In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Elites in the Colonial Andes

  • Introduction
  • Bibliography
  • The Cacique and Indigenous Elites in the Habsburg Political Economy
  • Indian Noblewomen
  • Religion and the Indian Nobility
  • Indian Nobles in Material and Civic Culture

Latin American Studies Indigenous Elites in the Colonial Andes
David Garrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0158


While largely written out of the historiography until the last half century, indigenous elites were crucial to the reproduction of both Spanish rule and indigenous society in the colonial Andes from the first years of the conquest until independence. The paradigmatic figure is the kuraka or cacique, a native lord somewhere between chieftain and justice of the peace responsible for tribute collection and the maintenance of order in communities ranging from a few dozen to several thousand people; in return, caciques were exempt from tribute, personal service, and the jurisdiction of some local Spanish officials. To the Spanish crown and its officials, the recognition of the local lordship of pre-conquest ruling castes (and particularly the Incas) symbolized just colonial rule, while concern about cacical tyranny and abuse of the indigenous commoners provided constant justification for Spanish intervention. While contemporary scholars have generally deemed Spanish rule tyrannical, concerns about legitimate authority and the abusive exercise of power similarly dominated early study of these colonial elites. A central concern was how to define political legitimacy in the república de indios, producing a dichotomy between the collaborator cacique who served as a puppet of colonial rule (and the market economy), and the legitimate cacique who instead defended communal interests. Assumptions of broad pre-conquest legitimacy thus produced studies particularly concerned with genealogical continuity and the rise of parvenu caciques, and with the erosion of pre-conquest ideals of economic reciprocity and the emergence of an Andean market economy and allodial property. The recent growth of Andean colonial and ethnohistory has produced a less dialectical view of colonial society, and case studies of both individual caciques and indigenous elites more broadly have increasingly focused less on questions of legitimacy than on the liminality of this privileged stratum of indigenous society, at once far more Hispanicized than the república de indios in general, but also the principle legal defenders and cultural patrons of their communities. These studies have also shown the complex, multiple hierarchies of colonial Indian communities, and focused attention on Indian nobles and church officials as well as on caciques. Objects of aggressive Catholic evangelization, but also patrons and producers of the arts and the literate stratum of the Indian republic, and––in the case of the colonial Incas––fetishized by creole society, indigenous elites were key actors in the emergence of an indigenous, viceregal culture. The Indian nobility also played a central, and conflicted, role in the great rebellions of the late 18th century, as both rebel leaders and staunch defenders of the crown. There is widespread consensus among scholars that the rebellions provoked a dramatic loss of wealth and authority among the Indian nobility (largely through loss of cacical office), although there is considerable debate as to the relative roles of royal hostility and legislation, and the repudiation of Bourbon indigenous elites by their communities.


To date, the only substantial published bibliography on indigenous elites in the colonial Andes is Tarragó 2006.

  • Tarragó, Rafael E. Los kurakas: Una bibliografía anotada de fuentes impresas (1609–2005). Madrid: Fundación Mapfre, 2006.

    Briefly annotated bibliography of several hundred sources, on both colonial Andean society generally and the kuraka elite, particularly strong on Spanish language literature.

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