Summary of "The Return of the Native" by Rebecca Earle

Rebecca Earle writes about renewal of native heritage like this Mayan sculpture in Cancun.
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Historian Rebecca Earle has explored the past and politics of Latin America in several books, including “The Return of the Native,” published by Duke University Press in 2007. Its subtitle, “Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930,” focuses attention on her book’s project of exploring the ways Indian identity was important to patriotic and cultural expressions of identity in 19th-century and early 20th-century Latin America.

1 Definition of Terms

Earle is clear early on that “Indian” is a European term. Native American peoples had no cohesive identity, Earle argues. They lived as separate nations and thought of themselves primarily as members of those nations, not as members of one homogenous pancontinental culture. Because Earle focuses in her book on the European label and how that concept of a cohesive cultural identity has been used, however, she uses the term “Indians.”

2 Methodology of Research

Primary sources provide the material for “The Return of the Native.” Primary sources let researchers get as close as possible to the era being studied because they are original documents or artifacts created in that period, explains a guide to research by the University of Oregon Libraries. Academic reviewer Marc Becker, of Truman State University, praised Earle’s extensive use of primary source materials, including newspapers, manuscripts and pamphlets from the period.

3 Mythology of the “Indian”

Earle’s early chapters focus on the period when the former Spanish colonies achieved independence. Revolutionary leaders and nationalist intellectuals tended to mythologize a perceived link with their ancestors among pre-Columbian native peoples. One early example was the 1531 apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which seemed to cement Mexico’s special, God-given status. By the time of independence, Mexican leaders were using Aztec imagery and place-names – including “Mexico” itself, rather than “New Spain” – to claim a native connection. Earle traces this development to the use of native images on national flags throughout the region and native references in national mottoes and anthems.

4 Creoles and Natives

One of the great ironies underlying Earle’s book is that, while the former Spanish colonists honored their countries’ native past, name-checking the Incas, the Maya and the Aztecs particularly, as well as smaller nations, they did not respect or support the native peoples living alongside them. The nationalism of these newly independent Latin American states is an emotional nationalism of the past, not a more logical political patriotism of the present. The creole elites came to regard themselves as the true natives of the Americas, not the indigenous peoples.

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.