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Since Time Immemorial: Native Custom and Law in Colonial Mexico

by Yanna Yannakakis

Yanna Yannakakis is Associate Professor in the Department of History.

In Since Time Immemorial Yanna Yannakakis traces the invention of Native custom, a legal category that Indigenous litigants used in disputes over marriage, self-governance, land, and labor in colonial Mexico. She outlines how, in the hands of Native litigants, the European category of custom—social practice that through time takes on the normative power of law—acquired local meaning and changed over time. Yannakakis analyzes sources ranging from missionary and Inquisition records to Native pictorial histories, royal surveys, and Spanish and Native-language court and notarial documents. By encompassing historical actors who have been traditionally marginalized from legal histories and highlighting spaces outside the courts like Native communities, parishes, and missionary schools, she shows how imperial legal orders were not just imposed from above but also built on the ground through translation and implementation of legal concepts and procedures. Yannakakis argues that, ultimately, Indigenous claims to custom, which on the surface aimed to conserve the past, provided a means to contend with historical change and produce new rights for the future.

“Rejecting an older bibliography that romanticized Native customs as ancient and autochthonous, Yanna Yannakakis studies how customs were formulated, how they changed, and how they became central to both law and politics during the colonial period. Rather than conserving a past, she astutely points out that customs enabled a host of different actors to adjust to a present and dream of a better future.” Tamar Herzog, author of A Short History of European Law: The Last Two and a Half Millennia

Since Time Immemorial is a compelling study of how Indigenous communities in colonial Mexico adapted European concepts of custom to their own communal lifeways. It shows how they advanced those reformulated versions in Spanish courts of law, responding strategically to global changes and challenges in the name of local custom, ironically. As with her first book, The Art of Being In-between, Yanna Yannakakis has written a classic in the field of Latin American history.”  Kevin Terraciano, Professor and Robert N. Burr Chair of History, University of California, Los Angeles



From the author

Since Time Immemorial addresses the legal, cultural, and social history of Indigenous peoples in colonial Mexico, and the legacies of that history in the present. My commitment to making the book open access stems from my desire to reach the communities whose histories it touches. As more of Mexico’s Indigenous people gain access to the information economy through the internet and other means, demand for local and Indigenous histories is growing. My hope is that an open access version of my book will help to fulfill this demand and answer a call for reciprocity – giving back to the communities whose histories provide the grist for scholarly analysis – a key principle in Native American and Indigenous Studies. Making my book available via open access also addresses imbalances in access to resources in university settings in the so-called Global South versus Global North. Many of my colleagues in Latin America and other world regions do not have access to the books, articles, and databases available at well-funded libraries, institutions, and universities like Emory. I want scholars, students, and other interested publics all over the world to be able to read and engage with my work with the fewest impediments possible. As I see it, open access represents an important strategy through which the scholarly community can work toward democratizing knowledge.