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Defiance and Deference in Mexico's Colonial North

Defiance and Deference in Mexico's Colonial North
Indians under Spanish Rule in Nueva Vizcaya

Why some Indian groups were assimiliated into Mexican culture while others remained distinct.

August 2003
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316 pages | 6 x 9 | 4 maps, 2 figures, 2 tables |

In their efforts to impose colonial rule on Nueva Vizcaya from the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth, Spaniards established missions among the principal Indian groups of present-day eastern Sinaloa, northern Durango, and southern Chihuahua, Mexico—the Xiximes, Acaxees, Conchos, Tepehuanes, and Tarahumaras. Yet, when the colonial era ended two centuries later, only the Tepehuanes and Tarahumaras remained as distinct peoples, the other groups having disappeared or blended into the emerging mestizo culture of the northern frontier. Why were these two indigenous peoples able to maintain their group identity under conditions of conquest, while the others could not?

In this book, Susan Deeds constructs authoritative ethnohistories of the Xiximes, Acaxees, Conchos, Tepehuanes, and Tarahumaras to explain why only two of the five groups successfully resisted Spanish conquest and colonization. Drawing on extensive research in colonial-era archives, Deeds provides a multifaceted analysis of each group's past from the time the Spaniards first attempted to settle them in missions up to the middle of the eighteenth century, when secular pressures had wrought momentous changes. Her masterful explanations of how ethnic identities, subsistence patterns, cultural beliefs, and gender relations were forged and changed over time on Mexico's northern frontier offer important new ways of understanding the struggle between resistance and adaptation in which Mexico's indigenous peoples are still engaged, five centuries after the "Spanish Conquest."


Thomas F. McGann Memorial Prize
Rocky Mountain Council on Latin American Studies

2003 Southwest Book Award
Border Regional Library Association

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Spanish Entradas and Indigenous Responses in Topia and Tepehuana, 1560-1620
  • 2. Environment and Culture
  • 3. A Counterfeit Peace, 1620-1690
  • 4. Crises of the 1690s: Rebellion, Famine, and Disease
  • 5. Defiance and Deference in Transitional Spaces, 1700-1730s
  • 6. Jesuits Take Stock: Cosmic Intent and Local Coincidence
  • 7. "Stuck Together with Pins": The Unraveling of the Mission Fabric
  • 8. Rendering unto Caesar at the Crossroads of Ethnicity and Identity
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Archival Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Susan M. Deeds is Professor of History at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.


"Three hundred Tarahumara, Pima, Guarijío and Tepehuan governors came to the appointed meeting. One more time they listed their needs: the 70,000 Indians of the Sierra Tarahumara lack job opportunities; the ejidal sawmills barely operate, not only because of the scarcity of credit, but also the high cost of technical assistance in forestry; and in addition to chronic malnutrition there is hunger in the sierra because the harvests were affected by frost and hail." This contemporary newspaper report continues to enumerate problems: land conflicts; lack of adequate medical care, education, and potable water; the struggle for indigenous autonomy in the face of growing brokerage from outside the community; and finally drug trafficking. The gathering of Indian leaders in Creel, Chihuahua, was suffused with a high level of frustration over perpetually ineffectual dealings with municipal, state, and national government institutions. One of the ejidatarias/communal property holders in attendance, Doña Teresa, challenged officials. "I almost didn't come here. I am really angry. To whom can I address my complaint? I've already gone through all the proper channels. Now I am tempted to go to Chiapas to ask for help." Echoing the concerns of indigenous peoples throughout Mexico, these northern groups continue to seek self-government in the areas of the Sierra Madre Occidental where they live.

Four hundred years after Europeans invaded this region, the contemporary scene bears a striking resemblance to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Spaniards imposed a structure of colonial rule in the northern Mexican province of Nueva Vizcaya, indigenous concerns also centered on the struggle to preserve cultural autonomy, the need to obtain sustenance from the land and other natural resources of the rugged and unpredictable sierra environment, and recurrent battles with disease and malnutrition. The strategies for survival were multiple and included rebellion. That colonial problems persist today in neocolonial guise comes as no surprise to the student of Mexican history. The story is an old one, you say; why read yet another story of colonial oppression?

Domination and repression, of course, figure in the story to be retold here, but they are only some of the threads of the history of the native peoples of Nueva Vizcaya. Undoubtedly they must be invoked, among the other strands, to explain the historical disappearance of many Indians of eastern Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua in the Sierra Madre Occidental and the central plateau stretching between the cities of Durango and Chihuahua. What of those people who don't appear in the newspaper article: several hundred thousand individuals who once inhabited the territories of the Xiximes, Acaxees, and Conchos, as well as sizable parts of protohistoric Tepehuan and Tarahumara areas? How are we to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in some cases and not in others under conditions of conquest? This is the central question of Defiance and Deference, one which I intend to probe by using a comparative and chronological approach to the study of these five semisedentary and nonsedentary groups. Although excellent ethnographic studies of Tarahumaras and Tepehuanes exist for the national period, we have no comprehensive history of any of the five groups for the colonial era. This book provides a multifaceted analysis of their past from the time the Spaniards first attempted to settle them in missions, at the end of the sixteenth century, to the middle of the eighteenth century, when secular pressures had wrought momentous changes. Its examination of ethnic persistence among less hierarchical and stratified peoples offers clues for our understanding of the paradox of ethnic identity in a postmodern world.

As we know from the escalating array of monographs on indigenous responses to colonialism that has been produced in the past few decades, outcomes varied widely across the Americas. The need to redefine and understand the Columbian quincentenary in an academic environment beset by postmodern and postcolonial concerns served as a powerful stimulus for this research. The bulk of this literature focuses on sedentary peoples with more complex polities and lineages who have persisted as ethnic groups until and, in the case of Mesoamericans, has been enhanced by the mining of native language sources. Nonsedentary and semisedentary peoples, often on the margins of the Spanish empire, have received less scrutiny both because the relative paucity of sources hampers complex analysis and because most of these groups disappeared as distinct indigenous entities.

In order to make sense of the remarkable diversity of human beings who inhabited the Americas when Europeans arrived, social scientists and historians have proposed models that distinguish between indigenous peoples on the basis of modes of production and organization. One of the main focuses of such models has been the degree of Indian sedentism. The models have also been used to correlate indigenous forms of organization with their responses to colonial conquest. Edward Spicer, for example, classified Indians of northwestern New Spain in four different types of economy: ranchería, village, band, and nonagricultural band. In his schema, ranchería peoples were the most accepting of Spanish forms of religious and social life, while the villagers were more tenacious in preserving customs, through mostly passive means. Band peoples aggressively resisted but also experienced the greatest alteration in their way of life. Spicer did describe a range across the north, and he effectively dispelled the myth that northern Indians were all chichimecas or ahistorical nomadic hunter-gatherers who had little significance in the enormous landscape. In a different blueprint designed to sort out all of Latin America, James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz employ the categories sedentary imperial, sedentary nonimperial, semisedentary, and nonsedentary to describe different forms of social and economic organization, prevailing technologies, and adaptations to certain environments, as well as to predict their responses to European intrusion on a continuum emphasizing the potential for accommodation and resistance.

Although both models are useful for explaining diversity in very general terms, these schemas cannot capture the enormous complexity that existed (as all of their authors recognize). Looking closely at specific ethnic groups, we find wide variation within each of these categories which are themselves quite porous. This book will address this conundrum for groups that apparently fall outside the category of sedentary but experienced heterogeneous outcomes between and among themselves in terms of the persistence of ethnic identity. What accounts for these differences? As I collected archival data for this study over many years, a bewildering number of variables presented themselves. Among them were demographic patterns; ecology; geography; autochthonous sociopolitical organization, subsistence patterns, religion, aggressivity, and mobility; availability and accessibility of labor and natural resources valuable to Spaniards; the institutions of colonial control; and the intensity of extractive pressures.

In my effort to make sense of the impact of such a multiplicity of heterogeneous factors, I discovered that some emerged as the most palpably pivotal for this northern region. These fall into two broad clusters. One is the interplay of preconquest social structures and cultures with disease and Spanish labor demands. Within this set are (a) the precontact degree of sedentism and population concentration, relations with other indigenous groups, and use of the environment, and (b) the Spanish introduction of disease and unremitting demand for labor in a mining economy. The second general set of factors, inextricably related to the first, encompasses the role of missions on frontiers in structuring and mediating the relations between Indians and outsiders, as well as between Indians and their belief systems and ritual practices. How these elements interacted in combinations of disintegrative and integrative ways provides the key to understanding diverse outcomes in terms of subsistence and resistance strategies and of the persistence of ethnic identities among these semi- to nonsedentary groups.

This explanatory framework begs several questions, perhaps the most obvious of which is whether missions were different from other reduction strategies. In the Spanish system, misiones were distinguished from doctrinas, or Indian parishes of central and southern Mexico, even though neither was a parroquia, that is, a fully developed Christian parish. The difference is based on the extent of (1) sedentism of particular indigenous groups, (2) isolation from Spanish settlements, and (3) subsidization provided by the state and political control by missionaries. Missions had the more formidable task of imposing entirely alien forms of organization in sparsely populated areas. As Cynthia Radding has observed, "Among the seminomadic peoples of northern New Spain, the missions were to achieve religious evangelization and a new political order, goals which required an agrarian economic base and often the physical relocation of the Indians." Even though sedentary peoples were often recongregated in other regions of Spanish America, they did not face such foreign modes of production. Furthermore, as outposts in frontier areas, missions required financial support from the crown.

Another question concerns how the analytical blueprint I have constructed corresponds with general theoretical approaches to issues of colonialism, cross-cultural contact, and ethnic or cultural identity. My own peregrinations in writing this book over a twenty-year period are confirmation of the maxim that what we say as historians is determined and shaped by our historical and ideological circumstances. From my earlier work on labor, land, and demography centered in the "new social history" of the 1960s, I turned to culture, resistance, and gender. Generationally, I fall within a group of Latin American historians first influenced by neo-Marxism and Gramscian perspectives on hegemony, but later moved to engage in postcolonial critiques and cultural studies. The tensions generated by this mingling have been described by Florencia Mallon as "fertile" and necessitating that we become stunt riders who hang on to or negotiate between different theoretical horses. One of the problems in using theory to approach colonial situations from a comparative perspective is the great variation across time and space. Spanish colonialism of the sixteenth century was very different from British colonialism in the nineteenth, due largely to the distinct roles of religion, variant types of capitalism, and demographic dissimilarities.

Nonetheless, much of the fruitful debate over the tensions between a Gramscian project that aims to uncover the agency of oppressed peoples and the postmodern/postcolonial positing of pervasive power structures that limit agency has taken place within the rubric of subaltern studies, the movement begun by South Asian historians to revise theories of nationalism and postcolonial social formations. In a parallel vein, political scientist James C. Scott tackled issues of peasant responses to domination and Gramscian forms of hegemony, in effect elevating forms of everyday resistance over outright rebellion through his formulations of "weapons of the weak" and "hidden transcripts" that located agency in less militant actions such as foot-dragging, flight, pilfering, sabotage, gossip, and slander.

Still another concurrent track that includes Michel Foucault and Edward Said emphasizes language or discursive practices in the dissemination of power and the constructedness of identity. The "linguistic turn" has most prominently insinuated itself in the historical discipline as the "new cultural history" explicated by Lynn Hunt and others, a move away from the social to the cultural as influenced heavily first by Foucault and Clifford Geertz and then by Hayden White. Latin American historians debated its meaning and influence in an issue of the Hispanic American Historical Review devoted entirely to this subject in 1999. For me the not so new cultural history is simply the latest approach to reconciling materialist and culturalist explanations of history. As a fad that acts as a provocateur to keep historians thinking outside the box, it is useful but not a panacea for unraveling complex relationships in the past. Just as helpful have been the many ethnohistorical approaches to emerge in the past decade. Although Eric Van Young has suggested that ethnohistorians of Mexico have not been very successful in reconciling the social scientific and hermeneutic approaches within our already cross-disciplinary perspectives, I see a good deal of sophisticated work that takes a critical and self-reflexive stance toward sources on indigenous peoples and cultures/mentalities/symbolic systems and focuses on the social construction of ethnicity. Nor do I agree with Thomas Abercrombie's critique: "No matter what inroads the various postmodernisms have made into the profession, the discipline of history remains that of objectivism, and the historian's work is judged by the adequacy of his or her writing as a representation of 'what actually happened,' or at least 'what was actually written.'" For Abercrombie ethnohistory "has simply served as a label for the ghetto into which we place the pasts of peoples without writing."

Conversely, I see Abercrombie's masterful study of the K'ulta peoples of Bolivia as a remarkable synthesis of the approaches that can be taken or invented within the porous boundaries of ethnohistory. I have found ethnohistory to be the borderland most conducive to exploring my chief preoccupations: (1) to recover the forms and configurations of ethnic persistence (or to understand the lack thereof), despite the problems of recovering nonliterate indigenous voices, and (2) to overcome the overwhelming emphasis of postcolonial theories on representation, ideology, and power that has overshadowed the material or everyday conditions of people's lives and distorted notions of agency. The result is a theoretical eclecticism that develops the history of Acaxees, Xiximes, Tepehuanes, Tarahumaras, and Conchos in missions through a conceptual construct that I will call mediated opportunism. If ethnogenesis is the larger process through which ethnic cultures re-create themselves over time, mediated opportunism provides a framework tailored to understanding how material and mental barriers limit the capacity for change in these particular groups. Local hybridities could be very ethnocentric, just as local transformations could ultimately produce stagnation and strangulation. Based upon the interaction of the variables I have outlined above, mediated opportunism is the crossroads between cultural and environmental opportunism on the one hand and moral boundaries and biological barriers on the other. It is the sequenced process in which cultural ferment splashes against behavioral and physiological walls. The extent to which indigenous peoples could formulate mixed strategies and exercise choices in adapting to changing cultural and ecological circumstances was tempered by many factors, perhaps the most important of which were the mortality produced by diseases, the endemic warfare that characterized precontact history, and the incapacity to accept changes that violated the most basic principles for assuring life's balance. Mediated opportunism took unique forms across and within the groups studied here.

My idea of a mediated opportunism bears comparison with the concept of social ecology formulated by Cynthia Radding in Wandering Peoples, a highly influential work on the responses of Sonoran indigenous groups to colonialism. Drawing on ecological history and ethnogenesis, she defines social ecology as "a living and changing complex of relations that developed historically among diverse human populations and with the land they occupied. It refers both to the social structures through which different ethnic communities re-created their cultures and to the political implications of resource allocation in the region." She goes on to develop the idea of a colonial pact in which both subsistence practices and reciprocal obligations shaped ethnic divisions and social stratification. My study examines some of Radding's concerns, especially those involving subsistence and ethnicity, but while she is more focused on later social stratification, I am more intent on explaining how early colonial structures affected ethnic persistence among semisedentary and nonsedentary peoples. These different purposes are largely linked to the variance in our time frames: my study begins and ends a hundred years earlier. This allows me to look more closely at certain variables, especially demographic and labor pressures, from the beginning of effective contact, but inhibits my ability to comprehensively trace social stratification through ethnic, class, and gender intersections, because the data for the period before the second half of the eighteenth century are fewer and inadequate to such a task. Nor does my study place the same emphasis on the evolution of the común/community or on a colonial pact between monarch and frontier Indians in the same way that Radding's does, primarily because I think these are later colonial developments.

Within somewhat different theoretical formulations, both Radding and I have responded to the call of a still powerfully present figure in the ethnohistory of northwest Mexico, Edward Spicer, to focus critically on the reasons for the survival of ethnic enclaves or "enduring peoples." This work is also situated within an evolving "new mission history." Recent studies have explored the ties between missions (Jesuit and Franciscan) and surrounding Spanish settlements, especially in terms of the relationships between ethnicity, demography, and subsistence patterns. Some very early studies had pointed the way; for example, Robert West's 1949 study of silver mining in Parral alluded to labor and commercial relationships with mission Indians. But long after that, now outdated portraits of missions portrayed them as bounded, disciplined communities, forged out of conditions of savagery by heroic, occasionally martyred, and highly paternalistic religious fathers. A quite different panorama emphasizes not only the material ways they were linked to the outside world but also their persistent cultural and ethnic interchanges, explaining why they were inherently unstable. Scholars have revealed demographic patterns and other previously unexplored facets of mission history, highlighting, in particular, their porous boundaries and the ways in which they were "contested ground." Robert Jackson's demographic studies have advanced our understanding of the relationships between congregation, disease, gender, and ethnic survival. And we now have nuanced explanations of the complex economic motives and activities of the Amazonian Moxos of northern Bolivia and the Guaycuruans of the Gran Chaco in relationship to Jesuit missions. James Saeger's study critically questions the notion that nonsedentary people could not function in missions or participate in complex economies; it is also especially useful for explaining the missions' impact on gender relations and economic roles. Cecilia Sheridan has given us the most comprehensive study to date of the "cultures of the desert" in Mexico's northeast, exploring the complex interrelationship of hundreds of nomadic groups, Franciscan missions, and the Spaniards' effort to dominate this space. She documents, with remarkable clarity, the use of force that resulted in the overwhelming of indigenous groups who were highly resistant to the destructuring of their way of life throughout a long, contentious process.

Defiance and Deference connects missions and indigenous peoples to the regional economy of Nueva Vizcaya, contributing to the small but growing body of literature on the socioeconomic evolution of the area. Until recently, regional studies of Nueva Vizcaya focused primarily on administrative institutions, both civil and ecclesiastic. Cheryl Martin's analysis of the social dimensions of governance in eighteenth-century urban Chihuahua is a welcome antidote to the administrative genre. Economic history has been part of the promising evolving work of Chantal Cramaussel and Salvador Alvarez on land, labor, agricultural and mining production, and ecology. They have made explicit connections between the military and missionary conquests of the region, an evolving labor pool, and the formation of mining and hacienda elites. They are primarily responsible for obtaining and analyzing the data that provide a larger context through which we can see missions and presidios as organic parts of a whole.

This book approaches regional history from the focal point of missions. Nueva Vizcayan missions were never closed communities. They were transactional and transitional crossroads where ethnic identities, subsistence patterns, cultural beliefs, and gender relations were forged and changed over time in a frontier only slowly conquered by non-Indians. The delays and intermittent character of this conquest were dictated by unfavorable geography and ecology, logistical problems of distance and supply, and the hostility of indigenous groups unused to incorporation in a state (albeit a weak one in this frontier situation). Over time the balance shifted to facilitate incorporation of mission pueblos into the Spanish orbit. Of course, not all indigenous peoples acquiesced to pueblo life; that is the story of those Tarahumaras and Tepehuanes who fled west to establish rancherías in the rugged and inhospitable canyons of the Sierra Madre. Yet not even those survivors rejected all outside influences, as their subsistence came to depend heavily upon animals introduced by Europeans. At least in the colonial period, the indigenous population clusters, whether rancherías or pueblos, were permeable either culturally or ethnically. The interethnic connections that characterized these areas are difficult to identify and document, since the main source of documentation for missions is the body of reports by the missionaries who would not serve their own interests by demonstrating the absence of boundaries and control.

This last point raises the question of sources for this study. There are virtually no native language sources for these groups, except for a very occasional document produced in Nahuatl. Indigenous representations and petitions in Spanish are also few and far between. The principal sources for what purports to be an indigenous voice are judicial records, generated by Indians whose testimony was given--quite infrequently before the eighteenth century--either in civil or criminal cases. Records of military and other courts convened to deal with rebellions also contain Indian testimonies. These declarations were recorded in Spanish after being filtered through a translator and a scribe. This small body of indigenous testimony is dwarfed by the much larger corpus of Jesuit and other ecclesiastical reports and correspondence, as well a substantial number of administrative and military reports. Records of commercial and land transactions provide some traces of indigenous lives, as do parish registers which, mostly incompletely, record their births, marriages, and deaths. The latter, along with criminal and Inquisition cases, are the most likely to reveal information about ethnic interactions and evolving multiethnic folk practices. Yet in its totality the documentation on indigenous peoples in Nueva Vizcaya from 1600 to 1750 is limited in comparison to the records generated in the late eighteenth century.

Nonetheless, from this dispersed, fragmentary record a surprisingly multidimensional history of missions emerges. This account encompasses the daily economic labors and transactions that went on with or without missionary supervision, as well as the tantalizing glimpses of beliefs and attitudes, reported sexual liaisons, and shared local knowledge of cures and remedies. It recounts the movements, not only of the nominal residents as they went to and from their fields and pastures or those of Spanish landowners, but also of assorted travelers who tarried at mission crossroads. The fluid, porous boundaries of Nueva Vizcayan missions accommodated multiple types of transactions, licit and illicit, that produced varying patterns of material, cultural, and ethnic change.

Within the new mission history, much has been said about the need to present the past from an indigenous perspective or at least to focus more centrally on the indigenous experience. Although I have tried to suffuse this book with the experiences of the Acaxees, Xiximes, Tepehuanes, Tarahumaras, and Conchos who lived in missions, this is not the story they would tell. Clifford Geertz has described the conundrum for anthropologists and historians of "getting an imaginative entry into (and admittance of) an alien turn of mind" as a "question of writing out other peoples' consciousness for them, scripting their souls." Such an endeavor cannot replicate; it can only (mis)construe or mirror imperfectly. For as much as I have tried to deduce and intuit what these northern peoples thought or felt, this is a history filtered through the many others they came into contact with. The first European invaders certainly did not understand their systems of government, subsistence, kinship, and relationships with other indigenous groups. The book begins with the Spanish accounts, brash and uninformed as they were, of the early entradas/expeditions and indigenous responses (Chapter 1). The discussion of geography, environment, and precontact cultural characteristics (Chapter 2) seeks to shade in the gaps left by the incomplete and biased Spanish accounts and to probe more deeply into differing initial responses. The book then reverts to the colonial context, which is developed in the next six chapters in chronological fashion. The fractious and contemptuous "peace" that followed the rebellions of the early seventeenth century (Chapter 3) flew violently apart in the 1690s, under the scourge of new exploitations, epidemic disease, and subsistence crisis (Chapter 4).

The 1690s ended in a new demographic low for indigenous peoples in Nueva Vizcaya and marked the end of direct insurrection, as many Tarahumaras--the most recent rebels--deliberately chose to migrate west to rugged and inhospitable canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental, away from the silver and ranching economy of the central plateaus of Durango and Chihuahua. Those Indians who remained in missions experimented with other options to avoid the most onerous aspects of their colonial status, but even their slight demographic recovery was thwarted in the late 1730s by a brutal epidemic of matlazahuatl, at the same time that they were being demographically swamped by a growing non-Indian population (Chapter 5). Before long, the missionaries, whose influence was being undermined by royal (Bourbon) and local initiatives, as well as by raids mounted by Apaches and even mission Indians, were forced to take stock of the deterioration of their enterprise (Chapters 6 and 7). Mestizaje/racial mixing and the influx of outsiders into the missions accompanied the integration of these villages into the regional mining and agricultural economy, and in some of them it was difficult to distinguish between Indians and non-Indians (mestizos, mulattoes, and poor Spaniards) as they sought to augment subsistence farming by seeking work in silver mines and on agricultural estates, or by engaging in petty commerce. In the 1740s, the Jesuits acknowledged the political and economic transformations by turning the majority of their Nueva Vizcayan missions over to the secular clergy (Chapter 8). In the former mission communities, the processes of mediated opportunism had engendered changing intersections of ethnicity and identity. The mix of new faces and alliances that characterized the missions in 1750 was far removed from the polar distinctions that marked the entradas of Europeans into these indigenous territories two centuries earlier.



“This book illuminates the lives and fates of Native Americans—and the Spaniards with whom they came in contact—with great care and unusual fairness, and is a model worthy of emulation.”
New Mexico Historical Review

“This is a major contribution to the theoretical literature on identity and to the history of northern Mexico and Latin America in general.”
William L. Merrill, Curator of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution


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