Indigeneity and secularity:

Fluid indigeneity: Indians, Catholicism, and Spanish law in the mutable Americas

posted by Michelle Molina

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonThanks to Mary Weismantel, Florence Hsia, Robert Orsi, Vincent Lloyd, and the students in my “The Colonial Project?” graduate seminar for helping me think through the stakes of this brief essay. MM

In this forum, “indigeneity” faces off against European “settler colonialism.” If the twenty-first century mode of conceptualizing indigenous resistance to dominant forms of settler power is primarily construed via claims to the land’s sacrality and traditional ritual relationships to it, then the history of the “Indians” of the Spanish Americas appears strange indeed. This will be no surprise to scholars of the colonial Spanish Americas, whose history never fits a model that, implied or stated, is the history of British imperial expansion. This essay all too briefly sketches a history of indigeneity in which Catholic actors made excellent use of the Spanish legal system to negotiate a cultural framework that was hierarchical yet ethnically fluid. Their experiences and strategies fall athwart the dominant narrative of racial “fixity” that is the hallmark of the very peculiar history of US race relations, a template whose export erases the heterogeneity of experiences across the hemisphere.

Who was an Indian in the Spanish Americas? The term “Indian” was a legal category implicating a Spanish view that new converts were neophytes—“tender” Christians who required “tending”—and who had rights and duties as Christian vassals of the Spanish Crown. The issue of land was addressed in the Recopilación de las leyes, a series of laws that acknowledged existing native land holdings, forced community reorganizations (reducciones), and also granted limited land holdings to newly formed communities. This system, as Tamar Herzog explains, “recomposed and decomposed” land rights but recognized them nonetheless. Organized under another Spanish institution, the municipality (pueblos de indios), such landholding communities were governed by their own town councils (cabildos) and clustered in groupings under lead towns (cabaceras). The prestige of the head towns derived from being the seat of local government and the site of the parish church.1

The pre-Colombian “sacred” was a non-starter for claiming rights in the colonial period. Practices of indigenous ritual specialists had been extremely marginalized, deemed either idolatrous (to be extirpated), or superstitious (the target of the “civilizing” missions of parish priest and missionary). Indians quickly became adept at making claims within the new cultural framework, utilizing a system that was sacred to the Spanish: the law. As Christianity and the Spanish urban form became hegemonic due to a complicated dance of imposition and adaptation in the face of labor exploitation and drastic population decimation, Spanish legalism was a trait that indigenous peoples swiftly and willingly adopted. As Christian legal subjects, Indians had access to courts.  An individual’s costs were subsidized by an added half-real tax to tributary payments, effectively functioning as an insurance system.2 Legal procedural norms were foundational to claims of autonomy, power, and prestige. Land claims were argued in terms of rights previously granted by the crown, legal precedents, and/or claims of occupation and use. Indian litigation against Spanish settlers and against one another provides a wealth of archival sources for ethno-historians.

Even persons remote from urban centers had access to a plurality of jurisdictions, from the court of “first instance” (the cabildo or municipal council) to civil courts and ecclesiastical (canon) courts that could check each other and be trumped in turn by an appeal to the Crown. Not only Indians, but slaves, too, negotiated multiple legal jurisdictions by pitching canon law (which upheld a slave’s personhood) against civil law (which considered a slave to be chattel) to ameliorate poor treatment or advocate for manumission.3 To work with, against, and between these systems was to be engaged in an everyday form of state formation, shaping a system wherein hierarchy and exploitation, but also agency, autonomy, and socio-ethnic transformation, were institutionalized.

What do the facts about these (early) modern subjects—about these ordinary litigants, in Bianca Premo’s terms—have to do with a contemporary notion of indigeneity conceived in terms of a spiritual relationship to land? The connection remained tenuous in the colonial period, not only due to the diminishment of the centrality of the pre-Colombian ritual specialist, but also because Indian communities in colonial New Spain actively shaped a Catholic spiritual geography and vocally defended their claims to control sacred property in this devotional terrain. Sacrality was vested in space as Indian head-towns drew power not only from their own municipal governing councils, but also by proximity to the parish church. Scholars ought not underestimate Indian cabacera’s parish church as a site of prestige. This was a locale intimately tied to rituals of religious brotherhoods (cofradías) who cherished and defended celebrating feast days and the sacred—sometimes miraculous—images of Christ, Mary, and the saints.4

Devotional participation may once have been seen by modern scholars as merely strategic, yet more recently scholars have moved away from reductionist interpretations of Indians adopting a “thin veneer” or an “oil on water” Catholicism that only superficially covered enduring cultural-religious difference. William Hanks makes the most rigorous case yet against “syncretism” in his thorough study of colonial Maya, arguing for a conversion that was “nothing short of a remaking of Indian life, from heart, soul, and mind to self-image, bodily practices, lived space, and everyday conduct, including speech.”5 There is no reason to suppose that many indigenous subjects in Spanish America were not as deeply committed to Catholic ideals as they had been to pre-colonial forms of religiosity, nor that they were immune to that classic human conundrum in which change comes through struggles to remain the same, or as the result of efforts to understand.6

“Secularization” proved a formidable challenge to indigenous appropriations of the Catholic sacred. In this context, secularization referred specifically to the late eighteenth-century reforming Bourbon Crown’s efforts to wrest Indian parishes (doctrinas de indios) from religious control; that is, to remove them from the oversight of the orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, etc.) and to place them in the hands of diocesan or secular priests. As Matthew O’Hara describes in his study of Indian parishes of New Spain, secularization was intended to further integrate Indian parishioners “by aggressively replacing indigenous languages with Spanish, bringing religious celebrations in line with the bishops’ notions of proper piety, fostering rational investment of communal resources, and championing other so-called modern practices.” O’Hara calls this second wave of reforms an effort to “de-Indianize” parishes. But Indian parishioners pushed back against these reform efforts, struggling to maintain and expand control of devotional resources by campaigning to establish a seminary to train elite Indian males as Catholic priests.

In the eyes of eighteenth-century reformers, “Indianness” was denigrated in spiritual terms as a particularly Indian penchant for Baroque forms of the extravagant religiosity against which the modernizing state defined itself. The figure of the Indian represented an outmoded form of Catholicism. A transregional framing of this historical moment would situate New Spain’s Indians among many Catholics, rural and urban, educated and undereducated, in the Americas and abroad, who were not quite prepared to embrace Enlightened Catholicism. Such an evaluation of Indian religiosity as always off the mark—never sufficiently evangelized, terminally niños con barbas (children with beards), yet at the same time too Catholic in the Baroque mode and therefore never to be modern—has contributed to the characterization of Latin America as both “backward” as well as “authentically” linked to a timeless past.

Despite colonial governance that invented “Indians” and then hoped to keep track of them in tributary rolls, the confessional, and the political imagination, we ought not imagine colonial “native communities” as fixed in place in a system that both de jure and de facto allowed for extensive ethnic fluidity and social mobility. From ethnogenesis (the emergence of new “Indian” identities) to transformation in socio-ethno-status (through marriage and mobility), the history of colonial Latin America is one of transformation.

New Spain was a society wherein clothing, reputation, and lifestyle signaled one’s belonging often to multiple social networks. This is precisely why Rebecca Earle notes that race and ethnicity in the Americas were “simultaneously genealogical and mutable [and] premised on an early modern understanding of the human body that allowed inherited conditions to change both within an individual’s lifetime and across generations. . . . the colonial archive is full of complaints about individuals who changed their clothing or living habits and thereby ‘became’ a different caste. It is worth noting that such documents use a language of transformation, not of ‘passing.’” For those readers accustomed to the United States’ peculiar notion of racial fixity, this bears repeating: novohispano society was anxious about socio-ethnic transformation but also institutionalized possibilities for such transformation. Accordingly, scholars of Spanish America speak not only of resistance, but also look to the adoption of law and writing, deploying terms like mobility, mutability, transformation, plurality, and negotiation (among others) to describe the dynamics of colonial society. In this historical instance of indigeneity, the enduring authenticity of “the spiritual” did not (yet) inform indigenous claims to land and power.

There is no space here to discuss criollos, that is, those who claimed Spanish Christian descent but were born in—that is, natural or native to—the New World who, even prior to independence from the Spanish Crown, made claims to identity and power based upon a sacred relationship to the land.7 Nor is there space to cover Mexico’s valorization of mestizaje in face of a burgeoning scientific racism. What I emphasize here is a history of indigenous peoples as early modern subjects, making claims in terms of rights and access to Spanish political and religious institutions.

Today, “indigeneity” is a global concept that enables disenfranchised communities to claim political and territorial recognition. Conceptually, these arguments rely upon a construction of indigeneity in terms of cultural continuity. Continuity-thinking posits an enduring “sacred,” a notion of religious difference as stable. This is a mode of expression and a strategy that has proven both legible and effective in national courts of law and human rights discourse. But such continuity-thinking cannot be a frame for understanding the history of Indians in colonial Mexico, not merely because this would defy the change over time that is common to all human experience. Rather, it papers over the mutability that was key to how novohispanos forged their religious and political subjectivities.8

So: what about history? Does the rich history of Spanish and forced African settlement, a struggle for autonomy that entailed black and indigenous acculturation to Spanish legal, political, and religious norms, or the emergence of an ethnically diverse Catholic society provide grounds for useful comparison to a twenty-first century discussion of indigeneity?

It may not. And that is more than interesting: it is important.

This brief survey of Amerindian-descended peoples whose claims to land ownership were legalistic and whose understanding of “sacrality” (while in no way homogenous) was largely spelled out in terms of the Christian struggle to achieve salvation in the afterlife, aims to push back against a seemingly constant effort—whether colonial or scholarly—to draw boundaries that would attempt to conceptually “fix” the settler/indigenous divide, a divide that projects each as a distinct monoculture. Let us notice instead how “indigeneity” functions as a relational term (akin to “masculinity,” for example) whose meanings emerge as entangled within larger cultural wholes, rather than taking on the premise of authenticity couched in terms of timeless and unchanging forms of religious attitudes and practices. More fundamentally, let us not allow a British colonial/United States historiography that has “secured” its “Indians” within a very peculiar story of racial fixity to colonize the history of the mutable Americas.


  1. For surveys on indigeneity in New Spain see Yanna Yannakakis or Kevin Terraciano and Lisa Sousa. For changes in “indigeneity” in Latin America from 1780 to the present see Florencia Mallon.

  2. See Woodrow Borah, Justice by Insurance (University of California Press, 1983).

  3. Herman Bennett’s study of free blacks dubs this community “the New World’s first culture of freedom.”

  4. For indigenous humanism and expressions of devotional knowledge in colonial Mexico see Elizabeth Boone, Louise Burkhart, and David Tavárez, Painted Words (Harvard University Press, 2017).

  5. Conversely, Norget, Napolitano, and Mayblin, editors of The Anthropology of Catholicism understand Catholicism as enabling “a more syncretic” syncretism that attends to “a theology of blending” and modes of “creative lenience.”

  6. See Fernando Cervantes, The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain (Yale University Press, 1994), especially Chapter Two, “The Indian Response.”

  7. See also Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra’s Puritan Conquistadors, as well as his How to Write the History of the New World for how indigenous sources were incorporated into Spanish American historiography.

  8. For critique of continuity-thinking in relation to missionary Christianity, see Joel Robbins.

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