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Volume 56 / Humanities

HISTORY: ETHNOHISTORY


Mesoamerica

ROBERT HASKETT, Associate Professor of History, University of Oregon
STEPHANIE WOOD, Assistant Professor of History, University of Oregon


THE FLOW OF HIGH QUALITY ethnohistorical literature continues unabated, much of it still energized by the marshalling of funds and the influence of debates responding to the 1992 Columbian Quincentenary. In seeking more nuanced interpretations of indigenous voices and visions of the past, the scholars represented below continue to persevere in the expansion of intellectual horizons, ranging ever more widely in terms of questions asked, topics investigated, methodologies employed, and geographic areas covered.

This is apparent, first, in a solid body of investigations devoted to peoples and places that have received scant or only episodic attention until recent years. The inhabitants of western and northern Mexico are featured in several scholarly treatments, studies which consciously or implicitly establish links with cultures inhabiting regions more traditionally considered to be part of Mesoamerica; Charlotte M. Gradie's "Discovering the Chichimecas" (item bi 94010276) and José Luis Mirafuentes Galván's "Autstín Ausuchul" (item bi 94008094) are excellent examples. Looking south to the Soconusco region, Sandra L. Orellana's Ethnohistory of the Pacific Coast (item bi 96006720) alerts us to the importance of this pivotal region in the overall Mesoamerican socioeconomic scheme. Cultural exchange is an explicit theme in several other works that explore the implications of the colonial-era colonization of sedentary indigenous people in centrally located areas such as the Bajío, seen most notably in David Wright's "La Conquista del Bajío (item bi 96011787), and in Andrea Martínez Baracs' "Colonizaciones Tlaxcaltecas" (item bi 95000116).

Having said this, we must hasten to add that the great bulk of scholarship reviewed for this issue remains oriented towards the peoples of central and southeastern Mesoamerica such as the Maya, but above all the Nahuas (and within this group the Mexica/Aztecs), both before and after the conquest. Yet there is a perceptible shift in focus away from imperial capitals, ceremonial centers, and ruling elites toward inquiries whose goal is to arrive at a better understanding of life in the appendages of empire, away from the center, and gauging not only the influence of state systems on these places, but the impact of the "periphery" on the "core." For the Nahuas, articles noted below in Economies and polities of the Aztec realm (item bi 95014596) and Prehispanic domestic units in western Mesoamerica (see HLAS 55: 146) are important examples of this trend. Susan Kellogg's several contributions examine more thoroughly "domestic" issues for the imperial capital itself (items bi 96006568 and bi 96010300). Among Maya scholars, too, we observe a tendency to move away from a preoccupation with elites and ceremonial centers to look more closely at hinterlands and more diverse layers of society; here, archaeological studies with true ethnohistorical significance that were carried out by Nancy Gonlin (item bi 95006554), Anncorinne Freter (item bi 95006553), Thomas R. Hester and Harry J. Shafer (item bi 95006550), and Eleanor King and Daniel Potter (item bi 95006551) are worthy of special attention.

Interest in the complex nature and meanings of prehispanic deities has not waned; readers will find references to two different encyclopedic dictionaries devoted to this topic below (items bi 94011537 and bi 95010070). Jacques Lafaye's insights into the cultural implications of the hispanized Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl and the Indianized Virgin of Guadalupe captured international attention two decades ago and continue to leave their mark on more recent scholarship. The full meaning of both of these key concepts in Mesoamerican ethnohistory may forever elude definitive interpretations, since the documentary record is frustratingly incomplete. Yet the debates are rich and informative, and have spawned some very meticulous research efforts, most notably those by Florescano (items bi 94007542 and bi 95010037), Stenzel (item bi 95010036), Poole (item bi 96011315), and Noguez (item bi 96011308).

Attempts to decipher the coded messages sent by Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe can be situated in a persistent stream of inquiries into Mesoamerican belief systems. Carrasco's anthology, The imagination of matter (item bi 94011559), and his intriguingly entitled article "Give Me Some Skin" (item bi 96009570) are indicative of revisionist, multi-disciplinary approaches asking new questions of well-known sources. And just as we find Poole probing the real meaning of "Tonantzin" and Poole and Peterson exploring postconquest native responses to the Virgin of Guadalupe (item bi 96011314), we see a great variety of studies about what became of native practices after the Spaniards introduced Christianity and how the indigenous peoples interpreted Catholicism.

Two notable themes have emerged in a number of recent works on colonial religiosity. One is the recognition that indigenous people and Spaniards had a shared cultural experience - some have used the term "dialogue" - in which both sides contributed to the formation of a kind of indigenous Catholicism; Jacques Lafaye spoke to this topic in his presentation for the 47th International Congress of Americanists (see also Peterson's essay in the conference proceedings, Five Hundred Years after Columbus, item bi 96009756). William B. Taylor made a similar argument in a Quincentenary talk he gave that was later published by Robert Dash (item bi 96011637). This first theme leads logically to the second, that indigenous Christianity was/is more complex than earlier treatments of "syncretism" indicate. George Baudot spoke in the tradition of Louise Burkhart's The slippery earth at the 47th International Congress of Americanists on Nahuatl usage and terminology for Christian demons (see Baudot's article in Five Hundred Years after Columbus, item bi 96009756), which is carried over to his article "Nahuas y Españoles" (item bi 94002823), while Fernando Cervantes has elsewhere undertaken similar studies (items bi 96009602 and bi 96006436). Scholars will find related articles in the valuable compilation entitled Chipping away on earth (item bi 96006445).

The persistence of indigenous ritual in the colonial context is explored in studies by Richard Greenleaf (item bi 96009882), Ana Luisa Izquierdo (item bi 95005560), Serge Gruzinski (item bi 94011539), and Nancy Farriss (item bi 95007860). S.L. Cline (item bi 96009647) provides a rare glimpse of the process of religious indoctrination at the local level, revealing the sluggishness with which baptism and Christian marriage took hold in Morelos in the late 1530s. Robert Haskett's study of the same region in a much later period (item bi 94006296) uncovers revealing tensions in relations between Spanish priests and indigenous parishioners.

Indigenous thought is the centerpiece of an extremely significant group of studies, both in terms of number and worth, dedicated to the publication and analysis of codices and native language records, both precontact and colonial. Some are excellent new entries in the venerable body of high quality facsimiles of codices with commentary (e.g., Bruce Love's edition of the Paris Codex, (item bi 95010071); a stunning new edition of the Matrícula de tributos, (item bi 94011535); and Constanza Vega's rendering of the Códice Azoyú 1, (item bi 94011523)). Yet we are most struck by a cluster of innovative inquiries into the meanings of history, myth, and visions of the past, present, and future extrapolated from a variety of records in the indigenous tradition. Studies of Quetzalcoatl and Tula, such as the valuable piece by Emily Umberger (item bi 96011642), have contributed much. Sure to be influential are Enrique Florescano's Memory, myth, and time in Mexico (item bi 95010013, an updated English translation of his earlier Memoria mexicana), Serge Gruzinki's Conquest of Mexico (item bi 94011539), Joyce Marcus' Mesoamerican writing systems (item bi 96011275), Elizabeth Boone and Walter Mignolo's Writing without words (item bi 96006895), and Bruce Byland and John Pohl's skillful application of the techniques of epigraphy, art history, ethnohistory, archaeology, and ethnology in their study of Mixtec codices, In the realm of 8 deer (item bi 95010068). James Lockhart's We people here (item bi 95010014) is the most sophisticated reading yet of major indigenous texts connected with the Spanish conquest of the Mexica.

Moving beyond the codices and into the evolving Spanish era are notable new studies of indigenous language records, sometimes accompanied with transcriptions and translations of the originals and often seeking indigenous views of the past. Useful examples include Jorge Klor de Alva's "El discurso nahua" (item bi 94002831), a special issue of the UCLA Historical Journal entitled "Indigenous Writing in the Spanish Indies" (item bi 96010260), Gordon Brotherston's Book of the Fourth World (item bi 96009500), S.L. Cline's Book of tributes (item bi 94011526), and Xalisco, la voz de un pueblo (item bi 95010032). A hint of the rich future of computer-borne publication and analysis is given by Marc Thouvenot's fascinating new analytical computer database program TEMOA (item bi 96011717), which is coupled with the transcription of a growing number of indigenous language records. We expect that many scholars will be excited by the possibilities for detailed and comprehensive searching for terms, phrases, and content offered by this tool. Also promising, in the electronic vein, are the Internet listservers AZTLAN (to subscribe, write LISTSERV@ULKYVM.LOUISVILLE.EDU) and NAHUAT-L (LISTPROC@LISTSERV.UMT.EDU), with book reviews, meeting reports, and a great variety of discussion related to Mesoamerican ethnohistory.

We note as well a range of other studies focused on various topics connected with the indigenous experience with colonialism in Mesoamerica, such as a cluster of investigations centered around the analysis of the Canek Manuscript, a description of an encounter between Spanish priests and the resurgent Itzá "kingdom" of the Petén (items bi 93000586, bi 96010298, and bi 93000587). Durable topics such as the conquest of Mexico (items bi 96009638 and bi 96009753), epidemic disease (items bi 95014939 and bi 96011264), and land and agrarian issues (items bi 94005414 and bi 95007029) are given interesting new twists. Susan Kellogg's "Hegemony out of Conquest" (item bi 96010299) and Law and the transformation of Aztec culture (item bi 96006568) trace the contours of cultural contact, conflict, and change as the central Mexican Nahuas faced the emerging colonial system.

During the last biennium, we noted a rise in the number of treatments of indigenous women before and after the Spanish conquest. Our present sample includes several studies in this genre of real worth, especially the contributions in a special issue of the journal Ethnohistory entitled "Women, Power, and Resistance in Colonial Mesoamerica" (item bi 96011710), but also Frances Karttunen's revisionist assessment of La Malinche (item bi 96006564) and Stephanie Wood's investigation of rural Nahua women of the Toluca Valley (item bi 96011786). Nonetheless, there is a discernible, and quite welcome, tendency in the body of books and articles we have reviewed for this issue to find more authors putting women's history into ethnohistory, by considering issues of gender, sexuality, and even rape as integral elements in broader sorts of inquiries; this can be seen in much of Kellogg's work (e.g., item bi 96006568), as well as in Restall (item bi 95021219), Mirafuentes Galván (item bi 94008094), and Haskett (item bi 94006296), to name a few of the more obvious examples.

We have every confidence that the trends and tendencies we have discussed here will persist over the next few years, and that we will be able to report in HLAS 58 on many fresh new insights offered by these and other scholars.


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