Indigenous colonial texts: conversion and subversion

By Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar
October 9, 2012

Every three years the International Congress of Americanists comes together in order to discuss and exchange the most recent questions and results about our field of study: the indigenous cultures of Latin America. Earlier this year I organised a symposium about the texts indigenous authors wrote in the colonial era.

Although some Amerindian peoples had their own way of hieroglyphic writing, alphabetical writing was first introduced to the Americas by the European conquistadors in the 16th century. Just like the indigenous peoples [who] were now confronted with a completely new form of notation, the European settlers had to understand languages which were structurally as well as in their lexical inventories completely different from their own experience. In order to christianise the ‘Indians’, the missionaries started to codify the languages of the American continent in Latin script and also created the first grammatical descriptions of them. In these enterprises they received substantial help from indigenous collaborators some of whom became proficient in reading and writing Latin and Spanish as well as their own languages.

Whilst some research has been carried out mostly on the linguistic aspects of the 16th-18th centuries Amerindian grammars and dictionaries (e.g. Missionary Linguistics IV), less is known about how certain indigenous authors ‘appropriated’ the European language for their own purposes. It was therefore the objective of our symposium to study how indigenous colonial authors used writing to express themselves and what motives they had to do so.

Frauke Sachse looked at a genre of colonial texts, land titles and testaments, which indigenous authors laid down in their own K’iche’ Maya language. Thereby did they not only make use of the Spanish administrative system, but by employing overtly European text genres they also documented their own system of how they saw the world, e. g. in the description of their land boundaries.

Very closely related to another aspect of life were the Mexican Nahuatl documents, such as petitions and accusations, presented by Rosa Yáñez-Rosales (together with Roland Schmidt-Riese). In this case members of a whole community complained about their Christian priest whom they accused of having exploited the indigenous population and abused the women. We can read, for example, (in Nahuatl), that “then the priest took her by her hand and wanted to sin with her”. The recently introduced administrative format, the complaint, also reflects indigenous traditions of discourse and verbal art.

Looking at selected colonial texts written by Mayas, Ramón Arzápalo found that they continued using culturally important terms in them although Christian missionaries had stopped doing so. An example is Maya cit, which in indigenous traditions referred to the ‘creation’ and, obviously related to this, to the ‘penis’. This was certainly the reason why the originally used term for God, Citbil, was eventually dropped by the Christian missionaries.

Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar showed that a christianised Peruvian, who lived at the beginning of the 17th century, narrated, in Quechua, the conversion of an indigenous person. The described events would let him be seen as a ‘real’ Christian, but at the same time it was made sure that an Andean audience might also find that the influence of an Andean deity had not been completely eliminated yet: the reported conversion dream is successful, but at the end the protagonist receives a (now unidentifiable) object and “did not know whether it was thrown by the Devil [the indigenous deity] or on God’s behalf”.

This spectrum of texts from Middle America and the Andes shows that indigenous authors employed alphabetical writing to convey their own understanding and re-shaping of both cultures. They contributed to how religious traditions from both sides converged and became fused, and we can find results of such practices in present-day Latin America.

Sieglinde Falkinger presented how the members of a Bolivian lowland community have not only conserved colonial manuscripts with Christian sermons in their own Chiquitano language, but they also continue reading them out loud on festive occasions. Thus, in a way this language, nowadays not understood by all of them, becomes the special language of religion and also contributes to a revitalisation of the native language.

These contributions showed that in the written documentation of colonial times the indigenous authors do not appear to be victims (only), but innovative individuals, bringing together their own belief forms with Christian traditions and thus creating genres and contents of their own and for their own objectives. These were often of ambiguous character and may even have been subversive, because certain words continued carrying an indigenous understanding which was often incompatible with or even contrary to the ‘new’ meaning imposed on it by the Christian missionaries.


© Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar is Senior Lecturer in Latin American and Amerindian Studies at the University of Stirling. More on her work, background and publications history is summarised here.

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