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Some twenty years ago, in an article on "Slurs International," Alan Dundes observed that "a proverb or a joke told by members of one national group about another may be more responsible for attitudes held by the first group about the second than any other single factor" (Dundes 15). As his study makes clear, proverbial sayings and other kinds of folk stereotypes are not merely a passive reflection of attitudes toward ethnic or national groups; they play an active role in the creation or propagation of those attitudes. In keeping with the title of his article, the examples with which Dundes illustrates his remarks focus largely on national stereotypes, but he also takes care to point out that "slurs are equally common in referring to ethnic or other folk groups within a country as they are to national groups outside a country" (p. 17).

In a recent study of proverbial stereotyping, Wolfgang Mieder has traced the history, evolution, and meaning of the American proverb The only good Indian is a dead Indian from its nineteenth-century roots down to the present day. Though not, as he points out, the only North American proverb to encapsulate a stereotypic view of the Native American, it appears to be by far the most widely known and firmly entrenched, giving rise even today to variations on the same pattern that, while divergent in meaning and application, still preserve undertones of the original saying (Mieder 1993: 52). Yet another widely disseminated stereotype regarding the Native American appears in the phrase "Indian giver," referring either to someone who violates social rules by seeking to retrieve an item previously bestowed or--particularly in its earliest occurrences--to one who gives a gift in the expectation of receiving an even more valuable one in return. As a childhood taunt the phrase is no doubt repeated by its young users, as in the case of many such slurs, with little real awareness of its ethnic application; but the record of its currency in adult discourse, in more serious contexts, is a substantial one, dating back at least to the early eighteenth century (Mieder 1992: 329).

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Just as we often tend, in English, to restrict the term "American" to the United States, so also we may sometimes unwittingly equate the term "Native American" with "Native North American"; but of course the indigenous peoples of what are now the United States and Canada constituted only a fraction of the population with which Europeans came into contact from the end of the fifteenth century onward. The proverbial speech of Hispanic America preserves, even today, numerous traces of the interaction between explorers, conquerors, or settlers and the native populations they found in the various regions of the so-called New World, while printed sources record others that have apparently disappeared from current usage. Many, though not all, of these expressions involve stereotypes of the Native American, some resembling those found in English, others diverging markedly from them.

Stereotypic images of the Native American--North and South--are present from the earliest encounters, and from the outset they involved contrasting sets of generalizations. The recently-concluded Columbian Quincentennial has refreshed our recollection of Columbus' description of the Caribbean islanders whom he met on his first voyage: gentle people, innocent of all evil, timorous, ignorant of murder or even of weapons, affectionate, smiling, credulous, quick to learn and to remember, and of course "buenos servidores," good servants.[1] Bartolomé de las Casas, famed for his defense of the Indian (and the one to whom we owe our knowledge of the contents of Columbus' diary of that first voyage) concurred with this initial assessment and added some superlatives of his own:

God made all the peoples of this area, many and varied as they are, as open and as innocent as can be imagined. The simplest people in the world--unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and submissive--they are without malice or guile, and are utterly faithful and obedient both to their own native lords and to the Spaniards in whose service they now find themselves. Never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous, they harbour no grudges and do not seek to settle old scores; indeed, the notions of revenge, rancour, and hatred are quite foreign to them. . . They are also among the poorest people on the face of the earth; they own next to nothing and have no urge to acquire material possessions. As a result they are neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally uninterested in worldly power.[2]

"Innocent and pure in mind" and at the same time possessing a "lively intelligence" (ibid.), the indigenous peoples were, in Las Casas' estimation, ideal candidates for conversion to the Catholic faith.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Armed resistance on the part of the indigenous population also continued until the 1880s in Chile, Argentina's neighbor on the other side of the Andean mountain range, but proverbial allusions to the violent confrontation there appear to be lacking, or at least have not been recorded in the relatively limited published sources available. One large regional dictionary notes that the term indio may be applied figuratively to anyone who exhibits "the defects considered to belong to the Indian," that is, to someone who is "terco, rebelde, poco comunicativo, incivilizado" ("stubborn, rebellious, uncommunicative, uncivilized") (Morales III 2460). The same source lists several variations of allusions to the Indian's supposed penchant for abrupt loss of temper or self-control, e.g., le afloró el indio, "the Indian in him came to the surface"; and also one proverb that is widely recorded elsewhere, Indio comido, indio ido, roughly translated as "Once the Indian has eaten, he leaves" (ibid.). The proverb will be considered at greater length below.

It is in two Central American countries that we find the nearest parallel to the proverb The only good Indian is a dead Indian, in its apparent sanction of deadly violence against Native Americans. The Nicaraguan Al indio, la culebra y el zanate, dice la ley que se mate, "An Indian, a snake, and a grackle, the law says they should be killed" (Peña 94) is described by the collector as having encomendero overtones, in its implication that the Indian is as "pernicious" as the dangerous reptile or the crop-threatening bird. In a Guatemalan variant of the same dictum the three supposedly legitimate targets of destruction are the Indian, the "guanaco," and the grackle: Indio, guanaco, y zanate, manda la ley que se mate (Sandoval I 671); guanaco does not refer here to the Andean relative of the llama, but is a regional term variously used to refer to a provincial or small-town inhabitant; an individual from any Central American nation other than Guatemala; or--most broadly--a fool or a stupid person (Sandoval I 591f.).

The two sayings just cited are representative of a technique used in a number of proverbs that, by grouping el indio with various kinds of animals, imply that the Native American is less than human, or at least occupies a low place on the scale of humanity. Few sayings are as blunt as the Venezuelan Indio no es gente, ni cazabe es pan, "An Indian is not a person, and manioc bread is not bread" (Erminy 57) or the Mexican Indios y burros, todos son unos, "Indians and donkeys are all one and the same" (Rubio I 263), but the depiction of qualities shared by Indians and non-human animals achieves the same effect. Usually the qualities cited are undesirable, but even when the basis of comparison is more positive, as in El indio y el perro nunca se pierden, "An Indian and a dog never get lost" (Peña 94), the effect is to suggest the "animal-like" nature of the Indian, not only in this regard but also perhaps in other respects as well.[10] The technique is, to be sure, common to many languages (cf., in English, "An Indian, a partridge, and a spruce tree can't be tamed" [Mieder 1992: 329]) and lends itself to a wide variety of proverbial "targets."[11]

More typical of proverbs using the technique of comparing the Indian to an animal is the Colombian Indio, mula y mujer, si no te la han hecho te la van a hacer--"An Indian, a mule and a woman, if they haven't done it to you yet, they will" (Acuña 53), which actually constitutes a kind of double-barreled attack on either Native Americans or women or both. (Cf. a Peruvian variant that uses the same pattern to express distrust of government officials: Subprefecto, mula, y mujer, si no te la han hecho te la van a hacer, "A subprefect, a mule, and a woman . . .[etc.]," [Vargas 86].) The somewhat ambiguous New Mexican proverb Indio, pájaro y conejo, no metas en tu casa aunque te mueras de viejo, "An Indian, a bird, and a rabbit, don't take them into your house even if you are dying of old age" (Cobos no. 843) is explained by the collector as an expression of the "colonial feeling that Indians were untrustworthy," while a similarly cryptic Mexican variant, Indio, pájaro y conejo, en tu casa ni aún de viejo, "An Indian, a bird, and rabbit--[don't have them] in your house, even in old age" elicits from the collector, in lieu of a definition, the almost equally vague comment that the real target of the proverb is not the bird that requires care or the rabbit that may cause damage, but simply the Indian, who never ceases to pay the price for being what he is (Rubio I 262). The same collector provides, however, "another form" of the proverb in which the meaning is more explicit: Indio, pájaro y conejo no conocen gratitud, "An Indian, a bird, and a rabbit know nothing of gratitude" (ibid.).

Ingratitude is also the charge implied in the Nicaraguan El indio y el alcaraván, apenas echan alas, se van, "The Indian and the stone curlew, as soon as they grow wings, they leave" (Cuadra 300) and its expanded variant, also from Nicaragua, Indio, piche o alcaraván, no se crían porque se van, "An Indian, a tree duck, and a stone curlew, don't raise them [in your household] because they'll run away" (Peña 94). Among domestic animals the cat, in particular, is often accused of failing to reciprocate the care or affection it receives. A proverb recorded from Peru and Bolivia proclaims forthrightly: El indio y el gato, animal ingrato, "An Indian and a cat, ungrateful animals" (García no. 628; Fernández 193), and a Panamanian variant adds a dove to make an ungrateful trio: Indio, paloma, y gato, animal ingrato (Aguilera 353, 606). In this latter instance the collector, far from disassociating herself from the stereotype contained in the proverb, remarks that the saying "expresses something very true when it says that the animals named are ungrateful" since it is well known that Indians hired for domestic service--especially those from the island of San Blas--are in the habit of leaving their employment without so much as a farewell, never to return again (Aguilera 606). (The Indians of San Blas are a prominent segment of Panama's "tribal indigenous population," which in 1978 was estimated at 121,000, or close to 7% of the population as a whole.)

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Dundes raises the question, in the article cited at the beginning of this paper, of the net effect, or even the advisability, of focusing scholarly attention on racial or international slurs--whether they be in the form of jokes, proverbs, or some other folkloric genre--but concludes that the potential benefits outweigh the possible disadvantages of publicizing such material (Dundes 38). It follows that an examination of the ways in which various regional traditions have sought to stereotype el indio and hence to justify the conduct of individuals and of society toward the Native American, can lead to a recognition of the fallacies expressed in such stereotypes and eventually, perhaps, to their weakening and to their ultimate disappearance from proverbial speech and from society as a whole.



*Previously published in Proverbium, 11 (1994), pp. 27-46

  1. These and similar observations are found throughout the diary of Columbus' first voyage, but see in particular the entries for October 12-13, December 16, and December 25, 1492. A convenient English translation is: Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage to America, introd. by Van Wyck Brooks (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1924), pp. 23-28, 116-120, and 142-151.
  1. The English version of this passage from the preface to Las Casas' Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias is taken from the translation by Nigel Griffin, published with the title A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (London: Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 9-10. The Brevísima relación has been published many times and in many languages since its original printing in 1552; a conveniently accessible version in Spanish is included in the volume of Las Casas' writings entitled Opúsculos, cartas y memoriales, vol. 5 of his Obras escogidas, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles no. 110 (Madrid: Atlas, 1958), pp. 134-181. The passage quoted is on p. 136.

  2. Oviedo's views are expressed at various points in his lengthy Historia general y natural de las Indias, first published in 1535 (Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, Vols. 117-121 [Madrid: Atlas, 1957]). The work as a whole has yet to be translated into English. For representative passages involving the qualities cited here, see Bk. 3, Ch. 6 (Vol. 117, p. 67 in the Biblioteca de Autores Españoles edition), in which Oviedo denounces those Spaniards who overwork or mistreat the Indians entrusted to their care, but follows that criticism with a generally negative portrait of the Native American. In contrast, in Bk. 6, Ch. 41, Oviedo recounts with admiration the extraordinary love shown by an Indian woman for her husband, who had been sentenced to be executed for his part in a local rebellion (pp. 199-201). José Miranda's assessment of Oviedo's opinions appears in the introduction to his edition of Oviedo's Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias (Mexico, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1950), p. 68.

  3. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 6-7. Pratt uses the term to refer to "the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (p. 6).

  4. Two other phrases listed in the entry for indio--caer de indio, "to fall [for something] like an Indian," and subírsele a uno el indio, which may be roughly translated as "for the Indian [in one] to rise up"--are identified as American (i.e., Spanish American) rather than Peninsular Spanish. I will consider them along with other New World sayings later on.

  5. Under the encomienda system, groups of Indians were assigned to Spanish conquerors or settlers, for whom they were required to labor and by whom they were to be protected, "civilized," and Christianized. The Laws of Burgos, promulgated by King Ferdinand in 1512, stipulated that "each Indian was to be given a house for himself and his family and a farm for raising crops and cattle. . .The Indians were to be persuaded to wear clothing, like 'reasonable men.' The children of each town were to be brought together twice a week for religious instruction. They were also to be taught reading, writing, the sign of the Cross, the confession, the Pater Noster, the Credo, and the Salve Regina; and, of course, they were to be baptized and forced to attend religious services" (Lesley Byrd Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain: The Beginning of Spanish Mexico, rev. ed. [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966], p. 11). For a more detailed overview of the Laws of Burgos, see Chapter 3 of the same work, pp. 29-38. As the result of widespread abuse of the provisions governing the encomiendas, even after repeated attempts at reform, the term encomendero has come to symbolize for many the worst degree of exploitation of, and cruelty toward, the indigenous peoples of America.

  6. With the exception of the comparative figure for the 1950s, all data mentioned here are from the Statistical Abstract of Latin America, ed. James W. Willkie, co-eds. Carlos Alberto Contreras and Christof Anders Weber (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center, 1993), vol. 30, pt. 1, p. 150. A footnote identifies the source of the data as an article published by the Inter-American Indian Institute in 1979. The estimates for the countries of Central America are labelled as "unreliable." The population figure for the 1950s is taken from the Statistical Abstract for 1976 (vol. 17), ed. James Wilkie and co-ed. Paul Turovsky, pp. 83f.

  7. See, for example, the article by Martin Edwin Andersen entitled "Early Warning from Chiapas," in the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 6, 1994, pt. B, p. 7.

  8. Statistical Abstract, vol. 30, p. 150. The figures for the United States are taken from the 1980 census.

  9. For a consideration of the effects of this kind of "transference" in relation to another set of proverbial metaphors, see Shirley L. Arora, "A Woman and a Guitar: Variations on a Folk Metaphor," Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship 10 (1993), pp. 21-36, but especially pp. 21-23; reprinted in De Proverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, 1995.

  10. Numerous Spanish proverbs concerning women adopt this pattern, e.g., La mujer y la oveja, a casa antes de anochezca, "Women and sheep should be home before dark" (Jara 247); A la mujer y al can, el palo en una mano y en la otra el pan, "For women and dogs, a stick in one hand and bread in the other" (Jara 279), El ánade, la mujer y la cabra, es mala cosa siendo magra, "A duck, a woman, and a goat are bad if they are thin" (Jara 285).



Annotations are by author's first surname and page or number; second surnames are used only when two or more authors share the same first surname. Multiple references by the same author are distinguished by publication date.

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Aguilar Paz, Jesús. El refranero hondureño. Tegucigalpa: Guaymuras, 1981.

Aguilera P., Luisita. Refranero panameño; contribución a la paremiología hispanoamericana. Santiago de Chile, 1955.

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Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1954.

Aranda, Charles. Dichos: Proverbs and Sayings from the Spanish. Rev. ed. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1977.

Armas, Daniel. Diccionario de la expresión popular guatemalteca. Guatemala City: [Tip. Nacional], 1971.

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Carvalho-Neto, Paulo. El folklore de las luchas sociales: Un ensayo de folklore y marxismo. Mexico, D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno, 1973.

Castellón, Hildebrando A. Diccionario de nicaraguanismos. [Managua: Talleres Nacionales], 1939.

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Cruz Brache, José A. Cinco mil seiscientos refranes y frases de uso común entre los dominicanos. Santo Domingo: Galaxia, 1978.

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Devia M., Misael. "Album de modismos, giros y refranes del campesino tolimense." Revista Colombiana de Folklore, Segunda Epoca, 4 (1964-1965), 11-188.

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Erminy Arismendi, Santos. Refranes que se oyen y dicen en Venezuela. Caracas: [Editorial Oceánida, 195-?].

Fernández Naranjo, Nicolás, and Dora Gómez de Fernández. Diccionario de bolivianismos. 2nd ed. La Paz: Universidad de San Andrés, 1964.

García Corzo, Samuel E. Setecientos cincuenta refranes, proverbios, máximas, sentencias, adagios y dichos, recopilados en la "capital arqueológica" de Sud América. Cuzco: [Imprenta Garcilaso], 1955.

Glazer, Mark, comp. A Dictionary of Mexican American Proverbs. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Gómez Maganda, Alejandro. ¡Como dice el dicho!: refranes y dichos mexicanos. 2 vols. Mexico, D.F., 1963.

Granada, Daniel. Reseña histórico-descriptiva de antiguas y modernas supersticiones del Río de la Plata. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: Kraft, [1959].

---. Vocabulario rioplatense razonado. 2nd ed. Montevideo: Imprenta Rural, 1890.

Guarnieri, Juan Carlos. Sabiduría y folklore en el lenguaje campesino rioplatense: Refranes, sentencias, dichos y frases hechas, aclaradas y comentadas. Montevideo: Lidela, 1971.

Hidalgo, José Nicolás. Un puñado de refranes criollos usados en el Ecuador. Quito: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 1952.

Jara Ortega, José. Más de dos mil quinientos refranes relativos a la mujer soltera, casada, viuda y suegra. Madrid: Instituto Editorial Reus, 1953.

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---. "Paremiología americana." Universidad Católica Bolivariana, Publicación Bimestral, 9 (Jul-Sept. 1943), 347-367.

Martínez Kleiser, Luis. Refranero general ideológico español. Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1953.

Mieder, Wolfgang. "'The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian': History and Meaning of a Proverbial Stereotype." Journal of American Folklore, 106 (1993), 38-60; reprinted in De Proverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies, Volume 1, Number 1, 1995.

Mieder, Wolfgang, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie B. Harder, eds. A Dictionary of American Proverbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Molina Molina, Flavio. Diccionario de dichos agudos y oportunos. Hermosillo (Mex.): Instituto Kino, 1985.

Morales Pettorino, Félix, Oscar Quiroz Mejías, and Juan Pérez Alvarez. Diccionario ejemplificado de chilenismos. 4 vols. Valparaíso: Academia Superior de Ciencias Pedagógicas, 1984-1987.

Moya, Ismael. Refranero: Refranes, proverbios, adagios, frases proverbiales, modismos refranescos, giros y otras formas paremiológicas tradicionales en la República Argentina. Estudios Sobre Materiales de la Colección de Folklore, 2. Buenos Aires: Instituto de Literatura Argentina, Universidad de Buenos Aires, 1944.

Norrick, Neal R. How Proverbs Mean: Semantic Studies in English Proverbs. Berlin: Mouton, 1982.

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Paredes Candia, Antonio. Literatura folklórica (recogida de la tradición oral boliviana). La Paz: A. Gamarra, 1953.

Paredes, Américo. "Proverbs and Ethnic Stereotypes." Proverbium (Helsinki), no. 15 (1970), 95-97.

Peña Hernández, Enrique. Folklore de Nicaragua. Masaya, Nicaragua: Editorial Unión, 1968.

Pinzón, Carlos Ernesto, and Graciela Fandiño. Dichos y refranes oídos en Colombia. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1973.

Polkinhorn, Harry, Alfredo Velasco, and Malcolm Lambert. El libro de caló. Rev. ed. [Oakland, Calif.]: Floricanto Press, 1986.

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Roback, Abraham A. Dictionary of International Slurs (Ethnophaulisms) with a Supplementary Essay on Aspects of Ethnic Prejudice. 1944. Rpt. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Maledicta Press, 1979.

Rodríguez Demorizi, Emilio. Refranero dominicano. Rome: G. Menaglia, 1950.

Rodríguez Marín, Francisco. Más de veintiún mil refranes castellanos no contenidos en la copiosa colección del maestro Gonzalo Correas. Madrid: Revista de Archivos, Bibliotecas, y Museos, 1926.

Rubio, Darío. Refranes, proverbios y dichos y dicharachos mejicanos. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Mexico, D.F.: A. P. Márquez, 1940.

Sánchez Boudy, José. Diccionario de cubanismos más usuales (como habla el cubano). Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1978.

Sandoval, Lisandro. Semántica guatemalense o diccionario de guatemaltequismos. 2 vols. Guatemala City: Tip. Nacional, 1941-1942.

Sbarbi, José M. Gran diccionario de refranes de la lengua española. Buenos Aires: Librería "El Ateneo," 1943.

Vargas Ugarte, Rubén. Glosario de peruanismos. 2nd ed. Lima, [1956?].

Shirley L. Arora
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California
Los Angeles, California 90095-1532

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