Meet the Book Author: Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom & Law in Colonial Mexico

Yanna Yannakakis, Emory University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Yanna Yannakakis, whose new book Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom & Law in Colonial Mexico was published in May 2023 with Duke University Press.

What is the book about? 

This book is about the making of an imperial legal order, the strategies Indigenous peoples developed and used to open space for local autonomy, and the ways in which they mobilized the past to make claims to resources in the present. Custom — a concept with roots in Europe’s medieval legal revolution — refers to social practice that over time acquires the normative power of law. Its adaptation to Spanish rule in the Americas pushes to the fore questions of Indigenous cultural continuity and change under the exploitative conditions of colonialism. Indigenous custom has often been romanticized as timeless and ancestral, with origins in a deep past before European contact. Since Time Immemorial argues instead that custom represented a Spanish imperial strategy for governing an ethnically and culturally diverse subject population, and at the same time, a legal terrain upon which Indigenous peoples could contend with historical change and generate new rights for the future. As much as this book shows how custom gained traction locally, it also demonstrates how local actors participated in and contributed to transatlantic legal history. While Native litigants mobilized the language of custom in imperial courts, they contributed to debates about the meaning of sovereignty and social contract, and transatlantic processes of property formation, reconfiguration of the commons, and the long-term transition toward wage labor.

Why did I write it?

This book was inspired in part by contemporary realities in Oaxaca, Mexico, my primary research site. I began doctoral studies in History in the 1990’s when many Latin American nation-states reworked their constitutions to include official recognition of Indigenous customary law. At the time, this seemed contradictory since many of those same nation-states were simultaneously implementing neoliberal policies that privatized collective landholding and public resources, which harmed many Indigenous communities. This apparent paradox shaped the questions I asked about Mexico’s colonial history and the relationship of Indigenous communities to imperial law, such as: how and why did Spanish officials recognize Indigenous semi-autonomy and the validity of customary law? How and why did Indigenous peoples make legal claims in Spanish courts in the context of colonial exploitation? I spent many years in judicial archives pouring over Indigenous disputes over land, labor, and local authority, in which litigants justified their claims through recourse to ancient custom. These cases raised more questions. What exactly was Indigenous custom, what were its origins, and who did it serve in different historical moments? How were claims to Native custom supported and justified? Why did Indigenous litigants argue with one another over custom? What were the long-term effects of customary claims to land, labor, and self-governance by Indigenous communities? Did the customs of the colonial past bear any relation to customary laws of the present? The generative dialog between present and past motivated me to research and write a book that I hoped would have a broad impact and speak to the concerns of local communities in the region where I did my research. 

What was my research strategy?

So much of the research that nourished this book was collaborative. As I pursued my questions about Indigenous peoples and colonial justice, it became clear to me that translation was a crucial part of the story I wanted to tell. In collaboration with a sociolinguist and friend, I dove into Indigenous language materials penned by Native authorities and Catholic missionary priests. Together, we developed a community-engaged public humanities project in Oaxaca (Mexico) that centered Native-language legal records in the study of regional history. I also worked collaboratively with graduate students and colleagues at Emory’s Center for Digital Studies to produce a digital humanities website on law, imperial space, and Indigenous social networks in colonial Mexico, a project that nourished the book. Alongside my collaborative work, I continued to collect material from archives, libraries, and special collections in the United States, Europe, and Mexico. Serendipity played a role in my research process as well. A few years ago, the judicial archive in Oaxaca began to catalog and make available the notarial records for one of the regions that figures centrally in my book. As I discovered new sources, I returned to some older, well-known sources — like Indigenous Mesoamerican pictographic codices and maps – with fresh questions. In sum, my research strategy was multi-pronged, leading me through a process of discovery and re-discovery, and pushing me beyond my disciplinary boundaries and beyond the academy toward meaningful engagement with some of the communities whose histories feature centrally in my work.

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