasazi were advanced community planners and architects of the Southwest, creating vast structures known as “Great Houses” that would stand the tests of time and be compared to European palaces.

The civilization was sophisticated, advanced, and served as an example for other natives societies to follow and aspire to become. Their contributions to art are well noted, particularly with basket weaving and pottery. A common thread in artwork between the Anasazi and nations such as the Aztecs may be through the ceremonial masks, which many believe are linked to the great Indian civilizations of Mexico. As with many Native American cultures, the Anasazi were advanced in the knowledge of astronomy as well, and that knowledge was incorporated into their architecture and how they kept track of the seasons. For example, the community planners of Chaco Canyon aligned the Great Houses with “lunar standstills”, a celestial event where the moon makes it most Northern ascension over the horizon. This event occurs only once every 18-19 years (Sharp). It could be argued that even today with our sophisticated technology and equipment, that knowledge owned by the Anasazi has yet to perfected in modern times.

Equally important and influential are the cultural contributions of the Aztecs. This mighty Indian nation began with humble roots, but within a span of only two centuries transformed into the dominant power of its time. Feared and considered to have the greatest warriors of Central America, the Aztec also were great contributors to engineering, science and innovation, and their accomplishments were as impressive as any world culture of its time. Among their feats was the aqueduct, enabling them to acquire fresh water and improve sanitary conditions. The most notable marvel that they created was the Great Temple. Considered their greatest construction project, it stood 150 feet tall in the heart of their capital city, serving as the symbolic heart of their nation and people, and playing a prominent role within their religious beliefs (Engineering an Empire: Aztecs).

The Mayan cultural contributions to art, mathematics, and astronomy were far ahead of their time and also that of other Native American societies. Unlike the Anasazi and the Aztecs whose societies peaked well into the second millennium, the Maya reached the peak of their civilization in the latter half of the first millennium centuries before the other two cultures. The art of the Mayans celebrates religion and rulers, and is highly diversified. Ceremonial masks, figurines, vases, jewelry, and carvings were left behind in abundance with intricate designs, with much of it serving to articulate a story of Mayan culture. They created a complex writing system, and like other Native American cultures were advanced astronomers. The archaeology is plentiful and impressive, and well represented within the numerous cities, temples, and pyramids. Pyramids at some Mayan cities towered well over the surrounding landscape, rising thirty stories high (National Gallery of Art).

One cannot underestimate the impact of culture on Native American societies, which showed high levels of sophistication and served the purpose to further the advancement of their nation for the benefit of its people. Just as important as the culture, the society itself in all three of our Indian nation examples had humble beginnings. Over time, each strengthened and prospered in part because of the societal structure they evolved. The advanced societies made great technological, cultural and engineering feats possible, which inspire and remain relevant in modern times.

Unlike some of their neighbors, such as the nomadic Apache raiders who on occasion would inflict violence on them (Mintz), the Anasazi society evolved from a hunting and gathering existence to one where they settled within villages for long periods of time to farm and build, but invariably choosing to move or abandon their homes when water was scarce. One common theme that can be noted about Anasazi culture, society, and religion is the focus on water resources, often a rare commodity in the dry, arid Southwestern United States. The Anasazi were predominantly farmers and builders, and these aspects were shared among a vast area of roughly 40,000 square miles where the communities were scattered. Beyond those similarities, there were many significant differences between each community. These differences included a variety of political structures, languages, rituals, ceremonies and ceramic designs (Sharp). Although common threads and lineage bound them together, the Anasazi society as a whole was highly decentralized.

The Aztec society was known for blood, both its reverence for it and also for its focus on war and sacrifice. In fact, blood is what Aztecs considered the most precious treasure of all, even more so than gold and jewels. The focus on war and sacrifice can trace to the beginning stages of their empire, where they were driven by war from their homes on to a swampy island to seek refuge, and life for these early Aztecs was very difficult. From this humble beginning they built their capital city, Tenochtitlan, and the only way they could expand and prosper from this location was through war, defeating other tribes such as the Tepanecs, while absorbing other city-states such as Texcoco. The warriors of the Aztecs were held in high regard in Aztec society, with the most important warriors honored by being dressed like eagles and jaguars. Of both considerable societal and religious significance was the art of human sacrifice, which as a religious custom ultimately became increasingly used for political reasons. During the reign of Ahuitzotl from 1486-1502, the Aztecs had institutionalized sacrificial killing, and the numbers of sacrifices increased dramatically (Engineering an Empire: Aztecs). The political motivation behind human sacrifice was to strike fear in the hearts of enemies, whether domestic threats to Aztec leaders or from a different nation. When used against a different nation or tribe, the threat of sacrifice served to prevent rebellions, as many tribes were not members of the Aztec nation by choice, and were forced to pay tributes (Garulich). At the zenith of Aztec society, repressed tribes sensing an opportunity, along with an Aztec female named La Malinche, played a prominent role in the destruction of the Aztecs. A daughter of a chieftain, she was sold into slavery but befriended by Cortes. Ultimately serving as an interpreter, advisor, and intermediary between the Spainards and the Native Americans, Cortes amassed a large Native American army that helped him attack the Aztecs, leading to their ultimate defeat at Tenochtitlan in 1521 (Engineering an Empire: Aztecs).

Mayan society, diversified and complex, effectively mix art and science, war and diplomacy, and commerce between the various city-states. City states were ruled independently by kings, who were revered in Mayan society in a god-like manner. Kings also presided over their city’s economic matters. The Mayans utilized women more prominently than many ancient cultures, and some city-states would on occasion be ruled by queens. Women also played a prominent role in Mayan commerce, where many assumed the role of weavers and spinners of beautiful luxury fabrics between royal households. The royal courts and palaces of the Mayans were as elaborate as those found within Europe (National Gallery of Art). Unfortunately, an elaborate society that focused so much on excess likely contributed to their undoing. What began as rivalries between city-states working to top each other in opulence, wealth, and power became increasingly tense and violent, particularly between the cities of Tikal and Calakmul. This conflict over a span of centuries ultimately culminate in the demise of both cities and with them, the Classic Mayan society (Gugliotta).

Along with culture and society, the religious background and beliefs of these nations were integral in every aspect of their nations. Of particular note is the role of women in their religious practices, and how this influence affects their society and culture as a whole. The practice of human sacrifice by the Mayans and the Aztecs was another ritual with deep religious importance. By learning about these beliefs, it is easier to understand their society and culture, which in turn explains the motivations of these great societies that previously existed.

The Anasazi constructed large ceremonial chambers called kivas, which were used by communities for ceremonial purposes. Although they did experience violence, their religious beliefs were inherently non-violent, focusing on harmony and balance of life within nature. They took great care in their ceremonies and rituals, believing that if they were done properly that they would contribute to prosperity. For example, a proper rain ritual would successfully produce rain, and water was a precious commodity highly revered in Anasazi society. Without it, a community would at times have to uproot and relocate, and abundance or scarcity of water would signal positive or negative religious significance in their efforts to practice their beliefs.

As with ceremonial masks that are believed to have come from Mexico, there are also signs that religious rituals and symbolism were also influenced, such as the steep-sided rain cloud altars utilized by the Anasazi. Another symbol called the Kokopelli resembles a hump-backed flute player, and they are believed to be traceable to Peru, symbolizing fertility, prosperity, and celebration.

It is notable that the locations of Anasazi communities was largely a religious decision, and their creator was considered female. “The Grandmother”, their creator, directed them to find a spiritual center that would encourage harmony and balance. She further instructed them to have reverence for their origins, veneration for sacred places, deep awareness of the seasons, and importance of village orientation. These were the core qualities of Anasazi spirituality (Sharp).

Both the Aztecs and the Mayans were believers in the religious importance of human sacrifice. This practice was common throughout Central America, and was  practiced in South America by many cultures as well. For the Aztecs, the practice was so ingrained and common within their society it was practiced with full abandon, and as their nation grew and time passed, the practice was utilized with ever-increasing frequency and was refined to produce ever more efficient results.

At the core of this belief was the concept of godly sacrifice, and that these gods sacrificed themselves to provide life. Since life was provided at expense, the Aztecs believed that blood had to be returned to the gods in order to ensure favor and prosperity. A commonly used reference to human sacrifice was “nextlahualli”, meaning debt-payment. Nations of Mexico such as the Mayans and the Aztecs believed that it was sacrifice of the gods that allowed the Universe to continue, but that continuance was fragile and subject to collapse. To empower the Gods, The Aztecs believed that constant sacrifices temporarily postponed the end of the Universe.

The quantity of sacrifice victims would be appalling by any standard. Estimates of victims, though unclear, can be measured in the tens of thousands for single events that lasted approximately four days, to annual projections of 250,000 sacrificial deaths over the span of a year in Central Mexico during the 15th century. What is equally appalling is the attitudes of many of the victims, whom regarded sacrifice as an honor. In fact, there were accounts from Cortes that described occasions when victims were freed, and would still demand to be sacrificed. This reaction is more understandable when one learns the victim believes the way they die determines the conditions of their afterlife, and being sacrificed was highly regarded as a good death in Aztec beliefs, which was also shared by Mayan and other Central American societies (Garulich).

Presiding over many Mayan rituals and religious ceremonies would be royal women, whom performed prominent roles along with royal husbands. They would offer their own blood as a sacrifice and were held in high esteem by their society. There was no higher priority than meeting the needs of the gods, as everything depended on this most significant priority (National Gallery of Art).

The importance of learning about Native American history for modern times may not always be apparent until you look a little deeper into the culture, religious beliefs, and society of specific Native American nations. Within their history are reflections of ourselves from a much earlier time. From their culture they provided us feats of art, architecture and engineering that inspires us and make us question how things can be done through innovation, and what else we can discover. Through their societies we have examples of city planning, overcoming great adversity and war to produce prosperity for our people, and both efficient and inefficient uses of resources along with their benefits and consequences. Through religious beliefs we know how spirituality can have both constructive and destructive influences on nations. From the peace and harmony of the Anasazi Great Houses to the annihilation of an Aztec people despised by many around them, we learn the mistakes, moments of brilliance, and outcomes of history, which in turn help can help us make wiser decisions for the future if we are willing to learn from the past.

Works Cited

Aztecs: Engineering an Empire. Dir. Christopher Cassel. Prod. Dolores Gavin. The History Channel, 2010.

Garulich, Michel. “Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture.” Arqueologa Mexicana. Vol, XI, Number 63. http://www.articlesbase.com/home-business-articles/human-sacrifice-in-aztec-culture-3186606.html.

Gugliotta, Guy. “The Maya: Glory and Ruin.” ngm.nationalgeographic.com. Nov. 2010.             http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/08/maya-rise-fall/gugliotta-text.

Mintz, Steven. “Native America on the Eve of Contact.” 25 Oct. 2010.  <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=661>

National Gallery of Art. “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.” Washington, D.C. Division of Education, 2004.

Sharp, Jay. “The Anasazi.” DesertUSA. Mar. 2002. <http://www.desertusa.com/ind1/du_peo_past.html#americanindians>.

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