Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Spanish among the Pimas: Part 1. On matters spiritual and temporal


Cornonado’s expedition in 1540-1542 through what is now the American southwest had been fruitless for the Spanish. No wealth or riches had been found. But the expedition had made the Spanish aware of the numerous Indian tribes of the region. Over the next century or so, missionaries trickled to these places, and set about explaining to the "heathen" multitudes the "mysteries of the Holy Faith"–to quote the English translation of the commonly used Spanish term found in the written accounts of the time.

At the Arizona State University library, I found a copy of one such written account: a field diary that the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino had kept during the late seventeenth century. Kino had been in southern Arizona, which had then been the northern frontier of the Spanish empire in the New World. Though the diary is in Spanish, the neat, hand-written account, with blotches of ink here and there, gives a startling sense of intimacy to Kino’s labors.

Kino was born in Italy in 1645. He recovered from a serious illness in his youth and joined the Society of Jesus. He started his missionary work among the Pima Indians in 1687. His mission was in Dolores, just south of what is today the Arizona-Mexico border. For Kino, the Dolores mission was a base mission of sorts from which to explore other parts of the region and spread Christianity. And for 24 years, until his death in 1711, Kino was involved in a number of expeditions and traveled long distances.

Eusebio Kino’s task was not easy. To live in an arid land at the limits of the Spanish empire – the Rim of Christendom, as the historian Herbert Bolton called it – amongst a people very different from his own; to gently impress upon them that their earth religions, ways of thinking and beliefs had to be effaced; to soften and make palatable the condescension that lay beneath the proselytizing mission: all this required a special kind of zeal, diplomacy and pragmatism, and Eusebio Kino had these qualities in plenty.


The Pima Indians mostly lived north and northwest of the mission in Dolores; and there were some in Dolores as well. The term Pima is a broad one, and at the time it referred to hundreds or thousands of people belonging to related tribes scattered in different parts of the Sonoran desert. Today this region would include the northern part of the Sonora province of Mexico and much of southern Arizona.

Perhaps in the early stages of Spanish conquests, news that pale-skinned warriors mounted on strange beasts and robed men with crosses were slowly making their way northward might have reached the Pimas through trade routes, but in the late 1600s Spanish proximity was a very real thing: their influence could be seen in the mines and missions of Sonora, not too far from where the Pimas lived; and in Dolores and the small villages and towns west of it, the Spanish were already among the Pimas.

In the December of 1687, Kino held the Holy Week of Christmas with other missionaries. His audience consisted more than a hundred Pimas, forty of them recently baptized children. The children were dressed richly with ornaments and jewels, “like new Christians” – to borrow a Kino phrase – by Spanish ladies of a nearby mining town. Earlier, Kino had sent Indian messengers far and wide, inviting the chiefs of villages to attend, and see for themselves the new faith that had come to their lands.

Surely for the Indians attending Christmas celebrations for the first time, listening to strange scriptures, watching children wearing jewels and ornaments, there must have been a sense of awe. Over the next few years, there might have been more such celebrations with many attendees from various places, for Kino knew the effect such displays would have. And sure enough, in 1690 the chiefs of some villages to the north invited Kino to instruct them in the ways of the new faith.


Kino’s visits to Pima villages not yet under complete Spanish control were occasions of great festivities. The written accounts of these visits are so similar that it is easy to piece together a single narrative that summarizes all of them.

The Indians receive Kino and his entourage – an entourage of pack animals, visiting missionaries, Spanish soldiers and Indian servants from other villages, slowly progressing through the dry, mountainous desert landscape, raking up a cloud of dust – with songs and dances, crosses and arches made out the branches of mesquite and oaks. They point out to Kino the walled adobe house they have built to receive a priest who can instruct then (Pimas then lived in huts, and adobe houses were rare; the skills had to be learnt). The adobe house has been swept clean; roads in the village have been swept clean. Children are brought out to be baptized and are given new names; and Spanish soldiers become godfathers. The sick and dying are baptized (Kino hardly mentions epidemics that must have ravaged the Pimas and considerably and reduced their numbers). A head of cattle is butchered and there is a feast. Kino continues his instruction. The Pimas continue to sing, dance and provide food; they are servile, eager to please and convert, and readily pledge their allegiance to the Spanish king.


But it wasn’t only the faith that attracted the Indians; there were other more important things at work as well. The Spanish had brought with them an agricultural package that had the potential to transform the way the Indians lived. The Pimas had for long been hunter-gatherers and a nomadic people. Through trade routes that linked to the Mexican and Central American civilizations, they had learned and perfected the art of cultivating corn, squash and beans in desert landscapes. And yet these crops were never enough to ensure a perennial supply. They might have made some tribes partially sedentary, but food production was still inadequate; and the absence of domesticated animals meant that hunting and gathering still had to go on.

The Spanish introduced wheat and cattle that ensured a constant food supply; they also brought horses that provided great mobility. Such innocuous-seeming things as crops and domesticated animals profoundly transforming communities! It is not easy to imagine this today when almost all of the products of the world are available everywhere to an extent that they are taken for granted. But in the late 17th century, preaching at a remote outpost of the Spanish empire, Kino, like many other missionaries, was certainly well aware of changes he was bringing about. He writes in many of his reports of two distinct things: spiritual matters, matters to do with conversions, baptizing and explaining the religion; and temporal matters, matters to do with growing of crops and finding land fertile enough to do so, keeping and herding cattle, and making new buildings.

To the Indians, the temporal would have been inextricably linked with the spiritual. To avail the benefits of the temporal they would gladly accept the spiritual. And this abstract, figurative notion would have become very literal during some of Kino’s visits: for surely an Indian would have kneeled in veneration in front of the missionary, and Kino might have motioned to one of his servants to hand over gifts that included seeds for cultivation and cattle to raise and herd.


Next post on the topic:
The Spanish among the Pimas: Part 2. The Killing of Saeta


1. Primary References: Kino’s expeditions are well recorded, by himself and Juan Mateo Manje, a Spanish captain who often traveled with Kino. Kino went on to write Favores Celestiales (Historical Memoir of Pimeria Alta; translation by Herbert Bolton). The work is difficult to read and rarely breaks out its monotone religiosity. Manje’s work Luz de Tierra Incognita (Unknown Arizona and Sonora; translation by Harry Karns) is better in this respect. Manje too was God-fearing, but he had an eye for detail, and a wish to discover things.

2. Secondary References: There are a number of interpretive secondary references. Father Kino in Arizona, a work of the Arizona Historical Foundation is one such work. The historian Herbert Bolton , who brought Father Kino’s work to light through his translations, has a number of books on the topic (see Rim of Christendom and Padre on Horseback).


k.r.a.k.t.i.k said...

This is a really good and well-researched article! I never knew the ASU libraries were so helpful - of course, to me all the books there are at least 50 years old ...

But that means different things to different people :-) Waiting to read part II - and your blog is really quite a good resource in these matters.

Hari said...

Thanks, Kartik! Actually, ASU has special collections on Arizona and other areas - these books cannot be checked out but you can photocopy them. Luckily, the references mentioned in this post were available for checkout.