Ethnohistoric Research

My own digital drawing of the frontispiece of the Relacion de Michocan. It depicts the anonymous friar (very probably Jeronimo de Alcala) who compiled and edited the document presenting it to the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. Behind the friar stands Don Pedro, and behind him indigenous priests.

As part of my investigation into the Tarascan state, I have also conducted ethnohistoric research and analyses of colonial-era documents. For a long time, what we knew–or thought we knew–about the Tarascan state derived mostly from ethnohistoric sources (documents written after the conquest, often at the behest of Europeans or in response to imposed European conditions, such as an alien judicial system). Foremost among ethnohistoric sources for the study of the Tarascan State is a document commonly known as the Relacíon de Michoacán. This document was written around 1540, but perhaps compiled and edited, would be a more appropriate term for this document and others of it’s kind. Friar Jeronimo de Alcala, a Spanish Franciscan, took it upon himself to produce a volume about just about everything he could learn about Tarascan society, culture, the political structure, and the history of the area. In that endeavor he was aided by anonymous Tarascan elders, a lord named Don Pedro who had ingratiated himself to the last indigenous king, and at least one priest who told the history of the royal dynasty. As the document’s prologue explains, originally the document was divided into three sections: the first covered the origins of the gods and their ceremonies, the second was the history of the royal dynasty as related by an indigenous priest, and the third was the bureaucracy and functioning of the government and then the arrival of the Spaniards. Don Pedro was a key informant in the third section, while the second section is almost entirely composed of the story of one anonymous indigenous priest, except for some interjections presumably by the friar and then a few additional segments.

The overall picture of the Tarascan state that emerges from the pages of the Relacíon de Michoacán is one that was well integrated and ruled by the king. The king, or Irecha (the king is also sometimes referred to as the Cazonci) was the head of the secular bureaucracy as well as playing a prominent role in religious ceremonies and was the earthly representative of the primary god of the royal dynasty, Curicaueri. In my own work I have emphasized that the king was at least symbolically a being that had a dual character: he was a solar-fire-hunting-warfare encoded persona but one that also encompassed, or appropriated, elements of earth, water, fecundity, and femininity. I return to this essential point in a bit. But according to the testimonies in the Relacíon de Michoacán, all of the lords of the kingdom were beholden to him for their status, he held all insignia of offices that he would give them in acts of ceremonial investiture (or have his messenger priests do this in his place), he cemented the position of these lords with strategic marriages, and basically what he said was carried out. This political arrangement, in other words, looks very different from the “Aztec” pattern of city-states with their own rulers who might be conquered by the “Aztec Emperor” (Huey Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan) but maintain, by and large, their position, the loyalty of their citizens, and thus their localized power base. In Central Mexico, this is often called the “altepetl” model and it was pervasive (altepetl literally means “water-hill,” but is the conceptualization of the peoples of Central Mexico for what scholars call “city-states”). The Tarascan system would be more akin to what archaeologists call a “territorial state” in which the political power of the king is pretty evenly applied across the area over which he ruled, with no sense of legitimate authority to challenge his own. Indeed, as I have tried to analyze and describe, there was no sense of legitimate authority outside of that which derived from him–at least, according to the official representations. This is a major reason why the lords of Erongaricuaro engaging in or sponsoring their own lapidary production was so intriguing and important.

I perceived in my graduate studies that the Relacíon de Michoacán, contains much information that can and should be used to elucidate the nature of the state, in many ways it needed to be properly contextualized in an anthropological framework. All historians contextualize documents; they ask who is speaking/writing, why, to what audience, how do these conditions affect what is being said or presented. With the Relacíon de Michoacán, however, because there were up until recently no known documents that told alternate stories, the Relacion de Michoacan stood on its own and effectively became “the” picture of the Tarascan state. Additionally, what I mean by anthropologically contextualizing the document is that we must recognize that other cultures can have various reasons for telling stories and keeping histories. In essense, in addition to the above questions, we should ask in what ways are the writer’s perceptions of themselves, the situation, and others about or to whom they might be writing or speaking informed by culturally relative worldviews. Therefore I embarked on a 15-year engagement with the history of the royal dynasty as told in the Relacíon de Michoacán, analyzing it as something that goes beyond propaganda to something informed by a worldview that was explicitly being challenged and thus required reformulation in the early colonial era.This research culminated in the publication of my book The Two Taríacuris. You can download the Table of Contents and Chapter 1 for free here on my academia page.

DMy own digital drawing of the chief priest of the Tarascan state, the Petamuti. He holds a ceremonial staff that was said to make his words the words of the god Curicaueri. Around his neck he wears bronze “tweezers” that is a characteristic of the priesthood, and on his back he wears a gourd (with turquoise in-lay) in which he carried priestly accessories such as tobacco and incense. He is also depicted with his stool, which was a marker of status.

The primary point of departure of my work on the Relacíon de Michoacán is a focus on the second part, the part that supposedly relays the history of the Royal Dynasty. The lengthy narrative of that history is often supposed to have been narrated by the chief priest, or Petamuti, or the Tarascan state himself. However, the document only says that the chief priest “would begin thusly …” right before it then slips into the narrative. Paul Kirchhoff noted that the document only says that the story is being narrated by a priest “who knew the story.” In fact, it is not surprising that another priest knew the story, because one of the things we are told about this story is that it was told every year at a specific religious festival as a pretext for punishing anyone who broke the rules of the kingdom. Not only that, but while the Petamuti recited the story in the capital of Tzintzuntzan, lesser priests were dispatched to the towns of the realm where they would similarly tell the story of the king’s ancestors and how it was that he had the divine right to judge those criminals. One of the many problems of interpreting this narrative in the context of the Relacíon de Michoacán, though, is that we have no indication of whether or not the priest is telling the story only for the production of the document (i.e. only to Alcala and his assembled scribes), if it took place in Tzintzuntzan, or if it was a remembered version of a past narration. One of the prominent findings of my work is that the priest altered this narrative in order to fit the colonial context in which he was telling this story. In one way this is not at all revolutionary; the document itself notes one way in which Friar Alcala himself instructed the priest to change the narrative. In one passage Alcala explains that the priest attributes all actions, or at least the agency or willfulness behind all actions, to the god Curicaueri. This did not sit well with Alcala and his Catholic sensibilities and mission to convert the indigenous people to his “one true” god, and so instructed the priest to stop.

In order to explain the other way that the priest must have altered his narrative, it is instructive to look both within and outside of the Relacíon de Michoacán. Within section two but outside of the priest’s narration, there are two “chapters” that relate historical information but as I stated are left out of the narrative. Additionally, after the narrative ends with the wars of conquest that create a unified state, the document goes on to describe how the kingship moves from Patzcuaro to Ihuatzio to Tzintzuntzan in rather unproblematic fashion, as if this was no big deal. This is where information from outside of the Relacion de Michoacan comes into play. As Roskamp, Monzon, and Warren have discussed in their publication of a 1543 document that I (2013) subsequently commented on, the transition from Ihuatzio to Tzintzintzuan, or at least the initiation of king Tzitzispandaquare’s reign at Tzintzuntzan was full of intrigue–and perhaps conquest (though who the vanquished was is not stated). In the end we have three historical episodes or events that are quite interesting and noteworthy, and yet they do not make the cut into the priest’s narrative–why?

As I have argued in my 2013 Ethnohistory article and then more fully lay out in my book, the structure of the priest’s narrative answers this question. The priest crafted his narrative such that one figure, Taríacuri, is central to the action. More than that, Tariacuri’s “pivoting” from a warrior-hunter “Chichimec” (I make the case that the priest used this word figuratively and not to indicate that Taríacuri and the Uacusecha were actual nomads from the north) to an “Islander” who possesses the trappings of traditional power and wealth is the central event around which the entire narrative “pivots.” The figure below illustrates how the themes of the episodes above and below Taríacuri’s switch from Chichimec to Islander line up as in the poetic device of chiasmus.

The effect then is that while the story simultaneously progresses to reach it’s conclusion with the Uacusecha lords Hiripan, Tangaxoan, and Hiquingaxe ruling a unified kingdom, it also folds back on itself, as depicted below.

Simultaneous progression and folding back of the priest’s narrative, in which the episodes after Tariacuri pivots are their own events but also are inversions of events from before Tariacuri’s pivoting.

So what does this mean? It means that the priest, through his narrative, constructs Tariacuri as a central figure, the central figure in the story of how the royal dynasty came to control a unified kingdom. It is similar to many “Stranger King” narratives told all around the world in that regard. As in those systems, the king is not merely a person but a composite symbol of the social totality–he is all things to all people, both a violent and potent usurper but also a representative of the traditional order and its legitimacy and wealth (with wealth being derived from the land’s fertility and productivity). The king is the pivot around which society is ordered; this ideology is therefore mirrored in the priest’s narrative.

Even more interestingly, outside of the priest’s narrative Taríacuri is often mentioned in other documents, but does not appear to be the transcendent figure he is in the Relación de Michoacán. When he is mentioned, he is mostly just one among a number of kings. There are many possible reasons for these divergent representations, and I discuss these in my book. One that I discuss at great length however is that at the time that the priest was crafting and telling his narrative, the last king’s oldest son was reaching an age of maturity-and that son’s name was Don Francisco Tariacuri (he had been baptized as a youth and thus had taken a Christian name). In the end, I argue that the priest telling this story constructs it as he does so that the current Taríacuri of the late 1530’s can live up to the legend that the past Taríacuri has been constructed to be. He is saying, in effect, that we must make Don Francisco Tariacuri king, because he is just like his namesake the (now larger than life) past Tariacuri.