This article builds on recent scholarship emphasizing native contributions to Spanish American legal and political cultures to consider how Nahua leaders in early colonial Mexico influenced the construction of imperial policy vis-à-vis indigenous patrimonial lands. By examining a series of cases brought before colonial authorities in Mexico City in the 1530s, it details the efforts of certain highborn Nahuas who resisted efforts by Spanish conquerors to expand their access to Indian wealth. When challenged before colonial tribunals, they defended their actions by emphasizing the overriding importance of custom, ancestry, and kinship in determining land and resource rights. Whether successful or not, such arguments had broader consequences, as they compelled colonial authorities to explicitly weigh and adjudicate disputes shaped to a substantial degree by pre-Hispanic history, by events occurring decades and generations prior to the Spanish conquest. Thus Nahua patrimonial restorationism helped induce precedents that explicitly afforded legal weight to local custom and ancestry at a critical early stage when imperial law with regard to Indian lands remained inchoate and shifting. Not only did it facilitate royal efforts to constrain conqueror claims to native wealth, it also contributed to the eventual recognition of native patrimonial lands in Spanish imperial law.

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