Review by Scott Comar
Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica
Laura E. Matthew and Michael R. Oudijk, Eds.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2007
This anthology elucidates how colonial Spain’s conquest of Mexico and Central America would have been impossible without alliances with indigenous peoples. From 1519 to 1620, the Tlaxcalteca, Mexica, Zapotec, Maya, and various other indigenous groups enabled Spanish conquest and colonization from Honduras to Saltillo as “indios conquistadores,” who served as coerced laborers and conscripted soldiers, as volunteer auxiliaries, as warriors and colonial settlers, and as role models of exemplary behavior for un-colonized indigenous peoples. Illustrating that these categories often overlapped, Indian Conquistadors is comprised of the work from an array of historians and anthropologists who deconstruct the myth of Spanish conquest and reveal that colonial expansion was contingent upon the armies of Spain’s indigenous allies.
Indian Conquistadors is divided into nine chapters. First, Michel Oudijk and Matthew Restall present how Spanish conquest hinged upon indigenous alliances through intermarriage, preceding conquests, pre-established indigenous trade networks, and indigenous opportunities for social mobility and exemption from tribute through land grants and lordships. Then, Florine G. L. Asselbergs uses indigenous pictographs, such as the lienzo of Quauhquechollan, to show that some indigenous peoples perceived Spaniards as equals and themselves as distinct from others. In chapter three, Laura E. Matthew discusses how various indigenous peoples conquered Guatemala for Spain, received privileges as elites, and then lost them as the colonial order established itself. Next, Robison Herrera discusses how native women acted as “intermediaries” through intermarriage with Spanish elites during early colonization. Yet as colonization progressed, these “strategic alliances” decreased and often compromised their agency. In chapter five, Ida Altman reveals how over 20,000 indigenous people helped Spain conquer Nueva Galicia. Then in chapters six and seven, John Chuchiak and Yanna Yannakakis reveal that although indigenous peoples conquered the Yucatan and Oaxaca, colonial Spain soon forgot them and many lost the privileges they had earned as “indigenous conquistadors.” In chapter eight, Stephanie Wood interprets a series of indigenous paintings to show how Indians co-opted Spanish behaviors for these privileges. Ultimately, Bret Blosser illustrates how indigenous archers received political autonomy until the end of the colonial period for their services to the Crown on the Nueva Galicia frontier. Thus, Indian Conquistadors enriches our understanding of Spanish imperialism by moving the narrative beyond the simplicity of Tlaxcalan aid in helping Cortez conquer Tenochtitlan. Revealing a new complexity of contact relations, this book rearticulates the power dynamics of Spain’s colonial expansion, revealing indigenous agency in the process.
These scholars use various secondary and primary sources which include the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología y Historia in Mexico City, and the Archivo General de Centro América in Guatemala City, among others. Their strength is in their new interpretation of old documents, which places indigenous peoples in the narrative as more than passive recipients of imperial dominion. Their weakness in focusing on only certain periods and places is understandable due to the spatial limitations of the project. Yet as a U.S.-Mexico Borderlands historian, I would have appreciated an essay showing these power dynamics in Nueva Vizcaya and Nuevo Mexico. Nevertheless, Indian Conquistadors adds a new dimension to Borderlands history as it illuminates the dynamics of contact, contestation and collusion between indigenous peoples and Spain’s colonists and settlers during the period of colonial expansion on Mesoamerica’s frontiers.