Monday, April 6, 2009


Over the past two decades or more we have seen indigenous names of towns, lakes, physical features and so on, replace previous English (or Spanish, etc.) names. Presumably this was undertaken as a sign of respect. Bombay is now Mumbai and in Canada the names of First Nations groupings have been changed to reflect indigenous languages.

One day a friend wondered aloud when the term P’urepecha (also spelled as Purepecha) became common in reference to the local indigenous peoples of Michoacan and the Spanish term, Tarascan, (perhaps derived from a mishearing of a native word) became less common. Both terms can be used to refer to the people and to the language group. It is clear, however, as you look around the state and listen to news that the term P’urepecha is now the preferred term.

One way to begin to track this change would be to look at the terms used in classic anthropological ethnographies. Ethnographers (mainly English speaking by birth) have been in the region for almost 70 years so there is a solid database. I reviewed a few of these.

Ralph Beals was in the region from about 1941 and published an ethnography on the pueblo of Cheran in 1946. He uses only the term “Tarascan”. The 1998 edition contains a forward by the other grandfather of ethnographies in the area, George Foster, and he only uses the term “Tarascan”. (I expect Foster’s ethnography of Tzintzuntzan, published in 1948, also uses this term, but I cannot confirm this). George West (1948) describing the cultural geography of the area known as “once pueblos” only uses the term “Tarascan”. Donald Brand, writing in 1951 about the pueblo of Quiroga, only uses the term “Tarascan” (pp. 1-3, 9) and at times refers to “Indians” (p. 11). Michael Belshaw (1967), describing the pueblo of Huecorio, avoids the problem by only referring to the people of Huecorio or Huecorians. Stanley Brandes (1988), a student of Foster and also studying Tzintzuntzan since 1967, uses the term P’urepecha in his index where it says “see Tarascan”. The first mention of Tarascan says “..known in their own language as P’urepecha”. Cynthia Nelson, also a student of George Foster and arriving in Erongaricuaro in 1960 does say in her 1971 book on this pueblo “.. a Tarascan people or culture (properly known as Purepecha). (p. 10) This does seem to indicate the beginnings of a shift in thinking or at least an awareness of appropriateness. However, if we jump forward to the 2006 book on Day of the Dead in Mexico by Stanley Brandes we find he uses only the term “Tarascan” and no longer gives the indigenous equivalent. Another recent authors, Martha Works and Keith Hadley (2000), review the 1948 work by West (see above) and make use of his photography. But they say in the first footnote: “.. Tarasca and Tarascan are now considered to be Spanish colonial constructs” and they always use the term Purepecha. This line suggests the use of Tarascan has a moral implication but a local anthropologist says that this is not so. Perhaps as some confirmation of this when we picked up two village people needing a ride we heard them chatting for some time. They then apologized and said they were speaking Tarascan.

This post may not have clarified anything but it has narrowed the search somewhat. This type of investigation could also be considered for tourist guides to the area, folk art histories, historical reports of the area and so on. Or it might be interesting to compare English speaking authors and Spanish speaking authors.

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