Not to be confused with Westo.
This article is about historical Mesoamerican peoples. For modern day Chichimeco people, see Chichimeca Jonaz. For the genus of moth, see Chichimeca (moth).
Map of the location of prominent Chichimeca peoples around 1550.

Chichimeca(Spanish  [tʃitʃiˈmeka] ) was the name that the Nahua peoples of Mexico generically applied to many bands and tribes of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples who inhabited northern modern-day Mexico. Chichimeca carried the same sense as the Roman term "barbarian" to describe people living outside settled, agricultural areas. The name and its pejorative sense was adopted by the Spanish. For the Spanish, in the words of scholar Charlotte M. Gradie, "the Chichimecas were a wild, nomadic people who lived north of the Valley of Mexico. They had no fixed dwelling places, lived by hunting, wore no clothes and fiercely resisted foreign intrusion into their territory, which happened to contain silver mines the Spanish wished to exploit."[1]

In modern times only one ethnic group is customarily referred to as Chichimecs, namely the Chichimeca Jonaz of whom a few thousand live in the state of Guanajuato.

Overview and identity

The Chichimeca peoples were many groups of varying ethnicities and speaking distinct languages from different families. As the Spaniards worked towards consolidating the rule of New Spain over the indigenous peoples during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Chichimecan tribes resisted. A number of ethnic groups of the region allied against the Spanish. The first and most long-lasting of these conflicts (1550–91) was the Chichimeca War.

Many of the peoples known broadly as Chichimeca are virtually unknown today; few descriptions recorded their names 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 the Guachichil, Caxcan, Zacateco, Tecuexe, or Guamare. Others, such as the Opata or Eudeve, are well described in records but extinct as a people.

Still other Chichimec peoples maintain separate identities into the present day, for example the Otomi, Chichimeca Jonaz, Cora, Huichol, Pame, Yaqui, Mayo, O'odham and the Tepehuan peoples.

Word origin

The Nahuatl name Chīchīmēcah (plural, pronounced [tʃiːtʃiːˈmeːkaʔ]; singular Chīchīmēcatl) means "inhabitants of Chichiman"; the placename Chichiman 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.[2]

The Nahua used the word "Chichimeca" originally to refer to their own ancient history as a nomadic hunter-gatherer people, in contrast to their later, more urban culture, which they identified as Toltecatl.[3] 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" to him as the Aztecs who were overthrown by Cortés. He commented that they might be enslaved and used to work in the mines.

The Chicimec, Caxcanes and other indigenous people of Northern Mexico fought back against Spanish forces such as Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán when they began trying to enslave them. Their fight against Spanish forces became known as the Mixtón Rebellion.

In the late sixteenth century, Gonzalo de las Casas wrote about the Chichimec. He had received an encomienda near Durango and fought in the wars against the Chichimec peoples: the Pame, the Guachichile, the Guamari and the Zacateco, 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. He described the people, providing ethnographic information. He wrote that they only covered their genitalia with any clothing; 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 traveling on the same day without stopping to recover.[4] While las Casas recognized that the Chichimecan tribes spoke different languages, he considered their culture as primarily uniform.

In the late 16th century the Chichimeca did not worship handmade idols as did many surrounding indigenous peoples[5] and in the eyes of the Franciscan priest Alonso Ponce this was an indication that the Chicimeca had a barbarous nature. Bernardino de Sahagún's Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España provides a fuller account: he describes some Chichimec people, such as the Otomi, 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 stereotype became even more prevalent during the course of the Chichimec wars; it was part of the 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".

The historian Paul Kirchhoff, in his work The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico, described the Chichimecas as sharing a hunter-gatherer culture, based on the gathering of mesquite, agave, and tunas (the fruit of the nopal), with others also using acorns, roots and seeds. In some areas, the Chichimeca cultivated maize and calabash. From the mesquite, the Chichamecs made white bread and wine. Many Chichimec tribes used the juice of the agave as a substitute for water when it was in short supply.

Wars with the Spanish

Chichimeca grievances against the Spanish included slave raiding, forced labor, and compulsory resettlement into sedentary communities. The Chichimeca were involved in the Mixtón War (1540–41). In the long-running Chichimeca War (1550–1590) the Spanish initially attempted to defeat the combined Chichimeca peoples in a war of "fire and blood", but eventually sought peace. The Chichimeca's small-scale raids and guerrilla tactics proved effective. To end the war, the Spanish adopted a "Peace by Purchase" assimilation policy by providing assistance to the Chichimecas, encouraging them to adopt agriculture as a livelihood, and converting them to Catholicism. Within decades, they were assimilated into the Spanish and Indian mestizo culture.[6]


  1. Gradie, Charlotte M. "Discovering the Chichimecas" Academy of American Franciscan History, Vol 51, No. 1 (July 1994), p. 68
  2. See Andrews 2003 (pp.496 and 507), Karttunen 1983 (p.48), and Lockhart 2001 (p.214)
  3. This term caused confusion in later scholarship as it was understood to refer to a specific ethnic group.
  4. As cited in Gradie (1994).
  6. Powell, Phillip Wayne (1952), Soldiers, Indians & Silver, Berkeley: U of California Press, pp. 182-199; LatinoLA | Comunidad :: Indigenous Origins


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