Indigenous Agency Under Colonization

Western colonialism was a major transformational force in human history. Of the existing countries, around 80% were former European colonies, comprising two thirds of the global population today. It is well recognized that colonial rule imposed enormous challenges to the native populations who suffered extraction of their lands, destruction of their cultures, and physical abuses. What is often forgotten is that indigenous people were not politically powerless. These communities skillfully adapted to this new environment, crafted strategies for their survival, and even negotiated the terms of the domination. In short, as any political actor, they had incentives, motivations, and agency.

Although there is an extensive literature in political science studying the long-term consequences of colonial rule and its inner mechanisms, existing work fails to understand the ways in which indigenous groups resisted this colonial imposition. In fact, this gap in knowledge is reflection of a discipline-wide limitation. In a recent article, Tulia Falleti argues that indigenous people have been practically invisible to political scientists. She identifies that only 15 articles published in the top four political science journals in the last thirty years include the word “Indigenous” or “Native” (as applied to indigenous peoples). Moreover, only a handful refer to both indigenous people and colonialism.[1] Although Historical Political Economy (HPE) has recognized the negative consequences of colonialism, paradoxically, while trying to measure them, it has forgotten to place native populations in the center of the study. By doing so, the HPE literature has relegated them to passive recipients of exploitation.

The state-centric perspective of the HPE literature is at odds with the extensive historical evidence on the agency capacity of native actors during colonialism. By exploring archival records produced by native populations historians have offered compelling arguments of the strategic capacity of these groups around the globe. For example, in Latin America, the focus of my work, at the dawn of the colonial period several groups recognized a tactical advantage of allying with European powers as a way to advance their own interests. In Mexico, the most notable case are the Tlaxcalans who were critical in the defeat of the Aztec empire, their ancestral enemies. As a result of this alliance, they received special privileges as a reward for this partnership.[2] The Tlaxcalan case is not unique, Europeans often encountered fragmented political realities, in which groups have been fighting for territorial control over centuries. In the British domination of Uganda, the Buganda kingdom played a crucial role in providing administrators to control other kingdoms. In the conquest of the Philippines, the Kingdom of Tondo allied with the Spanish commander Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to conquer the territory. In Canada, there are also records of the French making oral or written commitments to Aboriginal First Nations.[3]

Military alliances were only one of the many strategies used by native groups identified in the historical literature. In extreme cases, these groups engaged in active rebellion or isolation to escape the reach of the colonial state. But more often than not, native populations engaged with the colonial powers through institutional means, by interacting with the legal systems through claims, petitions, and lawsuits. Moreover, these strategies were complex, and extremely nuanced, often overlapping with each other.

The fact that that the agency capacity of native actors has been ignored by the HPE literature is not accidental. Existing data privileges state-related activities and European perspectives. Historian Yanna Yannakakis refers to this bias as the ‘’tyranny of the archives’’,[4] an issue that Emily Sellars has pointed out in this blog. In my book project, I engage with the indigenous-centered literature to map the repertoires of contention of these native populations, specifically those in the Spanish Empire. By doing so, my work outlines the way that ingenious peoples preserved, exercised and, in some cases, even expanded their political autonomy under the constraints of colonial rule. I claim that using social science tools, and theories about minority groups resistance can help us to make sense of the entire repertoire of contention of these populations.

Here, I present two examples of the ways in which indigenous groups in colonial Mexico resisted, adapted, and even thrived under colonial rule.

Indigenous Claimants in Colonial Courts

Conflict resolution was a fundamental feature of colonialism. Judicial systems were key to mediate relationships among all layers of society, and colonial law became a central arena of contestation for native populations. Yet, despite the large number of claims submitted by indigenous actors across colonial settings, there hasn’t been enough attention to their engagement with colonial laws and tribunals. In the case of colonial Mexico, we can find thousands of claims stored in the archives. These claims were first pictorial documents like the Huejotzingo Codex shown at the beginning of this blogpost. There, the Indians of that province complained against the abuses by conquistador Nuño de Guzman. Over time, Indigenous claims adapted to fit the litigious nature of Spanish written documents. Most of these claims look like the one presented in Figure 1. These claims were initiated by indigenous communities to defend their interests, protect their communal land, and depose abusive bureaucrats. In fact, the level of engagement of this communities with colonial tribunals overshadows their engagement in rebellion as a tool of contestation.

Figure 1. Example of a claim submitted to the General Indian Court

In a recent article published in World Politics, I describe the incentives of the colonial state to allow, and even encourage, indigenous communities to complain against local elites and provincial bureaucrats. I argue that the Spanish crown had a direct interest in controlling state agents, and that the indigenous population became an ideal partner and whistleblower. These incentives led to the creation of a centralized tribunal, the General Indian Court, which addressed indigenous grievances for over 250 years. Using a novel dataset of 30,000 claims I find that, after controlling for province and time fixed effects, indigenous claimants were more likely to receive a favorable ruling when their population was under stress, and when local elites were stronger (Figure 2). These differences were even more salient for specific topics, such as land-related conflicts. In short, there is evidence that this tribunal was used to balance power within the colony.

Figure 2. Predicted Probability of Obtaining a Favorable Ruling

The functioning of this system was only possible with the participation of the indigenous population at large. These groups found that the legal system and their relationship with the central powers could be a tool to resist extraction of their lands and labor. In my work, I find evidence that legal protection helped shield communities from the cataclysmic population decline of the 16th and 17th centuries.[5] The thousands of claims stored in the archives are also testament of the vibrant relationship these groups had with the law. Throughout centuries, indigenous populations in Spanish America skillfully devised claims to call the attention of colonial powers. Moreover, by suggesting new laws they actively shaped legal institutions and decrees.[6]

Legal cultures and the relationship of native populations with imperial law are terra-incognita for HPE. The large number of documents stored in colonial archives — often unexplored — makes this topic a promising one. As the edited volume Native Claims by Saliha Belmessous shows, these interactions were ubiquitous, from Spanish America to British Colonies. Understanding the development of these systems and how indigenous populations employed to resists extraction is crucial to have a broader understanding of colonialism and its legacies.

On names and language

Another element in the repertoire of contention implemented by native populations was their identity itself. Individual and collective decisions to identify with one group or another have been long recognized as an instrument to resist oppression. As shown by Vicky Fouka and Elias Dinas in this blog, Jewish communities in Salonica had to confront these decisions during the rise of antisemitism during the twentieth century. Also in this blog, Volha Charnysh highlights the different mechanisms of cultural transmission. As many other minorities throughout history, indigenous communities in colonial Mexico shaped their identities to navigate a political system designed to control them.

On this topic, I am studying the reasons why some indigenous last names persist today. Today, most Mexicans have Spanish family names. According to the Mexican electoral institute the most common last name is Hernández, a surname with clear Spanish roots. Naming systems in precolonial Mexico were complex and varied from region to region. In general, surnames were not transmitted across families. The Tarascans of Michoacán, for example, used a gendered system in which they were passed from father to son and mother to daughter.[7] After the conquest, renaming individuals at the will of the conquerors became a standard practice. Women who were forced to marry or bear children with Europeans adopted their family names, as did their progeny. Entire indigenous towns were also named after their Spanish landlords. However, a minority of Mexicans have maintained indigenous surnames.

Although there is not an official list of indigenous family names, we can have a sense of their geographical distribution by mapping naming patterns of municipal mayors from the late 20th century until today (at the moment, I am working on mapping the distribution of last names for the entire population). The distinction between political elites and the general population is relevant because, in fact, some indigenous leaders chose to adopt their ancestors’ names as a way to signal their precolonial royal lineage. This was the case of the Aztec emperor’s Moctezuma heirs, who were granted lands and special privileges.

As observed in Figure 3, Tlaxcala case stands out (red dot). This state has a large prevalence of surnames of Nahua origin. Again, their alliance with the Spanish crown motivated them to signal their linkages with their precolonial past, as well as distinguish themselves from surrounding provinces. Therefore, in this state of central Mexico, maintaining an indigenous last name became a signaling device to differentiate from other groups. Another notable exception are the states of the Yucatan peninsula (blue dots), where family names of Mayan origin are relatively common. A particularity of this region is that native communities maintained their local structures as European interference was relatively slower compared to central Mexico.

Figure 3. Indigenous surnames and language

Figure 3 also shows the relationship between the share of mayors with indigenous surnames and the share of indigenous-speaking population in 2020. With the exception of the Yucatan peninsula, there is a low correlation between these variables. In short, these identity marks seem to follow different patterns. In a working paper with Jenny Guardado we propose that the relationship with the local powers might explain the geographic distribution of language prevalence. Specifically, we show how indigenous communities that were relatively farther from their colonial capital functioned as tax and cultural havens. That is, towns that were just across the border from each other and shared similar characteristics, with except of their relationship with the colonial state, are significantly different today in their ethnic composition. Being farther from a colonial capital meant that these communities developed the organizational capacity to engage in costly strategies such as presenting legal claims, these strategies reinforced their communal bonds and created the conditions for preserving their language.

There is still a lot work to do in order to understand the entire set of strategies implemented by indigenous groups to resist and adapt to colonization, as well as how these strategies shaped colonial institutions and long-term legacies. There are, however, some interesting approaches trying to recognize indigenous actors’ agency. Most notably, Saumitra Jha and Alberto Diaz-Cayeros are exploring in a working paper how indigenous communities in colonial Mexico engaged in the colonial economy through the valuable commodity of cochineal dye. This example and the ones presented in this post demonstrate the rich set of tools implemented by these groups. They also illustrate how the study of colonialism and its consequences is incomplete without taking into account native agency. Acknowledging the extensive historic work on this topic could greatly enrich the HPE literature.  Moreover, studying indigenous communities’ capacity to respond to adverse conditions recognizes their long-ignored political agency.

Header Image. Huejotzingo Codex. Mexico: 1531. Harkness Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[1] Those 15 articles were published in the APSR, AJPS, JoP, and World Politics between 1990 and 2020. Using the same criteria, I identify at least four more articles published so far in 2021, including my own work.

[2] Other accounts of alliances between indigenous people and Spaniards can be found in Matthew, Laura, and Michael Oudijk. 2007. Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

[3] Of course, these alliances were honored very differently across contexts.

[4] Yannakakis, Yanna. 2015. Beyond Jurisdictions: Native Agency in the Making of Colonial Legal Cultures. A Review Essay. Comparative Studies in Society and History 2015;57(4):1070–1082.

[5] See the entry by Emily Sellars and Francisco Garfias on this topic.

[6] For a fascinating account of the influence between claims and decrees see Masters, Adrian. 2018. A Thousand Invisible Architects: Vassals, the Petition and Response System, and the Creation of Spanish Imperial Caste Legislation. Hispanic American Historical Review 98(3):377-406

[7] Thurtell, Joel, and Emily Klancher Merchant. 2018. Gendered-Differentiated Tarascan Surnames in Michoacán. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 48, no. 4. 465-483


  • Edgar Franco-Vivanco is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Michigan. He is also affiliated with the Center for Political Studies, and co-directs the Historical Institutions Lab. His research interests include Latin America, historical political economy, criminal violence, and indigenous politics. He is working on a book project about how indigenous people resisted and adapted to colonization. His work received the 2021 Heinz I. Eulau Award for the best article published in the APSR.

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