Atanasio Tzul´s chair



Today, the native peoples maintain a struggle and resistance to maintain their culture, heritage and ideologies. In this story we tell who led that revolution a year before Guatemala´s independence.Here we remember how the native peoples have demonstrated their strength and resistance to maintain and defend themselves. The dispossessions have been material, ideological and cultural, and this leads us to a dispute for the custody of the cultural heritage of Totonicapán. An example of how certain artifacts can become sacralized by the people is the chair of Atanasio Tzul, who came from the Paquí canton of Totonicapán.

Tzul and Felipa Toc, his wife, led an indigenous uprising in 1820, the largest in Central America against Spanish colonial rule.

Tzul was the last person to be admitted, a hundred years late, in a list of 20 individuals, all Creoles, who are considered;heroes of independence; (próceres), in order to disassociate him from an indigenous rebellion with different roots. More than 200 years ago, the communal organization in the department of Totonicapán was born. They are now known as the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, who have achieved massive demonstrations as a means of making demands on the State. Among their most recent achievements is the massive mobilization that began on October 2 to demand the resignation of corrupt officials in the country.

Historical value

Atanacio Tzul´s chair was part of a permanent exhibit commemorating independence at the National Museum of History of Guatemala, until July 12, 2022. There is still no real version of how this artifact got there. As a museum piece, the chair was intimately connected to the narrative of the country´s independence in 1821 and thus to the birth of the Spanish-American (Creole) nation of Guatemala.

The chair was returned to the 48 Cantones in 2021 after a long dispute between the leaders of the 48 Cantones and the government of Guatemala, a struggle that intensified as the commemoration of the bicentennial of the uprising (1820) that runs almost parallel to the bicentennial of the country´s independence (1821) approached.
The recovery of the chair was an unprecedented event for the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. By returning the Tzul chair to Totonicapán, its city of origin, the National Museum relinquished possession of one of the few, if not the only, nineteenth- century objects of indigenous origin in its collection.

President Alejandro Giamattei, suddenly intervened and consented to the transfer of the artifact in the midst of a recurring crisis of his regime and in an attempt to win political points from the people.

The 48 Cantons had demanded the return of Tzul´s chair since 2016, but the Ministry of Culture repeatedly refused, arguing that there was little local capacity to display and protect such an object. This persistent dispute led to a renewed debate over the relationship between the state and indigenous peoples.

The Return of the Souls

One of the best actions that provided a justification for the return was a performance, called the Return of the Souls, by the Tz´utujil Maya painter Benvenuto Chavajay. He tattooed the chair on his back, affirming that indigenous peoples should and can protect their cultural heritage and demand its return from the big museums. The argument was also circulated that the cultural heritage symbolizes the long struggleof the cantons against the dispossession of their resources.

In the building of the Constables of the 48 Cantons the chair is exhibited today next to the image of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint, both are next to a chest that is also jealously guarded in that room, which contains ancient manuscripts that tell the history of the lands and the ancient lineages of Totonicapán. In this large room there are also 50 other chairs representing the various cantons, which are occupied by their mayors every time they meet. On each chair is written the name of the community to which they belong and their placement follows a rigorous order.

It should be noted that the chair was reclaimed not to be an inert museum object, but to be an icon of struggle, formally placed in the custody of the Constables of the 48 cantons. The building is not a museum, but a large assembly hall in San Miguel Totonicapán where public debates and community meetings are regularly held. The chair thus became part of the local K´iche´ institutional system and was regulated by a common set of rules. In this way it acquired the status of a K'iche' relic, it belongs to the sacred space-time that refers to both the past and the future, to an eternal pact remembered and recreated cyclically to strengthen the unity of the people.

Carlos Fredy Ochoa García. Internationalist and anthropologist, researcher at the Institute of Political and Social Research of the School of Political Science of the USAC.