- Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of colonial Mexico kept their history alive by Camilla Townsend
By Camilla Townsend. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017
Annals of Native America concerns the histories written by Indigenous writers from central Mexico in the roughly two centuries after the Spanish conquest. Written in alphabetic text in Nahuatl—the language of the major cultural-linguistic group in central Mexico at the time Spaniards arrived—these histories constitute rich and unique sources for the study of Nahua culture and society before and after the Spanish conquest. The Nahua histories reflect the persistence into the colonial period of the Indigenous tradition of history-telling organized year-by-year (known in Nahuatl as xiuhpohualli, or "yearly account") that combined pictorial texts with oral performance. Today, we refer to these colonial-era histories as annals—a reflection of the resemblance modern scholars perceived to the Europeans' own earlier practice of writing history by moving "forward through time year by year" (6).
No known definitively prehispanic Nahua annals survive but dozens, perhaps hundreds, were produced in the colonial period. Friars taught the sons of Indigenous nobles to write their native language in the Roman alphabet, a tradition that soon became autonomous in Indigenous communities. Produced entirely outside the auspices of Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities, Nahua annals were intended for Indigenous audiences, were produced for Indigenous purposes and expressed Indigenous perspectives. The texts circulated around and between Nahua communities, being copied and recopied by Indigenous authors (typically without identifying the sources, as was customary at the time), and added to with time. Continuing into the seventeenth century, this tradition sheds light on both the historical consciousness and the contemporary concerns of the colonial Nahua world.
Annals of Native America considers colonial-era Nahua annals as a genre. Camilla Townsend states that she has not written "a study of Nahua history as found in the annals…. [It] is a history of the annals" (9). The study proceeds chronologically, beginning with selected annals produced in the 1540s by writers who remembered the time before the coming of the Spaniards, to the late seventeenth century, almost two centuries later, when Indigenous writers no longer had direct knowledge of the prehispanic style of performance. By this time the entire practice of annals production had begun to fade, with the last known exemplar from the 1690s from the eastern region of Tlaxcala, where the tradition persisted longest.
Each chapter begins with an English-language translation of lengthy excerpts drawn from the annals under consideration, effectively drawing the reader into the subject matter and demonstrating the richness of the source material. (An appendix presents transcriptions of the original Nahuatl text, a scholarly contribution in its own right, of considerable interest to specialists.) Townsend then explores the authorship of the texts, the majority of which have long been considered anonymous. She uses clues in the text itself but also, importantly, Spanish-language documents—legal suits, notarial records, narrative histories, among others. (In a few cases the Spanish records include transcriptions of the oral performance that accompanied the presentation of the written text.) The deft use of these contextual Spanish-language materials allows Townsend to explore more fully than earlier scholars the authorship of the annals she studies, in many cases identifying a particular family and at times even a specific individual. These sections explore in detail the particular historical context in which the author(s) lived, providing the reader with a concrete and immediate sense of individuals interacting with one another in the political, social, economic and cultural context of the times.
Each chapter also presents a close reading and analysis of the texts, exploring their meaning and relevance to our understanding of certain features of Nahua culture and society. Overall, annals record information important to the altepetl (ethnic kingdom), including "the rise and fall of political authorities, wars and land settlements, epidemics and natural phenomena" (5). Annals are characterized by the repeated telling of a story, each time beginning anew from a different perspective. Modern scholars once considered the annals to be repetitive and disorderly, but...