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The Resilience of Indigenous Nations 

Analysis of the book 7 Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall, 2003 Edition 

Por Anita y Toby Campion
March 2024
Professor Restall says that for hundreds of years European invaders, and later historians and chroniclers, have been imagining and reinventing the demise of the indigenous cultures of the American Continent. It began with the arrival of Columbus in 1492, continued during the colony and to this day we are still subject to the 16th Century version of how indigenous nations lived before the invasion and the impact of colonization on them. 
Here are a few examples of the fantastic comments and misperceptions that the invaders published about the people they were just beginning to know: 
  • the Indians have no souls 
  • they are cannibalistic, innocent, and immoral   
  • they have no language and live without any society  
  • they are a tabula rasa on which we come to civilize 
  • Caribbean Indians perceive us as "people from heaven”.  
  • South American Indians see us as "the return of Viracocha".  
  • the indigenous Mexicans recognized Cortés "as the return of Quetzalcoatl" (a story disseminated by the Franciscans from 1530 onwards).   
Restall proposes that the indigenous cultures were neither savage nor ideal but just as civilized and imperfect as the European cultures of their time. He says that the reactions to invasion were very diverse and never homogeneous. The original cultures proved to be resilient and adaptable, and often their own elites sought benefits during the transition from invasion to colonization. 

He also adds, concerning indigenous perception and reaction to invaders, that throughout the Mesoamerican and Andean colonies, indigenous communities performed theatrical plays. These consisted of dances and parodies of battles that reconstructed the invasion not as a historical phenomenon of defeat and trauma but as something that transcended any historical moment. These plays are still performed in towns in Mexico and other countries and provide evidence of community survival.  

During the colonial period, especially in the eighteenth century, indigenous people throughout Mesoamerica wrote documents called titulos in their own languages. Both these and the oral narratives represented the continuity of pre-invasion indigenous histories. The Maya chronicles of the invasion that appear in the Yucatán Titles reveal that there was never a homogeneous indigenous version but rather perspectives determined by class, family, and regional differences. The Maya elite underestimated the significance of the invasion and emphasized the continuity of status, place of residence, and occupation from pre-invasion times. They placed the invasion with its violence and epidemics in the general context of historical cycles of calamity and recovery and thus relegated the invasion to the status of a mere passing accident in the long Maya experience. 

The indigenous alliance with invaders shows us that invasion campaigns in the long term aided the expansion of Spanish colonial rule; in the short term, they constituted a mode of indigenous exploitation of the Spanish presence that furthered their own regional interests. We see this, for example, in the Nahua names of the Guatemalan highlands, indicating that the Mexica were able to expand there from a century before the Invasion. 

Undoubtedly, throughout the colonial period, the nations of the Americas suffered lethal epidemics, land theft, slavery, and the suppression of their languages and beliefs. However, they did not decline into a state of depression and inactivity because of the invasion but sought new ways to maintain their traditions and increase their quality of life, even despite the changes and impositions of colonization. 

Contemporary historian James Lockhart says, "At the end of the colony in most of Spanish America there were few indigenous cultural elements that could be defined as fully European or indigenous in origin. The stable forms we see at present emerged based on both cultures and merged many elements that were similar from the beginning with others now intertwined and integrated."

* Translated from Spanish by Adriana Parada Campos

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