Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Houses of the Aztecs


    The first accounts of the pueblo of Mexico created a powerful sensation in Europe. In the West India Islands the Spanish discoverers found small Indian tribes under the government of chiefs, but on the continent, in the Valley of Mexico, they found a confederacy of three Indian tribes under a more advanced but similar government. In the midst of the valley was a large pueblo, the largest in America, surrounded with water, approached by causeways; in fine, a water-girt fortress impregnable to Indian assault. This pueblo presented to the Spanish adventurers the extraordinary spectacle of an Indian society lying two ethnical periods back of European society, but with a government and plan of life at once intelligent, orderly, and complete. There was aroused an insatiable curiosity for additional particulars, which has continued for three centuries, and which has called into existence a larger number of works than were ever before written upon any people of the same number and of the same importance.
The Spanish adventurers who captured the pueblo of Mexico saw a king in Montezuma, lords in Aztec chiefs, and a palace in the large joint-tenement house occupied, Indian fashion, by Montezuma and his fellow-householders. It was, perhaps, an unavoidable self-deception at the time, because they knew nothing of the Aztec social system. Unfortunately it inaugurated American aboriginal history upon a misconception of Indian life which has remained substantially unquestioned until recently. The first eye-witnesses gave the keynote to this history by introducing Montezuma as a king, occupying a palace of great extent crowded with retainers, and situated in the midst of a grand and populous city, over which, and much beside, he was reputed master. But king and kingdom were in time found too common to express all the glory and splendor the imagination was beginning to conceive of Aztec society; and emperor and empire gradually superseded the more humble conception of the conquerors. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote 1 relocated to chapter end.]
A psychological fact, which deserves a moment's notice, is revealed by these works, written as they were with a desire for the truth and without intending to deceive. These writers ought to have known that every Indian tribe in America was an organized society, with definite institutions, usages, and customs, which, when ascertained, would have perfectly explained its government, the social relations of the people, and their plan of life. Indian society could be explained as completely and understood as perfectly as the civilized society of Europe or America by finding its exact organization. This, strange to say, was never attempted, or at least never accomplished, by any one of these numerous and voluminous writers. To every author, from Cortes and Bernal Diaz to Brasseur de Bourbourg and Hubert H. Bancroft, Indian society was an unfathomable mystery, and their works have left it a mystery still. Ignorant of its structure and principles, and unable to comprehend its peculiarities, they invoked the imagination to supply whatever was necessary to fill out the picture. When the reason, from want of facts, is unable to understand and therefore unable to explain the structure of a given society, imagination walks bravely in and fearlessly rears its glittering fabric to the skies. Thus in this case, we have a grand historical romance, strung upon the conquest of Mexico as upon a thread; the acts of the Spaniards, the pueblo of Mexico, and its capture, are historical, while the descriptions of Indian society and government are imaginary and delusive. These picturesque tales have been read with wonder and admiration, as they successively appeared, for three hundred and fifty years; though shown to be romances, they will continue to be read as Robinson Crusoe is read, not because they are true, but because they are pleasing. The psychological revelation is the eager, undefinable interest aroused by any picture of ancient society. It is felt by every stranger when he first walks the streets of Pompeii, and, standing within the walls of its roofless houses, strives to picture to himself the life and the society which flourished there eighteen hundred years ago. In Mexico the Spaniards found an organized society several thousand years further back of their own than Pompeian society, in its arts, institutions, and state of advancement. It was this revelation of a phase of the ancient life of mankind which possessed and still possesses such power to kindle the imagination and inspire enthusiasm. It caught the imagination and overcame the critical judgment of Prescott, our most charming writer; it ravaged the sprightly brain of Brasseur de Bourbourg, and it carried up in a whirlwind our author at the Golden Gate.
The commendation these works have received from critical journals reveals with painful distinctness the fact that we have no science of American ethnology. Such a science, resting as it must upon verified facts, and dealing with the institutions, arts and inventions, usages and customs, languages, religious beliefs, and plan of government of the Indian tribes, would, were it fairly established, command as well as deserve the respect of the American people. With the exception of an amateur here and there, American scholars have not been willing to devote themselves to so vast a work. It may be truly said at this moment that the structure and principles of Indian society are but partially known, and that the American Indian himself is still an enigma among us. The question is still before us as a nation whether we will undertake the work of furnishing to the world a scientific exposition of Indian society, or leave it as it now appears, crude, unmeaning, unintelligible, a chaos of contradictions and puerile absurdities. With a field of unequaled richness and of vast extent, with the same Red Race in all the stages of advancement indicated by three great ethnical periods, namely the Status of savagery, the Lower Status of barbarism, and the Middle Status of barbarism, [Footnote: See ante, page 43, note, for a definition of proposed ethnical or culture periods, and Ancient Society, chapter 1, "Ethnical Periods."] more persons ought to be found willing to work upon this material for the credit of American scholarship. It will be necessary for them to do as Herodotus did in Asia and Africa, to visit the native tribes at their villages and encampments, and study their institutions as living organisms, their condition, and their plan of life. When this has been done from the region of the Arctic Sea to Patagonia, Indian society will become intelligible, because its structure and principles will be understood. It exhibits three distinct phases, each with a culture peculiar to itself, lying back of civilization, and back of the Upper Status of barbarism, having very little in common with European society of three hundred years ago, and very little in common with American society of to-day. Its institutions, inventions, and customs find no analogues in those of civilized nations, and cannot be explained in terms adapted to such a society. Our later investigators are doing their work more and more on the plan of direct visitation, and I make no doubt a science of American ethnology will yet come into existence among us and rise high in public estimation from the important results it will rapidly achieve. Precisely what is now needed is the ascertainment and scientific treatment of this material.
After so general a condemnation of Spanish and American writers, so far as they represent Aztec society and government, some facts and some reasons ought to be presented to justify the charge. Recognizing the obligation, I propose to question the credibility of so much of the second volume of "The Native Races" and of so much of other Spanish histories as relate to two subjects—the character of the house in which Montezuma resided, which is styled a palace; and the account of the celebrated dinner of Montezuma, which is represented as the daily banquet of an imperial potentate. Neither subject, considered in itself, is of much importance; but if the accounts in these two particulars are found to be fictitious and delusive, a breach will be made in a vital section of the fabric of Aztec romance, now the most deadly encumbrance upon American ethnology.
It may be premised that there is a strong probability, from what is known of Indian life and society, that the house in which Montezuma lived was a joint-tenement house of the aboriginal American model, owned by a large number of related families, and occupied by them in common as joint proprietors; that the dinner in question was the usual single daily meal of a communal household, prepared in a common cook-house from common stores, and divided, Indian fashion, from the kettle; and that all the Spaniards found in Mexico was a simple confederacy of three Indian tribes, the counterpart of which was found in all parts of America.
It may be premised further that the Spanish adventures who thronged
to the New World after its discovery found the same race of Red
Indians in the West India Islands, in Central and South America, in
Florida, and in Mexico.