Before the Missions: Guaraní Kinship and the Encomienda in Colonial Paraguay, 1556–1630

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Shawn Michael Austin, University of New Mexico
Modern Paraguay is known as a thoroughly mestizo nation. But the unusual process of mestizaje in Paraguay is reflected in the fact that while nearly all Paraguayans speak Guaraní this does not mark indigenous identity. Over fifty years ago, anthropologist Elman R. Service used the absence of ostensible indigenous traits in modern Paraguay to interpret the colonial past, arguing that Spanish encomenderos devastated Guaraní social and cultural integrity within a few generations. My paper will complicate Service’s claims by analyzing social relationships and the encomienda in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Paraguay through litigation records, a previously untapped source for this periodization. I will show that the first version of the encomienda existed at the nexus of native notions of kinship, labor, and sexuality and that a variation of this model persisted well into the seventeenth century, much longer than scholars have assumed. Paradoxically, the encomienda was both sustained and jeopardized by native marriage practices. Just like other politically distinct native groups, Spaniards received native wives to establish mutually beneficial alliances and kinships networks; these constituted the first encomiendas. But Spaniards did not anticipate that these strategic unions would extend to native groups beyond their encomiendas. Encomenderos attempted to manipulate these unions to protect or augment their encomiendas, but this violated the Council of Trent’s emphasis on free will and a slew of litigation ensued. Between the lines of these disputes, the lives of native men, women, and children emerge. This paper reveals the various paths of ethnogenesis in Paraguay and demonstrates that the Guaraní maintained their social integrity within the encomienda. By analyzing the linkages between native sexuality, affinity and colonial institutions, my paper will contribute to ethnohistorical approaches to frontiers and borderlands societies in the Atlantic World.

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