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Chichimeca was the name that the Nahuas generically applied to a wide range of semi-nomadic peoples who inhabited the north of modern-day Mexicomarker and southwestern United States, and carried the same sense as the European term "barbarian". The name was adopted with a pejorative tone by the Spaniards when referring especially to the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples of northern Mexico. In modern times only one ethnic group is customarily referred to as Chichimecs, namely the Chichimeca Jonaz, although lately this usage is being changed for simply "Jonáz" or their own name for themselves "Úza".

Overview and identity

The Chichimeca peoples were in fact many different groups with varying ethnic and linguistic affiliations. As the Spaniards worked towards consolidating the rule of New Spain over the Mexican indigenous peoples during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the "Chichimecan tribes" maintained a resistance. A number of ethnic groups of the region allied against the Spanish, and the following military colonization of northern Mexico has become known as the "Chichimeca Wars".

Many of the peoples called Chichimeca are virtually unknown today; few descriptions mention them and they seem to have been absorbed into mestizo culture or into other indigenous ethnic groups. For example, virtually nothing is known about the peoples referred to as Guachichiles, Caxcanes, Zacatecos, Tecuexes, or Guamares. Others like the Opata or "Eudeve" are well described but extinct as a people.

Other "Chichimec" peoples maintain a separate identity into the present day, for example the Otomi, Chichimeca Jonaz, Cora, Huicholes, Pames, Yaquis, Mayos, O'odham and the Tepehuánes.

Word origin

The Nahuatl name Chīchīmēcah (plural, pronounced ; singular Chīchīmēcatl) means "inhabitants of Chichiman"; the placename Chichiman itself means "Area of Milk". It is sometimes said to be related to chichi "dog", but the i's in chichi are short while those in Chīchīmēcah are long, a phonemic distinction in Nahuatl. The word could either have a negative "barbarous" sense, or a positive "noble savage" sense.

The word "Chichimeca" was originally used by the Nahua to describe their own prehistory as a nomadic hunter-gatherer people and used in contrast to their later, more "civilized," urban lifestyle that they identified with the term Toltecatl. In modern Mexico, the word "Chichimeca" can have pejorative connotations such as "primitive", "savage", "uneducated" and "native,".

Ethnohistorical descriptions

The first descriptions of "Chichimecs" are from the early conquest period. In 1526, Hernán Cortés writes in one of his letters of the northern Chichimec tribes who were not as civilized as the Aztecs he had conquered, but commented that they might be enslaved and used to work in the mines.

This approach was followed by Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán whose attempts to enslave the indigenous populations of northern Mexico provoked the Mixtón Rebellion where Chichimec tribes resisted the Spanish forces.

In the late sixteenth century, an account of the Chichimecs was written by Gonzalo de las Casas who had received an encomienda near Durango and fought in the wars against the Chichimec peoples — the Pames, The Guachichiles, the Guamari and the Zacatecos who lived in the area which was called "La Gran Chichimeca." Las Casas' account was called "Report of the Chichimeca and the justness of the war against them", and contained ethnographic information about the peoples called Chichimecs. He wrote that they did not use clothes (only to cover their genitalia), painted their bodies and ate only game, roots and berries. He mentions as further proof of their barbarity that Chichimec women having given birth continued travelling on the same day without stopping to recover. While las Casas recognized that the Chichimecan tribes spoke different languages he saw their culture as primarily uniform.

In 1590, the Franciscan priest Alonso Ponce commented that the Chichimeca had no religion because they did not even worship idols such as the other peoples - in his eyes another symptom of their barbarous nature. The only somewhat nuanced description of the Chichimeca is found in Bernardino de Sahagún's Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España in which some Chichimec people such as the Otomi were described as knowing agriculture, living in settled communities, and having a religion devoted to the worship of the Moon.

The image of the Chichimecas as described by the early sources was typical of the era; the natives were "savages" - accomplished at war and hunting, but with no established society or morals, fighting even amongst themselves. This description became even more prevalent over the course of the Chichimec wars as justification for the war (the Chichimec area was not entirely under Spanish control until 1721).

The first description of a modern objective ethnography of the peoples inhabiting La Gran Chichimeca was done by Norwegian naturalist and explorer Carl Sofus Lumholtz in 1890 when he traveled on muleback through northwestern Mexico, meeting the indigenous peoples on friendly terms. With his descriptions of the rich and different cultures of the various "uncivilized" tribes, the picture of the uniform Chichimec barbarians was changed - although in Mexican Spanish the word "Chichimeca" remains connected to an image of "savagery".


  1. See Andrews 2003 (pp.496 and 507), Karttunen 1983 (p.48), and Lockhart 2001 (p.214)
  2. Karttunen (1983), p.48.
  3. A term which has also caused confusion in later scholarship by being interpreted as an actual ethnic group.
  4. As cited in Gradie (1994).


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