Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The main theme of Journey to the Sky is the civilization achieved by Indians in the Americas. Jamake Highwater, an American Indian of Blackfeet-Cherokee heritage, is particularly concerned to counter the view of Indians as savages who obstructed the advance of civilization, a view perhaps still current in the popular imagination. During the time of Stephens and Catherwood, the period of Manifest Destiny, such a view justified white policies of conquest, sometimes in combination with missionary efforts. Stephens and Catherwood hold such views until they come upon the Maya ruins. The ruins are monumental evidence of a highly advanced Indian civilization, circa 300-900 c.e., in one of the most intractable regions of the world. It is the old Maya, not Stephens and Catherwood, who are the heroes of Journey to the Sky; Stephens and Catherwood, nineteenth century gentlemen, representatives of Manifest Destiny, are merely the proper people to acknowledge Maya achievements.

The Maya achievements stand out, in Journey to the Sky, in contrast with the state of affairs reached under Spanish rule. Descendants of the Maya live in squalid villages next to the fabulous ruins and are too ignorant even to understand the value of the ruins. Central America is in political chaos, and Rafael Carrera emerges as the natural leader of the Indian masses. What happened, the reader asks, to the great Maya?

The Spanish cannot be entirely blamed for the state of affairs, since the Maya civilization fell long before the Spanish appeared. Much about the Maya remains a mystery, including their hieroglyphic writing and the causes of their downfall. It could be that the Maya civilization contained the elements of its own undoing. Highwater is curiously quiet, for example, about the practice of human sacrifice among the later Maya. The Maya theocracy also apparently originated the pattern of peon-aristocrat relations which the Spanish reinstituted with Christian symbols. One theory is that the Maya civilization fell because of a peasant revolt. If so, the roots of chaos and decline in Central America go far back.