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Indigenous Origins

Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Jalisco

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: May 18, 2005


Indigenous Origins


If your ancestors are from Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes or Jalisco, it is likely that you may be descended from the indigenous peoples who inherited these areas before the Spaniards arrived from the south. The historian Eric Van Young of the University of California at San Diego has called this area, the "the Center-West Region" of Mexico. This cultural region, according to Dr. Van Young, includes all of the modern states of Jalisco, Michoac?n, Colima, Nayarit, and Aguascalientes, as well as parts of Zacatecas and Guanajuato, amounting to about one-tenth of Mexico's national territory.

The states of Jalisco, Zacatecas and Aguascalientes did not exist in the Sixteenth Century, but substantial parts of these states belonged to the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia, which embraced some 180,000 kilometers ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Across this broad range of territory, a wide array of indigenous groups lived before 1522 (the year of contact with Spanish explorers). Domingo L?zaro de Arregui, in his "Descripci?n de la Nueva Galicia" - published in 1621 - wrote that 72 languages were spoken in the Spanish colonial province of Nueva Galicia. But, unfortunately, some of the Amerindians who lived in this area have not been studied extensively. Dr. Van Young - in analyzing this - has explained that "the extensive and deep-running mestizaje of the area has meant that at any time much beyond the close of the colonial period the history of the native peoples has been progressively interwoven with (or submerged in) that of non-native groups."

Unfortunately, our image of pre-Hispanic Jalisco is obscured by the cultural shock, the devastation, and widespread displacement that was inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of western Mexico during the Sixteenth Century. Four primary factors influenced the post-contact indigenous distribution of Jalisco as it evolved into a Spanish colony. These factors are presented below in chronological order:

A. The occupation and conquest of Nu?o de Guzm?n (1529-1536).

B. The influence of epidemics in reducing the indigenous population.

C. The Mixt?n Rebellion (1540-1541).

D. The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)

The Chichimeca Indians
In 1522, shortly after the fall of Tenochtitl?n (Mexico City), Hern?n Cort?s commissioned Crist?bal de Olid to journey into the area now known as Jalisco. In these early days, the Spaniards found it necessary to utilize the services of their new allies, the Christianized sedentary Indians from the south.

These indigenous auxiliaries - serving as scouts and soldiers - were usually Mexica (from Tenochtitl?n), Tarascan (from Michoac?n), Otom? Indians (from Quer?taro), Cholulans, or Tlaxcalans. Unlike other Indians, they were permitted to ride horses and to carry side arms as soldiers in the service of Spain.

As the Spaniards and their Amerindian allies from the south made their way north into present-day Jalisco, Guanajuato and Zacatecas, they started to encounter large numbers of nomadic Chichimeca Indians. Philip Wayne Powell - whose Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America's First Frontier War is the definitive source of information relating to the Chichimeca Indians - referred to Chichimeca as "an all-inclusive epithet" that had "a spiteful connotation."

Utilizing the N?huatl terms for dog (chichi) and rope (mecatl), the Mexica had referred to the Chichimecas literally as "of dog lineage." But some historians have explained that the word Chichimeca has been subject to various interpretations over the years, including "perros altaneros" (arrogant dogs) and "chupadores de sangre" (blood-suckers). The Spaniards borrowed this designation from their Mexica allies and started to refer to the large stretch Chichimeca territory as La Gran Chichimeca (the Great Chichimeca).

Although Chichimeca was used as an umbrella term for all of the nomadic hunters and gatherers inhabiting this part of Mexico, these indigenous peoples were actually divided into several distinct cultures. However, because most of the Chichimeca Indians were rapidly assimilated into the Hispanic culture of Seventeenth Century Mexico, there have been very few historical investigations into their now extinct cultures and languages. Ironically, these indigenous peoples are - in large part - the genetic ancestors of the present-day inhabitants of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes. And, as a result, they are thus the ancestors of many Mexican Americans.

The historian Paul Kirchhoff, in his work "The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico," has provided us with the best description of the Chichimeca Indian groups. Most of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture, based on the gathering of mesquite, agave, and tunas (the fruit of the nopal). However, many of them also lived off of acorns, roots and seeds. In some areas, the Chichimecas even cultivated maize and some calabashes. From the mesquite they made white bread and wine. Many Chichimec tribes utilized the juice of the agave as a substitute for water when the latter was in short supply.

The Zacatecos Indians
The Zacatecos Indians, occupying 60,000 square kilometers in the present-day states of Zacatecas, eastern Durango, and Aguascalientes, may have received their name from the Mexica word zacate (grass). But some contemporary sources have said that the name was actually taken from the Zacatecos language and that it meant cabeza negra ("black head"). This would be a reference to the Chichimeca's penchant for painting their bodies and faces with various pigments (in this case, black pigment).

The Zacatecos Indians lived closest to the silver mines that the Spaniards would discover in 1546. The Zacatecos Indians inhabited large portions of northwest and southwest Zacatecas. Their lands bordered with those of the Tepehuanes on the west and the Guachichiles on the east. They roamed as far north as Parras, where they came into contact with the Irritilas of Coahuila.

The Zacatecos Indians belonged to the Aztecoidan Language Family and were thus of Uto-Aztecan stock. It was believed that the Zacatecos were closely related to the Caxcanes Indians of northern Jalisco and southern Zacatecas. The Zacatecos were "a tall, well-proportioned, muscular people, their strength being evidenced by the great burdens they carried for the Spaniards." They had oval faces with "long black eyes wide apart, large mouth, thick lips and small flat noses." The men wore breechcloth, while the women wore short petticoats of skins or woven maguey. Both sexes wore their hair long, usually to the waist.

The Zacatecos Indians married young, with most girls being married by the age of fifteen. Monogamy was their general practice. The Indians smeared their bodies with clay of various colors and painted them with the forms of reptiles. This paint helped shield them from the sun's rays but also kept vermin off their skin.

Some Zacatecos Indians grew roots, herbs, maize, beans, and some wild fruits. Most of them hunted rabbits, deer, birds, frogs, snakes, worms, moles, rats, and reptiles. Eventually, the Zacatecos and some of the other Chichimecas would develop a fondness for the meat of the larger animals brought in by the Spaniards. During their raids on Spanish settlements, they frequently stole mules, horses, cattle, and other livestock, all of which became a part of their diet.

Although most of the Chichimeca Indians were nomadic, some of the Zacatecos Indians had dwellings of a more permanent character, inhabiting areas near the wooded sierras. They inhabited homes constructed of adobe or sun-dried bricks and stones. They slept on the floors of their one-room homes and a fireplace in the middle of the floor, surrounded by rocks, was used for cooking food.

Mr. Powell writes that the Zacatecos were "brave and bellicose warriors and excellent marksmen." They were greatly feared by the neighboring tribes, in particular the Caxcanes, whom they attacked in later years after they began cooperating with the Spaniards.

The Guachichiles
The Guachichile Indians were the most populous Chichimeca nation, occupying perhaps 100,000 square kilometers, from Lake Chapala in Jalisco to modern Saltillo in Coahuila. The Guachichiles inhabited all of eastern Zacatecas and some parts of western San Luis Potos?.

The Guachichile Indians were classified with the Aztecoidan division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. It was believed that they were closely related to the Huichol Indians, who continue to live in Nayarit and the western fringes of Zacatecas in the present day era.

The name "Guachichil" was given to them by the Mexica, and meant head colored red. They had been given this label because "they were distinguished by red feather headdresses, by painting themselves red (especially the hair), or by wearing head coverings (bonetillas) made of hides and painted red."

The archaeologist Paul Kirchhoff wrote that the following traits characterized the Guachichile Indians: "painting of the body; coloration of the hair; head gear; matrilocal residence; freedom of the married woman; special forms of cruelty to enemies." In the development of tribal alliances, the Guachichiles were considered the most advanced of the Chichimec tribes. They were a major catalyst in provoking the other tribes to resist the Spanish settlement and exploitation of Indian lands. "Their strategic position in relation to Spanish mines and highways," wrote Mr. Powell, "made them especially effective in raiding and in escape from Spanish reprisal."

The Spanish frontiersmen and contemporary writers referred to the Guachichiles "as being the most ferocious, the most valiant, and the most elusive" of all their indigenous adversaries. In addition, the Christian missionaries found their language difficult to learn because of its "many sharply variant dialects." As a result, the conversion of these natives to Christianity did not come easy.

In the development of tribal alliances, the Guachichiles were considered the most advanced of the Chichimec tribes. They were a major catalyst in provoking the other tribes to resist the Spanish settlement and exploitation of Indian lands. "Their strategic position in relation to Spanish mines and highways," wrote Mr. Powell, "made them especially effective in raiding and in escape from Spanish reprisal."

The Guamares
The nation of the Guamares, located in the Guanajuato Sierras, was centered around P?njamo and San Miguel. They extended as far north as San Felipe, and almost to Quer?taro in the east. They also extended as far west as Aguascalientes and Lagos de Moreno. Because many of my Indian ancestors came from Lagos de Moreno, it is highly likely that the Guamare Indians are among my ancestors.

The author, Gonzalo de las Casas, called the Guamares "the bravest, most warlike, treacherous, and destructive of all the Chichimecas, and the most astute (dispuesta)." One Guamar group called the "Chichimecas Blancos" lived in the region between Jalostotitl?n and Aguascalientes. This branch of the Guamares painted their heads white. However, much like the Guachichiles, many of the Guamares colored their long hair red and painted the body with various colors (in particular red).

The Caxcanes
If your ancestors are from northern Jalisco ? both the Three-Fingers Border region (with Zacatecas) or Los Altos ? it is likely that you have many ancestors who were among the Caxcanes Indians. The Caxcanes Indians were a tribe of the Nahuatlan (Aztecoidan) division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock. Caxcanes Indians occupied portions of present day Aguascalientes, southern Zacatecas and northern Jalisco. Their range - at certain times - extended south toward Lake Chapala and beyond the R?o Grande de Santiago.

Dr. Phil C. Weigand of the Departmento de Antropolog?a of the Colegio de Michoac?n in Mexico has theorized that the Caxcan Indians probably originated in the Chalchihuites area of northwestern Zacatecas. After the collapse of the Chalchihuites culture around 900 to 1000 A.D., Dr. Weigand believes that "the Caxcanes began a prolonged period of southern expansion" into parts of Jalisco.

Dr. Weigand has further noted that - at the time of the Spanish contact - the Cazcan "were probably organized into small conquest states." He also states that the "overriding theme of their history seems to have been a steady expansion carried by warfare, to the south."

Dr. Weigand also observed that the Caxcanes "appear to have been organized into highly competitive, expansion states. These states possessed well-developed social hierarchies, monumental architecture, and military brotherhoods." The Caxcanes are believed to have built their primary pe?oles (fortifications) and religious centers at Juch?pila, Te?l, Teocaltiche, Tlatenango, Nochistl?n, Jalpa and El Chique.

The Caxcanes played a major role in both the Mixton Rebellion (1540-41) and the Chichimeca War (1550-1590), first as the adversaries of the Spaniards and later as their allies against the Zacatecos and Guachichiles. The cocolistle epidemic of 1584 greatly reduced the number of Caxcanes. In the decades to follow, the surviving Caxcanes assimilated into the more dominant cultures that had settled in their territory. Today, Dr. Weigand writes, "the Caxcanes no longer exist as an ethnic group" and that "their last survivors" were noted in the late 1890s.

The Tecuexes were a division of the Cazcanes Indians and represented another branch of the Uto-Aztecan stock. The Tecuexe Indians inhabited occupied a considerable area of Jalisco north of Guadalajara and western Los Altos, including Mexticacan, Jalostotitlan, Tepatitilan, Yahualica, Juchitl?n, and Tonal?n. The Tecuexes also occupied the central region near Tequila, Amatlt?n, Cuquio, and Epatan. The Tecuexes have been studied by Dr. Phil Weigand, who wrote articles desribing them. They no longer exist as a cultural group.

All of these Indian groups were involved in the Mixt?n Rebellion (1540-1541) and the Chichimeca War (1550-1590). Mr. Powell's book "Solders, Indians and Silver" is a very detailed description of this war, which stands as the longest lasting war between the Spaniards and an Amerindian tribe. These Chichimeca Indians groups described above were never militarily defeated by the Spaniards. However, they were essentially bribed into peace when they were offered food and clothing as an incentive to settle down in Mexican towns.

After a series of negotiations, most of the Chichimecas were encouraged to take part in peaceful agricultural pursuits. Within mere decades, they were assimilated into the Spanish and Indian mestizo culture that was rapidly evolving throughout Western and Central Mexico. Today, no one speaks the language of the Guachichiles, Zacatecas, Guamares or Caxcanes. However, the blood of these people flows through nearly anyone who has ancestors from these states.

Copyright ? 2005, by John Schmal. All Rights Reserved. The content of this article may be reproduced by individuals or educational institutions for non-commercial educational or personal purposes only.

Sources:
Peter Masten Dunne, "Pioneer Jesuits in Northern Mexico" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1944).

J. Lloyd Mecham, "Francisco de Ibarra and Nueva Vizcaya" (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1927).

Paul Kirchhoff, "The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico," in Basil C. Hedrick et al. (ed.), "The North Mexican Frontier: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography" (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), pp. 200-209

Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal, "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, 2002).

Philip Wayne Powell, "Soldiers, Indians and Silver; North America's First Frontier War" (Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975).

Eric Van Young, "The Indigenous Peoples of Western Mexico from the Spanish Invasion to the Present," in Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (ed.), "The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 2" (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 136-186.





About John P. Schmal:
John Schmal is a writer and an historian. He is presently working on a manuscript about the indigenous peoples of Zacatecas and Jalisco.




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