The Colonial Power of Naming: Nahuatl Terms and Nahuas Views of 16th-Century Healers in Central Mexico

Saturday, January 8, 2022: 8:30 AM
Rhythms Ballroom 2 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Edward Anthony Polanco, Virginia Tech
There is great power in the ability to name a thing, place, or people. European settlers in the American continent introduced the term Indian, the noble savage, and a plethora of other misconceptions about Native people. This paper studies the slow and piecemeal creation of the “deceitful” and “harmful” Nahua indio medico (Native physician) in sixteenth-century Mexico. I argue that by uncritically using colonial documents scholars and students have perpetuated Eurocentric views. More importantly, this study uses dictionaries, illustrated manuscripts, archival documents, and colonial chronicles to present a more robust and complex understanding of Central Mexican Nahua healers using the names and descriptions that Nahuas provided. For instance, sources show that Central Mexican Nahua male and female titiçih (healing specialists) traversed various realms of European ideologies, such as, religion, medicine, and witchcraft. Nevertheless, early colonial Nahua practices had nothing to do with Western thought or beliefs. By heavily engaging and privileging sources partially or completely written in Nahuatl (the languages of Mexican Nahuas) this study decolonizes Nahua healers in early colonial Mexico. Moreover, this study demonstrates that when possible, it is best to use Native terms for Native concepts. Thus, we can see that names are very important in the way concepts are understood and remembered. The way concepts are remembered shapes the way we understand the present. Though many Nahua communities continue to have healers, they operate in limited way with increasingly diminishing prestige and clients.
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