By N. H. Gill
(April 2, 2019) – Jeffrey Gould’s monograph, To Die in This Way (1998), looks at the dialectic relationship between indigenous identity and the formation of the nation-state in Nicaragua from the late nineteenth century until the mid twentieth. Gould challenges the “myth of mestizaje” that holds that, except for the Miskito coast, the Central American nation is an ethnically-homogeneous population of mixed European and indigenous descent. This is a myth, he argues, put forward by Liberal reformers and economic groups interested in accessing indigenous corporate lands and fracturing communities to acquire territory and workers during the expansion of coffee capitalism.
The book focuses on a series of indigenous communities and their slow absorption into privatized systems of land tenure in Nicaragua. Gould shows how in different moments these communities fought the physical and cultural encroachment of ladino and state actors, from both Liberal and Conservative parties, who sought to erode their cultural identity by suppressing things like indigenous dialect, dress, and community cohesion. By looking at multiple communities, Gould demonstrates that local factors, such as degrees of social stratification, non-indigenous alliances, and internal community conflicts, resulted in significantly different outcomes between communities.
Gould contributes to the wider debate about democracy, capitalism and the so-called “Indian problem” of balancing equal citizenship with the historic rights of indigenous communities in the post-independence period by arguing that the creation of a nationalist discourse depended on the material and cultural de-articulation of indigenous communities (13, 134). Cultural hegemony was achieved by discursively equating indigeneity with a lack of civilization and pre-Columbian traditions, implicitly rendering Indians with an education, or those who spoke Spanish and took part in modern society as de facto mestizos (122).
A gendering of indigenous men as effeminate and indigeneity as degraded further stigmatized indigenous identity (285). Attempts to undermine traditional economic systems, like cotton production used to produce traditional textiles, and indigenous systems of patriarchy fragmented communities. This eroded important markers of cultural identity and made it easier for elites to question the authenticity of indigenous communities and deny them political rights to their communal land (206).
Photo: Coffee fields, Matagalpa, Nicaragua.