Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic

Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic

by Cynthia Radding

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Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic by Cynthia Radding

Landscapes of Power and Identity is a groundbreaking comparative history of two colonies on the frontiers of the Spanish empire—the Sonora region of northwestern Mexico and the Chiquitos region of eastern Bolivia’s lowlands—from the late colonial period through the middle of the nineteenth century. An innovative combination of environmental and cultural history, this book reflects Cynthia Radding’s more than two decades of research on Mexico and Bolivia and her consideration of the relationships between human societies and the geographic landscapes they inhabit and create. At first glance, Sonora and Chiquitos are quite different: one a scrub-covered desert, the other a tropical rainforest of the greater Amazonian and Paraguayan river basins. Yet the regions are similar in many ways. Both were located far from the centers of colonial authority, organized into Jesuit missions and linked to the principal mining centers of New Spain and the Andes, and then absorbed into nation-states in the nineteenth century. In each area, the indigenous communities encountered European governors, missionaries, slave hunters, merchants, miners, and ranchers.

Radding’s comparative approach illuminates what happened when similar institutions of imperial governance, commerce, and religion were planted in different physical and cultural environments. She draws on archival documents, published reports by missionaries and travelers, and previous histories as well as ecological studies and ethnographies. She also considers cultural artifacts, including archaeological remains, architecture, liturgical music, and religious dances. Radding demonstrates how colonial encounters were conditioned by both the local landscape and cultural expectations; how the colonizers and colonized understood notions of territory and property; how religion formed the cultural practices and historical memories of the Sonoran and Chiquitano peoples; and how the conflict between the indigenous communities and the surrounding creole societies developed in new directions well into the nineteenth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822387404
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/28/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Cynthia Radding is Professor of History and Director of the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700–1850, also published by Duke University Press.

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Landscapes of Power and Identity

Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3652-5

Chapter One

Ecological and Cultural Frontiers in Sonora and Chiquitos

After two days had passed that we were there, we decided to go in search of the maize [corn]. And we did not want to follow the road of the cows [bison] because it is toward the north, and this was for us a very great detour, because we always held it for certain that going the route of the setting sun we would find what we desired. And thus we followed our course and traversed the entire land until coming out at the South Sea.-Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Relación, 1542

The year was 1536 by the Christian calendar: Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, his two European companions, Captain Andrés Dorantes and Captain Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Estevanico, a Christian, Arabic-speaking slave from northern Africa, entered the final phase of their eight-year odyssey. These four survivors of the failed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to "La Florida" were near their goal to reunite with "Christians," Spaniards who had extended the dominion of the Castilian crown northwestward from central Mexico.The Cabeza de Vaca company at this point traveled on the Río Grande river upstream from its confluence with the Río Conchos. Here they turned southwest along the so-called trail of maize, traversing the Sierra Madre Occidental and approaching what later would become the province of Sonora. Their itinerary, constructed through the journey, itself illustrates the ways in which Sonora was connected to the greater Mexican north-geographically through the Colorado and Grande river systems and culturally through complex trade networks among different nomadic and sedentary peoples.

Mountains and Deserts of Sonora

The four sojourners did not travel alone. Dependent on the native peoples for their physical survival, they were accompanied by indigenous guides and followers-hunters, gatherers, fishers, and cultivators-who supplied the strangers generously with the fruits of their lands, including piñon nuts, mesquite flour, bison and deer meat, hides, cotton cloth, and maize. Men, women, and children of unspecified numbers danced, wept, and sang, drawn to the strangers by their reputation as healers. Their territorial and cultural boundaries are inferred, if dimly, in Cabeza de Vaca's recollection of the journey, by the approach and retreat of different groups of people along the way and, in some instances, by his references to native "lords" who distributed food and stolen weapons, tools, and clothing among their followers. Different bands "robbed" or seized one another's possessions as they passed from one village to the next, in what may be interpreted as ritual forms of pillage and exchange closely associated with the strangers' healing powers. When their current guides feared to continue into enemy territory, as occurred in northern Coahuila and Texas, they sent women as messengers, "because women can mediate even when there is war."

Cabeza de Vaca's Relación and its summary inclusion in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's Historia general y natural de las Indias have inspired numerous accounts of the expedition featuring sketches of the lands and peoples along the route. These texts provide themes and images that serve as signs for narrations of conquest and cultural encounters in this frontier and in many colonial theaters: the combination of Europeans and Africans in the Iberian expeditions to the Americas; the key participation of indigenous peoples as interlocutors, guides, and followers; practices of captivity and warfare; disease and shamanistic healing rituals. As the following passage illustrates, the Cabeza de Vaca entourage, appearing more like a pilgrimage than an expedition, precipitated far-reaching mobilizations of different peoples and provided the occasion for the invention of new cultural patterns of encounter and exchange.

We went through so many types of people and such diverse languages that memory is insufficient to be able to recount them. And the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content. We carried so great a company that in no manner could we make use of them.... And those who carried bows did not go before us. Rather, they spread out over the sierra to hunt deer. And at night when they returned, they brought for each one of us five or six, and many birds and quail and other game. Everything, finally, that the people killed, they put before us without daring to take one single thing without our first making the sign of the cross over it, even though they might be dying of hunger, because thus they had it as a custom since traveling with us.

Turning southwestward, then, from the Río Grande, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions followed the trail of maize, passing through distinct climatic zones and cultural domains. They crossed the arid plains of the northern Chihuahua desert for over a month before reaching the pine-and-oak forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental, its slopes, valley floors, and steep barrancas (raised earthworks) carved by deep-cutting streams. As the party advanced "toward the setting sun," the highland cordilleras gave way to the zona serrana (highlands zone), the western foothills of the sierra marked by roughly parallel alluvial valleys separated by ranges and plateaus that reveal a complex geological history of sedimentation and volcanic flows. After traveling more than a hundred leagues (approximately 270 miles) through the zona serrana, they turned southward, skirting the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert to cross the Yaqui and Mayo rivers upstream from their wide alluvial valleys.

In this piedmont area of scrub forests and cultivable streambeds, Cabeza de Vaca saw ample evidence of settled villages and, finally, "signs of Christians," evident in the artifacts they had left behind, such as a metal buckle and nail that one man wore around his neck, perhaps as a kind of talisman. More ominously, Cabeza de Vaca observed the abandonment of village sites and heard stories of strangers "who had come from the sky" and of Indian enslavement. For, as the party advanced through the river valleys of Petatlán, Sinaloa, and Mocorito, approaching Culiacán, it entered the northern reaches of Nueva Galicia, a Spanish province created by Beltrán Nuño de Guzmán and Diego de Guzmán through the violent defeat of the Tarascan kingdom and the ruthless subjugation of native peoples along the western corridor of Mesoamerica extending from Compostela to San Miguel de Culiacán (1529-31).

Cabeza de Vaca and his companions were strengthened by the abundant food they received in this phase of their journey but troubled by the wake of destruction that the "Christians" had left behind them. Yet they did not fully grasp the cultural significance of their itinerary along the trail of maize. The mountainous regions of Sonora through which they passed marked the northwestern boundary of Mesoamerican landscapes, heralded by densely populated villages of permanent houses, built of earth and reed mats; linguistic affinities with Nahuatl; cultigens of maize, squash, beans, and cotton; and communally constructed irrigation systems. Indeed, the gifts presented to the travelers became more varied and exotic; in addition to harvested grains, deer meat, and cotton robes of fine quality, Cabeza de Vaca remarked on beads of coral and turquoise that the people had acquired by trade with "villages of many people and very large houses" to the north.

Cabeza de Vaca did not visit the pueblos of New Mexico, nor did he see the great urban center of Casas Grandes (Paquimé) in western Chihuahua, yet his native guides led him along trade routes that connected Sonoran villages with key sites of Mesoamerican influence. The earliest archaeological remains for Casas Grandes date from the eighth century C.E., showing a cluster of village settlements that later developed into an urban trading and ceremonial center (1200-1490). Sonoran villagers exchanged food surpluses, cotton cloth, tanned deer hides, coral, and human captives in return for turquoise, copper ornaments, and ceramic trade ware produced in Casas Grandes. In addition, some villages in the Altar valley of western Sonora became sites of craft specialization, working shells gathered from the Gulf Coast into adornments destined for Casas Grandes.

The northern Mesoamerican frontier was unstable and contested even before the crises that followed European invasion. Contrasting and parallel forces of population concentration and dispersion created fluctuating human landscapes of settlement and land use, detected archaeologically from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries and attributed in part to climatic changes, in part to cultural innovations and struggles for territory and power. Even as the Aztecs extended their tributary empire from the Valley of Mexico to the shores of Veracruz, from approximately 1428 to 1521, in the northern Chichimec frontier Casas Grandes fell into decline, was partially abandoned, and burned. It is probable that some of the villages through which Cabeza de Vaca passed in the Sonoran sierra were either satellite communities or migrant colonies of Casas Grandes peoples.

Villagers of the Sonoran piedmont adapted Mesoamerican techniques to their environment, creating distinctive regional cultural patterns. The human geographies they created developed historically from different kinds of material and social interactions, which we may group as follows: (1) means of production and modes of land use combining horticulture, hunting, fishing, and gathering; (2) demographic movements over time and space that resulted in shifting village settlements and oscillating population densities in particular areas; and (3) trade, political alliances, and warfare among different chiefdoms. The internal histories of conflict, innovation, and adaptation of the Sonoran serrano peoples, coming from the highlands or piedmont, to their environment-shaped in part by their long-distance trading networks-gave rise to the cultural landscapes that the Cabeza de Vaca party and subsequent sixteenth-century Iberian expeditions encountered in greater northwestern New Spain. Three major expeditions followed portions of the Cabeza de Vaca route: Fray Marcos de Nizza, 1539; Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, 1540-42; and Francisco de Ibarra, 1564. The chronicles that each of these expeditions produced referenced similar landmarks, citing in turn Cabeza de Vaca's observations concerning prominent house structures, agricultural valleys, and arid stretches of despoblado, areas sparsely populated or abandoned. These explorers, who sought mineral wealth, land, and people to conquer, were looking for permanent towns with surplus products that could be turned into tribute commodities. Thus they focused on the built landscapes of northern Mexico, exemplified by the village of Corazones ("hearts"), where Cabeza de Vaca and his companions feasted on hundreds of deer hearts, and again by Chilchilticale, a construction of puddled adobe that signaled a frontier between the despoblado lying northeast of Sonora and the westernmost pueblos of New Mexico.

Our reading of these sources in the light of the archaeological record and contemporary landscapes distinguishes three major cultural and environmental regions in the province of Sonora, moving from east to west: highland cordilleras that merged with the Sierra Madre Occidental; the zona serrana of alternating valleys and ranges; and the desert coastal plains. Passage from one region to another was gradual, but perceptible in the physical markers of elevation, precipitation, and vegetation that signaled all of these ecological frontiers. Within each region, different spatial patterns left their imprint on the land. Some of these territorial configurations were seasonal, referring to sites occupied intermittently, abandoned, and revisited; shell middens on the northern Sonoran Gulf Coast, for example, may well be linked to village sites farther inland on the Concepción-Altar-Magdalena river drainages. Others present a historical sequence of distinct phases of construction, expansion, and partial destruction or retreat, as is observed in the village settlements of the Sonora river valley described below. These built environments corresponded to the material artifacts of production and shelter, the village polities, and the ceremonial and aesthetic domains of native cultures.

The following description of the outstanding features of these cultural spaces and ecological zones is meant to emphasize the necessary connection between nature and culture, without implying an exact correspondence between particular historical peoples and the landscapes attributed to them. It is well to remember that the major tribal groups whose names and identities endured in the colonial record spanned at least two of the regions, the highlands and the piedmont, and they traveled through the desert to trade, forage, and conduct religious pilgrimages. This holds especially true for the Pima-Tepehuán, Yaqui-Mayo, and Opata-Eudeve peoples who dominated the mission communities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but whose territories were contested both before and after Spanish colonization. Ethnographic maps (including those reproduced in this book), although based on careful examination of both textual and archaeological information, offer but snapshots of probable territorial boundaries not fixed in time but changing through the course of historical events.


The Sonoran highlands extend westward from the escarpment of the Sierra Madre Occidental, forming a narrow band of approximately 150 km (90 miles) east-west and of 1,250 km (750 miles) north-south. The highlands are distinguished from the piedmont and coastal plains by their elevation, ranging from three thousand to six thousand or more feet above sea level, their relatively higher annual rainfall, registering from six hundred to eight hundred millimeters, and their relatively lower temperatures (average annual range of 14-16°C) than at lower elevations. Encompassing portions of the Bavispe, Oposura, Papigochic, and Saguaripa river drainages, and the ranges that surround them, the cordillera provides the climatic conditions for cultivation dependent on seasonal rainfall, using swidden techniques of field clearance and fallow. Its narrow valleys and canyons supported permanent villages interspersed with encampments occupied for ephemeral plantings, hunting, and gathering. Building materials for houses and terraces comprised stone and sun-dried mud, reed mats woven from palm leaves and agave fiber, and light timber procured from saguaro ribs-ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens and F. macdougali), torote (Bursera sp.), and encino (Quercus sp.). Early Spanish chroniclers, beginning with Cabeza de Vaca, noted the casas de tierra or casas de asiento-permanent earthen dwellings-in both the cordillera and the zona serrana of Sonora.

Highland villagers built their landscapes in a mixed setting of semideciduous forests, grasslands and, in the southernmost part of the province, tropical woods. Slopes higher than six thousand feet above sea level in northeastern Sonora were covered with various species of pine, juniper, and oak forests, while southern highland trees included amapa (Tebebuia palmeri), pochote (Ceba acumminate), and varieties of torote (Bursera grandifolia, B. fragilis). At lower elevations dierent kinds of grasses, known generically as zacate (Bouteloua sp.), provided ground cover under the mixed growth of trees and bushes. In these transition zones between the cordillera and the zona serrana, the pine-oak forests gave way to varieties of mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) torote, ocotillo, and palo verde (Cercidium microphyllum).


Excerpted from Landscapes of Power and Identity by CYNTHIA RADDING Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Abbreviations xiii

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xxi

Introduction. Savannas and Deserts: Two Histories of Cultural Landscapes 1

1. Ecological and Cultural Frontiers in Sonora and Chiquitos 19

2. Political Economy: Communities, Missions, and Colonial Markets 55

3. Territory: Community and Conflicting Claims to Property 89

4. Ethnic Mosaics and Gendered Identities 117

5. Power Negotiated, Power Defied: Politial Culture, Governance, and
Mobilization 162

6. Priests and Shamans: Spiritual Power, Ritual, and Knowledge 196

7. Postcolonial Landscapes: Transitions from Colony to Republic 240

8. Contested Landscapes in Continental Borderlands 295

Notes 327

Glossary 375

Bibliography 385

Index 423

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