Indigenous governance as a form of community organization

By Deysee Maribel Cotom Ixcot

Indigenous authorities have existed since before the Spanish invasion. Indigenous people had their own government, closely linked with the way of life that was cut short by colonization. Before, authorities were chosen through established methods, but in the colonial period Spanish authorities chose and impose a system of government upon indigenous people with the objective of controlling them.

The Cabildo de Indígenas, or indigenous council, was the indigenous authority in the colonial era. During this period, the Spanish and criollos had their towns and cities, indigenous people had their villages, and each had their own forms of government. It must be emphasized that this separation was intentional and had the goal of preventing the mixing of indigenous people and Spaniards. These villages were a way to prevent indigenous people from traveling to far away places where it would be difficult to find them. In that way, they were unable to run away from their obligatory work in service of the Spanish and criollos.

In 1811, mixed town councils were established with the goal of taking power, authority, and above all autonomy away from indigenous people. Thus, their self-government could be avoided. The Spanish could ensure that they maintained control and power over indigenous people. These mixed councils gave positions of highest authority to the Spanish, and indigenous people were left to fill secondary roles.

In the Twentieth Century, the peace accords signed after Guatemala’s 36-year-long Civil War reduced old policies of exclusion, marginalization, racism, and inequality. These accords allow for the reconfiguration of indigenous government, which are being reconstituted as ancestral authorities, parliaments of native peoples, and councils of authorities. In the case of the 48 Cantons, as they are called, their raison d’etre is based on historical communal organization.

Indigenous governance is diverse. In general, it is rooted in Mayan cosmovision, with local systems rooted specifically in the context of the communities where they are located, which determine how their leaders are chosen, be it for their talent or mission, or perhaps as a part of mandatory community service. There is a set of values that people should have in order to be considered and nominated by the community as an indigenous authority: community service, respect for all elements of Mother Earth, solidarity, respect, and truthfulness to one’s word.

Some indigenous governments are more recognized and developed, like, for example, those in Sololá and Chichicastenango, who have fought for years to give visibility to the institutionalization of indigenous peoples and paved the way for a resurgence and strengthening of other indigenous authorities at the national level.

Political empowerment of indigenous governments and/or traditional authorities is being strengthened. Before, the focus was on their problem-solving roles within communities, adjudicating matters between neighbors and families, or dealing with cases of robbery, violence, and kidnapping.

Some of the country’s indigenous authorities have collaborated with the Public Ministry and Judicial Branch of government, and these institutions have recognized that when indigenous authorities pass judgement on a case, they should accept the verdict and not re-try the defendant for the same crime.

When people resolve their conflicts within the indigenous system, the process is more diligently and economically carried out, is more conciliatory, and is more public, as the entire community is involved. This system educates and rehabilitates, promoting forgiveness. He who has broken the balance of the community with his actions must restore it.

Data also strengthen the hypothesis that where indigenous authorities enact justice, there are lower rates of criminalization. For example, in a report on homicide in Guatemala, published in March 2022 by Diálogos, a violence watchdog, the departments of Quiché and Totonicapán have the lowest annual and monthly rates of homicide.


There are fundamental principles that indigenous governance and/or traditional authorities apply: kixbal (shame), awas (insult), pixab (advice), and k’ioq (consequences of bad actions).

Through the legal system, the State has legitimized indigenous authorities. Examples include Articles 44, 46, and 66 of the Constitution, as well as the Peace Agreements signed after the Civil War, specifically the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes indigenous ways of organization, cosmovision, authorities, and forms of government. 

Article 8 of the Municipal Code recognizes the role of traditional authorities in municipalities. Article 55 on indigenous governance is also important, tacitly expressing the obligation of local and state governments to recognize, respect, and promote the system of traditional authorities.

At the international level, Guatemala ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. To the above, we can also add the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The existence of a legal system that backs up its proceedings allows for greater involvement of indigenous government and/or traditional authorities in matters that affect economic, social, and political development of communities. However, official authorities often oppose this, as they prefer that indigenous authorities stick to cultural matters and stay out of legal proceedings.

Today, indigenous governments and/or traditional authorities are who defend their land against transnational corporations, have reported acts of corruption, and speak out against political and economic situations that affect the general population.


Indigenous governance itself can also be critiqued as a part of the history of colonization, as it too is built upon the patriarchy, as women do not really (let alone equally) participate. As such, they should be strengthened by the participation of more women taking on the role of indigenous authorities, working to create ideal conditions for women to be a part of the decision-making process within indigenous institutions.

In a racist, exclusive, and discriminatory country, the fight to strengthen indigenous institutions and authorities is a challenge, but when has it not been?

Indigenous authorities must be conscious of the fact that it is important that they be clear in their goals to improve conditions and foment equity and equality.

Deysee is a K’iche´ Mayan from Quetzaltenango. She is an activist experienced in community work to defend land rights, strengthen identity, traditional health, human rights, the rights of women and indigenous women. She is the National Coordinator of the board of directors of the Asociación Política de Mujeres Mayas Moloj, and Political Coordinator of AMMI, the Alianza de Mujeres y Mujeres Indígenas por el Acceso de la Justicia.