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The Purepecha: History, Religion & Gods

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Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

There were many tribes found in pre-colonial Mexico, but none quite so distinctive as the innovative Purepecha. In this lesson you will learn more about what makes the history and religion of the Purepecha so important to Mexican history. Updated: 09/27/2020

The Purepecha

Inside modern day Mexico can still be found Mexicans of Purepechan descent, whose culture is distinctive from other groups inside Mexico. Populated mainly in the state of Michoacán, their native homeland, the Purepechan tribe has a religion and history that's different from their more well known Aztec brethren. Among the people of Mexico, the Purepechans and their magnificent artwork contributes greatly to the spirit of the country and the fabric of what makes Mexico what it is.

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  • 0:04 The Purepecha
  • 0:35 Purepecha History
  • 3:01 Purepecha Religion
  • 3:49 Purepecha Gods
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Purepecha History

Before the arrival of the Spanish in Central America in the early 1500s, the Tarascans tribe, also known as the Purepecha, thrived in the area of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Pre-colonial Mexican tribes included the mighty Aztecs. However, the Purepecha emerged unconquered as a valuable trade partner.

In the 1470s, the Purepecha and the Aztecs did battle in a clash for expansion and raw materials like gold and silver. Despite the Aztec's fierceness in combat the Purepecha defeated the Aztec's handily, and not only kept their lands but were able to also annex Aztec territory further into Tenochtitlan.

The Purepechas maintained their own language and culture that was distinctive from their neighbors. Their language mirrored the Quechua language of the Incas, denoting that the Purepecha may have had South American origins and migrated to Central America early on in their history. Also distinctive among the Purepecha was their artwork which utilized bronze and copper, and may explain why their trade with other early Mexican tribes was especially important.

The Purepecha also had a diversified economy and society where government advisors, warriors, and craftsmen whose jewelry of silver and gold also enhanced their trade skills all pushed the tribe to a place of importance among their counterparts. Nevertheless, regardless of their immense power and skills the Purepecha would face the same unfortunate fate as their Aztec neighbors with the coming of the Spanish.

Although the Aztecs faced immediate exploitation at the hands of the Spanish starting around 1518, the Purepecha weren't under Spanish subjugation until 1530. The Aztecs sent several calls for help to the Purepecha that were ignored. The Purepecha relied on their fishing industry to survive, while their neighbors to the North suffered from disease and enslavement.

The Aztec's plight under the Spanish allowed the Purepecha to prepare for the coming of colonial rule. The Purepechas had things the Aztecs didn't, like bronze weaponry and the towering fortress of Acambaro on high ground above the valley below. Instead of complete and total subjugation like among the Spanish with the Aztec empire, the Purepechas were allowed to keep their nation as more of a vassal state who paid their patron Spain for the right to exist.

Purepecha Religion

Like their northern counterparts, the Purepechan religion relied on human sacrifice to their many gods and goddesses as a means to reap blessings and favor and to demonstrate devotion. The Purepechan religion includes a realm for the sky, the Earth, and an afterlife for the dead down below. Each realm was controlled by three deities whom were held above lesser deities inside the religion.

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