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Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700-1850

Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700-1850

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by Cynthia Radding

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Wandering Peoples is a chronicle of cultural resiliency, colonial relations, and trespassed frontiers in the borderlands of a changing Spanish empire. Focusing on the native subjects of Sonora in Northwestern Mexico, Cynthia Radding explores the social process of peasant class formation and the cultural persistence of Indian communities during the long


Wandering Peoples is a chronicle of cultural resiliency, colonial relations, and trespassed frontiers in the borderlands of a changing Spanish empire. Focusing on the native subjects of Sonora in Northwestern Mexico, Cynthia Radding explores the social process of peasant class formation and the cultural persistence of Indian communities during the long transitional period between Spanish colonialism and Mexican national rule. Throughout this anthropological history, Radding presents multilayered meanings of culture, community, and ecology, and discusses both the colonial policies to which peasant communities were subjected and the responses they developed to adapt and resist them.
Radding describes this colonial mission not merely as an instance of Iberian expansion but as a site of cultural and political confrontation. This alternative vision of colonialism emphasizes the economic links between mission communities and Spanish mercantilist policies, the biological consequences of the Spanish policy of forced congregación, and the cultural and ecological displacements set in motion by the practices of discipline and surveillance established by the religious orders. Addressing wider issues pertaining to ethnic identities and to ecological and cultural borders, Radding’s analysis also underscores the parallel production of colonial and subaltern texts during the course of a 150-year struggle for power and survival.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Wandering Peoples is an example of regional history at its best. Cynthia Radding is one of the finest practitioners in the emerging field of Latin American ecological history; indeed, she is playing a major role in shaping the field. This book is an important and innovative contribution to colonial Mexican studies and will resonate with scholars working on any part of the globe who are engaged with its key themes.”—Ann Wightman, Wesleyan University

“Here, for the first time, we get an extensive treatment of the ‘ordinary’ men and women who populated the missions, presidios, mining camps, and other settlements of Sonora—they have names, identities, agendas, and complex strategies for coping with the multiple demands they face. Those specializing in other geographical areas—not just Latin Americanists—would do well to consider the concrete grounding of this working model.”—Cheryl Martin, The University of Texas, El Paso

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Duke University Press
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Wandering Peoples

Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700-1850

By Cynthia Radding

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9894-3


Ethnic Frontiers in the Sonoran Desert

The most elderly Indians still alive tell me that the name Sonora comes from a marshy spring about half a league from Guépaca, where a large ranchería used to make their houses of reeds and maize husks, which they call sonot in their language. When the first Spaniards heard the word, they pronounced it "sonora," and from then on the whole province took this harmonious and pleasing name.

Jesuit document, 1730

The peoples whose history concerns us occupied an area of approximately 225,000 square miles located between 27° and 34° latitude and 108° and 115° longitude in the north-central portion of Sonora (Mexico) and southern Arizona (U.S.A.). The central feature of their territory is the Sonoran Desert, stretching eastward from the Gulf of California to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Successive mountain ranges and valleys, running generally from northeast to southwest, constitute the zona serrana that rises from the arid coastal plain and culminates in the escarpment of the Sierra Madre. These Cordilleras create distinct ecological niches, differing in altitude, temperature, and rainfall. Five principal rivers flow out of the mountains toward the gulf, cutting through the hills and carrying in their courses fertile alluvial deposits. Flanking the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert, the Río San Miguel and its main tributary, the Río Zanjón, join the Río Sonora just north of Hermosillo (Pitic) and turn westward to drain their waters in the flatlands leading to the sea. Moving eastward, the Moctezuma (Oposura) and Bavispe flow into the Río Yaqui, the largest river system in Sonora, followed by the Río Mayo which irrigates the southernmost alluvial valley in the state. The main river channels and their innumerable affluents and arroyos nurture human settlement and provide the soils and humidity needed for horticulture.

The colonial provinces of Sonora and Ostimuri extended from the Yaqui Valley, in the south, to the river basins of the Gila and Colorado in the north. They were shared (and disputed) by village agriculturalists, who settled in the river valleys, and by nomadic gatherers, hunters, and fishermen who camped along the gulf coast and in the rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre. Their sustenance came from the abundant flora and fauna of the desert and from the coastal estuaries; likewise, the low scrub forest of the hills and canyons of the sierras provided shelter, medicine, food, fiber, game, and small plots for cultivation. Nomads wandered in seasonal patterns near the established farming villages with whom they traded. All groups depended on a variety of resources in order to ensure subsistence, and climatic variations from year to year altered planting cycles and crop yields. For this reason, as well as the ritual visitations associated with ancient migratory patterns, the movements of different peoples blurred and altered the ethnic boundaries which crossed and recrossed the Sonoran map (Fig. 1.1). The tribal nomenclature used in reference to agriculturalists and nomads varied widely and changed over time, referring to linguistic and territorial features. The superposition of different criteria, added to shifting residence patterns and the fact that native languages appeared in clusters of dialects, led to some confusion in the documentary record. Colonial observers altered ethnic terminology: the O'odham became Pimas, the Cunca'ac became Seris, the Tegüima became Opatas, and the Yoeme and Yoreme became Yaquis and Mayos.

The O'odham occupied different ecological zones in both the desert and the highlands, and Pima-Tepehuán speakers formed a linguistic chain along the Sierra Madre Occidental extending from Durango and Chihuahua to Sonora and Arizona. Their geographic profusion and the endurance of their languages point to the antiquity of O'odham peoples in northwestern Mexico. The northern Pimas of Sonora proper were further divided among the Hiach-ed or S-ohbmakam (desert nomads), the Tohono O'odham or Papawi Ko'odham (the "bean eaters," whom the Spaniards would call Pápagos), and the Akimel (riverine farmers).

Jesuit missionaries who first encountered farming peoples in the piedmont region of the middle Yaqui River during the early seventeenth century called them Nebomes, distinguishing between the "upper" and "lower" Nebomes according to their geographic location at different altitudes of the sierra. By the eighteenth century these Nebome villagers were known as Pima Bajo, separated physically from the Pima Alto of northern Sonora by the Opata and Eudeve speakers of the central highlands. Pima agriculturalists formed a number of large communities and many more rancherías along the alluvial floodplains of the lower San Miguel and Sonora valleys. Their territory in the Sierra Madre extended eastward as far as the westernmost Tarahumara villages of Chihuahua. At higher elevations, where rainfall was abundant, Pima villagers planted on terraces and in arroyo beds; at lower elevations, during periods of drought, they carried water to their gardens from natural springs that drew on underground sources and seepage from the surrounding hills. In general, however, all serrano peoples relied on irrigation by gravity, using simple techniques requiring communal labor to channel the water from the riverbed to cleared fields on the adjacent floodplain.

The Opatería comprised various clusters of agrarian communities which, under colonial rule, converged into a nation with common linguistic roots and cultural traditions. They called themselves Heves or Tegüimas, although the name by which they would be known historically—Opatas —derived from the Pima word obagg'ata, meaning "to have an enemy." At the time of European contact, the Opata nation controlled the valleys of Bavispe, Fronteras, Oposura, Sonora, and the middle portion of the San Miguel. They maintained contested boundaries with the Pima and Cáhita peoples to the north, west, and south and, to the east, with the Jobas and other nomadic groups of the Sierra Madre. The Opatas had expanded their ethnic provinces at the expense of the Pimas and Cáhitas, although their "tribal" wars represented ongoing rivalry among groups of villages for control over a valley or hilltop. Eudeves, highland villagers similar to the Opatas in their culture and economy, but distinct in their language, formed two discernible zones located to the southeast and northwest of the Opatería proper.

The profusion of dialects heard among Sonoran peoples conformed to several linguistic families. Nearly all the serrano villagers spoke languages related to the Uto-Aztecan stock and shared certain cultural elements with the Mesoamerican towns of the Mexican altiplano. By way of contrast, the desert Cunca'ac belonged to the Hokan group, which included several agricultural peoples of the lower Colorado Valley—the Yumas, Cocomaricopas, and Halchidomas—who remained largely outside the orbit of Spanish rule. At the time of European contact, the eastern sierra was home to diverse bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers whose languages and territories were never clearly distinguished in Spanish documents. Apache hunters and raiders, Athapaskan speakers who so troubled Spanish defenses in the northern frontier, moved into Sonoran territory during the early seventeenth century as a result of shifting territorial rivalries on the Great Plains following British and French expansion into the North American continent. Their rancherías spanned the cordilleras of both Sonora and Nueva Vizcaya. The Spaniards' fear of the Apaches grew after the Pueblo Revolt and the uprisings of Conchos, Sumas, Chinarras, Mansos, Jocomes, and Janos in Nueva Vizcaya. The Apaches, in turn, responded to increased hostilities with important adaptations in their modes of subsistence, warfare, and social organization. They became skilled horsemen who not only stole livestock from Indian pueblos and Spanish settlements but also bred their own herds. They lived mainly by hunting and gathering; although they planted ephemeral crops, their reliance on wild vegetation and game enhanced their movements throughout the sierra.

The ethnolinguistic distribution of native peoples surmised from the historical and archaeological record reflects the chronological depth of human occupation in Sonora, estimated at approximately 30,000 to 15,000 years before the present. Fairly homogeneous cultures of hunter-gatherers depended on the Pleistocene fauna—the American horse, camel, mammoth, and mastodon—which grazed on the lush grasslands produced by a humid, cool climate. The extinction of these great mammals and the evolution of Holocene fauna, such as bears, felines, deer, rodents, and a great variety of fowl, forced changes in the Indians' hunting techniques and led to a greater reliance on gathering plant foods. This transition period occurred approximately from 15,000 to 8,000 years ago, during which Sonoran peoples developed new instruments for grinding fruits and seeds and altered their migratory patterns to accommodate the cyclical maturation of different species of flora. The need to defend specific territories brought about sharper distinctions between kin groups and greater social cohesion within each unit. These "archaic" foragers of the Sonoran piedmont accumulated the knowledge of plant life and created the incipient village structures requisite for the development of agriculture. Native Sonorans began cultivating a part of their food supply at around 3,000 to 2,500 years ago. The "agricultural revolution" came to this region through internal cultural specialization and intermittent contacts with Mesoamerican civilizations in different stages of their development.

Thus, for more than a millennium before Spanish contact, village cultivators acquired the accoutrements of sedentary life. The domestication of animals, although not extensive, included the breeding of dogs, turkeys, and birds valued for their ornamental plumage. Serrano villagers produced ceramic ware as well as a variety of utensils woven from vegetable fibers. They created characteristic artwork in their pottery and basketry, and left testimony of their culture in the petroglyphs which abound in the region. Sonoran highlanders exploited a wide range of resources in the agricultural floodplain, the mountainous scrub forest, and the flora and marine life of the gulf coast through trade and seasonal migrations.

Settlement patterns alternated between phases of dispersal and nucleation during approximately eight centuries before the Spanish conquest. Four known cultural traditions with ties to northern Sinaloa, Sonora, and western Chihuahua are summarized in Table 1.1. Huatabampo village sites flourished around the lagoons and estuaries of the Mayo and Fuerte rivers from A.D. 700 to 1000. Their inhabitants raised maize and beans to supplement abundant marine resources. They built settlements of noncontiguous dwellings with communal plazas, trash mounds, cemeteries, and offertories. Huatabampo villagers made pottery and shell jewelry and may have traded with diverse groups in Sinaloa and in the area dominated by Casas Grandes. Current research suggests that the Huatabampo tradition had ended before the historical Cáhita peoples occupied northern Sinaloa and southern Sonora. By way of contrast, the Cunca'ac tradition of the Sonoran central coast, extending from Guaymas to Puerto Lobos, exhibited a strong continuity in material culture for more than a thousand years, from as early as A.D. 700 to late historical times. These desert nomads settled in shifting encampments and lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering, moving beyond their coastal territory to visit and trade with riverine agriculturalists. Their crafts included basketry and remarkably thin-walled pottery vessels used for storing water.

The Trincheras and Río Sonora cultures relate directly to the serrano peoples who are the subjects of this history. Trincheras village sites corresponded geographically to the historic Pimería Alta, and their development paralleled that of the Hohokam urban tradition of southern Arizona. These farming peoples built pithouses, produced pottery, and participated in longdistance trade routes stretching from western Sonora northward to the Hohokam and eastward to Casas Grandes. During a period of intense rivalry for floodplain land, following the eclipse of the Hohokam regional system (dated between 1375 and 1450), specific hilltop sites chosen for defense were fortified with rock terraces called trincheras. Population growth and shifting climatic patterns led to endemic warfare in which different groups fought for control over the most fertile valleys. The Trincheras culture centered on the Altar-Magdalena-Concepción drainages and extended to portions of the Río San Miguel. The historical O'odham probably descended from the Hohokam, but their autonomous village structures contrasted markedly with the integrated social systems and ranked sites of classic Hohokam culture.

The term Río Sonora culture refers to a broad distribution of village sites extending from the San Miguel Valley to the Bavispe Valley and along the upland tributaries of the Yaqui and Mayo rivers. The earliest dwellings, dated at circa A.D. 1000 on the lower terraces above the floodplains, were houses-in-pits, semi-subterranean shelters occurring in small hamlets. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, villages became larger and more numerous, and combined the house-in-pit with surface structures. During the following two hundred years, surface buildings had all but displaced the earlier type, and public ceremonial edifices stood in a few of the larger towns. House construction combined perishable materials with the art of masonry, using puddled earth and stone, and a few centers boasted surface structures with foundations aligned in multiple rows, indicative of an incipient phase of urbanization.

Population growth and external relations impelled the growing cultural complexity of serrano peoples. The most important contact for the eastern Sonoran highlands was Casas Grandes, or Paquimé, the greattrading center of northwestern Chihuahua. From Casas Grandes itself radiated numerous smaller settlements, some of which extended westward into the Sonoran highlands. Elegantly decorated ceramics recovered as far west as the San Miguel Valley indicate the extent of Casas Grandes' commercial and tributary networks. Serrano villagers traded food surpluses, cotton cloth, coral, and slaves in return for turquoise, copper ornaments, and tradeware. The Altar-Concepción villages were an area of craft specialization, where shells gathered on the Gulf Coast were worked into adornments destined for Casas Grandes. Nomadic hunter-gatherers as well as sedentary farming communities participated in long-distance trade as carriers of salt, shells, hides, turquoise, and coral. Casas Grandes began as a cluster of agricultural villages in the eighth century and became an urban center that flourished under Mesoamerican influence from approximately A.D. 1200 to 1490, when the adobe city was burned and partially abandoned. Prior to Spanish contact, it is probable that some Casas Grandes inhabitants migrated to the western slopes of the Sierra Madre, enlarging highland villages and forming new ones; their descendants became the historical Opata.

After the collapse of the Paquimé and Hohokam urban centers, serrano peoples entered a new phase of political division and territorial warfare, as evidenced by the trincheras of northwestern Sonora and by walled towns and signaling sites in the eastern highlands. Upland communities organized around kinship had differential access to the basic resources needed for survival and reproduction. Although these relatively autonomous villages did not conform to a discernible hierarchy, they carried within them the seeds of internal stratification. Their leaders bore the insignia of prestige symbolized by turquoise, shells, and colored plumage which elevated them above the commoners during collective hunts, religious ceremonials, and war. But their authority was not hereditary, nor did they form a noble caste, in contrast to the Mesoamerican city-states of this same era.


Excerpted from Wandering Peoples by Cynthia Radding. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Cynthia Radding is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700-1850 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading 'Wandering Peoples' brought to my mind a pleasant afternoon I spent several years ago traveling from San Ignacio Rio Mayo, Sonora, to Alamos, Sonora, with four Mexican friends, at least two of whom occasionally referred to themselves as Mayo Indians. We were going to Alamos because one my friends, Joel Casaraz, wanted a treatment from 'Don Juanito', a 'real Indian' who was famous as a 'sobador' or masseuse. We developed quite a discussion as to just what it means to be 'Indian' in Sonora, since two of my companions considered themselves 'Mayo Indians' but not 'real Indians' like 'Don Juanito.' We wondered why certain other people we knew were 'Mexicans,' 'real Indians' or something in between. Our results came down to differences in life style, dress (they wore boots, he wore sandals) and language (they spoke primarily Spanish, he spoke very fluent Mayo). But they all had the same Mayo genes, were similar in appearance, and had grown up in Mayo speaking villages. Finally, Jonatan Ramirez gave the conclusion we all accepted: to really understand you've just got to know the history of these lands for the last five hundred years! I welcome a book like Wandering Peoples for the insight it gives into that history. Someone seriously interested in the history of Sonora and its peoples will want to go become acquainted with this book. There are chapters meriting study from the historian, and other chapters are more for an anthropologist. Wandering Peoples deals with the late Colonial to early National period in central and northern Sonora. Radding knows her stuff, and shows an intimate knowledge of the region and its history. I especially appreciated understanding of the variation in interests among Spanish and Indian groups. She defines 'social ecology' as an approach based in the ecological relations that guide the 'political implications of resource allocation,' and determines how people 'ascribe cultural values to their claims to land and labor.' Clearly, the indigenous peoples had very different concepts of land use and mobility that would directly clash with the Spanish agenda. There is a good discussion of native history both before and after the arrival of the Europeans, in particular describing land-use patterns that conflicted with Spanish concepts. There is a good treatment of the difficulties imposed by the climate and the unstable nature of agricultural production, and how these forced a dispersed settlement pattern. It seems almost surreal how little things have changed: lack of water is the major obstacle to life and development in Hermosillo and most of Sonora to this day. The discussion of the pre-Columbian archaeology is quite good. She focuses especially on the Trincheras and Rio Sonora traditions. There follows the history of Spanish colonial exploitation of Sonora differed primarily because of the lack of large-scale polities that could be easily tapped into, and due to the degree of nomadism practiced by northern groups. The Crown relied on evangelization for a Spanish presence, primarily embodied in members of the Jesuit order, such as Padre Eusebio Kino. The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 left other Spanish colonists free to ensnare the Indians in debt servitude, even as Bourbon reforms continued to break up communal lands into private holdings. Radding explains how Indian households responded by becoming considerably more flexible; they accepted new members who had lost their own families, and temporary sexual unions formed while males were away at mining camps. These impermanent family structures clashed with Spanish, particularly missionary, ideals, and were yet another source of ethnic conflict. The migration of Indians away from the missions undermined the communal land system, the invasion of the region by cattle herds led to increased erosion and destruction of agricultural land. Men joining the military for long campaigns against the raiding, no