Who are the Kaqchikel and K'iche' Maya?
by Dr. Robert A. Pate.

We know of Lehi, Nephi, Moroni, Alma, and Mormon from the Book of Mormon, but where did their names get lost in the Mesoamerican milieu?  Likewise we know of the Quiché Maya, the Kaqchikel Maya, the Mam Maya, and the whole of the great Maya Civilization throughout Mesoamerica, but can we resurrect Mormon’s milieu from its Mesoamerican remnants?

Here we will examine the names of two branches of the Maya – the Kaqchikel and the K’iche’.  What do the names mean and where did they come from?


First we will dispatch the name Maya.  The name Maya is today applied to the whole of the great ancient civilization which occupied most of Mesoamerica and whose great architectural achievements remain.  Maya was not the name by which the natives were known.  Some think that the name Maya came from the ancient city of Mayapán.

Mayapán was the political and cultural capital of the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula during the Late Post-Classic period from the 1220s until the 1440s – collapsing many years before the Spaniards arrived.  The name Mayapán is reported to mean “Standard of the Maya” – “standard” being a “banner” from the Nahuatl word panitl meaning banner.

This city's name may be the source of the word "Maya", which at the time of the conquest had a more geographically restricted meaning.  The name Maya, from its limited Yucatec origins, is reported to have grown into its current more global meaning in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The people of Mesoamerica did not call themselves the Maya.  Sahagún, in his tenth volume about the people, does not call any of the people, Maya (Dibble 1961).  The Kaqchikel and K’iché did not call themselves Maya in The Annals of the Cakchiquels, Title of the Lords of Totonicapán, or Popol Vuh.  They did have another descriptor for their people.

Thirteen Groups of Warriors and the Seven Tribes

The name used in The Annals of The Cakchiquels is the thirteen groups of warriors (Recinos 1953, 48, 49, 50, 51, 55).  In the Title of the Lords of Totonicapán, the thirteen peoples and seven tribes also are mentioned (Recinos 1953, 170, 171).  In The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel are mentioned thirteen divisions of combatants (Recinos 1953, 48 fn).

The “thirteen groups of warriors and the seven tribes” is translated in many ways.  It appears that the translators have taken liberties to include words like group, clans, peoples, and divisions, where the original word was just “group”.  As written in the most ancient text available of The Annals of the Cakchiquels, two groupings are present: oxlahu chob ka vukumag and oxlahu chob ka ahlabal.  The first translates as thirteen (oxlahu) group (chob) of (ka) seven (vuk) tribes (umag).  The second translates as thirteen (oxlahu) group (chob) of (ka) he of the (ah) war (labal).

First, some simple mathematics -- twelve plus one is equal to thirteen.  We are programmed to search for the twelve tribes of Israel when we have been told that there are thirteen.  Jacob’s (Israel) son Joseph got a double portion when his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, took their positions with the full rights and inheritance as tribes in Israel.  The Levites were not given a tribal inheritance in the Promised Land (God said, “I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.”) but they were placed in 48 Levitical cities throughout the land (see Numbers 18:20, 24-32; Numbers 35:1-8; Joshua 13:14, Joshua 13:14, 33).  Their property assignment was modified for the need at hand in their priestly functions, but they did not lose their tribal appellation or identity.

It is thus proposed that the thirteen groups are in very deed the 12 + 1 tribes of Israel.  This 13 vs 12 tribes issue was very relevant to the descendants of Lehi who trace their blood back to the thirteenth man Manasseh (Ephraim, Joseph’s second son, actually got the birthright.).

Can we find Israel in the mix?  Possibly.  The name Israel means “God prevails” in Aramaic/Hebrew.

24  ¶ And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
25  And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
26  And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh.  And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
27  And he said unto him, What is thy name?  And he said, Jacob.
28  And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
29  And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.  And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?  And he blessed him there.
30  And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. (Genesis 32:24 - 30)

This wrestle with a man, an angel, or the Lord God himself, be it real or in some sense figurative, was a very real traumatic life changing battle for Jacob who became known as Israel.  May it be suggested that “he of the battle” (ahlabal) is Israel and has nothing to do with Indian “warriors” as suggested by the translators?  There is nothing in the written records of the chroniclers that makes the appellation “warriors” relevant.

The “seven tribes” is a literal translation of Vukumag (Recinos 1953, 170 fn).  Who might the seven tribes be?  There are two possibilities.  First could be Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and Zoram.  This ignores the two sons of Ishmael and their wives which they had prior to departure from Jerusalem (1 Nephi 7:6).  Second could include the two sons of Ishmael and toss out Jacob and Joseph who were born on the trail after leaving Jerusalem.  The first is more consistent with the writings of the Title of the Lords of Totonicapán which elaborates on the lineages (the sons of Ishmael are left out as not being part of Lehi’s family).  And, Lehi’s family descended from the House of Israel through the tribe of Manasseh (1 Nephi 5:14, Alma 10:3)

Cakchiquel – Kaqchikel

The Kaqchikel people and language have been spelled as Kakchiquel, Cachiquel, Caqchikel, Cakchiquel, and Kaqchikel.  The orthography was not standard for many years.  In recent years the Mayanists have developed a more standard orthography for the Maya languages.  In the end, politics won out on what was standard.  The Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala took charge of the solution with the basic argument that it was their country, their peoples, and their languages, and therefore they, the Guatemalans had the right and responsibility to decide what was standard.  Some American Mayanists took offence at the “go home” foreign policy.

An orthography for Kaqchikel was developed by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages).  We will not restrict ourselves to the Academy’s orthography because so much of the literature was developed before this standardization occurred.

What does the name Kaqchikel mean?  Recinos states that it means “those of the red tree” (Recinos 1953, 44 fn).  In The Annals of the Cakchiquels as translated by Recinos it states that, “When we arrived at the gates of Tulán, we received a red stick which was our staff, and because of that we were given the name of the Cakchiquels, oh, our sons! said Gagavitz and Zactecauh” (Recinos 1953, 55).  Brinton gives a different but somewhat similar translation (Brinton 1885, 79).

That name justification seems imbecilic, lacking the profundity of symbolism necessary to establish a kingdom.  This would not be a rallying standard for the troops or a deified emblem for their god as was typical among the Maya as discussed by Linda Schele (Freidel 1995, 294, 331).

The name Cakchiquel is composed of three parts: Cak meaning red, chi having several meanings and quel is the Kaqchikel transitive verb kël meaning “to paint”.  Everyone agrees that Kak (kaq, cäk, chak, chaq) is “red” – most importantly the Kakchiquel know it.  Chi does not mean tree, stick, or wood -- that would be che’.  Yet, in all the orthographies the middle syllable/word is clearly chi.  While chi is used extensively in the Kaqchikel language, it is not found explicitly as a word in the dictionaries available to the author.  Christenson states that in Quiché it can mean the coordinating conjunction “and”, or the prepositions “now; again; other; another.”  He also states that chi' as a noun means mouth; lips; opening; or edge.  These definitions do not cover all the uses.

The word for “blood” is chi in Japanese, chi4 is “red” in Chinese while “blood” is xie3 which is phonetically quite similar to chi.  In most Maya languages a form of chik means “blood”.  Putting blood into the name would make Kaq-chik-kel.  The redundant k would be dropped to form exactly Kaq-chi-kel.

The DNA evidence shows heavy intrusion of the Chinese into Mesoamerica.  The Maya dictionaries and glyphs also show heavy Chinese intrusion into the languages (Pate, 2012A).  You can’t have one without the other.
There is yet another possibility.  The Kaqchikel word chij (“j” pronounced as English “h”) meaning unrefined cotton, wool, or sheep.

"They did come up to battle; and they were girded about after the manner of robbers; and they had a lamb–skin about their loins, and they were dyed in blood, and their heads were shorn, and they had head–plates upon them; and great and terrible was the appearance of the armies of Giddianhi, because of their armor, and because of their being dyed in blood” (3 Nephi 4:7).

This was the manner of battle dress for the Gadianton robbers.  It would appear that Kakchiquel may mean “breechcloth of unrefined cotton, wool, or lamb skin painted red with blood”.  And, if it does, the Book of Mormon has the rest of the story.

Quiché – K’iche’

With the above name identification for the Kaqchikel, this places the events and time in history when the Quiché and the Cakchiquel split into separate nations.  The symbology that constitutes the Quiché name should be obvious.  Who opposed the Gadiantons and the band of Kishkumen?  That would be Captain Moroni and his “Title of Liberty”.   “He rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole” (Alma 46).

The name Quiché (or K’iche’) is reported to mean “many trees”.  And so it may, q’ui or k’ih meaning “many or much” and che’ meaning tree.  Che’ means tree, wood, pole, and jail in K’iche’.  This interpretation would not be a unique identifier as Mesoamerica is full of trees.  This would not be a rallying standard for the troops or a deified emblem for their god as was typical among the Maya as Linda Schele mentions.  Could there be a more relevant interpretation?  Two other possibilities could be qui che' which is the maguey tree or quic' che' which is the rubber tree – but these choices lack champions.

The earliest hand written use of the name Quiché is in the original handwritten manuscript of The Annals of the Cakchiquel.  It is written as 4eche.  It is written using a modified Spanish alphabet to capture the Maya pronunciation.  Franciscan friar, Alonso de la Parra invented some symbols to fill in the missing sounds found in Mayan.  These were used by the natives who learned Spanish and wrote their histories in the Maya languages using the new Romanized alphabet.

One of the invented symbols is called the cuatrillo which is a script 4 with a J tail on the bottom.  It is used to represent the velar ejective consonant /kʼ/ found in Mayan languages.  It is the first letter in the name 4eche (K’iche’ or Quiché) as written in the Annals.

The second letter in the name is an “e” which is pronounced as the “a” in “late”.  It is clearly not an “i”.  The writer used the Spanish “i” elsewhere and it is clearly not an “i” in the multiple writings of the name.  May it therefore be suggested that the first “e” in 4eche has more to its phonetics than just the simple Spanish of Maya “i” which is pronounced as the ee in “eel”.

Cutting to the chase, there is a word in Quiché, qui’y, which means “rag or piece of old cloth.”  Put that piece of old cloth (qui’y) on a pole (che’) and one has Moroni’s “Title of Liberty”.

Can this placement be justified by anything other than the Book of Mormon?  Possibly not.  More importantly, can it be categorically refuted?  Here the answer is definitely not – there is sufficient ambiguity to preclude such a response.

The discrepancy on the second letter in the name 4eche would indicate that there is more than just the Spanish of Maya “i”.  Another word in Christensen’s K’iche’ dictionary is -al k'ij (or –al k’ih) a noun meaning “Quiché people”.  Ignoring the –al leaves k’ij which would be the k’ij in K’iche.  The “j” is pronounced as the English “h”, but a bit more guttural.

Compare the k’ih with the rag, qui’y.  Christensen states in his Guide to Pronunciation of the K’iche’-Maya Alphabet that the terminal “y” is pronounced like the ee in “eel” immediately followed by an English h as in “hot”.  That closes the phonetic gaps between qui’y, k’ih, and 4e-che.

Mormon’s banner can phonetically stand on its own.  No apologies for phonetic mayhem are necessary.  This changes the meaning of K’iche’ from the imbecilic name of “many trees” to a much more philosophically profound meaning of Moroni’s “declaration of freedom” – the “Title of Liberty”.  It also matches with the events in space and time for the Kaqchikel name as found in the Book of Mormon.


Brinton, Daniel G. 1885. The Annals of The Cakchiquels. Library of Aboriginal American Literature. No. 6. Philadelphia.

Christenson, Allen J. 2000. Popol Vuh, The Mythic Sections – Tales of First Beginnings from the Ancient K’iche’-Maya. Translated and edited by Allen J. Christenson. Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Brigham Young University.

----. 1979. K’iche’ Dictionary. Unpublished manuscript, shared electronically in private communication. Affiliation, The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Available at FAMSI on INTERNET.

Christenson, Allen J. K’ICHE’ - ENGLISH DICTIONARY and GUIDE TO PRONUNCIATION OF THE K’ICHE’-MAYA ALPHABET. www.famsi.org/mayawriting/dictionary/christenson/quidic_complete.pdf

Dibble, Charles E., Arthur J. O. Anderson (translators). 1961. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain. Book 10 – The People, by Bernardino Sahagún. Monographs of The School of American Research and The Museum of New Mexico, Number 14, Part XI. Santa Fe, New Mexico: The School of American Research and the University of Utah.

Freidel, David; Schele, Linda; Parker, Joy. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Goetz, Delia. 1953. Title of the Lords of Totonicapán. Translated from the Quiche’ text into Spanish by Dionisio José Chonay, English version by Delia Goetz. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1st ed 1953, fourth printing 1974.

Pate, Robert A. 2002. Mapping the Book of Mormon: A Comprehensive Geography of Nephite America. Logan, Utah: Alma Jacob Pate Family.

Pate, Robert A. 2009. Mormon Names in Maya Stone. Logan, Utah: Alma Jacob Pate Family.

Pate, Robert A. 2012. Mormon Key to Maya Code. Logan, Utah: Alma Jacob Pate Family.

Pate, Robert A. 2012. Mormon Footprint in Mesoamerica. Logan, Utah: Alma Jacob Pate Family.

Recinos, Adrian. 1953. The Annals of The Cakchiquels. Translated from the Cakchiquel Maya by Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz. First edition, fourth printing, 1974. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

The Annals of the Cakchiquels. September 5, 1601. Photocopy of the original Cakchiquel Maya document. Received from Ted E. Brewerton.

The Book of Mormon: An account written by the hand of Mormon upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi. Translated by Joseph Smith, Jun. First English edition published 1830. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981.


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