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Aztec, Mexica, or Alien?

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Are you an illegal alien? If you are white and of European ancestry, however remote, the California-based Mexica Movement says that you have no right to be on this continent. These people, who call themselves Nican Tlaca, the Indigenous People, claim to speak for all the native peoples of Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. Their claim to possession of the entire North American continent is based on an impressive array of statistics, historical records, and recent incidents of real or alleged abuses by the so-called White Supremacists, who allegedly stole the continent from the original inhabitants and have continued to oppress them ever since the so-called "discovery" of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. All whites of European extraction are therefore "illegal immigrants" and should go back to Europe and leave the North American continent to its original Indian owners.

Many of the charges made by the Mexica Movement against the European invaders are historically accurate but their extreme rhetorical bombast and over-generalizations about Indian history underscores the difficulty in arriving at a consensus in the general interpretation of native American culture and civilization before the arrival of the Europeans. The controversy begins over the meaning of such terms as Aztec, Mexica, and Aztlan, for the Mexica Movement, which is based specifically on classical Aztec civilization and professes to speak for all indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

The Mexica Movement especially objects to the name Aztec to describe their organization or mission on the grounds that the people who founded Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, never called themselves Aztec but Mexica. The name Aztec is said to be derived from Aztlan (i.e. aztatl = "heron" and tlantli = lit. "tooth" but signifying "place of"), the Place of the Heron. But even this long-accepted interpretation has been challenged. In 1810, Alexander von Humboldt applied the term Aztec to all the people associated in any way with the Mexica state. In his highly popular but misleading book, the Conquest of Mexico, William Prescott perpetuated the myth which was at first used to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-Hispanic Mexicans (Mexica). The current use of the term Aztec has become a subject of debate and the term Mexica is perhaps preferable, although many professional archaeologists use Aztec and Mexica interchangeably. The origin of the term Mexica is uncertain.

Aztlan is another disputed term. In general it refers to the semi-historical, semi-legendary northerly location from which the various Nahua-speaking tribes set out on their long journey southwards into central Mexico and surrounding areas. Unlike the Mexica Movement, the Azteca Web Page, another California-based grassroots revival, capitalizes on the name Aztec in proclaiming its mission to disseminate information to "Mexicans, Chicanos, and/or Mexican-Americans." For some Chicanos of Mexican ancestry Aztlan is taken to refer to that part of Mexico that was taken over by the Americans after the Mexican-American War of 1846. While we do not know the original location of Aztlan, there is linguistic evidence that peoples speaking related languages did pass through this area in prehistoric times. The distribution of Uto-Aztecan, a general family of languages, extends from the Aztecan or Nahuatlan languages in central Mexico to Hopi in Arizona and Southern Californian Shoshonean, among many others.

Obviously we have no written records containing the names Aztec, Mexica, or Aztlan from pre-Conquest times, although we do have many personal and place names in the pre-Hispanic codices recorded in hieroglyphic symbols. The written historical records begin when writing in Roman transcription was introduced by the Spanish missionaries. But since so much of our knowledge of pre-Conquest Mexico has filtered down to us through the friars and secular mestizo and Indian writers trained in missionary schools, we have to examine the primary sources very carefully in order to sift out authentic native beliefs and customs.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the greatest of the Spanish Franciscan missionary ethnographers, arrived in New Spain in 1529, less than a decade after the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Therefore many of Sahagún's Indian informants lived well before the Conquest. In his Florentine Codex, he gives us the earliest account of the Mexica or Mexiti and their pilgrimage from the desert lands in the north to the eventual founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. In his writing, most of which is in Nahuatl as taken down from the Indians themselves, Sahagún never mentions the words Aztec or Aztlan. But he tells us that the name Mexica or Mexicatl (singular) is derived from Mecitli (me = "maguey" and citli = "rabbit"). This was also said to be the name of the priest who led the Mexica on their journey south and gave the people their name. The Toltecs, the Nahuas, and others were said to have come from the land of the Chichimecas, but only the Mexica continued on to the final destination. Fray Diego Durán, a Dominican friar, grew up in Texcoco and Mexico City not long after the Conquest, and he too was in touch with survivors of the Conquest or their immediate descendants. Durán refers to the people as Mexica or Mexicanos. But in the Cronica Mexicayotl of 1609 by Tezozomoc, a grandson of Moctezuma, we read "Here it is told, it is recounted, how the ancients who were called, who were named, Teochichimeca, Azteca, Mexitin, Chicomoztoca, came, arrived, … [at] the great city of Mexico-Tenochtitlán." A recent authority, on the other hand, affirms that Mexica refers not only to groups entering Maya lands but to the Aztecs who adopted the name after the founding of Tenochtitlán.

"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet II 2 43). Apparently not for the Mexica Movement or the Azteca Web Page. The choice of names defines their very objective. Unfortunately, these special interest groups weaken their case by presenting only one side of the matter. The early inhabitants of the American continent were far from being a united people, as the Mexica Movement would have it now. In fact, most of them had very little in common. Cortes conquered the Aztecs largely because of the help of the Tlaxcallans and other disgruntled Indians fed up with Aztec domination. Apart from a few isolated efforts at Indian unity and solidarity, such as the Iroquois Confederacy in Canada and the five so-called "civilized" tribes in the United States, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminoles, Indian tribes fought innumerable tribal wars amongst themselves and so weakened their resistance against the white invaders.

Having said that, I hasten to add that the enthusiastic but somewhat naive people in the Mexica Movement do have a case in point. Europeans were certainly guilty of cultural genocide, if not of wholesale genocide, in the New World, particularly in Mexico. The sorry history of white-Indian contact throughout the length and breadth of the Americas is marked by violence and deceit, mostly on the part of the invaders, mainly because they had all the advantage in weapons and manpower. There are many such historical examples, most of which, such as the so-called "Massacre of the Little Bighorn" (Indian victories are usually described as "massacres" whereas massacres perpetrated by Europeans are "battles" or "victories") are well documented, as the following example illustrates.

Lawsuits are now being brought against the mission schools in Canada for their inappropriate treatment of native children. I lived in Whitehorse, Yukon, in the 1950s, and witnessed firsthand the systematic suppression of native languages, customs, religion, and ethnic identity. Since the Mexica Movement includes all "indigenous" peoples under the heading of Nican Tlaca perhaps the example of the Kutchin and other native peoples of the Canadian north is not amiss here.

The Catholic and Protestant missionaries who brought the Gospel to the Indians in the north of Canada and ran the mission schools were, in general, dedicated and sincere individuals who truly believed they were doing the Lord's work. But - inadvertently or knowingly - they were also doing the work of the Canadian government in its short-sighted policy of integrating the "natives" into the dominant "white" society. The results were generally catastrophic for the Indians.

I went to the "white" High School in Whitehorse, which allowed half-breeds and quarter-breeds to attend but denied the right to full-blooded Indians. During the winter, many Indian children stayed in dormitories at the local mission school, while their parents were off hunting or in winter quarters. During the school year the Reverend Lee, who ran the Whitehorse Mission School, handed out large doses of evangelical fire and brimstone to students, along with lessons on how to become good "white" citizens. Often when parents returned in the summer to take their children back to their own homes or out for the summer hunt, the confused children were reluctant to go with their parents after months of exposure to an alien culture and religion in an environment where they were not even allowed to use their own language. On one occasion, I went to the mission school and found two young Indian girls sitting huddled in a big packing case in front of the mission. I asked them what they were doing there and they replied: "The Reverend Lee told us we are bad girls and have to sit here until we are better."

I could give many examples of the psychological and cultural damage done to native peoples in the name of religion and politics. History is usually written from the viewpoint of the conquerors It is easy therefore to understand the anger and frustration of many aboriginal peoples who know the other side of the story of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru, or the ruthless treatment of Indians in the States and Canada. It is equally difficult to see how the centuries of oppression and suppression can ever be adequately redressed or compensated for, especially since many white folk today even resent the "handouts" now being given to native groups. I am not an advocate for the Mexica Movement or any other "Native Rights" organization, but I can understand where they are coming from. I was making Indian war bonnets and doing beadwork when I was 12 years old. Some people suspect I may have been an Indian in a previous life. Who knows?

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2008 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2008
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