Inalienable Possession and Personhood in a Q'eqchi'-Maya Community

This essay interprets the relation between inalienable possessions and personhood among speakers of Q'eqchi'-Maya living in the cloud forests of Guatemala. In the broadest sense, inalienable possessions are things that are inherently possessed by human beings, such as arms and legs, mothers and fathers, hearts and names. The relation between inalienable possessions and human possessors is analyzed across a variety of domains, ranging from grammatical categories and discursive practices to illness cures and life-cycle rituals. While this relation is figured differently in each domain, a strong resonance between such relations is shown to exist across such domains. For example, the gain and loss of inalienable possessions is related to the expansion and contraction of personhood. This resonance is used as a means to interpret Q'eqchi' understandings of personhood in relation to classic ideas from William James and Marcel Mauss: on the one hand, a role-enabled and role-enabling nexus of value-directed reflexive capabilities; and on the other hand, the material, social, and semiotic site in which this nexus is revealed.