Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas

Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas

by Nicholas A. Robins


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Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas by Nicholas A. Robins

This book investigates three Indian revolts in the Americas: the 1680 uprising of the Pueblo Indians against the Spanish; the Great Rebellion in Bolivia, 1780–82; and the Caste War of Yucatan that began in 1849 and was not finally crushed until 1903. Nicholas A. Robins examines their causes, course, nature, leadership, and goals. He finds common features: they were revitalization movements that were both millenarian and exterminatory in their means and objectives; they sought to restore native rule and traditions to their societies; and they were movements born of despair and oppression that were sustained by the belief that they would witness the dawning of a new age. His work underscores the link that may be found, but is not inherent, between genocide, millennialism, and revitalization movements in Latin America during the colonial and early national periods.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253346162
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/28/2005
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nicholas A. Robins is a lecturer in the Department of History at North Carolina State University. He is author of Genocide and Millennialism in Upper Peru and The Culture of Conflict in Modern Cuba and editor (with Adam Jones) of Genocides by the Oppressed: Subaltern Genocide in Theory and Practice (IU Press, 2009).

Read an Excerpt

Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas

By Nicholas A. Robins

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2005 Nicholas A. Robins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34616-2



In the predawn hours of August 10, 1680, the Pueblo Indians of present-day New Mexico rose up in a well-planned and highly coordinated effort to eliminate the Spanish presence in the Río Grande basin. Those Hispanics and their allies in the northern region who managed to flee the native fury and take refuge in Santa Fe would soon find themselves besieged in the main government building by an Indian force that vastly outnumbered them. Three days later, and increasingly weak from thirst, the Spaniards made a bold sally, killing many rebels and causing others to flee just as more insurgents were arriving to take their place. Recognizing that the tide of rebellion would soon surge again and overwhelm them, the Hispanics determined to make their way south. Shadowed and harassed by the Indians on their journey, they joined up with another band of refugees who had fled from the southern Río Abajo district. Together this group, numbering 1,946 people, was succored by a wagon train making its triennial journey north from Mexico City, and ultimately found sanctuary near El Paso. For the next twelve years the native peoples of the region north of the Río Grande would rule themselves, largely free of Spanish influence and intrusion.

One hundred years later, on August 6, 1780, Indians of the town of Macha, Upper Peru, now Bolivia, beheaded their curaca, or village chief, thereby igniting the Great Rebellion of Peru and Upper Peru. The insurgency would quickly spread and become the largest threat to Spanish rule in South or Central America prior to the Wars of Independence. Over the next sixteen months, bands of native insurgents would overrun many of the towns in the region, killing almost all non-Indians they encountered. Thousands of Spaniards, Creoles (those born in the New World of Spanish descent), and mestizos (those of mixed Spanish and Indian origin) and their allies were slaughtered in churches, homes, haciendas, or agricultural estates and on the roads as they sought refuge in larger towns. In Peru, having taken most of the rural towns, the Quechua leader Túpac Amaru led a brief and unsuccessful siege of Cuzco. In Upper Peru, after the death of the original leader, Tomás Catari, his cousins Dámaso and Nicolás Catari briefly besieged La Plata (present-day Sucre, Bolivia), having already dominated the surrounding area. La Paz, however, was to suffer a nine-month siege led by the mercurial Túpac Catari. More than 10,000 Hispanics and their allies died there, many of starvation when they had run out of dogs, cats, and leather to eat. Where native unity was not illusory, it was transitory, and Spanish offers of pardon only served to further divide them. This, as well as superior Spanish use of arms and native allies, enabled them to repress the uprising by January 1782. By then 100,000 people had lost their lives in this attempt to reestablish native rule in the Andes.

Sixty-five years later in Yucatán, Mexico, on July 30, 1847, the Indian Cecilio Chi launched an attack on the town of Tepich, killing more than 100 Hispanics there in reprisal for an earlier Hispanic attack on the same town. In the Caste War of Yucatán that followed, Chi went on to attack settlements and haciendas in Yucatán in his relentless effort to eliminate those of Spanish descent and affinity from the region. The rebellion, in which Jacinto Pat and Bonifacio Novelo also figured as prominent leaders, devastated the peninsula and swelled Mérida and Campeche with thousands of panic-stricken refugees. Seeing little exit except the sea, and assisted by donations of money, arms, and munitions from abroad, the Creoles and their allies rallied in June 1848, their counterattack aided by the advent of the planting season, which depleted the rebel ranks. Now on the defensive and increasingly desperate due to mounting defeats, the rebels fled deep into the jungle and found inspiration in a putatively speaking cross that promised protection and salvation from their enemies. The town of Chan Santa Cruz sprang up around this oracle, inspiring widespread Indian devotion. Over time the focus of the rebels became less centered on the elimination of those of Spanish descent from the region and more on the defense of what became a de facto Indian state centered in what is now the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Despite having their capital overrun several times by Creole forces, it was not until 1903 that the movement was definitively crushed under the Mexican general Ignacio Bravo.

Although spanning a continent and 223 years, these movements were of an archetypal nature: they were nativistic movements that were both millennial and exterminatory in their inspiration, means, and objectives. Benefiting from what they saw as divine assistance, the rebels sought to restore native rule and traditions to their societies and create an earthly paradise free from the depredations of the non-Indian. These were subaltern movements born of despair and oppression and sustained by the belief that they were forging a new world whose time had finally come. Indeed, in two cases, a new world came to be, for the Pueblo Indians did achieve independence for twelve years, and the natives of eastern Yucatán ran their own affairs for just over a half century.

These case studies examine the causes, course, nature, leadership, and goals of these movements, as well as their internal divisions. In so doing, this work identifies a genre of social uprising in Latin America, that of indigenous exterminatory millennialism, through examining the links that may sometimes be found, but are not inherent, between genocide, millennialism, and nativistic movements in this region in the colonial and early national periods. The fact that these movements sought to breathe new life into native culture by largely removing foreign influences put into motion a dynamic that resulted in killing based on race and ethnicity, ascribed or otherwise. They followed a brutal logic that was clearly and consistently demonstrated by rebel actions: the restoration of native rule and the primacy of native customs could only come about at the expense of the power, culture, and presence of their overlords; it was a zero sum game. In practice, by eliminating nonnatives and those who had sided with them, they were also eliminating the foreign influences that they embodied. This reflected the fact that genocide was a tool for the rebirth of native ways and rule, for the establishment of a native state, and for ensuring that the threat of alien domination would not return.

As with almost all messianic movements born of cultural conflict, some vestiges of the old society would remain. That which survived generally would either contribute to the future survival or quality of life of the native society, such as the weapons, tactics, or foodstuff of their enemies, or underscore the dominance of the natives, such as keeping white women as slaves. In addition, some alien elements had already been assimilated into native culture to the point where they were no longer seen as intrinsically foreign. Most prominent in this regard is Catholicism. Although after the Pueblo Revolt Catholicism was rigidly suppressed by the victorious Indians, a century later the participants in the Great Rebellion had a much more syncretic approach emphasizing reformulation over outright rejection. By the 1850s, this orientation was even more pronounced, as we shall see with the cult of the speaking cross in the rebel state in Yucatán.

Amorphous Americas: Identity, Religion, and Upheaval

There are many ways to approach Indian rebellion in the Americas. All must, however, contend with ambiguities of identity, spiritual orientation, concepts of legitimacy, power relationships, and the varying motivations of rebels and loyalists alike. The range of these factors, the length of the colonial period, and the span of the continent further complicate the equation. Indians and other racial and ethnic groups were generally found among both insurgents and defenders of the Spanish crown, fighting both as conscripts and as volunteers. Such heterogeneity often reflected a degree of social, cultural, or ethnic paradox, and our ability to understand such movements is enhanced by the recognition of antinomy, or the idea that two things can be both in opposition and true. This stems from the fact that the colonial enterprise was laden with contradiction, whether cultural, religious, structural, or racial, all of which dialectically interacted to produce the synthesis that is Latin America. This mixing of cultures, religions, and races created inherent ambiguities that can be grasped even if they cannot be resolved. The result is that there are many truths which are not mutually exclusive and whose relevance and force varied by time, location, and strata.

One factor that complicates our understanding of native resistance is understanding who was actually rebelling. The degree of racial mixing and stratification in the Americas often defies efforts to categorize race, despite the Spaniards' persistent and complex efforts to do so. In this context, ethnic and cultural orientations played a vital role in determining individual self-identity. While many natives viewed themselves as members of an indigenous community with deep connections to the land and environment, many curacas and caciques, or leaders of Indian villages, were more absorbed into the orbit of the Hispanic world than that of those whom they commanded. Similarly, while some mestizos may have been oriented to the Hispanic world, others saw themselves essentially as natives. The slippery issue of ethnic identity is closely related to rearing and the degree of assimilation of Hispanic attributes by individuals, such as religion, language, occupation, place of residence, and dress.

Many scholars have explored the dynamic nature of native identity and the responses engendered by the forces to which it was subject. For example, Frances Levine, Carroll Riley, and John Kessell examine the efforts of the Pueblo Indians to defend their identity and traditions, while Daniel Reff traces the relations between conquest, disease, and cultural adaptation in colonial northern Mexico. Similarly, Marcello Carmagnani focuses on southern Mexico in his examination of the efforts of natives in Oaxaca to defend their traditions and concept of self in the colonial context, while Norma Angélica Castillo Palma examines colonial ethnic relations in the region of Puebla, Mexico. In the Andean context, Thomas Abercrombie and Brooke Larson also delve into the interplay between assimilation of Hispanic characteristics and changing indigenous identity over extensive time periods. While Abercrombie traces the efforts of natives in the Lake Poopo region to preserve and perpetuate their traditions and culture in the face of Spanish efforts to eliminate them, Larson emphasizes not only the ambiguities of ethnicity but also the effect that integration into the colonial economy had in shaping intracommunity relations, class structure, and cultural expression. Such works illustrate how native peoples have endeavored to defend their identity and underscore the evolving nature of what they are defending. As we shall see in the case studies of this work, the Hispanic elements that were increasingly assimilated by the Indians were often, paradoxically, adopted for the purposes of their survival and autonomy as distinct peoples.

Native spirituality played an important role in expressing identity, although the degree to which such belief systems were fused with Christian beliefs is the subject of considerable debate. Studies of this nature include those of Lorenzo Huertas and Kenneth Mills, both of whom explore the enduring nature of Andean belief systems and efforts to eradicate them. While Huertas argues that native beliefs endured with minimal transformation in the colonial era, Mills pays greater attention to the ongoing interplay between indigenous religions and church policy that resulted in a distinctive form of Christian belief. Nicholas Griffiths examines not only the role of extirpation campaigns in the development of a syncretic Christianity in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Peru but also how such campaigns could be used to political advantage by native leaders against their adversaries.

In the Mexican context, Serge Gruzinski explores native religious expression and the differing popular and state responses to it, while William B. Taylor probes the relations between the clergy, civil officials, and native communities in the area of Mexico City and Guadalajara toward the end of the colonial period. In the Yucatán region, Charlotte Zimmerman, Alfonso Villa Rojas, and Victoria Bricker trace and detail the interactions between Maya beliefs and Christianity. While there were strong pressures to abandon traditional rites and to adopt Christianity throughout Latin America, it is important to recognize that many natives and Hispanics also viewed the Christian god as more powerful than those of the Indians. Not only did this help to explain the conquest, but in a traditionally polytheistic native context, to the extent that such powers could be co-opted by the Indians, they could be used to their own ends. Like an alloy of two metals, native beliefs and Catholicism could complement one another, adding to the Indians' supernatural arsenal.

Indian religions could also be imbued with utopian visions concerning the return of native rule to the region. In the context of the Pueblos, however, the syncretic influence was least influential among these case studies. Despite the repression of native rites by the colonizers, traditional Pueblo religion played a vital role in organizing, legitimating, and sustaining the uprising, issues which are detailed in the works of Andrew Knault, Carroll Riley, and Franklin Folsom. The role of religion and millennialism in the Great Rebellion has received considerably more scholarly attention, however. Our understanding of the prophetic underpinnings of the movement has been greatly aided by the works of Marco Curatola, Alberto Flores Galindo, Manuel Burga, Rosalind Gow, and Mercedes López Baralt. The millennial nature of the rebellion itself has been demonstrated through the works of Jan Szeminski, Steve Stern, Jorge Hidalgo Lehunde, Juan Ossio, and Nicholas Robins. The broad messianic appeal of the Upper Peruvian leader Túpac Catari is also discussed in detail in the work of María Eugenia Valle del Siles. Such millennial hopes found expression in public events in the Andes, a sphere studied by David Cahill and John Rowe. Both demonstrate the vibrant nature of indigenous Andean identity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Cahill positing that the colonial experience in Cuzco created a provincial, multiethnic identity based on shared experience. The scope of such an identity is questioned, however, by Ward Stavig, who highlights the differences and frictions among colonial actors in the Cuzco region prior to the Great Rebellion. In the context of the Caste War of Yucatán, the role of the speaking cross in inspiring continued resistance by Indians is detailed in the works of Nelson Reed and Don Dumond.

Indians contended with, and contested, their overlords not only through sustaining native culture, religious practices, and millennial hopes but also through consistent litigation against abuses by civil and religious authorities alike. Among the areas studied in this work, this was more prevalent in the Andes than among the Pueblo or Maya. Stavig has extensively studied litigation as resistance and the use of interethnic alliances to achieve shared objectives. Both Túpac Amaru and Tomás Catari litigated extensively before raising the flag of rebellion, and their efforts are detailed in the works of Fisher, Válcarcel, Serulnikov, and Andrade. The native was not a passive victim, as Indians and their communities engaged the colonial system through concerted and often furtive efforts to preserve their culture, religion, and folkways through the legal system, and through revolts and rebellions.


Excerpted from Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas by Nicholas A. Robins. Copyright © 2005 Nicholas A. Robins. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Millennialism, Nativism, and Genocide
3. Creation through Extermination: Native Efforts to Eliminate the Hispanic Presence in the Americas
4. Nativism, Caste Wars, and the Exterminatory Impulse
5. Rebellion and Relative Deprivation
6. Leadership and Division
7. Atrocity as Metaphor: The Symbolic Language of Rebellion
8. Cultural Assimilation in the Native World
9. Conclusion

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