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  • Discovering the Chichimecas
  • Charlotte M. Gradie

The European practice of conceptualizing their enemies so that they could dispose of them in ways that were not in accord with their own Christian principles is well documented. In the Americas, this began with Columbus’s designation of certain Indians as man-eaters and was continued by those Spanish who also wished to enslave the natives or eliminate them altogether. The word “cannibal” was invented to describe such people, and the Spanish were legally free to treat cannibals in ways that were forbidden to them in their relations with other people.1 By the late fifteenth century the word cannibal had assumed a place in the languages of Europe as the latest concept by which Europeans sought to categorize the “other.” As David Gordon White has shown, by the time the Spanish discovered America, barbarians were an established component of European mythology, history and theology as well as popular thought, and the categories Europeans employed to describe outsiders date as far back as the Greeks and the Egyptians before them.2 Therefore, it is not surprising that when they reached Mexico the Spanish easily adopted a word from Nahuatl to describe the Indian peoples of the north whom they believed to be barbarians. This word, chichimeca, which both designated and defined in a very particular way the native peoples of the north Mexican frontier, assumed in Spanish the credibility of longstanding native use, although as we shall see, this was not entirely justified. [End Page 67]

The purpose of this essay is to examine both the Nahuatl and Spanish uses of the word chichimeca to uncover the variety of connotations it carried and to show how, with an understanding of the meanings the word had for each, we can not only determine more accurately the reliability of historical descriptions of Chichimec life, but can also learn how these meanings facilitated or obstructed for both the Aztecs and the Spanish the process of empire-building.

The origin of the word chichimeca (s. chichimecatl) is part of the lost history of the evolution of Nahuatl. The term was used by Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants of the central valley of Mexico to designate the peoples who lived north and west of the Valley of Mexico and has been variously translated to mean “sons of dogs,” “rope suckers” or “eagles.”3 With the Letters of Hernán Cortés, chichimeca passed into the Spanish language. For the Spanish the Chichimecas were a wild, nomadic people who lived north of the Valley of Mexico. They had no fixed dwelling places, lived by hunting, wore no clothes and fiercely resisted foreign intrusion into their territory, which happened to contain silver mines the Spanish wished to exploit.4

However, ethnologically, there was no one Chichimec people. The term was used by both Spanish and Nahuatl speakers to refer collectively to many different people who exhibited a wide range of cultural development from hunter-gatherers to sedentary agriculturalists with sophisticated political organizations. It is only by examining closely how the word was used by both [End Page 68] Spanish and Nahuatl speakers that we can begin to understand the complexity of meaning associated with this word in both the Nahuatl and Spanish documents of the early colonial period.

These meanings were closely tied to the Aztec and Spanish conceptions of rulership. For the Aztecs, Chichimec descent provided one source of political legitimacy for their newly established empire in the central valley of Mexico. The Spanish, on the other hand, emphasized the Chichimecas’s barbarian aspects and made this part of their discourse over the treatment of the Indians.

The Spanish definition of Chichimeca diverged from the Nahuatl meaning by discarding many of the symbolic meanings the Aztecs attached to the word and replacing these meanings with others derived from the rich medieval European tradition of wild people. During the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the meaning of the word in Spanish changed from a broad ethnological category to a legal expression and then back again to a more narrowly defined cultural definition.

In his 1526 letter to Charles V, Hernán Cortés makes one of the earliest Spanish...


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