Sunday, January 27, 2019

On the Indigenous Experience in the Americas


One of the issues that habitually frustrates me is the disconnect between historians who work on the colonial period and those who specialize in the indigenous world. Theoretically, both engage with the same period and depend on similar or even (on occasions) identical sources, but their aims and their readings are often diverse, the bibliography they consult is habitually distinct, and they frequently belong to different fields and professional associations. The result is that they are seldom in conversation with one another. Having participated recently in a search for a historian of Indigenous North America made this clear to me, but so have many years working as a scholar of Spanish America.

How could one place colonial and indigenous history in dialogue? To answer this question, I authored two pieces. The first piece was concerned with Indigenous right to land, the other focused on campaigns to resettle natives in new, Spanish-style communities.[i]

Attempting to understand why some historians insisted on Spanish respect to native land rights (mostly historians of the Spanish colonial state) while others criticized Spain for the massive dispossession of natives (mainly historians interested in the native experience of empire), I observed how respect to native rights operated in the colonial period.  I argued that respect did not guarantee continuity. On the contrary, it (often) introduced change. This could happen because Spanish judges, although willing to recognize indigenous right to land, understood land rights not according to Indigenous law but according to European juridical traditions. These judges tied land rights to occupation and described occupation in ways that resonated with the European experience. The result was both the suppression of ancient rights as well as the invention of new entitlements. In other words, examination of how European norms were applied vis-à-vis natives enabled to affirm that respect to native rights and native dispossession could operate simultaneously.

With regards to native resettlement, historians of native Spanish America usually denounced resettlement campaigns as a colonial measure aimed at controlling, converting, and exploiting the native population. Yet, as a historian of Spain in both Europe and the Americas I knew that resettlement did not only target natives but also Spaniards and that it operated in both the Old and the New World. Justifying it were contemporary convictions that only people who resided in proper communities (and indigenous communities were not considered “proper”) could be tied to the polity religiously and civically. The question when resettlement was required, against whom, and for which end, thus demanded a larger and a longer vision. As happened in the case of native land rights, just looking at natives, just looking to the Americas, was insufficient.

These remarks are not meant to diminish the plight of native Americans. European colonialism turned the native world upside down. It was a human-made hurricane that touched and upset almost everything. But, regardless of how terrible it had been, if we wish to understand how it operated, we should not separate the study of the native world from the study of the colonial (and by extension European) world, with which it was closely entangled.


[i]  Tamar Herzog. “Colonial law and ‘Native Customs’: Indigenous Land Rights in Colonial Spanish America.” The Americas 63(3) (2013): 303-321 and Tamar Herzog. “Indigenous Reducciones and Spanish Resettlement: Placing Colonial and European History in Dialogue.” Ler História 72 (2018): 9-30 (an earlier version of this work was published under the title “Terres et déserts, société et sauvagerie. De la communauté en Amérique et en Castille à l’époque moderne.” Annales HSS 62 (3) (2007): 507-538)).

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