Demystifying Nahua healing
Edward Anthony Polanco has received a Newberry Fellowship for a historical analysis of healing practices from an Indigenous perspective.
September 7, 2021
Does this seem familiar? You are in the throes of childhood energy, and you are playing soccer. You are running along and then suddenly you are on the ground with the keen awareness something is wrong with your ankle. You see the concern on everyone’s faces as your family rushes you to the … bonesetter.
Yes, bonesetter, and this may be where the story takes an unfamiliar twist. The bonesetter is a healer unsanctioned by Western authorities, in this case an esteemed member of the Nahuas, an Indigenous peoples from Mexico and Central America. And they heal your dislocated ankle.
This is Edward Anthony Polanco’s story, and it represents a moment of inspiration entwined in a longstanding interest in centering Native peoples in academic studies. And for his research based around their history, he received a Newberry Fellowship as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow. As one of 10 long-term residential Newberry awardees, Polanco will receive unlimited access to the Chicago-based Newberry Library’s collections. In addition, he will have opportunities to present his work and network with other scholars for nine months.
The Newberry’s residential fellowship began in 1944, with institutional support from the Rockefeller Foundation, to encourage scholarship in Midwestern studies. Fellows pursue research in the Newberry’s collections on topics that range across the humanities.
“I’ll be looking at collections, such as those donated by an antiquarian from the 1920s,” said Polanco, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of History, “but with entries from a few others as well. And these all involve materials created in Mexico during the 16th and 17th centuries.” He will closely study a 16th-century Latin-Spanish-Nahuatl dictionary created by a Nahua man in Mexico City.
Polanco plans to use these sources to finish his manuscript, “Nahua Healers, Defenders, and Uplifters: Gender, Religion, and Curing in Central Mexico, 1535–1660” and then begin preliminary work on a second project that explores Nahuas in Kuskatan, El Salvador.
For his first project, he is doing a historical analysis of the healing practices from an Indigenous perspective during the pre-colonial to colonial period. Polanco is limiting the locality to an area that includes a 100-mile radius around what is modern-day Mexico City. He uses sources written in Spanish and Nahuatl, the language of Nahuas in Mexico.
“One of the big thrusts of my book is what I call decolonizing Nahua healing,” he said. “My work interrogates sources to find a nonwestern view of these Indigenous practices.”
He said terms such as doctor, physician, midwife, and nurse, although neutral in tone, may not be adequate descriptions of the healers’ skills and contributions to the community.
“These terms are privileged Western perspectives,” Polanco said, “and they distort the way we understand these Native healing practices. And on the more extreme side, calling the practice sorcery, witchcraft, idolatry, or superstition demonizes and debases the practices, which is something that occurred in the 16th century and has continued to the present.”
Polanco’s research focuses on the process of how Europeans understood and conceptualized Nahua healing practices, which he wants to demystify. His work shows how these rituals functioned and how colonialism affected and attacked these healing practices. But he also points out the resiliency of the practices that continue in present day — and of which he has personal experience. Titiçih, particularly women, for example, defied Spanish authorities and continued to heal and uplift their communities.
His project looks at two different historic healing practices involving Tlapohualiztli and Ololiuhqui.
“Tlapohualiztli means a count or counting,” Polanco said. “It’s often broadly misinterpreted in two ways. One is that it’s divination and sorcery or superstition, and the other is that it’s just counting.”
Titiçih, who are Nahua healing specialists, would take corn or beans, cast them onto a piece of cotton cloth, and interpret the meaning.
“Through this interpretation, the Titiçih are actually communicating with nonhuman life forces,” he said, “and through this communication, they’re able to diagnose and prognosticate the outcome of an illness. They would ask this life force, ‘what’s wrong with this person’s ankle?’ And then the life force would say, ‘They twisted it, it’s broken, but they’re going to be fine. Do this, apply that medicine.’ Or if it’s something serious, ‘They’re actually going to die. Call it a day. Just tell them it’s over,’ and that is a possible outcome.”
The second method, using Ololiuhqui, involves entheogenic substances that allow the healers to communicate with nonhuman forces. Polanco says Ololiuhqui is a seed from the Morning Glory plant species found in Mexico and Central America that is infused into a water-based tincture.
“From a Western perspective, it’s hallucinations,” Polanco said. “Yet from a Nahua perspective, it’s communication in a very controlled space by a controlled individual with nonhuman life forces. It’s called entheogenic because, from the seed, healers might see a little man emerge and he would tell them all they needed to know about a person’s illness, or in a broader sense, an answer to something affecting someone’s health.”
This research incorporates some of Polanco’s findings from his Juneteenth Scholar project, in which he studied healing associations between Black cowboys and Indigenous and mixed-race people in colonial Mexico. They all used entheogenic substances and thought the hallucinogenic properties would release the nonhuman force within.
Polanco gravitated to this area of study while working on his master’s in history at the University of California, Riverside. For a class on Indigenous religions, he had to choose a religion and write a paper about it. He gravitated to 16th-century Nahuas from Central Mexico.
“I started researching it, and I started digging in deeper and deeper,” he said. “And I launched off on this trajectory of studying these people and that’s how I got interested. I started studying Nahua midwives, and I concluded the midwives are Titiçih, healing specialists that practiced tiçiyotl, and they do a variety of other things that people overlook because we just call them midwives, instead of actually calling them what they are.”
Between that interest and his own Salvadoran Native ancestry, it propelled him to continue his research. Once he finishes his first book manuscript, he will focus on Nahuas in Panchimalco, where his forefathers lived, and his community continues. This research will involve another form of Nahua ritual specialist in the colonial period — shape shifters. In this case, people turned into dogs or turkeys.
For Polanco, who also holds a doctorate in history with a minor in anthropology from the University of Arizona, the contrast between his firsthand knowledge of healing and his Salvadoran grandmother’s spiritual beliefs is the major inspiration for these research projects.
“My biggest research interest stems from trying to understand how my family understood religion,” he said. “My grandma used to demonize certain things quite a bit. She was often judgmental about rituals like keeping altars to the dead. And I grew up wondering why she was so weirded out by that.”
Polanco also points out that the practices and knowledge of Native peoples are not inferior to Western thought.
“I am fascinated by what we term a cult, and what gets to be called that, and who gets to dictate what is a proper religion and what isn’t.”
Written by Leslie King