Burkhart: “Indigenous History in Christian Texts: Nahua Plays and Pictorial Catechisms”

Louise M Burkhart, University at Albany, SUNY

6pm-8pm, 10 April 2017

International Affairs Building – ISERP Conference Room 270B (directions here).


Nahuas living under colonial rule produced a huge trove of documents in many genres, divided by scholars into a “mundane” or “notarial” corpus, including annals, wills, primordial titles, and other materials, and a religious or doctrinal corpus. Historians have worked primarily with the former, but religious texts also inscribe historical statements. This presentation will highlight two colonial religious genres: catechisms presented in a reinvented pictographic writing and religious dramas that stage biblical or hagiographic stories as Nahuatl-language community theater. Both genres undermine colonizing discourses by asserting a competence as Christians generally denied by Spanish authorities, promoting an indigenized Christianity, and aligning Nahua communities with divine authority. In this historical imaginary Nahuas retain cosmic centrality and fidelity to their forebears, sidelining the role of Spanish colonial agents.

Pre-circulated paper attached, also available here


Louise Burkhart is professor and chair of the department of Anthropology at the University of Albany, SUNY. She is the author of The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (1989), the multivolume Nahuatl Theater (2004-2009), and Painted Words: Nahua Catholicism, Politics, and Memory in the Atzaqualco Pictorial Catechism (2016) among many other books and articles. Through her work, she investigates the ways in which indigenous Mexicans experienced, engaged with, and manipulated the Christian texts and teachings introduced under Spanish colonial rule, focusing primarily with materials in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language. Her latest research examines pictographic inscriptions of Nahuatl-language Christian doctrine, debunking the conventional view of these texts (known as Testerian manuscripts) as early missionary tools, by arguing that later-colonial native elites invented these new forms of writing for the purpose of political legitimation.

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