Teaching Summary: Colonial Documents and Archives

Nina Beriss

Do you want to incorporate more Indigenous knowledge in your course?  Are you looking for another way to teach Mexican history or archival studies? 

Overview: An introduction to reading and thinking through archival sources, the lesson discusses primary sources, specifically Zapotec language texts in Mexican colonial archives. This lesson guides readers in understanding how to interact with colonial texts in a way that centers Native actors and avoids echoing colonial language. These open access educational materials are co-created with Zapotec partners with funding from a grant from the ACLS.

Grade Level Recommendations: Middle school, high school, and college students

Courses and Units:  This module is appropriate for any introductory history class or archival methods course. It could also be used in an Indigenous Studies class, Intro to Latin American Studies course, or a class on Mexican History.

Time: This module can be taught in a 40-60 minute class or extended over 2-3  classes.

Major Points (by section):

  • Primary sources are firsthand or eyewitness accounts of the past. They are the tools historians use to learn about the past. This lesson discusses Indigenous language primary sources, specifically Zapotec language texts. Often by and about Native people, these documents offer unique and seldom explored perspectives about the colonial past. The Zapotec primary sources show that the Spanish were not the only ones writing and preserving their history.
  • Primary sources in Zapotec are housed in archives far from the communities and pueblos that produced them; the documents can be found in archives in Mexico, Spain and in the United States.
  • Colonial documents, in Zapotec and Spanish, were created and preserved to run the Spanish colonial state. As these primary sources show, Zapotec people and their decisions had an impact on Spanish colonial rule.
  • The Bill of Sale from Oaxaca de Juárez, 1740 can serve as a case study. The document shows what content was included, how translators identified themselves, and how the Spanish and Zapotec versions of the same text differed
  • Ticha provides many documents, but it is not a complete archive; it offers a “snapshot” of the past. Use documents from Ticha to begin exploring the Zapotec colonial world, and consider which stories are and are not found in the documents. When viewing colonial documents such as the Bill of Sale, think about if/how you may be centering or reflecting colonial perspectives rather than the actions of Native people. It is also important to corroborate findings and understandings about primary sources with other documents.

Guiding Questions:

  • Primary Sources: What is a primary source? Give some examples. What is the difference between a primary and secondary source? When you think of a “colonial document” what images comes to mind? Who are the authors of the colonial texts you know? What do they have in common?
  • Spanish Archives: Why did Spanish officials think they needed to record and preserve transactions? Can you find other Bills of Sale on the Ticha site and what information can you quickly glean from them? How can you use metadata to find information about a document?
  • Reading Colonial Text: Why do you think information about translators is included? What do you think the role of interpreters was? When you summarized your document, how did you present the roles and actions of Spanish and Zapotec people? What connections can you make between this document and others on Ticha?
  • What Comes Next: What could be missing when consulting a document on Ticha? Are there ways that Ticha supplements using an archive? How can a digital experience intervene in physical archival experiences?


  • Primary sources: original records or objects of the political, economic, intellectual, religious, artistic, and scientific thoughts of specific peoples and places
  • Archives: institutions, founded, funded, and run by the state or private entities that help preserve documents

Before teaching this unit:

More resources: 

Access the teaching materials here:


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