Date of Award

Spring 4-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Payson Sheets

Second Advisor

Gerardo Gutierrez

Third Advisor

Catherine Cameron

Fourth Advisor

Arthur Joyce

Fifth Advisor

Stefan Leyk


The Relación de Michoacán was the product of collaboration between Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá and elite informants from the former Tarascan Empire. The informants gave testimony that Alcalá transcribed into a document, the Relación de Michoacán, which discussed Tarascan religion, worldview (lost), government, warfare, marriage, and the Spanish conquest. Of particular interest is a narrative history describing their ancestors, the Uacúsecha, who migrated into Michoacán and became the preeminent political authority. This narrative has been used to interpret ethnohistorical and archaeological data and draw conclusions about Tarascan culture and organizational structure, yet scholars rely on Western models of ethnohistorical and archaeological interpretation such that native Tarascan perspectives are secondary.

This dissertation uses the Relación de Michoacán to study Tarascan sociopolitical organization as a work grounded in the cultural knowledge of Tarascan elites. The RM contains two versions of one story, the first being the Spanish translation using colonial nomenclature and the second is the native oral tradition justifying Uacúsecha rule. Moreover, we have forty-four illustrations that contain a symbolic framework to recall details in the oral tradition. This research analyzes the narrative to understand how Tarascans viewed their empire, and tests these perceptions against ethnohistorical sources, archaeological data, and current Mesoamerican organizational models (e.g., altepetl).

My research findings are significant to understanding the RM, Tarascan organization, and for locating new Tarascan sites. First, events in the narrative, though embellished, can be corroborated with colonial documents. Second, RM data and colonial religious, political, and economic documents show that Tarascan political and socioeconomic links are similar to Aztec altepetl units. Altepetl were ruled by central leaders (pl. Tlatoque) and supported by subordinate leaders who controlled subunits that mirrored altepetl organization and provided the unit's political and tributary power. The Tarascans had similar networks. Third, the Tarascan Empire had 44 altepetl-like units consisting of a head town (cabecera), subordinate head towns (subcabeceras), and subject towns that served superordinate centers. Finally, using ethnohistorical and archaeological data I created a fuzzy set predictive model to locate archaeological features. These data indicate that Tarascan sociopolitical structure was more intricate and less centralized than previous studies indicate.