Before 1492, there were no Indians in America. Columbus’ notorious expedition brought not only Europeans to America, it also brought the “Indian.” Disparate native peoples, with different cultures and languages, living in roaming bands and settled empires, located on islands, mountains, deserts, and tropical forests would all, after 1492, be called Indians. The origin of the “Indian” lies in this infamous crossing of the Atlantic by Europeans. For indigenous groups and individuals, however, crossing between ethnic identities would not cease; for some it would even be a daily occurrence.

In this course, we will examine how indigenous and European peoples understood, maintained, and dismantled ethnic identities from pre-Hispanic to modern times in Latin America. We will begin by looking at indigenous societies before Spanish conquest and then explore the political, economic, and social strategies of indigenous peoples during the colonial and modern eras. We will consider how indigenous and non-indigenous peoples used ethnic categories to construct power and authority.

The central idea of the course is that ethnic identities are interconnected with gender and class and that we therefore have to move away from essentialist approaches and ask how and why, at a certain time and place, a particular group chooses to define itself, or is defined by others in terms of ethnicity, gender or class.