Dennis Tedlock

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

2001–2002

The Human Work, the Human Design: 2000 Years of Mayan Writing

By the time Europeans brought their alphabet to the Americas, Mayans had been writing for at least fourteen centuries, starting far earlier than the emergence of the English language. Recent advances in the reading of Maya hieroglyphics have revealed that the ancients were also recording history long before European contact. Dennis Tedlock, NEH scholar and world-renown expert on the oral and written texts of Native Americans, asserts that literature, too, was being created by the Maya before the arrival of Europeans.

Tedlock draws a sharp distinction between decipherment and translation, and contends that because hieroglyphs have been isolated and studied out of context, much of the existing research on Mayan texts is presented in such a way that "it is very difficult to imagine the voices of the people who wrote it." A poet as well as a cultural anthropologist, Tedlock proposes to bring together some of the best Maya texts from the last 2000 years in his anthology The Human Work, the Human Design. He will trace for the first time the verbal arts, or literary history, of Mayan peoples, starting with hieroglyphic writers and continuing with those who have used the alphabet, beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing to the present day.

This project will reverberate far beyond the field of literature, however. Tedlock notes that "Eurocentric arrogance" has been to blame for the long delay in telling the story of the New World's "first writing, first history, and first literature" without qualifications or apologies. "Ultimately, the very concept of what the Americas are or could be is at stake here," observes Tedlock.

Affiliation at time of award:
McNulty Professor of English and Research Professor of Anthropology, State University of New York at Buffalo


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