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Native Peoples: Introductory Panorama

Carol E. Robertson

Wait! On this blessed day,
thou Hurricane, thou Heart of the Sky-Earth,
thou giver of ripeness and freshness,
and thou giver of daughters and sons,
spread thy stain, spill thy drops
of green and yellow;
give life and beginning
to those I bear and beget,
that they might multiply and grow,
nurturing and providing for thee,
calling to thee along the roads and paths,
on rivers, in canyons,
beneath the trees and bushes;
give them their daughters and sons.

May there be no blame, obstacle, want or misery;
let no deceiver come behind or before them,
may they neither be snared nor wounded,
nor seduced, nor burned,
nor diverted below the road nor above it;
may they neither fall over backward nor stumble;
keep them on the Green Road, the Green Path.

May there be no blame or barrier for them
through any secrets or sorcery of thine;
may thy nurturers and providers be good
before thy mouth and thy face,
thou, Heart of Sky; thou, Heart of Earth;
thou, Bundle of Flames;
and thou, Tohil, Auilix, Hacauitz,
under the sky, on the earth,
the four sides, the four corners;
may there be only light, only continuity within,
before thy mouth and thy face, thou god.
Popol Vuh, trans. by Dennis Tedlock (1985: 221–22)


THE MAYA SAGES who created the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the dawn of life, tell us that the first great lords fasted, cried their hearts out, and intoned this prayer so that their human progeny might prosper. And prosper they did. The first Americans began to cross the Bering Strait around 30,000 B.C.E. and within 20,000 years this hemisphere was populated from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. By the third century of the Common Era, the peoples of what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras had carved ornate stone ceremonial centers out of dense jungles and had committed their songs and histories to an enigmatic system of writing.

Their neighbors to the north and south also had emerged as builders of cities and states. Between 600 B.C.E. and 800 C.E. Cuicuilco and Teotihuacan (central Mexico), Monte Albán (Oaxaca), Kaminaljuyú and Tikal (Guatemala), Tiwanaku (Bolivia), and Nazca (Peru), and many other nascent theocratic states explored approaches to governance, technology, and artistic excellence.

By the fifth century C.E., the city of Teotihuacan had become a jewel of urban planning, and, according to some archaeologists, accommodated over two hundred thousand inhabitants. From this axis, the trade of agricultural and manufactured goods extended north into what is now New Mexico and south into what is now Guatemala. Although Teotihuacan was abandoned by the eighth century, its splendor influenced Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, the cities that dazzled the Spanish conquistadores.

The Incas of the central Andes also amassed wealth and influence through both trade and conquest. By the fifteenth century their voice could be heard as far north as Panama and as far south as northern Patagonia. Textiles, gold, silver, salt, musical instruments, and many other manufactured items scattered throughout Andean archaeological sites attest to the economic and military impact of their expansion. They engineered vast irrigation projects that facilitated specialized agriculture 12,000 feet above sea level. Potatoes, oca, quinoa, ullucus, guanaco meat, and fish provided a high protein, high fiber diet for a population of at least five million people in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

However, not all indigenous peoples before the coming of the Europeans built vast cities and farms. During 30,000 years on this continent native peoples developed many forms of subsistence and social organization, adapting always to the exigencies of habitat and ecology. The sparse settlement of some areas juxtaposed to the human ferment of cities and empires makes the population of the Americas at the time of Columbus’ arrival extremely hard to estimate, for communities could range from less than 100 to over two hundred thousand people.

In 1924, Rivet and Sapper assessed the indigenous population of the entire hemisphere at 50,000, while in 1934 Means estimated that there were up to 32,000 people in the Andes alone (Dobyns 1966: 396). Stannard, influenced by the findings of Dobyns (1966), summarizes drastic changes in demographic estimates occasioned by accelerated archaeological discoveries and new methods of calculation:

Less than twenty-five years ago conventional scholarly opinion held—as it had for generations—that the pre-Columbian population of the Americas was somewhere between 8 and 14 million persons, with no more than a million in north America. Today’s historians and anthropologists commonly accept figures up to ten times as high—as many as ten million in north America, twenty-five million in central Mexico alone, and 90 to 112 million for the entire hemisphere. If correct, such estimates mean that the population of the Americas in the 15th century was equal to that of Europe, including Russia, at the time (Stannard 1989: xv).

The calculation of both pre-Columbian and contemporary indigenous populations has profound political implications. Because the death knell of European contact pierced the very heart of America, estimates have tended towards conservatism: the horror of genocide is too great to fathom. The long-term physical, spiritual, and psychological devastation of the conquista is augured in The Fall of Tenochtitlan, a lament by an anonymous 16th-century Mexica composer/poet:

Our cries of grief rise up
and our tears rain down,
for Tlatelolco is lost.
The Aztecs are fleeing across the lake;
they are running away like women.

How can we save our homes, my people?
The Aztecs are deserting the city:
the city is all flames, and all
is darkness and destruction.

Motelchiuhtzin the huiznacahuatl,
tlacotzin the tlaicotlacatl,
oquitzin the tlacatecuhtli
are greeted with tears.

Weep, my people:
know that with these disasters
we have lost the mexican nation.
The water has turned bitter,
our food is bitter!
These are the acts of the giver of life…
—from Cantares Mexicanos, in León-Portilla (1962: 146).

The voyages of Columbus, the sacking of Mexico and Peru, and the traffic in human bodies and souls unleashed by the conquista ignited a war that persists to this day in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, and in pockets of resistance throughout the Americas. The five-hundred year crusade to stamp out all opposition to the Cross and its political machinery has bequeathed a ragged indigenous cultural profile: while the native population of Argentina constitutes less than 0.6% of the nation, the population of Peru and Bolivia is 60% Kechua and Aymara. The people of Guatemala are overwhelmingly Maya-Quiché, while the peoples of the Antilles and Uruguay hold but a trace of Indian blood (Steward and Faron 1959: 457).

An accurate count of indigenous peoples today is hindered by dynamics that are both internal and external to the communities under consideration. In the mid-twentieth century, estimates of native populations in South and Central America and Mexico ranged from 14 to 20 million members of some 300 indigenous groups, but demographers rarely specified the criteria by which they reached these numbers (Stannard 1992).

How might one count “Indianness”? In the United States, standards for inclusion in a tribal configuration vary greatly from group to group. Indeed, the rules for inclusion may change significantly from generation to generation. Twenty years ago, tribal affiliation among Eastern Cherokee required members to prove that they were at least one thirty-second Cherokee. Gradually, this fraction changed to one sixteenth and currently efforts are being made to change the ratio to one eighth (Herndon, personal communication). Manipulating these fractions reflects, in part, a system in which government services are allotted according to a provable percentage of Indian blood. These formulations are particularly ironic in the face of the failure of the federal government to address central issues of Indian sovereignty and economic viability.

The problem in Latin America is equally complex, and has been fueled by linguists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists who have taken it upon themselves to decide when a community is “Indian enough” or when it has become too “acculturated” for statistical inclusion. Neither model takes into account the multiple models of identity that might coexist within a community. Moreover, in some situations, lineage, moiety, village, or village subsection may do more to define an individual’s self-perception than language or tribal designation.

The designation of Indian “cultures” is directly tied to language classification. Europeans have attempted to classify “Indios” according to the languages they speak since the early stages of the conquista. The first grammars of indigenous American languages followed the style of the Arabic grammars used by the Catholic clergy of 15th-century Spain in their efforts to convert the Moors. A more systematic approach was heralded in 1708 by Adrianus Reeland, who compared the features of languages he referred to as Brazilian, Peruvian, Chilian, Pocoman, Carib, Mexican, Virginian, Algonkin, and Huron. Long before the Bering Strait was first charted (1730) and after its discovery by Russians in 1648, Reeland suggested that, if a common origin was to be found among the tongues of the Americas, it would have to be traced through the languages of Asia (Haven 1856: 56, cited in Key 1991: 4).

To this day, the comparative study of indigenous languages rests on the compilation and comparison of word lists, a method pioneered by Catherine the Great, who set in motion an effort to compare the languages of the known world, grouping them according to similarities discerned through word lists. She personally prepared word lists that were sent around the globe through diplomatic channels. Her requests for special attention to newly-discovered Indian languages even reached George Washington and his fledgling nation. Catherine commissioned Peter Pallas to edit her work, which he published under his name in 1786–1787 (Key 1980). Mary Ritchie Key, who has addressed linguistic change in South American Indian languages, characterizes the grouping of language families that arise from the word list method as being the result of rather arbitrary decisions made by scholars who are either “lumpers” or “splitters” (1991: 9). Thus, conclusions about linguistic kinship are heavily influenced by the personality and experiential reality of the observer. Word lists have varied over time from twenty-six items (Balbi 1826 in Key 1991: 5) to the two-hundred items listed by Morris Swadesh (1955, 1959). Ultimately, the problem of classification of languages into families rests on decisions made on the basis of similarities perceived by individual linguists juxtaposed with locational contiguity and the migration of groups in and out of geographic regions. “Families” consist of languages that hold enough similarity to afford a certain degree of mutual intelligibility. Of course, language change forces us to juxtapose similarities in time and space with the methods and knowledge of the linguist. Consequently, the number of language families identified among indigenous peoples of South America has varied tremendously in the last century: the 73 language groups proposed by Daniel Brinton in 1892 were increased by Cestmír Loukotka to 94 in 1935 and 117 in 1968. In his “Ethno-Linguistic Index,” Loukotka lists more than 3,000 individual South American dialects (1968: 405–38).

The determination of language families in Mesoamerica has been influenced by characteristics assumed to have been common among cultural groups in pre-Conquest times. Summarizing work begun in Mexico and Guatemala four centuries ago, Jorge Suárez offers an inventory of calculations ranging from 14 to 88 language families, and estimates that 100 to 190 Indian languages are spoken to this day in Mesoamerica, including Garífuna (Black Carib), a language imported from South America in the late eighteenth century (Suárez 1983: 11).

The pitfalls of language classification and of “lumping” or “splitting” traits derived from word lists illustrates some of the difficulties involved in any discussion of indigenous musics of the Americas. Ethnomusicological field research and the laboratory classification of musical instruments and performance styles has produced inventories of peoples, rituals, tuning systems, and traits that render similarities and differences. But the complexities of linguistic and/or musical competence lead us to ponder whether language, notions of “race,” or ritual participation can dictate inclusion. For example, among the Argentine Mapuche, a grandmother may speak “deep” (rich in metaphoric layerings) Mapuche; yet her daughter may speak only Spanish and her granddaughter, having learned Mapuche in a Salesian mission school, may speak fluent, but “surface” Mapuche. Digging deeper, we might find that the Mapuche-speaking grandmother may really consider herself Ranquel, but has taken on the label Mapuche to satisfy the “lumping” tendencies of the federal government. To further confuse matters, the Spanish-speaking daughter may have married a winká (non-Mapuche) who has learned the tribal language and even participates actively in annual rites of increase (see Carol E. Robertson, “Fertility Ritual,” in this volume). Here our notions of “Indianness” are reduced to dust, and we are left with an articulation of inclusion based on ritual/social participation and the complexity of individual and community identities adapted to specific circumstances.

The linear construction of scholarship usually negates the processes through which we and others arrive at a sense of “belonging” within a particular group. Instead, we have invented terms that cause us to distance ourselves from our subject matter as it was experienced during our research. These terms are the foundations of a discourse in which “we” talk about “them”; we translate who “they” are to others who are more or less like us. But if “they,” the Indios, seem too much like us—if they dress, speak, worship, or sing in ways that seem familiar to us—they have become “acculturated.” These labels stigmatize those societies that no longer fit our ideas of what and who Indians should be. Often, regardless of whether communities identify themselves as indigenous, we marginalize them through our imposed classification systems. Our tendencies toward reductionism ignore subtle differences in worldview within indigenous communities. This same reductionism ignores that the terms indio, or paisano, or caboclo (in Brazil) signal a reality of the Other constructed by non-Indians—a reality that lumps peoples who have co-existed with European worldviews for five centuries with peoples who have “discovered” Europeans within our lifetime.

Perhaps an even greater void in our discussion concerns the myriad ways in which native peoples respond to incursions by Europeans, mestizos, and other outside groups. For example, the Makiritare of the Upper Orinoco (Venezuela) have incorporated two contrasting images of the Spanish invader in the Watunna, their creation narrative: the White Man, Iaranavi, is associated with the white egret, an emissary of beauty, wisdom, generosity, and light. It is Iaranavi who is remembered as the powerful master of iron, a precious metal that, when embodied in the thunderous arcabuz, invokes the power of the heavens. But Iaranavi’s shadow, Fañuru (from “español”), is a dark, treacherous figure—a rapist, cannibal, and despoiler of the land who dragged his own god into the center of the village and crucified him (Civrieux 1980: 6–7). Although the Makiritare have had little contact with the español since the late eighteenth century, the indelible mark on their psyche left by the European presence has been absorbed into the very heart of their cosmology.

Highland Peruvian and Mexican dance-dramas also represent the conqueror in more than one way. In the dramatizations known as Moros y cristianos (see Béhague’s “Music and Dance in Ritual and Ceremony” in these volumes), the Spaniard is aligned with the triumph of good over evil, of Christianity over what the Catholic Church labeled as “paganism.” But in contemporary re-enactments of the death of the Inca Atahualpa, the Spaniard, or, more specifically, Pizarro, becomes the enigmatic betrayer of the Kechua of old. In the town of Carhuamayo, a community that many would consider highly “acculturated,” Pizarro enters the dance arena in his best finery, making gestures that honor the stately Coya women surrounding him. In an unexpected moment, he stealthily draws a dagger from his cloak and slits the throat of the Coya. From her throat chicha (corn liquor) flows to the ground, for the wira or life force of the People is being sucked dry. The Death of Atahualpa (Millones 1992), whether performed in an Indio or mestizo community, is a potent act of resistance to conquest. So, in defining the parameters of “native” cultures we must emphasize that peoples constantly “reinvent” themselves. Every ritual, every performance event, every story told about the past is part of that process of continuous creation and re-creation of aboriginal identity.

Ethnographies and cultural classifications often seem to imply that acculturation or mestizaje involves some pivotal moment when the Indian becomes less and less Indian, until she or he falls off the scale of Indianness. But is there really some invisible line that an individual or community crosses over to cease being Indian and to become mestizo? Is there a particular moment when a Tarahumara fiddle player tunes his instrument in such a way that he trades in his Tarahumara aesthetic for a foreign one? Musical, relational, linguistic, and ritual changes have been unfolding in the indigenous cultures of the Americas since the first crossing of the Bering Strait. In the Nahuatl world, sages continue to count years and cycles, predicting the emergence of a Fifth World in the year 2012. As they mark the passage of time, they continue to reinvent themselves and their world. They have done this many times before. But now, because they often draw on a European aesthetic or play on instruments introduced by Spanish conquerors, they are judged less Indian. Perhaps we give the slaughter of conquest too little importance and the culture of the conqueror too much importance, thus creating a double standard of acculturation. Would an Aztec (Mexica) composer seeking to recreate Toltec aesthetics cease being Aztec and “become” Toltec by virtue of his involvement in a culture that was ultimately foreign to him?

Native cultures have been borrowing from each other for thousands of years: the Mexica took many of their artistic and spiritual cues from the Toltecs; the Atacameños of northern Chile emulated the instrumental traditions of the northern Kechua: peoples along the Xingú River borrow repertoires and rituals from one another at this very moment. In similar ways, native cultures took ideas, names, even religious pantheons from the Spaniards, Portuguese, French, and British, as they do today from North American protestant missionaries.

The analytic categories spawned by ethnographic research should remain no more than convenient, temporary tools for grasping complex bodies of information. Furthermore, we must always remember that cultures move back and forth in many directions as they struggle to reinvent their identities in times of great change. Anthony Seeger has documented a striking example of the ebb and flow among the Kiriri of Bahia, Brazil, who have been in contact with Brazilian institutions and ideas for centuries. They even were recognized throughout Brazil for being specialists in certain genres of Brazilian music. And yet, in the early 1990s the Kiriri underwent a conceptual, cultural, and musical transformation that allowed them to “reinvent” their identity. Resisting the appropriation of their land by entrepreneurs, they cleared a collective garden atop one of the hills they had reclaimed and began performing a ritual known as the toré, learned a decade earlier from another Indian community. This music started as a cult activity on the reservation and mushroomed into a central social ritual of resistance: “The collective performance of this clearly indigenous ceremony on top of the hill in full view of their non-indigenous neighbors was an important symbolic affirmation of Kiriri ‘Indianness’ and a musical argument for their rights to the land they were occupying” (Seeger 1992: 454).

The methodological issues raised above affect the ways we read and write about native cultures of the Americas. The essays that follow illustrate many different approaches to documentation, interpretation, and representation. On the whole, they attempt to explicate the interrelationships between music and other ways of knowing the universe, for lists of traits and classifications of musical styles are sterile notions unless they appear woven into the fabric of social discourse and ritual action. The ways in which people “perform” their particular universe remain just beyond our reach unless we can embrace these richly textured myths, rituals, and performance practices as embodiments of the paradox, conflict, beauty, pain, and loss that mark all human experience. Whether from the deserts, mountains, or rainforests, all of these cultures have found intricate ways of explaining the relationships between sound, social organization, time, and the sacred. Strategies for survival vary greatly from one indigenous group to another, yet in every society the relationship of individuals and groups must be negotiated in time and space. Musical performance is always a key ingredient in our formulations of the universe, for it creates an arena in which the known and the unknown, the revered and the feared, the past and the present can co-mingle, where the deepest recesses of the subconscious can be jarred or reaffirmed, and where the core images of being human can be evoked.


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Dobyns, Henry F. 1966. “Estimating Aboriginal American population: An appraisal of techniques with a new hemispheric estimate,” Current anthropology 7/4: 395–416.

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