On “Indians”
“Indians,” as everyone knows, were invented by Europeans. As European
settlers and explorers roamed the Caribbean and then the American
mainland in the years after , they began to classify the inhabitants of
this new world as “Indians.” In so doing they created a cultural and ethnic
category that had not previously been imagined by the continent’s origi-
nal residents. The varied groups that had settled the Americas prior to
the arrival of Europeans did not consider themselves members of a single
community. On the contrary, some indigenous groups were not aware of
the existence of the other societies with whom they were to be linked as
fellow “Indians.” Others denied any connection between themselves and
those peoples that they considered less developed; the Mexica of Central
Mexico traded and warred with many of their neighbors, but they did not
always regard them as their equals. They viewed the lowland Huastecas,
for example, as uncivilized and wild, and therefore quite different from
themselves. Thus, prior to the arrival of Europeans the category of “In-
dian” did not exist. During the three-hundred-year period of Spanish co-
lonialism some did embrace the new category, thereby becoming “Indian,”
while others clung persistently to older identities.1 The problematic na-
ture of the very concept of the “Indian” has led many scholars to substitute
terms such as “Native American” or other less obviously European labels.
This book, however, is concerned with Indians. It studies precisely the
European concept encoded in the word “Indian.” Like Robert Berkhofer,
who has analyzed representations of North American native peoples, I
use the word “Indian” to refer specifically to the “white image of these
persons.”2 The fact that this term imposed a new and essentially artificial
unity on disparate societies should not impede studying the meanings it
had for its many users.
As the historian Blanca Muratorio has noted, in Spanish America the
“Indians [who were] evoked, internalized, or rejected . . . took diverse
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