Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015)

Typically when people think about Native Americans, they think about them within the Americas. Accordingly, a book titled Global Indios would typically be an intellectual history; a history about how the term Indio became globalized. But van Deusen is actually telling a story about Native Americans as they lived and worked on the Iberian peninsula. After all, Columbus had shipped Native Americans back as early as 1493 to serve as slaves and servants in the royal home. Why wouldn’t they leave a paper trail for historians?

van Deusen’s book centers the paper trail of legal petitions filed by an array of Native Americans in Spain after the filing of the New Laws of 1542; these laws were the Crown’s effort to reform the exploitation of Native American labor by Spanish conquistadors. Their origins likely stemmed from some combination of genuine interest in protecting their vassals and a concern that Spaniards throughout the colonies were not paying the appropriate amount of tax to the Crown. On the Iberian Peninsula, the jurist Gregorio Lopez was tasked with finding those Native Americans within Spain itself, and bringing their cases to court. Each of these cases required testimony, eyewitnesses, and cross-examination, providing a rich window into the existence of these Native American slaves’ lives in households and communities across Spain. van Deusen thus takes the traditional narrative of Spanish agency and life, and turns it to Native Americans, something hinted at by her subtitle (a direct response to Lewis Hanke’s The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America, available for free thanks to Universal Library Project).

indios is an important term; van Deusen is also tracing how the Spanish court system understood Native American identity, not always as a plurality of nations, but as a single form of indio. Problems of translation ran amuck, but also potential strategies for Native Americans to undermine the people attempting to exert control over them. Certain cases demanded a very precise location for the enslavement to be valid, and Native Americans themselves often understood far better what those differentiations meant than the Spaniards who had never been to the Americas. But the persistent lost-in-translation element of indio identity only accelerated the transformation of colonial spaces into the undifferentiated “Indies,” a process van Deusen emphasizes through the term “indioscape” (borrowed from Arjun Appadurai’s sense of ethnoscape).

The book is a rich, micro-historical journey through a selection of one hundred petitions. The big question with micro-historical analysis is how significant their findings are. 95% of van Deusen’s cases successfully filed for freedom, but those victories stand in for thousands of individuals from whom we read and hear nothing. And access to the court system then–much like today–required a certain degree of affluence, political savviness, and small fortunate occurrences; we cannot believe all these Native American slaves had their days in court. Another book could expand on this analysis either through clarification of who was likely to own a Native American slave in Spain, or take a more extensive journey through local and regional archives in Spain, specifically asking for records of servants and free folks who had come from the Americas.

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