Indigenous Cultures

Decolonisation Strategies: Portico Library Curators at Sheffield University

What it is to be here banner WEB (1)

Radha Kapuria with Helen Idle and James Moss

A chance visit to Manchester’s historic Portico Library in September 2020 revealed a fascinating exhibition on the colonisation of Australia. Titled ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’, this exhibition marks 250 years since the Gweagal people in Kamay (Botany Bay) first encountered strangers, led by Lieutenant James Cook, or ‘Captain Cook’, approaching their shores. 

The exhibition launched in April, and chimed well with the renewed debates around decolonisation and ‘Black Lives Matter’ that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in the US. In step with these current movements, an exhibition panel also covered poignant photographs from the ongoing ‘Aboriginal Lives Matter’ campaign across Australia. 

As an instructor on Sheffield’s sector-leading undergraduate module, ‘Conflict, Cultures and (De)Colonisation’, I was also struck by how the exhibition’s layout and content were so relevant to our classroom discussions. Our module considers the growth and governance of empires, and the role of decolonisation struggles, in shaping our contemporary world. On approaching Portico Library staff, I was delighted to find a Sheffield History alumnus in the Librarian, Dr Thom Keep. Thom introduced me to the library’s Exhibitions Curator, James Moss, and the force behind the exhibition, Dr Helen Idle, a researcher based at the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London. 

My colleagues Prof Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Dr Esme Cleall, who lead the teaching team on the module, were similarly enthused at the remarkable synergies between the exhibition and especially our rubric for Week 6, on ‘Materiality and Ownership’. During this week we examine the representations of objects–some stolen from indigenous populations across the world–in museums in the West and how they are bound up in histories of colonialism. Slowly, a plan emerged, where the Portico curators would deliver a guest lecture to our students on ‘Decolonising a Museum/Library Exhibition’. This lecture would provide students a window into the curators’ experience of putting together an exhibition that consciously tackled the challenges of decolonising knowledge, narratives and artefacts, through creative and self-reflexive methodologies. 

Western Australian timber samples from Manchester Museum, displayed in The Portico Library’s exhibition. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn. 

The session with Helen, James, and Apapat Jai-in Glynn (art curator and collaborator on the exhibition) on Thursday 29 October was a massive hit with students. Students were especially interested since their seminar activities for the coming week required them to design their own ‘decolonised’ museum galleries on the British Empire. A series of inventive questions from students ranged from repatriation and the curators’ partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the impact of the exhibition on other museums, to efforts toward genuine reconciliation in Australia, the ethics of representation in museum displays, and the difficulties of knowledge production through colonial archives. We will now turn to the experiences of Helen and James, as independent researcher and library curator respectively, in assembling this remarkable exhibition at Manchester.

Portico Library curators answer questions (in text form on the right) from students during the Google Meets session at the University of Sheffield on Thursday 29 October. Image Courtesy: Radha Kapuria.

Helen Idle:

When you glance around the open space of the Portico Library your eyes will alight on a black and white photograph. A woman stands tall, wrapped in a blanket with her head bowed. She is covered but for her face, and her voice. Here Rene Kulitja, artist and Traditional Owner of Uluru (the monolithic rock formation in central Australia), performs a story of the colonisation of her people through the very stillness of a photograph. She shows how the English language of the British tries to smother her language, law and culture: ‘But we are not English. We are Pitjantatjara!’

Pulangkita pitjangu (When the blanket came), displayed at the Portico Library, talks back to an official account of James Cook’s 1770 voyage that arrived in Australia. The account, compiled by Hawkesworth (1773) and held in the Portico Library, records the ‘possession’ of Australia for King Geroge III under the assumption of terra nullius – land belonging to no-one. The photograph counters this claim showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to survive and thrive in their country. 

Two young children in The Portico Library watching a video of artist Rene Kultja addressing audience members at Lowitja Institute. Above them hangs Rene’s artwork Pulangkita pitjangu.

For Rene Kulitja:

‘The blanket represents an important story with the significance of Captain Cook’s story, it’s on the same level. This is our side of the story.’

Putting these together affords a close re-reading of the account to reveal that Cook and his companions (eg. Joseph Banks) had seen people living along the east coast of Australia.

Shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2020, the edition on display was made by special arrangement with Rene Kulitja and photographer Rhett Hammerton. It journeyed from Melbourne to Brisbane to Alice Springs to Docker River via Uluru and Kata Tjuta before arriving in Manchester. In the collective effort to bring the photograph to Manchester we see a commitment to a principle of exhibition, ‘nothing about us without us’, and support the work of the artwork, ‘to get the story straight.’

In the words of Rene Kulitja:

‘It’s crucial we make one story out of our shared history, to get the story straight. At the moment, it’s too one-sided, the Cook side is bigger than the Blanket story. Finding a balance is really important for the wellbeing of our children

James Moss:

The Portico Library’s mission is to make its building, history and collection work for all the people of Manchester and beyond, and especially to share experiences and perspectives with and from those excluded by its early membership. Established at the height of British empire-building in 1806, the Library initially served only wealthy, white, male users (albeit including radical progressives, abolitionists and feminists) and overwhelmingly represents their voices among its books and manuscripts. It was central to Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, since it provided 400 of the leading industrialists, inventors and politicians with daily access to news, books and information, plus a space in which they met, networked and did deals, in the years during which Manchester grew from a town of about 60,000 to the biggest industrial city in the world. For the current team, who are committed to nurturing a socially responsible organisation, this unrepresentative nineteenth-century collection creates a challenge, but also an opportunity. By exposing the inequities upon which Britain’s prosperity was built, and those original texts that cultivated the white supremacist systems we inhabit, we can stimulate productive conversations among our visitors and users. 

The Portico Library, exterior and interior. Photographs: James Moss.

Port Jackson/Sydney in 1801. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales from its first settlement in January 1788 to August 1801, 1802. The Portico Library collection.

A view of the exhibition inside the Library. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn.

To achieve this, we have introduced increasingly collaborative and self-reflexive methods, working with experts-by-experience like Rene Kulitja and directly quoting campaigners such as Mangubadijarri Yanner to offset the obscurantism of the Library’s historic texts and our own inevitable biases. Rene’s photograph Pulangkita pitjangu, collaborative painting and text (Uluru Statement from the Heart) and performance at the Lowitja Institute are all intended to reach across lands and waters, time and place, to call each viewer and reader to action. In a Library whose books contain thousands of words about Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander people, the very least we can do today is to share words and intentions from artists and speakers like Rene. But this is of course just the start of what is needed. 

Anangu artists with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. From left: Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja, Happy Reid. Photograph: Clive Scollaly.

    A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as displayed in the Portico exhibition.

As a small charity, our budgets are often stretched, but we have committed to always paying artists and contributors, and covering the additional costs of ensuring legitimate voices are heard. 

The necessity to work with people with first-hand lived experience of exclusion and marginalisation is directly relevant to decolonisation, and translates into institutions ensuring that their work and contributions are well-paid for. To exhibit with Rene, who speaks a Pitjantjatjara language and based more than 1,500km from the nearest city, and in a time zone 9.5 hours distant from Manchester—and whose priorities are distinct from those of exhibition producers in England —factoring in significant extra time between communications was essential. Colleagues like Helen and Apapat who are conscientious and patient but also responsive and adaptable are also vital. 

The process of addressing the enormous imbalances of the history we have inherited does not have an end point. However, the direction we choose can either help perpetuate the privileges that benefit a few while disadvantaging others–especially marginalised communities–or generate new ideas and an enthusiasm for change.


The exhibition ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’ is available online to view here.

Radha Kapuria is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History in Sheffield. She researches and teaches cultural histories of South Asia and the Global South, with a specific interest in music and gender history, migration, displacement and borderlands, and conflict, decolonisation and culture. She tweets @RadhaKapuria .

Helen Idle is a Research Associate with the Menzies Australia institute at King’s College London. Her research considers how visual cultures, art, and artefacts work as agents of knowledge production in museums, galleries and libraries. She also produced the exhibition ‘Entwined: knowledge and power in the age of Captain Cook’ at the Portico Library. She uses creative narrative and self-reflexive methodologies to work towards decolonisation within these domains. She tweets @Helen1i .

James Moss is an artist and curator who uses artworks, events and collaborations to interpret collections’ significance with new audiences. He is currently the Exhibitions Curator at The Portico Library in Manchester. He has curated a series of site-responsive co-produced projects to promote and contextualise the Portico’s 19th-century collection, including Made In Translation, and Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles & Feminism. The Portico Library tweets @ThePortico .

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‘The Great Australian Silence’: Sexual Violence in Australian History


Like many settler colonies with evolving frontiers, there has been a continuous undercurrent of sexual violence in Australian history. From the first establishment of European settlements in Australia, forced sexual relations perpetrated by white settlers have remained relatively unspoken about in recollections of the Australian frontier experience, regardless of the victim’s race.

The term ‘the Great Australian Silence’ was first coined in a 1968 lecture delivered by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner. Stanner utilised the term to address the manner in which certain critical areas of Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, including invasion, dispossession and massacres, had generally been ignored by Australian historians as part of a long-term structural trend, otherwise known as the ‘cult of forgetfulness’.[1]

Although scholarship has evolved over the past two decades to address certain aspects of ‘the Great Australian Silence’, a silence which undeniably excludes or minimises the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by white settlers predominantly against Aboriginal women, the scholarship has centred around massacres, genocide and child removal, with no substantial historiography on sexual violence.

Subsequently, it has been historically-set works of fiction that have been most effective in drawing public and academic attention to the relationship between the frontier, frontier violence and sexual violence. This includes the efforts of John Hillcoat and Kim Scott, whose works The Proposition and Benang: From the Heart will be briefly examined in this post, as well as the works of other contemporaries such as Kate Grenville (The Secret River, 2005) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002).

Although Scott and Hillcoat investigate these ideas in slightly different contexts, namely sexual violence towards white women in nineteenth-century frontier Queensland in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, and sexual violence towards Aboriginal women in Western Australia from European arrival through to the twentieth century in Scott’s Benang, they both attempt to highlight sexual violence as intrinsic to the frontier experience.

These two texts, when compared, emphasise differing aspects of colonial sexual violence. Hillcoat, in depicting the raped white colonial woman, presents sexual violence as a threat to the ideal of white nationhood; whereas Scott, in showing interracial sexual violence between settlers and Indigenous women, presents sexual violence as necessary for the survival of the white Australian nation.

In The Proposition, sexual violence is a vital and indivisible aspect of the film; indeed, “women’s bodies, or the violation of white women’s bodies to be exact, are called upon as both the motivation and means of resolving the proposition propelling the film”.[2]

The crime that motivates the proposition that drives the film is especially horrific as it involved the rape and murder of pregnant Eliza Hopkins, who embodied the future of the white nation. Furthermore, the place of sexual violence in relation to the frontier is emphasised in the penultimate scene in the Stanley homestead whereupon Martha, wife of Constable Stanley, is the victim of an attempted rape.

In this regard, Hillcoat draws substantial attention of the place of sexual violence against white women on the Australian frontier. In comparing The Proposition and Benang, the role of race is important to note, and here both creators serve to offer a nuanced insight into how sexual violence is presented in the context of colonial Australia based on the race of the violated woman. Rape is deemed a crime in The Proposition, arguably the worst crime that can be committed in such a society, whereas in Benang it is either an unacknowledged, un-criminalised consequence of the wider, also unacknowledged, crime of mass murder, or merely taken as an accepted aspect of colonisation

The sexual violence against Indigenous women in Benang does not serve to drive the plot of the novel; instead, it supplements and further highlights the violence faced by the Nyoongar people under white settlement. Furthermore, Scott highlights how sexual violence is intrinsic to other brutal and silenced aspects of colonialization, namely the eugenicist ideals held by those such as A. O. Neville, which subsequently motivate the mass removal of Indigenous children.

The most predominant occasions of rape are committed by Ern Scat, a Scotsman who legitimises his constant rape of his two Nyoongar wives as part of his eugenicist attempts to “breed out the colour”. For Scott, sexual violence and the expression of colonial hegemonic masculinity are depicted as a necessary part of colonisation, via the likening of the bodies of Aboriginal women to the land they are dispossessed from.

Indeed, Ern’s first experiences with the Aboriginal camps is a memory overwhelmed by sexual violence; as he remembers “the first night. The dirt on his bare knees, and how she turned her head away as her body took his thrusts”. Shifting between Sandy One’s mother being the product of rape, to the intrinsic place of rape after the massacre of Indigenous groups, through to Ern’s exploits, Benang details how sexual violence towards Aboriginal women is a continual and substantial feature of Australian history.

In comparing Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Scott’s Benang, one can see how historically-set texts have been vital in attempting to address the national silence regarding the place of sexual violence in Australian history.

It is worth noting that these examinations of sexual violence are done from the perspective of male creatives, and although they are successful in opening dialogue about ‘the Great Australian Silence’ regarding sexual violence in the history of the Australian frontier, texts by women, particularly Indigenous women, could offer further insights and perspectives into the relationship between sexual violence and Australian history.

Yet undeniably, Hillcoat and Scott both succeed in starting to challenge the silence and unspeakability regarding historical sexual violence in Australia, and thus offer a foundation for further discussion and research from a myriad of different perspectives. Ultimately, both texts work to render sexual violence in Australian history speakable, as it should be.[3]

Zoe Smith is a history and literature student at the Australian National University, with a specialisation in gender history and feminist theory. Having just completed a semester of study with the University of Sheffield History Department, she will be completing her third year of study this year, with full intentions of doing further research into sexual violence on the Australian frontier via an honours thesis and a PhD. You can find Zoe on Twitter @ZoeASmith4

Cover image: View of Millstream-Chichester National Park, Australia. The barren landscape is suggestive of the cultural silence discussed in the blog. Courtesy of Gypsy Denise.,_Pilbara,_Western_Australia.jpg [Accessed 4 February 2020].

[1] For more information on Stanner and the ‘Great Australian Silence’, see Andrew Gunstone, ‘Reconciliation and “The Great Australian Silence”’ in R. Eccleston, N. Sageman, and F. Gray (eds), The Refereed Proceedings of the 2012 Australian Political Studies Association Conference, (Melbourne, 2012).

[2] Tanya Dalziell, ‘Gunpowder and Gardens: Reading Women in The Proposition’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 3.1 (2009), 122.

[3] The ideas and research presented in this blog post are featured in and further extended upon in an upcoming article due to be published in March by the Australian National University Undergraduate Research Journal. Interested readers will be able to access the article here:

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What did an Aztec capital look like?


To the modern public, the idea of an Aztec city may conjure up a cityscape filled with instances of human sacrifice atop gigantic stepped-pyramids and buildings adorned with gold, jade and intricate stone-carved patterns. Pop culture portrayals of Mesoamerica such as in Apocalypto, The Emperor’s New Groove, or video games like Civilisation, have helped to foster this standardised image for their international audiences.

Interestingly, 16th century Europeans also seem to have shared some of these notions, yet the ways in which these contemporaries depicted an Aztec city was far from uniform. Though information on many cartographers is often unavailable to historians, the maps they produced can tell us a lot about how different societies may have visualised an Aztec city. Using some examples of European maps of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I hope to show that the image of an Aztec city often changed from place to place as different groups saw it in their own specific way.

Detail from the feature image (Top of page). La Gran Ciudad de Temixtitan, 1524, Woodcut, from Praeclara Ferdinandi Cortés ii de Nova Maris Oceani Hyspania narratio, (Nuremburg, 1524). Newberry Library.

The most widely distributed image of Tenochtitlan was printed in February 1524 in Nuremburg by Frederick Pepyus (above). It was included in a Latin edition of a letter sent from Hernán Cortés to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This map features several stereotypes of Aztec culture; a large stepped pyramid and a startling headless statue dominate the central plaza, while sacrificial heads indicate gruesome ceremonial practises.

Yet, these landmarks had been razed to the ground after the siege of the city in 1521, meaning this map depicts a conception of the city rather than its reality. So, what explains the city’s image?

It is unknown why Pepyus printed the map, or whether it was influenced by Cortés or Charles V, yet the features of this map may reveal why his version of Tenochtitlan looked like it did. For one, he may have depicted the city in a specific way in order to aid Charles V and Cortés in justifying the conquest of Mexico, possibly to gain royal favours.

Spain’s occupation of America was under constant scrutiny throughout the century by many who felt that their colonial expansion was not legally valid, while conquistadors like Cortés were often criticised for their brutality towards indigenous populations. Meanwhile, many zealous Europeans also held strong vehemence against infidels due to the effects of the Reconquista and continuing struggles against the Ottomans. Such arguments often extended to the Americas, and Pepyus’s map seems to speak to these contexts. By portraying an idolatrous city under Habsburg control – indicated by the imperial flag in the upper-left – the map almost suggests that Habsburg occupation was a necessity if European civility and Christian authority were to transform Mexico. Hence, this map’s conception of an Aztec city seems to be informed by contemporary Christian militant zeal and a desire to justify conquest against unbelievers.

(left) Benedetto Bordone, La Gran cittia di Temixtitan, 1528, Woodcut, from Isolario di Benedetto Bordone (Venice, 1528). Wikimedia.
(right) Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Temistitan, 1556, from Terzo Volume delle Navigationi e Viaggi (Venice, 1556). Wikimedia.

Maps of Tenochtitlan were also produced in Venice, such as those by Benedetto Bordone and G.B. Ramusio. These show a very different conceptualisation of the Aztec capital as they portray Tenochtitlan in a way which more closely resembles Venetian ideals. Both maps emphasise Tenochtitlan’s aquatic setting to draw direct visual comparisons to Venice, while explicit signs of human sacrifice are removed to offer a more sanitised view identifiable with European culture. Ramusio also includes multiple cross-tipped spires to draw parallels to Venetian piety.

Again, these features do not reflect the reality of Tenochtitlan, since its waterways were being filled in to prevent flooding. What these maps actually show is a unique Venetian imagining of the Aztec capital – one which was likely informed by the city-state’s political context.

Venice’s political status had severally declined due to successive military losses, while their dominance of maritime trade had diminished due to Spanish trade in the Americas and Portuguese access to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea trade routes. Yet, rather than accept this reality, many Venetians instead sought to extol their city and envisage Venice as a powerful and hallowed polity. This ‘myth of Venice’ was likely an active component in how Venetians conceptualised Tenochtitlan, visualising the city in terms of their own desire to promote Venetian primacy against their political subjugators.[1] For them, Tenochtitlan became an American Venice in the idealised Italian city model.

Certainly, other maps of Tenochtitlan were also produced in Europe throughout the century, such as in England.[2] These too had their own unique image of an Aztec city which were often influenced by the surroundings, beliefs and values of each society.

So, what did an Aztec city look like? While both modern audiences and 16th century Europeans certainly drew from popular notions of Aztec culture, it may be apt to say that an Aztec city looked how different groups wanted and expected it to look like.

Connor Plunkett has recently completed his final History BA exams at the University of Sheffield. His dissertation focused on European maps of Tenochtitlan in the 16th century and the various ways in which different cartographers depicted the city.

[1] Elizabeth Horodowich, ‘Armchair Travellers and the Venetian Discovery of the New World’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 36.4 (2005), p. 1041.

[2] See Valencia-Suárez, María Fernanda, ‘Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs in the English Atlantic World, 1500-1603, Atlantic Studies 6.3 (2009), pp. 277-301.

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Top 10 Books on the History of Latin America


As I take over as Editor of History Matters from Caroline Dodds Pennock, I’m pleased to introduce our new Best Books feature. Best Books will ask a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

Now, who could possibly be better to kick off the Best Books feature than our outgoing editor Caroline Dodds Pennock?

Happy Reading,
Casey Strine

Last week, a teacher tweeted me to ask about ‘must read’ books on Central American history for an A-level student. And so, I’ve finally got around to putting together my list of the top ten books on Latin American (okay, mostly Mexican) history (or at least the best ten to occur to me!). 1 The following list is entirely subjective and unashamedly the choices of an indigenous-Mexican historian who doesn’t know enough about the modern world, but hopefully should provide some readable starting points. Have I missed your favourite? Please do let me (and everyone else) know in the comments.

1. Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991) 2
Absolutely unparalleled as a work of cultural history, this offers the most fabulous insights into Aztec life and experience. This book is a big part of the reason I’m an Aztec historian. Read it. And then read all of Clendinnen’s other books.

2. Hugh Thomson, Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru (2006)
I learned a lot about Moche archaeology from this book, which strikes a great balance between accessibility and expertise. Written from a personal perspective – following Thomson’s own archaeological expeditions – this also sheds light on ancient Peruvian cultures which are often neglected in English-language writing.

3. Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (1962)
I don’t actually believe that this is how Aztec people saw the conquest happen. These are sources from the colonial period, written by indigenous people trying to rationalise how they were conquered. But this hugely famous book is a really readable and accessible way to dip into the primary sources from the conquest from an ‘indigenous’ point of view.

Cortez_&_La_Malinche4. Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006)
A hugely readable account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, told from the perspective of Cortés’s indigenous interpreter Malintzin (also known as Doña Marina and La Malinche). This does a great job of flagging up issues with the sources, our understanding of the indigenous perspective, and women’s roles, without letting it overburden the narrative. 

5. John Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (2001)
An excellent, briskly written, introduction to the history of Latin America from the European invasion to the present day. Especially notable for including Brazil, which is often mysteriously absent from such texts. Very readable, and a great starting point for students.

6. Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico (2004)
Covering 3,000 years of history, this eloquent ‘big book’ on Mexican history interweaves history and experience into a far-reaching and very readable history of Mexico, seen through the lives of key figures and personal adventures. It isn’t perfect in every detail, but a great read. (And there’s a surprise appearance by one of my former students in the photos!)

7. Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997)CheHigh
An exemplary biography of the extraordinary life of Latin America’s most iconic revolutionary figure. Anderson obtained unparalleled access to Guevara’s personal archives, as well as winning the trust of many people who knew him personally, so this contains a wealth of detail not published elsewhere. A fascinating and balanced account which recognises Guevara’s high points without shying away from his darker moments. 

8. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)
Galeano himself said that he was not experienced enough when he wrote this book, but this is a lively and sharply critical account of the effects of European and US exploitation on Latin America. Even though the author now finds his old writing style a bit ‘stodgy’, it has been hugely influential: Hugo Chavez gave a copy to Barack Obama in 2009, and the book remains a bestseller.

9. Ed Vulliamy, Amexica: War along the Borderline (2010)
This searing account of suffering communities and brutal conflicts is a fascinating introduction to the bloody ‘war on drugs’ along the Mexico/US border. As with any personal ‘journey’, there are omissions, and not everyone will agree with the interpretations (or the Spanish translations…), but this is an absorbing account of a truly horrifying situation.

10. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
Hardly an ‘easy read’, but one of the most enduring works on Mexican history, by one of Mexico’s most famous writers. This is a beautifully written reflection on the nature of Mexican identity and attitudes. Maybe a book ‘of history’ rather than ‘about history’, but indispensable for anyone interested in modern Mexico.

Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave, 2008; PB, 2011). Her current research focuses on indigenous American travellers to Europe in the 16th century. You can read Caroline’s other History Matters blogs here, and find her on twitter @carolinepennock.

Header image: Incunables Biblioteca Personal de Carlos Monsiváis [ProtoplasmaKid via Wikicommons].
Image 1: Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [via Wikicommons].
Image 2: Guerrillero HeroicoChe Guevara at the funeral for the victims of the La Coubre explosion [via WikiCommons].


  1. Yes, I know the teacher asked for Central American history. Mexico is in Central America. And Central America is in Latin America. So there.
  2. Dates are for first publication. There are often later editions. Links are to publisher websites. Other (cheaper or more local) options may be available.
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What goes around (eventually) comes around: A partial return to mother-tongue instruction in P’urhepecha


With one of the world’s 6000-7000 languages disappearing every couple of weeks, the fate of minority languages across the globe is looking bleak. The situation in Mexico is no different: 21 of the 143 UNESCO-recognized languages spoken in the country are considered critically endangered, while the rest remain in varying states of vulnerability. One of these languages is P’urhepecha, spoken by around 125,000 people in the state of Michoacán.

This number may sound like the language is quite vital, but the reality is that only a minority of children are learning it at home. 1 For any language to survive under pressure from a dominant national language, it needs to feature prominently in the education system. In this case, children need to be schooled in P’urhepecha as well as Spanish, and to see the value in learning to read and write both languages.

The first attempts at P’urhepecha literacy were instigated by Franciscan friars in the early sixteenth century as a means of Christianising locals, but these attempts never really took hold. 2 Around 400 years later, in 1939, the Tarascan Project was launched to teach P’urhepecha. The aim was to promote indigenous literacy and to act as a bridge to literacy in Spanish.

Led by a team of US and Mexican researchers, the project developed materials for group and individual use, trained native-speaker teachers, and established a printing press for public information leaflets and language-learning materials. The programme was fast and effective, forming literate individuals in 30 to 45 days. 3 But funding was cut for the project after just over a year, effectively ending native language education for decades.

The history of the Tarascan Project demonstrated important points that have entered into other efforts at mother tongue instruction. First, national governments of conquered lands often oppose bilingualism because the mother tongue strengthens a sense of identity apart from that of the nation. But a sense of shared identity is critical in engaging the indigenous community in economic development and support for those unable to care for themselves, as well as in reining in destructive tendencies, such as violence and addiction.

Example of Tarascan Project teaching material: a mural newspaper bearing the title kerénda ȼiȼʌki ‘crag flower’. A younger man, probably a teacher, stands by as members of the community read local and national news.

Despite the introduction of bilingual and bicultural education across Mexico in the 1970s, Spanish remains the language of instruction at all levels. 4 Only a couple of hours a week are devoted to the indigenous language at primary level. However two rural primary schools in Michoacán have shifted wholesale to P’urhepecha-medium instruction in an encouraging but rare example of indigenous language promotion in an educational context. 5 In collaboration with their communities, teachers at two primary schools in San Isidro and Uringuitiro have developed a programme and curriculum that emphasises P’urhepecha language and culture, where teaching for all subjects is provided in P’urhepecha from years 1 to 6.

To see how this mother-tongue instruction impacts on young literacy, we (the anthropologist Cynthia Groff and I) are currently conducting a study of P’urhepecha writing samples. We are studying stories written by four year-five P’urhepecha-dominant students, who were instructed to retell the P’urhepecha story Tukuru ‘The Owl’. We are interested in how the texts are written in terms of cultural appropriateness, lexical diversity, and morphological complexity.

Extract of a writing sample from a P’urhepecha-medium primary school.

We have identified many examples of typical P’urhepecha discourse structure, which relies heavily on the coordinator ka ‘and’, as well as non-finite verbs ending in -ni, e.g. ka tukuru no uxeni uandani ka…. ‘and the owl did not do, say, and…’. Pupils also use Spanish connectors such as komu (como) ‘like’, pari/para ‘for, in order to’, and porka (porque) ‘because’. This is a common feature of spoken P’urhepecha and is also found in other indigenous languages that are in contact with Spanish. 6

P’urhepecha verbs are pretty complex: a well-formed verb constitutes a stem plus up to 8 or 9 suffixes (there are no prefixes) to express meanings of tense, aspect, mood, location and manner, to mention only a few. The verbs in the writing samples generally include three suffixes, predominantly those expressing an unspecified action, past and person marking, e.g. arhi-x-p-ti ‘s/he said’, weka-x-p-ti ‘s/he wanted’, but also wanta-nts-kwarhi-ni ‘to speak to oneself’, where the suffix –kwarhi marks the reflexive form, translated here as ‘oneself’.

These examples show that the children can represent their own contemporary version of the language, which includes many elements from Spanish, in a grammatically appropriate way. But more importantly, it highlights how a minority language – their own language – can be and should be represented in the written medium, giving it as much value as the dominant national language.

Like the Tarascan Project, the P’urhepecha-medium primary school offers mother-tongue instruction, emphasizing the need for speakers to be educated first in their native language. 7 Such an approach encourages cognitive development and the acquisition of competence in other domains, not just language. 8

Both projects also teach and use an alphabet adapted to the needs of the language, even if inconsistencies can be observed in the children’s writing samples (but this is to be expected for children of this age in any language!). While several alphabets still exist, they all use Latin characters only, unlike the illustrated alphabet below. This enables an easy transfer to Spanish and ensures compatibility with modern communication devices, especially mobile phones.

The P’urhepecha alphabet, illustrated with example words from the Cherán variety of the language, developed for the Tarascan Project.

The primary school model is a much-needed, longer-term solution to the current low levels of P’urhepecha literacy and transmission. It also provides an example of best practice of mother-tongue instruction that can be emulated by other schools in Michoacán and further afield.

However, for the programme to succeed fully, mother-tongue instruction needs to continue through secondary level.

Kate Bellamy is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of Leiden. She is in the part of the ERC project ‘The Linguistic Past of Mesoamerica and the Andes: A search for early migratory relations between North and South America’. Her research focuses on prehistoric and early modern interaction between Purépecha and other languages of Mesoamerica and South America. 

Header image: ‘The P’urhepecha language is very good’, section of a language-learning wall in Santa Fe de la Laguna, Michoacán, courtesy of Kate Bellamy.

In-text image 1: Example of Tarascan Project teaching material: a mural newspaper bearing the title kerénda ȼiȼʌki ‘crag flower’. A younger man, probably a teacher, stands by as members of the community read local and national news. Photo by Frances L. (Swadesh) Quintana.

In-text image 2: Extract of a writing sample from the P’urhepecha-medium primary school ‘Miguel Hidalgo’, San Isidro, Michoacán.

In-text image 3: The P’urhepecha alphabet, illustrated with example words from the Cherán variety of the language, developed for the Tarascan Project. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center.


  1. Chamoreau, Grammaire du purépecha, parlé sur les ïles du lac de Pátzcuaro (Munich, 2000).
  2. Hamel, ‘Bilingual Education for Indigenous Communities in Mexico’ in: Cummins & Hornberger (eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, (2nd edn, vol. 5, 2008), pp. 311-322.
  3. Barrera-Vásquez, ‘The Tarascan Project in Mexico’ in UNESCO (ed.), The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education (Paris, 1953), pp. 77-86.
  4. This bilingual and bicultural education is now known as intercultural bilingual education.
  5. Hamel & Francis, The Teaching of Spanish as a Second Language in an Indigenous Bilingual Intercultural Curriculum, Language, Culture and Curriculum , (2006), pp. 171-188.
  6. See Chamoreau, 2007 and Bakker & Hekking, ‘Constraints on morphological borrowing: Evidence from Latin America’ in Robbeets & Johanson (eds), Copies Versus Cognates in Bound Morphology (Leiden, 2012), pp. 187-220.
  7. Carlisle & Beeman, ‘The effects of language of instruction on the reading and writing of first-grade Hispanic children’ in Scientific Studies of Reading 4 (2000), pp. 331-353.
  8. Dutcher & Tucker, ‘The use of first and second languages in education: A review of international experience’ in Pacific Islands Discussion Paper Series, no. 1, (Washington DC, 1996).
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