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Native Policy

Perspectives On Colonialism And Postindependence Latin America

In the 1980s and 1990s, historians and anthropologists alike elaborated new analyses of the colonial and early independence eras in Latin America. These analyses made clear that from the beginning of the Spanish colonial era, ruling elites legislated and implemented policies for governing Indians that consigned them to an exploited, subaltern class position, and distinguished Indians from the non-Indian population. Many scholars also emphasized that the peoples who became known as Indians were not simply passive recipients of the brutalities colonial conquest wreaked upon them. Such scholars portrayed Indian peoples as dynamically responsive to the national and global political and economic systems. This latter point is still controversial, and Orin Starn has shown that well into the 1990s many anthropologists working in the Andes remained wedded to views of Indians that emphasized their cultural discreteness and isolation from nationalist ideologies and identities.

While the conquest indeed precipitated a demographic collapse among all indigenous groups, caused by massacres, enslavement, and pernicious epidemics, many Indian peoples survived through their own efforts. Acknowledging Indians as active makers of their own destinies draws attention to the key differences in how different Indian peoples negotiated the policies imposed upon them by colonial authorities. In the urban centers of the old indigenous empires in Mesoamerica and the Andes, colonial authorities were eager to utilize the labor afforded by their domination of Indian societies, while using the markers of Indian identity to signify subaltern status. These regimes wanted to diminish distinctive Indian identities by converting Indian peoples to Christianity, eliminating their native languages, and controlling Indian lands and resources. Yet they also wanted to maintain a large mass of servile, exploitable laborers. The dual motivations behind colonial Indian policy likely made it possible for Indian communities and leaders to at least partly subvert the intentions of colonial regimes.

Roger Rasnake elaborates the creation of postcolonial Indian authorities and social systems in the regions that became Bolivia, showing that Indians were able to manipulate state policies to achieve forms of local political and cultural autonomy. In colonial Mexico, Claudio Lomnitz-Adler has shown that the semiautonomous communities referred to as the "Indian Republics" of the eighteenth century ultimately "meant that the Spanish system recognized the existence of two nations with political representation within the Spanish state" (p. 267). In the collection edited by Carol Smith, authors writing about colonial Guatemala agree to a certain extent, arguing that the segregationist policies of the Spanish colonial state helped to establish strong Indian communities. In another quite different region, Joanne Rappaport's work in the Cauca region of colonial Colombia shows that Indian communities subverted the Spanish resguardo institution, intended to concentrate and manage the supply of coerced Indian labor to the Spaniards' haciendas (plantations), resulting in the creation of regions of refuge for Indian communities.

Florencia Mallon, a historian, established similar dynamics in the early independence period in both Mexico and Peru, emphasizing the dynamic role of Indian and non-Indian peasants in the making of those two nation-states. By contrast, Smith argues that successive nineteenth-century state forms built the Guatemalan nation around Indian policies that decisively excluded Indians from national identity, even as Guatemala's economy was increasingly developed and incorporated into the global economy. In other countries, nineteenth-century Indian policy aimed to continue, in effect, the work of the conquest by ultimately eliminating Indian ethnic identities. This process of assimilating Indian peoples in Latin America through biological miscegenation and the suppression of sociocultural distinctiveness, which Les Field has elaborated in Nicaragua, has for centuries been called mestizaje.

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