Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 6

[ Latin American Studies ]

Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 6


Victoria R. Bricker, general editor
John D. Monaghan, volume editor

With the assistance of Barbara W. Edmonson

In this Ethnology supplement, anthropologists who have carried out long-term fieldwork among indigenous people review the ethnographic literature in the various regions of Middle America and discuss the theoretical and methodological orientations that have framed the work of areal scholars over the last several decades.



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7.25 x 10.5 | 350 pp. | 28 maps, 35 b&w photos, 14 tables, 2 charts

ISBN: 978-0-292-74446-2

In 1981, UT Press began to issue supplemental volumes to the classic sixteen-volume work, Handbook of Middle American Indians. These supplements are intended to update scholarship in various areas and to cover topics of current interest. Supplements devoted to Archaeology, Linguistics, Literatures, Ethnohistory, and Epigraphy have appeared to date.

In this Ethnology supplement, anthropologists who have carried out long-term fieldwork among indigenous people review the ethnographic literature in the various regions of Middle America and discuss the theoretical and methodological orientations that have framed the work of areal scholars over the last several decades. They examine how research agendas have developed in relationship to broader interests in the field and the ways in which the anthropology of the region has responded to the sociopolitical and economic policies of Mexico and Guatemala. Most importantly, they focus on the changing conditions of life of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. This volume thus offers a comprehensive picture of both the indigenous populations and developments in the anthropology of the region over the last thirty years.

  • General Editor's Preface (Victoria Reifler Bricker)
  • 1. A Retrospective Look at the Ethnology Volumes of the Handbook of Middle American Indians (John D. Monaghan)
  • I. Topical Syntheses
    • 2. Mesoamerican Social Organization and Community after 1960 (Eileen M. Mulhare)
    • 3. Theology and History in the Study of Mesoamerican Religions (John D. Monaghan)
    • 4. Alternative Political Futures of Indigenous People in Mesoamerica (Howard Campbell)
  • II. Regional Syntheses
    • 5. Otomían and Purépechan Cultures of Central Mexico (James W. Dow)
    • 6. Contemporary Cultures of the Gulf Coast (Alan R. Sandstrom)
    • 7. Indigenous Peoples in Central and Western Mexico (Catharine Good)
    • 8. Thirty Years of Oaxacan Ethnography (John D. Monaghan and Jeffrey H. Cohen)
    • 9. The Maya of Chiapas since 1965 (Ulrich Köhler)
    • 10. The Yucatec Maya (Paul Sullivan)
    • 11. Maya and Anthropologists in the Highlands of Guatemala since the 1960's (John M. Watanabe)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

This volume of the Supplement documents many of the changes that have taken place in the Indian communities of Middle America since the time of publication of The Handbook of Middle American Indians in 1964-1976. The Handbook made a distinction between ethnology and social anthropology, covering the former in volumes 7 and 8 and the latter in volume 6. The ethnology volumes of the Handbook were organized in terms of regions and contained baseline descriptions of the cultures of people speaking dialects of a single language, whereas the social anthropology volume focused on broad topics that were not limited to a single region or language and gave a sense of the cultural patterns that are generally characteristic of Middle America. In this Supplement, the distinction between regional synthesis and topical summary has been preserved, but not the organization of chapters by language. The emphasis on region rather than language group reflects not only the more limited space available for covering the ethnology and social anthropology of Middle America (one volume instead of three), but also a paradigm shift among ethnologists from the study of "tribes" and communities to larger units of analysis, including the region and nation and even the globe.

In this broader geographical and temporal frame of reference, a new set of thematic foci has come to occupy the center stage of ethnographic inquiry: ethnicity, political and cultural strife, cultural revitalization, environmental degradation, demography and migration, and tourism. Although these issues also have local manifestations, their significance is more obvious when considered in regional, national, and international contexts. Not all of these phenomena are of recent origin. Middle American Indians were migrating to cities and across international borders during the years covered by the original Handbook. They could be ignored or glossed over as long as the community was the focus of inquiry. Those who chose to remain in their villages were culturally more conservative than those who decided to leave in search of opportunities elsewhere and were therefore regarded as more appropriate subjects of study. However, the greatly accelerated pace and intensity of migration, fueled by rapid demographic growth, environmental degradation, and ethnic conflict, now make it impossible to view the community as the basic unit of analysis. The people who leave have a cultural and economic impact on those left behind that can no longer be discounted.

The people among whom I carried out my first ethnographic research in the 1960's are now completely part of the modern technological world. One of my friends from that era complains about how much it costs to keep in touch by long-distance telephone with his son working as a migrant laborer in the Pacific Northwest (Evon Z. Vogt, personal communication, 1997). And when I have a question about some ethnographic fact or need some information to complete a research project, I can elicit the answers almost instantly by telephone. Although this may not now be the norm for the anthropological study of Middle America, it was simply unheard of thirty years ago!

V. R. B.

Thirty years have passed since the ethnology volumes of the Handbook of Middle American Indians appeared. By any measure they were a resounding success. The authors, who in the mid-1960's were at various stages in their careers, are today recognized for the high-quality and in many cases pioneering ethnographic field studies they carried out. Their articles in the Handbook remain standard reference works, and the ethnology volumes were the first in the series to go out of print.

A work such as the Handbook cannot help but reflect its times. The volumes were planned in what was the heyday of areal studies in the United States. Its lavish budget--funds were available to send the authors of chapters on little-known areas on ethnographic surveys--was the most visible sign of the academy's concern with "the intensive study of areas" in the words of Robert Hall (1947:48), a concern that coincided with the cold war interest in the potential strategic importance of areal studies. The outline for the Handbook articles, reproduced by Evon Vogt in the introduction, is a no-nonsense summary of what was essential knowledge for early 1960's anthropologists: cultural and linguistic distributions, subsistence systems, settlement patterns, technology, economy, social organization, religion and world view, aesthetic and recreation patterns, life cycle and annual cycle. The chapter outline was at once a theory of society, a plan for research, and the blueprint for a typical ethnographic monograph.

Looking back over the ethnology and related social anthropology volumes one is instantly drawn to the photographs and drawings that accompany the articles. Although it has only been a generation, the photos make it seem like another world. Most of the people are wearing ethnic costumes, the houses are made of thatch or other locally available materials, and the occupations people are engaged in are distinctly rural. There are, it is true, places today where most people speak an indigenous language, farm for a living, and dress like the people depicted in the original Handbook photographs. But over the last thirty years the range of identities, occupations, and lifeways of Mesoamerican peoples has expanded, so that for the first time since the Colonial period being indigenous is not synonymous with being a member of a subsistence farming household. Shifting identities were recognized in the original Handbook (Nader 1969b:336-337; Weitlaner and Hoppe 1969:524), but few at that time would have imagined that the people they worked among would become Nobel Prize winners, graduates of universities, leaders of political parties, exiles in refugee camps, or the gardeners of suburban lawns in the United States. The emergence of new groups has long been a stimulus to model building in the social sciences (the paradigm is of course Karl Marx and the working class), and, as the articles in this volume make clear, work on these new identities promises to be of future theoretical importance.

If one were to name the thing that most distinguishes contemporary ethnography from that which was carried out prior to the original Handbook, it is the use of the past. Ethnographies of the earlier period routinely describe Colonial events and Preconquest sociopolitical arrangements, but then often ignore the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--when changes almost as far reaching as those in the sixteenth century took place--thereby losing the opportunity to integrate history into the analysis and making it that much easier to see political struggle or economic unrest as secondary to enduring social and cultural patterns. When history does enter into the text, it is limited to providing information on diffusion, points of origin, or geographical dispersion. Today's ethnographies, even those that do not use archival materials, are much more likely to frame their projects in terms of sequence and process, rather than structure and form. We have also become acutely aware that many areal ethnological categories, which often served as markers of cultural authenticity, are based on practices that are in many cases specialized developments, whose meanings and functions have changed, often dramatically, over time. As a consequence, apparently robust theoretical statements based on synchronic ethnographic research, when viewed in a historical perspective, today seem misguided or simplistic.

Perhaps the most significant effect the turn toward history has had on Mesoamerican ethnology has to do with images of indigenous people. For too long anthropological (and historical) analysis tended to see Indians as people to whom things happened: they were conquered and, if far enough away from cities, remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Since the publication of the original Handbook, our attention has been drawn to the many millennial movements that have occurred over the past centuries, which, even in those cases when the movement represented a largely conservative reaction to outside interference, show that history has been much more turbulent than initially believed. Close inspection of the historical record also reveals that indigenous people could be tenacious litigants, pursuing land claims in Spanish courts and often winning, even against the colonists themselvessomething that makes them quite a bit more than passive survivors of a brutal conquest. Today the trend is to see indigenous people as active agents, negotiating, synthesizing, adopting, and resisting--a point which the dirty war in Guatemala and the revolt in Chiapas served to move from the realm of academic discourse to the front page of the morning newspaper.

With thirty years of separation--and discussions of power/knowledge, Orientalism, "weapons of the weak," and dependency (not to mention symbolic anthropology and textual critiques of ethnography) in between--it would be easy to point to shortcomings in the original Handbook and present today's research as a significant improvement over what went on before (for reviews of Mesoamerican ethnology, see Chambers and Young 1979; Schwartz 1983; C. Smith and J. Boyer 1987; García Mora and Villalobos Salgado 1988). But given the nature of the current work, and the limited space set aside for this introductory chapter, it might be more productive to use contrasts with the Handbook to try to identify some of our own ethnological shortcomings and assumptions. For example, where are the contemporary studies of material culture that were once a standard topic of ethnographic inquiry, as illustrated in the lavishly detailed drawings in the original Handbook? Outside of examinations of folk arts, archaeologists seem to be the only ones carrying this work forward (e.g., Hayden 1987; Parsons and Parsons 1990; Smyth 1991; Robles García 1994). Moreover, the very premise on which the Handbook was based, that there is a place called "Mesoamerica"--which is in turn founded on the idea of a Precolumbian, indigenous civilization--is not the operational concept it once was for sociocultural anthropologists. It is true that the roots of areal classifications lie in nationalist projects, but it is also true that the concept of Mesoamerica is subversive of the states in the region, stressing the commonalties that transcend national borders, just as these borders, and the one further north, appear ever more arbitrary. More seriously, although the concept continues to organize scholarly interaction and focus comparative studies, its eclipse threatens to devalue certain kinds of specific knowledge that continue to be relevant. Anyone familiar with the literature will know that tacit citational boundaries now exist between anthropologists working in Guatemala and in Mexico, between those working in central and in southern Mexico, between those working in Oaxaca and in Chiapas, and so on. Granted, the experience of being a speaker of an indigenous language in Guatemala is distinct from that in Mexico, but peoples straddle borders and share so much in the way of history and contemporary experience that ignoring the literature on one side of a line drawn through a rain forest or across a mountain chain by a Colonial bureaucrat seems arbitrary, if not willfully ignorant.

Another contrast between the original Handbook and today's research is evident in Vogt's Handbook outline, which exudes a confidence and sense of purpose that is often lacking today. This difference is, no doubt, related to larger questions stemming from the so-called death of objectivism in the social sciences, coupled with an awareness of the many wrong turns and glaring misinterpretations made in the past. But at least part of our insecurity is an outgrowth of the particular way Mesoamerican ethnography has defined its research program over the last thirty years. By the time the original Handbook appeared, it was widely accepted that anthropologists were studying peasants, people who were part of nation-states and a worldwide division of labor, and that local groups could not be accounted for solely in terms of themselves. Many of the authors of the articles in the original Handbook participated in the development of ethnographic strategies designed to explore the role of larger economic and political processes in rural life. Coupled with the need for aggregate data as anthropology played an increasingly larger role in development and indigenista programs, this led to an areal interest in research models that would transcend the traditional community study (just as it was believed the community itself would soon be transcended by broader forms of relationships, such as class). As many of the reviews note, one expression of this was the outpouring of regionally focused projects, beginning in the late 1960's. Such monographs may now contain structured interviews with government bureaucrats side by side with those with village elders; time series data on regional cash crop production and its effects on wage scales, as well as a catalog of local agricultural products; and censuses of coastal plantations or urban neighborhoods juxtaposed with a description of village households.

While the study of Mesoamerican societies as components of structurally dynamic systems was meant to make up for the shortcomings of the traditional community study, it has become clear that it has not been able to do what it promised without giving up a great deal of what was appealing about the community study in the first place. Thus we have monographs that do an excellent job of portraying the forces which impinge upon rural areas, but once they turn to "on the ground" behavior they become opaque--the rich detail and finely drawn descriptions that we need to understand action are simply not there. The ideal, of course, is to do everything well (as in recent studies of migration, where the ethnographer is expected to work in rural villages, urban neighborhoods, and labor camps at the same time), but in practice we are left with choices that have made it impossible to keep up with the high standards of contextualization that now exist in anthropology (see Sandstrom, this volume). Although the dilemma is often framed by some sort of conceptual divide (e.g., political economy vs. symbols and meaning), its solution may be as much a matter of operationalization as of grand theory. As it now stands, the lone ethnographer is simply spread too thin, and the product of team research is not easily integrated. Good ethnographies certainly abound, and there is no lack of good writers or committed fieldworkers, but given the task we have set ourselves, is it any wonder anthropology does not recognize any texts from Mesoamerica as canonical?

Reading through the Handbook one also becomes aware of the new set of gatekeeping concepts (Appadurai 1986:357) we work with. Given the late-twentieth-century obsession with identity, the increasing bureaucratization of rural life, and the intense pluralism of Middle America, it is perhaps not too surprising that ethnicity is at the top of the list. The pervasiveness of this concept in writing and thinking about the area is such that even for those who concern themselves with indigenous intellectuals the emphasis is very much on the indigenous, as opposed to the intellectual, side of the equation. We might stop and ask ourselves if our first impulse would be to classify someone like Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov as an ethnic artist, given his use of materials from his native Russia. Yet as Howard Campbell (1996) points out, ethnicity is the framework we use to understand intellectual movements in Mesoamerica. This is not to say that Rimsky-Korsakov cannot be seen as an ethnic intellectual; the issue is whether or not this move has limited our theorizing and comparative understanding. Moreover, for social scientists concerned with meaning in social life, it is surprising how dominant instrumental notions of ethnicity continue to be in our theorizing. If in earlier work indigenous people were passive and traditional, today they are highly active and possessed of an extracultural rationality. This is, of course, evident in work on economic matters as well as ethnicity, but also extends to areas as diverse as religion (where conversion is portrayed as a strategic move by interested parties). Even the terms we use--"indigenous," which connotes a freely chosen identity, versus the now-discouraged "Indian," suggesting an outside and colonialist imposition--incorporate this difference. This is not to say that viewing indigenous people as active or rational agents has been unproductive, but one might ask if in the process we have made indigenous people out to be extraordinarily prescient or heroic (the extreme was a presentation I heard on an indigenous group in El Salvador, where the author characterized their giving up of their language and distinctive customs as a form of resistance). The dominance of this rationalist interpretation is such that after reviewing the contemporary ethnography on indigenous societies a student of mine came to the jarring conclusion that Mesoamerican people are not sensuous! One can literally see our stereotypes at work in the photographic essays that portray people with grim and determined looks on their faces. Things would perhaps be different if psychological anthropology, which was particularly sensitive to the complexities of human motivation and which was an important subgenre of the Mesoamericanist field in the 1950's and 1960's, had left a more substantial legacy.

Like the Mexican highway patrol cadets in the film El patrullero, who begin their daily training with the chant "Everyone is guilty," all of us are defenseless when it comes to the way others are represented. But representation is not as much a monopoly as it once was. A casual inspection of the Bibliography will show that the majority of citations are in Spanish. Government institutions such as the Instituto Nacional Indigenista or the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, privately funded foundations such as Plumsock, and local cultural associations like those of Juchitán are now publishing the bulk of the ethnographic work on Middle American societies (for a discussion of publication outlets, see García Mora and Mejía Sánchez 1988). If it were not for the parochial requirements of hiring and promotion in North American universities, the percentage would probably be even higher. Along with this outpouring of works in Spanish has come the continued development of a Mexican anthropology, which tends to be critical, to carry out ethnographic research in joint projects, and to be designed for input into social planning and development issues (for discussions, see Hewett de Alcántara 1984; Arizpe S. 1988; García Mora 1988). Nonanthropologists, such as parish priests, have also published ethnographic literature, as have scholars of indigenous background. In some regions the publications of this latter group now represent a substantial part of the corpus. It is worth pointing out, however, that except for their linguistic sensitivity and their use of personal experience these ethnographies have not been distinct from the kinds produced by nonindigenous ethnographers. The number of bilingual ethnographies or in some cases ethnographies written entirely in an indigenous language, which did not exist thirty years ago, is steadily rising.

Outline of the Volume

The authors of the articles in this Supplement are anthropologists with long-term commitments to the areas in which they work. Although none have previously published reviews of the sort that appear here, their firsthand experiences and extensive knowledge of the literature provide fresh perspectives on the Mesoamerican material.

There are two kinds of articles in the Supplement. The first are defined by region: Central Mexico (with the exception of Nahua speakers), the West Coast and Guerrero, the Gulf Coast (the chapters where Nahua ethnography is discussed), Greater Oaxaca, Chiapas, the Yucatan peninsula, and highland Guatemala. Limitations of space meant that these articles would have to be something between the introductory chapters and the ethnographic summaries of the original Handbook. While most correspond to recognizable sociogeographic divisions, their size and scope is also a function of the amount of ethnographic material the individual author had to review. Areas such as Chiapas, in which a great number of publications have appeared over the last thirty years, are relatively compact geographic regions, while others, such as the Gulf Coast, where publications are scanty and scattered, are more diffuse. Limitations of space have also meant that areas outside the traditional boundaries of Mesoamerica that were included in the original Handbook (namely northern Mexico) had to be omitted from the Supplement, although migrants to border cities from central and southern Mexico are discussed. Vogt included northern Mexico because it had not been covered by Frederick Hodge in the 1907-1910 Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, and in this way the Handbook of Middle American Indians could fill the gap between Hodge's work and the 1946-1950 Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian Steward. The ethnology of northern Mexico has been the subject of volume 10 of the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians series (Sturtevant and Ortiz 1983), and the reader interested in such groups as the Cocopa, Mayo, Opata, Pima and Papago, Panic, Tarahumara, Tepehuan, and Yaqui is referred to this work. Some indigenous groups of southern Mesoamerica, such as the speakers of indigenous languages in El Salvador, who received only cursory mention in the original Handbook, have not been treated here (for information on El Salvador's indigenous population, see Clará de Guevera 1975; Marroquin 1975; Chapin 1991).

In developing the plan of the Supplement articles it was our intention to bring information in the original Handbook up to date. Thus each of the regionally focused articles contains data on the status of indigenous languages in the area, the numbers of speakers of each, and current demographic trends. The authors of the regional articles also discuss changes that have occurred in their respective areas since the 1960's, in terms of both the history of indigenous peoples and the kinds of approaches anthropologists have taken. As in the original Handbook, the main intention of the articles is to summarize the work published over the last thirty years, with the goal of instructing and guiding the reader, although this has sometimes required the authors to advance novel ideas and make specialized arguments. In order to avoid the cookie-cutter feel of the original articles--the result of the preestablished outline--authors individually selected issues they regarded as important. Some examine debates surrounding key ethnological categories; quite a few ponder questions of identity; some speak to subgenres of ethnographic work; others tackle methodological issues; and some advocate specific policies. The result is that each article, while dealing with some of the same topics, has its own thematic focus. When read together, they should provide an overview of significant issues and debates in the region.

Following the lead of the archaeology volume of the Supplement to the Handbook (Bricker and Sabloff 1981), this volume also includes three topical chapters that cross-cut the regional articles. These chapters focus on themes of social organization, religion, and politicized ethnic movements. These themes receive less attention than other topics in the regional chapters because they are covered in a more integrated fashion in the first three chapters of this volume.


Victoria R. Bricker is Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University. John D. Monaghan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.