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MEXICO: The Ongoing Argument

Social scientists constantly argue about words. Linda Nyquist objects to the word "backward," saying it is an excuse to keep the Indians back. One could argue that it just as well could meanthat they need to be helped forward. Linda also questions whether they want to change their ways or should do. The Zapatour soldiers entering Mexico City wore colorful hats with ribbons dangling from them to stress Indian culture, but the Indians who came from all over to greet them wore ordinary clothes. They clearly were interested in better living conditions rather than their culture.

Tim Brown raises the question of Indian diversity: "What does Indian mean in identity group terms? Indian in this sense is no more specific than European, Asian, or African. Each term encompasses a vast array of different peoples in terms of cultures, languages, belief and value systems, historical experiences, and so on. To say Indians this, or Indians that means little. I would suggest that an Indian identity group is self-defined as a group/tribe/culture that sees itself in us versus them terms, with us meaning those who meet internal identification criteria the group itself determines, however informally. The Tarahumara are whoever the Tarahumara say they are, and so on."

And each group defines its own identity differences from others regardless of what external observers see or think they see. And there are literally thousands of such Indian groups in the Americas today, often vastly different from one another. I've attended days long Miskito tribal Council of Elders meetings that celebrated their tradition of governance by consensus and observed Indian organizations that were strictly hierarchical - one gave orders, everyone else complied. I used to visit an Apache report casino complex run by the Mescaleros as efficiently as any Las Vegas strip resort. All were Indians and all vastly different. The safest and most reasonable way to define who is an Indian, for me is to respect their definitions of who they are, and not look further. Then, the best way to interact with them from outside is to offer them the opportunity to pick and choose those things from outside they want to accept, but never to force or coerce them to accept themt. In short, offer opportunities but respect their freedom of choice.

Individual Identity. In Mexico the practice has been to define as Indian only those who speak an Indian language as a mother tongue, dress traditionally, and live in traditional housing. But there are many Mexicans who claim to be Indians yet do none of these things. And here, too, the differences are vast. There are Mexican ambassadors who insisted they are Indian that we would see as white indeed. I know a Sumu Indian "sukia" folk medicine practitioner who is as traditional as they come, and once met a Lacandon Indian nuclear physicist [from Marcos country, as a matter of fact]. As individuals, Indians are every much as diverse as non-Indians are. After many a fit and start in my own research into Indian identities over the past decade, I finally concluded that whether one is or is not an Indian is pretty much a function of two things - first, self-identification and, second, acceptance of that identification by Indian peers. And the best way to interact was with respect. "

My comment: Tim quotes Europe and Africa. the fact is that the is now a European sense of identity, and one is being formed in sub-Saharan Africa. Both Fox and Marcos lumps all the groups together as "indigenas"; I have not counted the relative frequency of that term and "Indians". Tim is right when he says the term is flexible. When appealing to them, politicians use the term. In one speech, Simon Bolivar, who was probably mulatto, said "I too am an Indian". Socially, people of mixed blood prefer to be viewed as white. There is a similar situation in Peru with regard to the word "cholo", about which we exchanged comments some time ago. When I was at Berkeley, 1937-39, anthropologists were arguing about this problem and concluded that an Indian is anyone who thinks he is an Indian.There have been and still are serious rivalries among tribes, but for political reasons a sense of common identity is developing among the Indians of the Americas. A similar argument has gone on with regard to "Latin America". People still identify themselves as Mexicans, Peruvians, etc., but a sense of Latin America identity is developing.

Ronald Hilton - 3/12/01