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The K'iche' are one of the largest surviving Maya groups. They live in the midwestern highlands of Guatemala. Specifically, they inhabit the departments of Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango, Quezaltenango, Totonicapán, Quiché, Baja Verapaz, Retalhuleu, Suchitepéquez, Sololá, and Escuintla. The cities of Chichicastenango and Momostenango are especially well known because of ethnographic studies condueted by Ruth Bunzel (1952) and Barbara Tedlock (1982).

There are about 750,000 K'iche' Indians living in Guatemala today. The K'iche' language is still widely used among contemporary Indian populations. It is classified within the Kichean Branch of the Macro-Mayan Language Family.

The geography of the region is unusually rugged. The terrain is marked by a multitude of volcanoes and rocky formations. The largest inland body of water in the region is Lake Atitlán.


Soon after the fall of Tula in Mexico, the Toltec moved south and invaded the K'iche' region. Around a.d. 1250, the Toltec gained control over the region and began to diffuse elements of their own culture into K'iche' culture. These cultural features include superior military technology, human sacrifice, monumental buildings, ball courts, and urban life. Although Toltec domination changed the K'iche' way of life, the Toltec were unable to force the K'iche' to change their language. Instead, the Toltec learned the K'iche' language.

Between a.d. 1250 and the early 1500s, K'iche' civilization grew and expanded. One of their accomplishments was an advanced form of hieroglyphic writing, which has been preserved in their holy book, the Popol Vuh. The K'iche' also attempted to conquer surrounding peoples during this period. By the eve of the Spanish Conquest, the K'iche' were fighting wars with the Kaqchikel, the Tz'utujil, the Ixil, and the Uspanteko. The Spanish later made use of this pre-existing conflict by forming alliances with the Kaqchikel and the Tz'utujil.

In 1524 Spanish troops under Pedro de Alvarado marched on the K'iche' nation. At this time, it was known as the state of Utatlán. It was named after the strongest of the three cities that made up the confederacy of the K'iche' nation. Although the K'iche' heavily resisted, de Alvarado was able to conquer them. The city of Utatlán was burned but later rebuilt as the city of Santa Cruz de Quiché.

During the colonial period, the Spaniards attempted to pacify the K'iche' through both missionary and military activity. Another factor in the pacification of the K'iche' was the deaths of large portions of the population from European diseases.

During the nineteenth century, there was increasing pressure from hacendados, owners of the large haciendas or plantations, who wanted to usurp communal lands. The Guatemalan government supported private landownership and stripped many K'iche' of their lands, reducing the K'iche' to peasants and migrant laborers.

Since World War II, the K'iche' have become more and more dissatisfied with their treatment by the government and have turned toward left-wing revolutionary causes. Because of reprisals by the government against resistance fighters, many K'iche' have migrated to Mexico or the United States.


The settlement pattern of the K'iche' consists of centralized ceremonial and administrative centers surrounded by dispersed villages or hamlets. Each region has its own administrative center. Often these centers are relatively uninhabited for most of the year. For this reason, they have been called "vacant towns." This phenomenon occurs when many individuals maintain two residences, one in the country and one in the town. The rural residence is usually near agricultural lands and is used by the family for most of the year. The town dwelling is utilized during markets and fiestas, or at special times of the year.

Traditional houses consist of rectangular structures with double-pitched, tiled roofs. One of the long walls is often set back into the structure to allow for a covered porch along the front. The walls themselves can be constructed of adobe, cane-daub, rubble, stones and cane, and thatch over boards or poles. As a result of increasing Westernization, Western-style houses incorporating bricks, lumber, and corrugated tin are also common.


The majority of K'iche' are agricultural workers who combine traditional maize production (milpa farming) with cash cropping and wage labor. Milpa plots have not changed much since the pre-Hispanic period. Land is cleared by burning off the existing vegetation, then the soil is turned with large-bladed hoes. Maize, beans, and squashes are grown together on the milpa plot to ensure a variety of crops for dietary consumption.

Within the region, a number of other crops are cultivated to supplement the K'iche' diet. These include wheat, potatoes, chilies, apples, pears, peaches, plums, avocados, lemons, limes, and oranges.

Certain regions do not participate as heavily in agricultural production but are known for pottery making, blanket manufacture, lumbering, and woodworking. Increasing numbers of K'iche' are beginning to practice carpentry, tailoring, and butchery, professions that have historically been Ladino occupations.

The largest indigenous craft is that of weaving. There are three types of weavers: blanket weavers, napkin or handkerchief weavers, and blouse weavers. Both men and women weave fabric, but the majority of women are spinners, and the majority of men are weavers. In this way, men and women are dependent on each other for economic subsistence.

Markets are held in the regional centers, and merchants travel long distances to attend markets in other communities. Some even travel outside of Guatemala in order to trade their wares. Most traders are men, and they deal largely in commodities such as clothing, blankets, unprocessed foods, and livestock.


Historically the K'iche' were patrilineally organized into clans and lineages. The missionaries and governors of the Spanish colonial period, however, stressed the importance of the nuclear family. For this reason, present kinship relations are generally bilateral. Remnants of the patrilineal system include a prohibition against marriage with members of one's mother's patrician. In some cases, though, patrilineal relatives are unimportant. Kinship terminology is of the Eskimo type.

Fictive kinship (compadrazgo ) is prevalent in the region. Compadrazgo is the system of ritual relations between godchild and godparent and between godparent and parent. These relations form the basis of much ritual social interaction at events such as births, baptisms, and graduations.

Marriage and Family

In the past, all marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. The father would pick a bride for his son, then he would visit the parents of the bride to build rapport with them. Since the 1950s, more and more people have been choosing their own partners.

There are two main types of households. The most prevalent is the nuclear household consisting of a husband, his wife, and their children. There are instances, however, when an extended family resides patrilocally. This occurs because newly married couples usually reside with the groom's parents until the birth of their first child. The young married couple then forms an independent residence after the birth of their child, if this is financially feasible. If they are unable to leave the household of the groom's parents, then the household ceases to be a nuclear household and becomes a three-generation patrilocal extended family.

Among the K'iche', authority is emphasized in all areas of life. Children are taught to submit to those above them in authority, including their parents. This emphasis can lead to intense intrafamilial tensions.

Inheritance flows from fathers to sons, with the oldest son receiving the largest portion of land. In most cases, the oldest son lives with or near the father and takes ownership of his father's lands after his father's death.

Sociopolitical Organization

Organization within the villages is subject to the prevailing civil-religious hierarchy. Municipal government offices are filled by the members of the community. Individuals are able to build status within the community based on the positions they have been able to fill.

Social and religious life are organized in the same manner. In every community, there are a number of religious brotherhoods, called cofradías. Each of these has its own set of offices, and these are filled on a rotational basis by members of the cofradía. Those serving in the office of mayordomo are responsible for sponsoring the various fiestas and religious events that occur during the period of their office.

Religion and Expressive Culture

K'iche' religion is a combination of traditional and Catholic elements. At present, there is a certain amount of conflict between the K'iche' belief system and the Catholic belief system. The Catholic priests argue for a more orthodox Catholicism, whereas the K'iche' priest-shamans subscribe to a syncretic version of traditional and Catholic beliefs. For example, the K'iche' have accepted the concept of a trinity, but it differs markedly from the Catholic Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The K'iche' believe in Dios, Mundo, and Nantat. Dios is a category that consists of all of the Christian gods and powers such as God, Jesus, angels, and saints. Mundo refers to nature and the earthly world. Nantat includes all of the ancestors and the spirits involved with them. In this way, K'iche' priest-shamans are able to place traditional views within a Catholic framework.

There are a number of religious functions to be performed in the community, and these are accomplished by a number of different people. Leaders such as the mayordomos are responsible for the success of fiestas, church events, and the care of the saints. Others, such as the ajk'ij, or day keeper, fulfill the roles of calendar diviners, dream interpreters, and curers. The calendar diviner uses his knowledge of the 260-day Mayan calendar to tell whether a person's fortune will be positive or negative. Dream interpreters give explanations of people's dreams in light of K'iche' cosmology. Although individuals trained in Western medicine do exist in medical clinics in the K'iche' region, few people use their services. Most prefer to go to traditional curers, who are believed to have a better understanding of the spirituality of healing.

There are a host of ceremonial occasions stemming from traditional culture and Catholic ritual. The most important of these are the ceremonies linked with events in the life cycle. Birth, baptism, and death are important points in the lives of K'iche', and appropriate ceremonies are conducted to commemorate them. At each of the aforementioned occasions, liquor plays an important social and ritual role.


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Carmack, Robert M. (1973). Quichean Civilization: The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic, and Archaeological Sources. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Carmack, Robert M. (1980) The Quiche Mayas of Utatlán: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Carmack, Robert M. (1982). The Historical Demography of Highland Guatemala. Albany: State University of New York at Albany, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies.

Carmack, Robert M. (1983). "Indians and the Guatemalan Revolution." Cultural Survival Quarterly 7(2): 52-54

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