Proceedings of the 1984 And 1985 San Antonio Missions Research Conferences
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Indians and Missionaries of the Southwest During the Spanish Years: Cross Cultural Perceptions and Misperceptions
Bernard L. Fontana
Bernard L. Fontana, Ph.D., Field Historian, University of Arizona Library, Tucson, Arizona. Photo courtesy Wade Sherbrooke.

Historian John Kessell, surely one of our brightest scholars and best writers on the Spanish-period history of the American Southwest, has among his many credits a fine book on the Franciscan-period history of the Pimeria Alta, today's northern Sonora and southern Arizona. It is called Friars, Soldiers, and Reformers (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1976), and it spans the years 1767 to 1856. In his preface, John acknowledges that, "Indians, especially as individuals, do get short shrift, though not by design. . . .A friar's lament over the persistence of native ceremonialism or a captain's praise of his Pima auxiliaries provides some insight, but always in another's words. Too few Indians emerge above the collectives 'friendly' and 'hostile.' Though I regularly assign the term hostile to the Spaniards' enemies, whether Seris, Piatos, or Apaches, I am fully aware that hostility was not often confined to one side or the other. When I use 'children,' 'wards,' and 'these poor souls' to describe mission Indians, I do so to convey the friars' feelings, not my own. Soldiers and settlers called some Apaches 'tame,' as they would a broken horse, precisely because to their way of thinking the others were 'wild'" (pp. xiii-xiv).

It turns out that what John wrote, and he would agree, was a one-sided history of this particular missionary enterprise. And his assumption that one cannot use documentary sources by non-Indians to make valid historical and cultural statements about Indians led him to play the historical game of cards with half a deck. A missionary enterprise, after all, takes place between two parties: the missionaries and those who are missionized. To know one without knowing all we can about the other may provide us with a lot of knowledge but not with much understanding.

In the case of Friars, Soldiers, and Reformers the situation is particularly lamentable because the Pimas and the Papagos, who were the natives of the Pimeria Alta among whom the Franciscans labored, are still very much alive, well, and participating in cultural traditions that are distinct from those of their non-Indian neighbors. There is, moreover, a vast ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature concerning these Piman peoples, one which John chose to ignore.

I am not picking on my friend John Kessell. What I would suggest is that he is typical in his approach. The kind of training traditionally proffered students of history in our groves of academe does not prepare them to deal with cross cultural encounters, especially encounters in which one or both of the parties involved are of a non-literate tradition. Our historians are taught, above all, to deal with documentary evidence, with the written word. And if Pimas or Papagos or Apaches or Comanches or Coalhuitecan speakers left us with no written record, how can their history be inferred?

It turns out that a great deal can be said about the Indian side of the historical equation if one knows how to go about it. In fact, this is what ethnohistory is all about. In practice, if not strictly in theory, "ethnohistory" tends to be the history of non-literate peoples. It is a history discerned through the use of archaeology; through oral history; through pictorial history (that is, the use of drawings, paintings, photographs, etc.); through an understanding of ecological relationships; through a knowledge of principles of social, political, and economic organization; through comparative and historical linguistics; via specific knowledge of the ethnographies of the groups under consideration, thereby enabling one to indulge in "upstreaming," or proceeding from a recent "known" to an earlier "unknown," and, above all, through informed use of documents written about the non-literate peoples by outsiders to their cultures, a feat which may require at least a modicum of training in cultural anthropology.

As those of us who are members of different cultural traditions come into contact, we almost inevitably project our cultural predilections on one another. It is not necessarily because we are consciously prejudiced. It is simply because we tend to conceptualize people and situations, just as we conceptualize material objects, in ways that are familiar and therefore comfortable. We are filled with anxiety or even fear when confronted by the unknown, and one way to alleviate those feelings is to force the unknown into familiar molds.

There is a second principle that needs consideration. It is that what we most readily perceive when we look at one another cross-culturally are the forms of the other's culture. We can readily see the shapes, the outward, tangible forms of people, things, and even institutions. What is hidden from our view, however, are the uses, meanings, and functions other people attach to those same forms. A Hopi Indian once told me, for example, that he saw no harm in an organization of white men in Prescott, Arizona, who annually stage public performances of sacred Hopi dances. He said that even if the costumes, the dance steps, the music, and the words to the songs were identical to those in Hopi, it would still not be the same. It could never be the same because the meanings to Hopis of those dances are exclusive to Hopis; the meanings of those same dances performed by white men were obviously altogether different to their performers and observers. And in this Hopi's view, at least, it is the meaning, the cultural significance of the dances that is important, not their outward, readily perceiveable form.

In still another example, I have a piece of Papago Indian earthenware pottery that is modeled in the shape of a bird effigy. There are five small holes in the head of the bird which indicate that its maker intended it to be a saltshaker. The problem here, as with several additional vessels made by this same woman about fifty years ago, is that there is no place to put the salt in — unless one has the patience of Job. The lady who made these pots came from a part of the reservation where people traditionally used hard salt that comes in crystal form. One simply crushed these salt crystals between one's fingers as needed. "It seems clear (this potter) had seen salt and pepper shakers on the shelves in stores, and she (understood) these were objects non-Indians used. She proceeded to copy what she had seen on the shelves, albeit in the manner of a native effigy form, but because its use was not familiar to her, she failed to allow for a way to fill it with salt. The form, use, and meaning of saltshakers in our culture are familiar to all of us. To this Papago potter, the meaning was purely an economic one: something to sell to non-Indians. The ceramic result is that this cross-cultural confusion has been fired into permanent form. It is, indeed, a social document" (Fontana 1973:7).

The missionary literature is replete with examples of these kinds of cross-cultural misperceptions. Let us take, for instance, the case of Father Joseph Och, a Jesuit missionary who served in Sonora in northern New Spain between 1755 and 1767, where he worked primarily among Piman Indians.

Father Och had a low opinion, as did virtually all European missionaries, of native medical practices. "There is no lack among the Indians or quacks," he wrote, "who pass themselves off as doctors. These are known as curanderos. They often kill the sick with savage remedies, if nature itself does not effect a cure. With pointed flint-stones they scratch the sick person's temples. They also open a vein on his forehead above the nose, or pick at different spots on his body. At the spot where the victim noticed his first pain they place a cane and suck or draw at the skin with the mouth, in the way that is done with cupping-glasses, rub the sore place, and at the same time make humming noises between their teeth. Not a few sick ones were relieved by these means, and therefore the ignorant Indians placed confidence in these doctors. However, I destroyed their handiwork with blows. Even Spaniards were deluded by them and had recourse to them, though they looked on these people as sorcerers and were cheated by them of their money or clothing" (Och 1965: 172-73).

This is the same Father Och who three paragraphs earlier informed his readers that, "For blood-spitting (hematemesis), which affects many because of their strenuous bodily movements in running, I found a good agent in mouse-droppings. These I administered in a considerable dose in dry powered form mixed with sugar. For this purpose, as also to keep my books and other things from being gnawed by the many mice, I gladly fed them with gourd or melon-seeds and with some dishes of peach, apple, or quince preserves placed as a reward on various boards. Whether all mouse droppings are beneficial or only those from mice fed with these dainties would have to be tested" (Och 1965: 172).

Father Och fails to tell us how readily the Pimans accepted powdered mouse droppings as a cure. But they were probably about as enthusiastic as a Sonoran Indian cared for by another Jesuit missionary, Ignaz Pfefferkorn. Father Pfefferkorn tells us, "The Sonorans were completely indifferent to the saving of their own lives, and at first much talking, coaxing, and insistence was necessary to persuade these people to take a remedy. In time, however, the experience of being cured practically against their wills made them willing to submit to a given prescription. Nothing, however, was so distasteful and unbearable to them as the use of an enema. This I discovered myself when, for the first time, I prescribed this cure for a sick Indian. I sent him to a Spaniard who had volunteered his services for this work and who had been trained for it. Hardly had the Indian perceived the Spaniard's intention when he began to yell at the top of his voice and to resist with might and main. I was finally called to the sick person and tried at the greatest length to prevail upon him. All persuasion was in vain. At last I had to call upon four strong Indians to hold him down until the operation was completed. The results were so good that the sick person soon completely recovered his health. .. The success of this treatment . .. gave (Indians) such faith in it that many of them came to me and requested an enema for headaches and other pains" (Pfefferkorn 1949: 278-80).

Pfefferkorn, like virtually every other colonial-period missionary who worked among Pimans, whether Jesuit or Franciscan, referred to their curers by such terms as "wicked imposters," "boasters,"" "braggarts," "quacks," and similar epithets. What none of them understood, nor is there any reason why they should have understood it, is the fact that Pimans had an extremely sophisticated theory of afflictions and had devised equally sophisticated means of coping with them. The theory and the means for cure were developed over centuries of experience. In brief, "there seem to be two kinds of afflictions: those which Pimans classify as 'sicknesses' and those which they do not. Of the 'sicknesses,' there are those that 'stay' — which are peculiar to Piman Indians and are not shared by other human beings — and there are those that 'wander' — contagious afflictions which fail to respect race, culture, age, or sex.... Staying sicknesses, in addition to being restricted to Piman Indians, are not contagious even from Piman to Piman. They are caused by the 'ways' and 'strengths' of 'dangerous objects.' Such sicknesses, which are the primary concern of Piman shamans, can affect only human beings and not other kinds of animals. More significantly, they involve a sense of transgression against the dignity or propriety with which (the ways of potentially) dangerous objects were endowed at the time of creation. It is thus that sickness and morality become intertwined.

"The principal role of the Piman shaman is as diagnostician rather than as curer. A patient"s body is the stratified repository of a lifetime's acquisitions of sickness-causing 'strengths.' It is the job of the shaman to divine which of these strengths are causing the sickness. Once divined, the curers — who may be any Pimans — can take over" (Fontana 1974: ix-x).

This knowledge of the Piman theory of afflictions and their cure was garnered in the late 1960's by Donald Bahr, an anthropologist collaborating with Papago linguists and a Papago shaman. Can such 20th-century data be "upstreamed" to the 17th and 18th centuries? There is no question that, with care, it can be. To read the 1974 book by Donald Bahr and his Papago coauthors concerning Piman shamanism is to enable one to understand better the forms of diagnosis and curing documented in the missionaries' writings, to allow us to arrive at an understanding of their meanings to Indians in a way that no 18th-century man, particularly a missionary, could have been expected to comprehend them.

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with the San Antonio missions, the native populations of the region, the missionaries, and their mutual misunderstanding? The answer is that any objective overview of the literature concerning the missions of San Antonio reveals a one-sided emphasis on missionaries and other Spaniards and non-Indians. The natives have, as Kessell has said, gotten "short shrift." Part of the problem is that the cultures of these natives were gone long before ethnographers and oral historians arrived on the scene. Unlike many regions of Arizona and New Mexico, there are in San Antonio no longer viable populations of descendants of aborigines of the area who recognize themselves as such. And Tom Campbell (1983: 343) has lamented that "the Spanish immigrants did not describe Indians in much detail, and they had little interest in developing a formal classification of the numerous ethnic units. For these hunting and gathering peoples there was no obvious basis for classification. Major cultural contrasts were not noted, and a tribal form of organization was not evident. Few Europeans were able to recognize significant similarities and differences in native languages and dialects spoken. . . .All this has made it difficult for modern scholars to achieve a sorting of these hunting and gathering groups that reflects valid differences in language and culture."

Such difficulties, though, have not prevented Campbell, Mardith Schuetz (1976, 1980), and such archaeologists as Daniel Fox (1979) from beginning to make strides in the direction of balancing the historical equation — to give us an understanding of the cross-cultural situation in San Antonio in the 18th century. Knowing that the natives attracted to the San Antonio missions were Coahuiltecans, Caddoan-speaking Tejas, and Tonkawans is a beginning; and knowing that they were hunters and gatherers is certainly helpful. There is a huge body of anthropological literature concerning hunters and gatherers throughout the world, and there are some striking similarities in the cultures of all of such peoples. Knowing this literature would be a helpful step in gaining insights concerning these Texas Indians based on a reading of the admittedly scant written observations by missionaries and other Spaniards. The further removed from the original sources, the more treacherous ethnographic analogies become. But a knowledge of hunters and gatherers worldwide can only enhance one's understanding of colonial documents alluding to the natives of Texas.

It has been asserted in print that the "San Antonio mission complex was the most successful missionary enterprise in Texas" (Thurber and others 1975: 12). But the authors of this remark don't tell us what they mean by "successful." If the Indian cultures are extinct, is that success? And if so, how was that success achieved and by whose rules?

These and a million other fascinating questions, questions that enlighten us not only concerning San Antonio but which tell us something about the universal human condition as well, await answers. We will all be closer to them when we strive to see the ancient world, as we should see our own, through the eyes of others as well as in our own light.


Campbell, T. N.
1983 Coahuiltecans and their neighbors. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10, pp. 343-358. Washington, Smithsonian Institution.

Fontana, Bernard L.
1973 Keynote address. In Ceramics in America, edited by Ian M. G. Quimby, pp. 1-13. Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia for the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum.

1974 Foreword. In Piman shamanism and staying sickness, by Donald M. Bahr, Juan Gregorio, David I. Lopez, and Albert Alvarez, pp. ix-xi. Tucson, The University of Arizona Press.

Fox, Daniel E.
1979 The lithic artifacts of Indians at the Spanish colonial missions, San Antonio, Texas. Special Report of the Center for Archaeological Research, no. 8. San Antonio, The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Kessell, John L.
1976 Friars, soldiers, and reformers: Hispanic Arizona and the Sonora mission frontier, 1767-1856. Tucson, The University of Arizona Press.

Och, Joseph
1965 Missionary in Sonora: the travel reports of Joseph Och, S.J., 1755-1767. Translated and annotated by Theodore E. Treutlein. San Francisco, California Historical Society.

Pfefferkorn, Ignaz
1949 Sonora, a description of the province. Translated and annotated by Theodore E. Treutlein. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.

Schuetz, Mardith K.
1976 Indians of the San Antonio area. In San Antonio in the eighteenth century, edited by the San Antonio Bicentennial Heritage Committee, pp. 1-21. San Antonio, San Antonio Bicentennial Heritage Committee.

1980 "The Indians of the San Antonio missions, 1718-1821." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Austin, the University of Texas at Austin.

Thurber, Marlys F., Richard W. Sellars, and David G. Battle
1975 Proposed San Antonio Missions National Historic Park: alternatives for implementation. Santa Fe, Division of Cultural Resources, Southwest Regional Office, National Park Service.

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011