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  • Indigenous Landscapes in Northwestern New SpainEnvironmental History through Contested Boundaries and Colonial Land Claims
  • Cynthia Radding (bio)

This article builds an environmental history from below by integrating the practices of indigenous peoples in the production of cultural landscapes with the values they ascribed to the land itself and to the organization of labor that made it possible for them to sustain communities and mixed agrarian economies in the arid lands of northwestern Mexico. Its contribution to this special issue of Resilience, focused on the theme of global environmental histories from below, is rooted in the rich traditions of both environmental history and ethnohistory for the early modern horizons of Latin America. It draws on the interdisciplinary traditions of cultural geography, archaeology, anthropology, and documentary history that represent over a century of scholarship devoted to the complex web of relationships between the land and different groups of indigenous and mixed populations in the colonial regimes of Spanish and Portuguese America.1

Indigenous perceptions of their environment were rooted in the landscapes they had created in the course of pursuing subsistence strategies for centuries before European contact, which they adapted to the exigencies and the opportunities of the colonial economy. Subsistence strategies in the arid environments of the coastal plains and highland valleys bordering the Sonora and Chihuahua Deserts required access to a diverse range of resources and ecological spaces. Indigenous communities [End Page 311] that were distinguished linguistically and ethnically within the northern extension of Uto-Aztecan peoples all developed material cultures and economies that combined (in different degrees) agriculture, foraging (hunting, gathering, fishing), and trade. These variegated economies developed seasonal migratory routes based on an intricate knowledge of the wildlife and vegetation in the region. Their settlement patterns were altered and expanded as they intersected with the colonial enterprises of mining, livestock raising, and commercial agriculture that developed in northwestern New Spain beginning in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. Indians were not explicitly environmentalists in their worldview; however, their defense of space was based on holistic practices of land use that included arable land for cultivation, coastal estuaries, and the monte (uncultivated land with forested or savanna vegetation) of scrub forests for foraging.

It is well known to historians of colonial New Spain—and of all Latin America—that both land and water were considered irreplaceable resources for subsistence and the production of wealth. In the vast provinces that lay north of the tropical plateau and river basins of central Mexico, the generally arid conditions and the prevailing technologies of cultivation, water harvesting, and irrigation made water all the more essential for creating the conditions that could sustain communities and support economic enterprises. This article argues that the meanings ascribed to places and the intensity of the conflicts that arose over disputed claims to basic resources stemmed from practices that linked labor to water and land. The materiality of soil and moisture for cropland as well as the notion of territoriality that included the renewable vitality of the monte were infused with cultural standards of communal governance and reciprocal labor. These principles were repeatedly contested and defended in the emerging landscapes of mining, ranching, agriculture, hunting, and foraging that shaped the province of Ostimuri.

The method employed in this article weaves together the threads of historical evidence selected from documentary sources that were created for a different purpose. As Arlette Farge has demonstrated masterfully for the social history of the urban menu peuple caught in the judicial system of early modern France, the fragments and clues that appear in judicial testimonies for alleged crimes lead the researcher to new appreciations of the material circumstances and the cultural values that bounded their world.2 Applying a similar method of analysis [End Page 312] to the legal proceedings established for property entitlement in colonial New Spain allows us to reconstruct detailed visual descriptions of parcels of land—and the resources of water, vegetation, and wildlife they contained—from the dual points of view of private landholders and indigenous peasants. The enclosure of common lands that proceeded apace in eighteenth-century northwestern New Spain through the issuance of titles, upon payment of a royal fee, changed the physical landscapes and...


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pp. 311-329
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