- Native Wills from the Colonial Americas: Dead Giveaways in a New World ed. by Mark Christensen and Jonathan Truitt
Edited by Mark Christensen and Jonathan Truitt, two young American ethno-historians specializing in colonial Mexico, this book seeks to show the different avenues that the study of colonial indigenous wills offers to scholars seeking to reach a deeper and more nuanced understanding of life—especially for indigenous Americans—under Spanish colonial rule. The focus of Native Wills is [End Page 411] therefore not thematic. From this viewpoint, the intended audience for this volume is presumably graduate students.
The introduction furnishes a brief review of the historiography on colonial Spanish America by presenting it as a progression from a focus on great men, big themes, and easily available sources to studies of the everyday life of anonymous people, especially indigenous Americans, that have been usually ignored. Issues of language, writing, and the subjects of religion and conversion are also touched upon quickly in this initial section.
The book is divided into three parts: "Women of Native America," "Strategies of the Elite," and "The Individual and Collective Nature of Death." Each part is preceded by an introduction that offers a brief overview of the historiography of the subject under study and a summary of each chapter.
In "Women of Native America," the contributing authors each present an analysis of a will issued by an indigenous female. The examples are predominantly Mexican although one Andean example is also included. The essays demonstrate how cultural diversity was a major characteristic of the persons under study and overall contribute to contest the widespread idea that indigenous women under Spanish colonial rule were poor, consistently subordinate, and thus lacking in social importance. In her study of Catalina de Agüero, an indigenous woman that moved from her rural hometown in the highlands in the sixteenth century to the Peruvian city of Trujillo, Karen Graubart shows that Agüero's obscure and humble origins did not prevent her from becoming a person well integrated into her new urban environment. In fact, she acquired tastes, social ties, and global connections that allowed her to participate in the shaping of a new culture formed by both indigenous and foreign material culture, novel religious ideas and institutions, and new social and family links. In a chapter that is both rich and illuminating, Jonathan Truitt uncovers significant aspects of the social, ethnic, and religious organization of the old city of Tenochtitlan under colonial rule. The questions and findings presented in this chapter involve intriguing issues, such as the confluence of spatial and ethnic organization, religious materialities and perceptions, and indigenous practices of protection of the weak and mutual aid under colonial rule.
The section on "Strategies of the Elite" touches on issues better known to historians thanks to other investigations, since elite indigenous lives are much better documented. The adaptation of Spanish written documents and the continuation of indigenous methods of recording information are examined in the chapters by Conway, Christensen, and Jones. The role of indigenous languages, their mutual interaction, and how they were transformed (or not) by exposure to the Spanish language, writing, and legal system receives much attention from the authors in this volume. The circumstances emerging from linguistic variety in colonial Mexico, the availability of documents written in indigenous languages, and the strong scholarship historians, anthropologists, and linguists have developed over the past decades allow for the interesting findings presented in these essays and also explain why the editors have missed the opportunity to analyze how unique was the case of Mexico in this regard. Although a significant comparative issue, nowhere in the book will readers find thoughts on this important subject.
Two of the essays presented in the final section, "The Individual and Collective Nature of Death," deal with the subject of death. Kathleen Bragdon's study of New England indigenous wills is the only essay in the book that makes use of archaeological research and the only one to...