Indigenous Mexican Tribes

Indigenous Mexican Tribes are those people who trace their roots to people who lived in the area known as Mexico before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century.

Historical Development

Before the European settlement of Mexico, there were four main indigenous civilizations in the area.

  1. The Olmec civilization was the oldest. They were an agricultural society with a hierarchical social structure.
  2. A collection of different tribes who loosely banded together formed the Aztecs. The Mexica were the most powerful among them. The name "Mexico" comes from the Nahuatl language, which was the language of the Aztecs. Mexico City is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital.
  3. The Zapotec civilization lasted for 2500 years and featured a variety of language dialects, both written and spoken. Benito Juarez, the first indigenous president of Mexico, was of Zapotec descent.
  4. Around 2000 B.C, the Mayan civilization began. They were a culture with advanced scientific and mathematical discoveries. They also had an established form of government featuring city-states with rulers. The Mayan society began to decline around 1000 A.D., but would meet its ultimate end at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.
Palenque, Mexico

© Dennis Jarvis - Palenque, City of the Mayan Civilization

By the time the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, the Aztec empire was a loose collection of diverse ethnic civilizations. The conquistadors were able to take advantage of divisions within the group to create dissent and conquer the peoples.

Under the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Spanish crown recognized the nobility of the indigenous tribes and kept the basic city-states intact. Unfortunately, the Europeans also brought new diseases to the Americas which afflicted many of the native peoples. This caused a great decrease in indigenous populations.

Over time, there was intermingling between the Europeans, the black slaves that they brought with them, and the indigenous tribes. This led to mixed-race castas. Spanish law differentiated between the republic of Indians and the republic of Spaniards, which included Europeans, Africans, and those of mixed-race.

The indigenous tribes still had a certain amount of self-government and a protected status until the 19th century. At that time, New Spain declared independence from Spain and became known as Mexico. Government reforms eliminated the corporate status of these communities.

In the 20th century, the Mexican Revolution brought a renewed respect for indigenous tribes as the foundation of Mexico.

Monumento a la Revolución, Mexico City

© Haakon S. Krohn - Monument to the Mexican Revolution, Mexico City


According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, approximately 25 million people, or about 21% of the Mexican population, self-identify as indigenous in 2015. This represents an increase in population in recent years primarily due to increased self-identification as indigenous as well as a higher birth rate among indigenous peoples compared to non-indigenous Mexicans.

Indigenous people have less economic opportunity than the population as a whole. They start working at a younger age and work most of their lives. They tend to labor in agriculture-related fields. As a result, they do not receive a regular salary and have less access to health care.


Depiction of the Comanche by George Catlin

Depiction of the Comanche by George Catlin



Over 60 indigenous languages are recognized as native languages of Mexico, in addition to Spanish. Some of these include Nahuatl, Yucatec, Tzotzil, Mixtec, Zapotec, Otomi, Huichol, and Totonac.

When Spanish friars came to Mexico, they taught the indigenous tribes how to write their languages using Latin letters. This led to a large amount of written documentation about native peoples in their indigenous languages.

In the 20th century, the government encouraged bilingual education and the publication of bilingual textbooks in an effort to preserve indigenous languages. In 2003, the National Institute for Indigenous Languages was formed to promote the preservation and growth of these languages.

Indigenous Mexican Languages

© Yavidaxiu - Map of the Indigenous Mexican Languages


Before the European invasion, each indigenous tribe had its own tradition and customs. A great amount of indigenous identity was tied to the land that they lived on. They had a sense of collective, rather than private, property. Once the Spanish took over their land, the native peoples lost their cultural base.

Spanish friars, including the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Jesuit orders, evangelized and converted the indigenous peoples to Christianity. These tribes are still predominantly Christian, particularly Roman Catholic, although elements of the Aztec and Mayan religions remain. They have a strong religious identity and see life as one of service to God.

Their primary social units are the family and the native village community. The tribes themselves have civil and religious offices held by elders in their communities. Marriage is monogamous and sometimes arranged by parents. Godparents are chosen at the time of a child's baptism. They are held in high esteem and are considered spiritual kin to be depended on in time of need.

Shamans, or medicine men, still exist and use supernatural means to cure those who are ill and help with the success of crops.

Most indigenous tribes still rely on agriculture to survive. However, due to the lack of economic opportunity, many native peoples have moved to urban centers in Mexico and the United States.

According to the second article of the Mexican constitution, indigenous tribes have:

  1. The right to decide internal forms of social, economic, political, and cultural organization,
  2. The right to preserve language and culture, and
  3. The right to elect representatives to appear before the municipal council.


Indigenous tribes:

  • Include those people who trace their roots to people who lived in Mexico before European arrival.
  • Speak over 60 different recognized languages.
  • Have a culture centered on family and community.
  • Practice agriculture to survive.
  • Have a lower standard of living than the larger Mexican population.
  • Have a deep religious faith which is a blend of Christianity and native religions.