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Native American Women and Religion in the American colonies: textual and visual traces of an imagined community.

Sister Antonia de Cristo, born in Puebla de los Angeles in New Spain, joined the first convent that allowed Indigenous women to profess as nuns in 1724. She did not write an account of her life as did many other nuns in the Hispanic world. Rather, another Indigenous nun in the cloister recounted in a brief biography the "miracles" that occurred during Sister Antonia de Cristo's lifetime and at the moment of her death, such as the beautiful music that people from outside the convent were able to hear when she died (Apimtes 13) J Forty years earlier, in the Jesuit mission to the Iroquois Indians of New France, another Indigenous woman's death provoked accounts of miracles. Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert who followed a life of penance and chastity without having taken formal religious vows, died in April 1680; after her death, Indigenous women of New France described Catherine's "apparitions" to them in which she bid farewell and rose into heaven (Greer, Mohawk Saint 19).

These two cases in New Spain and New France point out the key roles played by Native American women in the expansion and definition of popular Catholic beliefs and practices in the colonial Americas. (2) They also reveal the existence of gender alliances among Indigenous women, regardless of their ethnic distinctions, and indicate Indigenous women's reliance on these alliances for the purposes of preserving in the historical record their participation in the colonial Church, sometimes through accounts of their piety and religiosity, at other times through letters and legal documentation. (3) In addition to written records attesting to Indigenous women's membership in the Catholic Church and their contributions to the diffusion of religious values, painted portraits of these women constitute a medium through which scholars may study Native American women's agency and performance in colonial spaces.

Indigenous women in the Americas interacted with colonial institutions in the spaces of missionary settlements, convents, beaterios (religious places for lay women), schools, and churches. These "contact zones" allowed for experiences of transculturation in which women ably fused their cultural identity with the new expectations of the Church, redefining themselves and becoming not only active in religious matters, but on occasion even models to be followed (Pratt 6). (4) Gender roles were forged in colonial spaces in ways that differed greatly from those that characterised European centers, since the social composition of the American territories varied dramatically from their European counterparts. A complex array of ethnic groups and languages, as well as remote and hostile geographies, allowed women in general and Native American women in particular to exercise agency in new ways. Sherry B. Ort-ner distinguishes between women's "agency of power," or "resistance,'1 and what she calls "an agency of intentions," arguing that the latter is not necessarily about domination: "It is about people having desires that grow out of their own structures of life, including very centrally their own structures of inequality" (81). To understand the cases in which Native American women converted to Christianity instead of resisting the hegemonic culture, we must take into account this definition of the "agency of intentions" and identify how these colonial subjects found accommodation and resistance within the colonial system itself. We may never know why Indigenous women chose to convert to Catholicism or to enter a convent. The archive provides us only filtered, rhetorical documents by which to enter into these women's experiences, yet it is precisely these sources that allow for a hemispheric reading of Native American women's religious roles in the colonization of the Americas.

The sources I examine here suggest the existence of both "imagined communities" of Native American women in religious settings and promotional networks that recorded and embellished their presence in the Church through textual and visual renditions of these women. (3) The hemispheric approach I have used recuperates Native American women's presence in the early American Catholic Church, uncovering the range of mechanisms that these women could employ to acquire authority and successfully inscribe themselves into the historical record/This approach affirms that Native American women who had been indoctrinated in the Christian faith were part of a far-ranging community of women who shared similar experiences and who found in colonial religious spaces opportunities for empowerment that other members of the community supported. It also makes clear that early modern cases of Native American women who excelled in religious devotion--and whose exemplary lives were recorded--were not simply rhetorical constructions of European male writers. Rather, such cases were part of a larger chain of cultural collaborations that redefined these women's roles in oral, written, and visual outlets.

In addition to their involvement in communities joined by gender consciousness and ethnic marginalization, Native American women throughout the Americas interacted with a more complex network comprising European religious men and women who sought to promote themselves and their religious orders by means of recuperating accounts of the exemplarity and agency of many Amerindian women. At the same time missionaries were championing their difficult task in the so-called New World, these men and women were reconstructing Native American women's active participation through hagiographic accounts and even producing portraits that would become tangible examples of the important roles these women played in the expansion of Catholic beliefs and practices among their people. Although this essay takes into consideration only examples from New Spain and New France, a more comprehensive study of various religious experiences throughout the Americas would be well worth doing.

Critical opinion on the field of hemispheric colonial studies varies; while some scholars support the effort, others continue to be suspicious, noting its potential to elide cultural and situational differences. Yet, as John H. Elliott contends, colonial communities shared more constants than differences, which gave them access to a process of self-definition that transcended conventional boundaries of nationality (7). Catholic missionaries confronted Indigenous populations and opened spaces dedicated specifically for women, which resulted in similar experiences in New Spain and New France (although New Spain was established on American soil a century earlier than New France). The Christianization of Amerindian women in both colonized spaces led to the establishment of promotional networks and imagined communities of women. Although the Jesuit presence in New England is beyond the scope of this essay, it could be studied within the same framework and would add a new dimension to this project. While 1 do not negate the obvious differences between the two cultural contexts, the similarities allow for a fluid dialogue across the two cases. Nevertheless, a range of issues complicate the task, such as language barriers both in primary documents and in critical literature and the almost unavoidable generalization and elision of certain details of each ethnic group and individual woman's experience. I attempt to minimize these complications by focusing on the existence of the community and the networks that allowed for texts and portraits to subsist.

I begin by briefly discussing the conceptual possibilities of a hemispheric approach and reviewing the research paradigms that have guided studies of Native American women and other women who lived during the colonial period. Then, focusing on two places--one in eighteenth-century New Spain and the other in seventeenth-century New (7) France--I analyze the imagined communities and gender consciousness among Native American women and European and criolla women (women of European descent born in the Americas) who came into close contact with Amerindian women and who comprised promotional networks in conjunction with priests. (61) conclude by analyzing the extant portraits of devout Native American women, focusing on the visual rhetoric that was employed to demonstrate ethnic autonomy in New Spain and to build a case for sainthood in New France.


An early, noteworthy effort of hemispheric scholarship is Gordon Brother-ston's Book of the Fourth World, in which Brotherston reads "the scrolls of the Algonkin, the knotted strings (quipus) of the Inca, Navajo dry paintings, and the encyclopedic pages of Mesoamerica's screenfold books" (4). He identifies in these literatures modes of representation and configurations of time and space that articulate a pre-Columbian epistemology, one that has survived through different means well into the twentieth century. The continuity proposed by Brotherston in Native American political memory, survival strategies, and resistance throughout the Americas presents an appealing model of scholarship for comparatively analyzing Native American women's cultural production and presence. Complementing Brotherston's valuable approach, which emphasizes the survival of a purely pre-Columbian knowledge system, I focus on transculturation processes. These allowed for the adoption of Western rhe-torical strategies and symbolic languages that (re)placed Indigenous women from the marginal position of female savage to the more privileged position of the exemplary, docile, or convert Indian women.

The relatively new academic paradigms that stress the reconceptualization of spatial notions, such as transatlantic and hemispheric approaches, have been scrutinized by Latin Americanists for adopting Eurocentric theoretical perspectives. Yet, as Ralph Bauer has observed, several "intellectual and cultural forces have moved" the fields of colonial Latin American and US colonial studies to the juncture when a hemispheric approach is called for (123). These spatial paradigms highlight the fluidity of global cultural exchanges and challenge nationalistic approaches. The hemispheric orientation I have used to understand Native American women's imagined communities refocuses the transculturation debate onto rhetorical strategies, as proposed by Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel; it also engages with recent articulations of Hispanic women's studies. (7)

In their landmark essay on visual culture in colonial Spanish America, Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn highlight the "deceit of visibility" which ignores the changes that Amerindians underwent culturally as a result of colonization or simply denies there is anything Indigenous left in a person who does not look Indian (13). In other words, visibility stagnates ethnic and gender identities: "Visibility thus tricks us into recognizing the native only in very limited and circumscribed ways" (15). What we think we see, according to Dean and Leibsohn, is usually not real, since the politics of coloniality determine the range and focus of our vision. There are significant scholarly efforts that problematic what Dean and Leibsohn have made evident, particularly in the cases of Native American women. Nancy Shoemaker points out that historians of the United States have recently acknowledged the diversity of Native American women's responses to Christian missions, demonstrating that many of these women "became leaders of women's church groups, and thus helped shape how Christianity became incorporated in native communities" (13).

In a 2006 review of the key paradigms of gender studies in colonial Native Andean history, Nancy van Deuscn identified gender parallelism and complementarity as dominant in the research, beginning in the 1970s. These paradigms, van Deusen states, sought to emphasize the centrality of separate gender roles (144). Scholarship conducted under these paradigms considerably advanced our understanding of gender relationships in pre-Hispanic and colonial times, yet at the same time it relied upon and cemented stable definitions of gender identity. Karen Vieira Powers identifies other paradigms of scholarship employed when considering Native women: The first "emerged from a male discourse of sexual conquest," and another, supported by feminist historians, focused on the "Indian woman as victim" (9, 10). Powers argues that these paradigms also limited the ways scholars thought about Native American women's identities, preventing a more complex and fluid examination of Indigenous women's experiences. This critique has resonated with recent scholarship that has questioned the standard idea of the Indigenous woman as victim and has blurred the boundaries of clear-cut gender identities. Camilla Townsend's books on Pocahontas and Malintzin (Malinche) are good examples of this endeavor. Townsend restores humanity to both figures and reviews their apparent transformations from victims to survivors. Pamela Scully, for her part, opposes traditional descriptions of colonial encounters based on heterosexual relations between Indigenous women and European men. Scully criticizes this model of historiography and proposes a comparative approach to the lives of Native American women in the Atlantic world, finding commonalities in very different societies, essentially because many cultures in the early modern period shared similar gendered understandings.

These shifts in the analyses of subaltern groups and marginalized colonial subjects, including Native American women, have led to a more nuanced understanding of ethnic and gendered identities, by which scholars recognize identities as fluid constructs that served to redefine the colonial order and legitimize women's authority within the new system. Although women's power in the colonies was largelv mediated by men, and women rarely left written records of their life experiences, the existence of other media has provided glimpses of women's active role in forging colonial society and of Native American women's abilities to survive in a hostile environment. In this issue of Legacy, Rocio Quispe-Agnoli incisively notes the richness of legal sources and the importance of rhetorical constructions for understanding women's active participation in the expansion of the empire and the "domestication of the unknown" (272). Quispe-Agnoli's engagement with the archive provides insight into the dual role of several encomenderas (female owners of Indian labor and tribute), both as political and economic subjects and as conquista-doras who mapped a new geographical space. The work that Allan Greer has done to recuperate the life of "a particular native person" in the case of Catherine Tekakwitha is also exemplary and identifies the many filters found in texts that were not written as history but belong to a religious genre known as hagiography (Mohawk Saint vii).


Recent research on the Iberian Atlantic highlights communities of women who, although not necessarily sharing the same physical space, were united by what has been called a gendered consciousness. On occasion, these women shared the same religious language, a similar colonial experience, and the need to resist or to survive a domineering patriarchal system. Scholars such as Electa Arena) and Stacey Schlau have identified the intellectual activities that took place behind convent walls, and Stephanie Kirk has asserted the importance of intellectual solidarity as a communal activity (129). Stephanie Merrim has written about the desire of certain seventeenth-century learned women (in the colonies and in Europe) to find authorization through autodidacticism (Early Modern Women's Writing 194); Lisa Vollendorf has suggested a transatlantic reading of women's writings in Iberia and the Americas, identifying rhetorical strategies and thematic elements common to all (79); and several other works have invited hemispheric or Atlantic readings of gendered experiences. (8)

The early modern Church, although it enforced female subordination, provided important outlets for women to exercise authority as "they redefined themselves and their positions within the Church, their families and communities" (Dinan and Meyers i). (9) Possibilities for exercising authority were open mostly to European, criolla, and in some instances Mestiza women in the colonies. (10) Yet women from socially marginalized ethnic groups on occasion took advantage of the social space that the Church opened for them and, rather than being restricted, were empowered by it.

The links and bonds among these women suggest the existence of what Benedict Anderson has called "imagined communities," not because they preceded present-day nation-states but because the early modern world allowed for certain regions or communities to feel connected and "aware of sharing a language and a religious faith" (188). It would be erroneous to assert that all Native American women maintained this kind of awareness and a gender consciousness, but I propose that what allowed for the emergence of an imagined community of Native American women in the Americas during the colonial period was a combination of gender and ethnic marginali/ation, together with the realization that religious instruction and the spaces opened by the Christian church would allow them leadership roles and important opportunities for participation in an institution that represented symbolic power and control. These women redefined themselves, finding ways to belong to communities that could support them, help them to inscribe themselves in the record, and allow them to exercise authority.

This becomes evident in the first convent that allowed Native American women to take the veil in the Americas: the Convent of Corpus Christi, founded in 1724 in Mexico City. In the eight biographical narratives that survive from this convent, the Indigenous women left a written record of some of their daily activities while at the same time aligning themselves with the expectations the Church had for religious women. Through the reworking of traditional hagiographic biography, Indigenous noblewomen in New Spain appealed to colonial officials in hopes of maintaining some power in the sociopolitical colonial structure. (11) More noticeably, they also defined their place in the colonial order--as members of the Church and as subjects chosen by God to lead lives of perfection that could contribute to the salvation of their people.

The life of Sor (vSister) Antonia de Cristo, narrated by another Indigenous nun in the convent, is described in an oral style, with candid remarks that exemplify the traditional conventions of the spiritual biography, or vida. (12) The narrator mentions that Sor Antonia's life " [f]ue muy abstinente en la comida" [was marked by abstinence from food] (Apuntes 11). (13) She then proceeds to give examples of Sor Antonia's fasting:
  [Q]ue andaba continuamentc pepenando las cosas que se tiraban y solo
  coneso se rnantenia, como era recoger los rabos de cebolla para
  aprovecharlos, los medruguitos nomas comia que no se desperdiciaban.
  [She constantly went around scavenging for things that had been
  thrown out, and she survived on what she found, like picking up
  discarded onion stalks to make good use of them, and ate only crusts
  of bread so that they would not be wasted.] (Apuntes 11)

In contrast to the narratives of exemplary lives of virtuous women written by men, this hagiographic biography provides details that make Sor Antonia's fasting more believable. The description of the Indian nun picking up discarded onion stalks allows the reader to have a clear picture of her sacrifices in a real and tangible way. In another passage she relates a similar example of her abstinence and humility: "No comia con cuchara, sin solo con un palito, cualquiera tarjamanilito [sic] con que topaba en el suelo y esto por la Santa Pobreza" [She did not eat with a spoon but only with a little stick any little insect she would find on the floor, and all this to Jive in holy poverty] (Apuntes 11), The "little insect[s]" that Sor Antonia would find on the floor and eat are not only symbolic of her "holy poverty" but also exhibit a traditional Indigenous form of nourishment. The petate, or straw mat, on which Sor Antonia lies down is another Indigenous characteristic that simultaneously exemplifies her humility (11).

The anonymous Indian woman writer was clearly acquainted with the religious tropes usually found in this kind of narrative. The nuns in the convent must have heard, and on occasion read in the refectory, the lives of saints and other exemplary nuns who wrote their lives with the encouragement of their confessors. (14) In this way, they learned to reproduce the ideals of the perfecta religiosa, yet they combined these standards with a colloquial style that reproduced speech and relied on a simple language that lacked adornment (Arenal and Schlau 25). Recalling details about her own reality, the Indigenous nun writer reinforces the model hagiographic virtues of humility, mortification, penance, and fasting. Native American women were thereby brought into the realm of religious language and experiences familiar to other women in the early modern world; they were subjected to a process of normalization in order to gain power, admiration, and a place within the colonial order and their communities.

The fact that the Apuntes is composed by one (or several) anonymous Indigenous nun(s) about some of her (their) deceased sisters points to the aforementioned existence of a gendered consciousness, one that served as a basis for the later creation of what Gerda Lerner has called a feminist con-sciousness. (15) As Lerner points out, "autobiographical and biographical works, even though produced with increasing frequency, enriched the source record but did not provide a coherent conceptualization of the past of women" (272). However, feminist endeavors to recuperate women's experiences through the traces left behind have allowed for a rewriting of history in which women's voices have become audible and have even made their way into the academic canon. In the cases of Native American women, in which these traces are rarer, reliance on women's communities seems to have been imperative. In the Convent of Corpus Christi, as in other convents during the early modern period, women took into their own hands the task of reworking their fellow sisters' lives in order to insert them into the religious historical record. On other occasions, women were responsible for the propagation of a certain sister's alleged saintliness through oral accounts of what they had experienced during their time together.

Communities of Native American women were also found in New France a century earlier, when missions were established by Jesuits and Ursulines arriving from Europe. Women became informants of priests and friars, who later recorded stories of incomparable faith and miraculous conversions among the Native population. Such was the case with Fathers Claude Chauchetiere and Pierre Cholenec of the mission settlement at Sault St. Louis, who chronicled the life of Catherine Tekakwitha. Both Chauchetiere and Cholenec openly admit their reliance on anecdotes told by the women who were close to Catherine during her lifetime. (16) Orality was key to the recovery of Native American women's voices and experiences, particularly since, in the majority of cases, Native American women's abilities to read and write were even more limited than those of European women. Greer reports that the first visions of Catherine after her death came to two Iroquois women, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo and Marie-Therese Tegaiaguenta, and were recorded by Chauchetiere and Cholenec in their hagiographical narratives about Catherine (Mohawk Saint 18). (17)

The community of Iroquois women in which Catherine lived presents a good example of how women found support among other women in the spaces opened by the Church. There were also mechanisms of collaboration and backing for one or more persons' exemplariness within the community, as well as opportunities for leadership. The community of Iroquois women defined itself in terms of gender, ethnicity, and religion: They were all women who had accepted Christianity. In this way, they redefined their roles as Native American women among their communities and acquired a degree of power. According to the Jesuit priests, these women lived exemplary lives, renouncing sex and marriage while disciplining their bodies with fasting and flagellation (Greer, Mohawk Saint 4). These Native American women were not allowed to take formal religious vows as nuns, yet they were described in the same way that exemplary nuns and candidates for sainthood were by the priests who supported them. Although Catherine was not a nun, descriptions of her exemplary and saintly life by women in the community and by the two Jesuits who took in their hands the campaign for her canonization allowed her cult to become part of popular religion in the colonies. Catherine became a cohesive element, a symbol that adhered Native American peoples to the religious principles promulgated by the missionary Church in New France. (18)


European women who were in close contact with Native American women by means of their mission to provide religious education in the Americas constitute another important source for recuperating the role played by Native American women in the establishment of the Catholic Church in the newly found territories. In New France, Marie de Flncarnation, a seventeenth-century French nun who founded the Ursuline convent in Quebec, participated in the informal propagation of Native American women's narratives that conveyed their suitability for Christian life and embellished the idea of the docile convert. Marie's position vis-a-vis the Indigenous converts was that of a colonizer who was sympathetic to the colonial subjects about whom she was writing, yet her approach was closer to that of the Jesuit missionaries than to other women in the colony who experienced patriarchal rnarginalization. Ultimately* women converts were wonders in her eyes.

Although there is little evidence of a significant solidarity uniting Native American and European women in colonial situations, there were instances in which a gender consciousness allowed women like Marie de Flncarnation to preserve aspects of Native American women's participation in the Church. She devoted several pages in her writings to Indigenous women in the missions, and in this endeavor she relied heavily on oral accounts, many of which she reproduced in writing in letters sent to France, addressed to her son and to other religious women. (19) Marie found authority in her writings. As Mother Superior of her convent in Quebec, she wrote two spiritual autobiographies, didactic texts for her sisters at 'Fours, and numerous letters. Moreover, in her life in New France she became a woman directly engaged in apostolic activities as part of the colonization of the Amerindians of the region.

Marie's descriptions of Algonquin and Iroquois women employ the same terms used in the documentation that defended the capacities of Indigenous women in New Spain. Marie emphasizes the docility of the Indigenous women, along with her amazement at their willingness to learn and remain in the faith. She writes: "They model themselves upon us as much as their age and their condition can permit. When we make our spiritual exercises, they keep a continual silence. They dare not even raise their eyes or look at us, thinking that this would interrupt us" (74). Marie frequently makes enthusiastic references to the Native American girls in her letters, particularly in the early years of the mission when greater support from France was needed. On occasion she delves into specific stories, naming Indigenous girls and relating examples of marvelous and quick conversions, such as the case of Agnes Chabdikouechich, a girl who was given to the nuns to receive basic religious instruction. Marie relates that some time before arriving to the convent, the girl had encountered Father de Quen in the woods, where she was cutting wood. As soon as she saw him, "she threw her hatchet aside and said [to him], 'Teach me. '" She was then brought to the convent, where she was baptized and taught the mysteries of the faith. Another girl, Marie-Ursule Gamitiens, "says the rosary during Mass and sings hymns in her Savage tongue" (73), Marie de lTncarnation also writes about Oionhaton, the niece of the celebrated Huron convert Joseph Chihwa-tenha. She was baptized with the name of Therese, learned to speak French and Algonquin and to read and write in the convent, and then, according to Natalie Zemon Davis, began to preach to Huron visitors at age fourteen (110).

As Davis points out, Marie had no intention of systematically describing and recording Native American traditions, customs, and beliefs as some missionaries did. Instead, the recovery of Native American women's lives in her letters and in reports for Jesuit officials had another purpose: As the leader of a religious community, she sought to expose the work accomplished by the Ursuline presence in New France. This effort was particularly important because their convent was not a contemplative order but a community with a didactic purpose. Therefore, Marie's engagement with Amerindian women was functional and reflected her order's involvement in a competition for a number of converted souls. References like Marie's to Native American women preaching in their communities are rarely found in men's writings of women's exemplarity, due to the Church's prohibition of women's preaching and teaching.

Tamara Harvey has studied Marie's functional notions of the body in both her earlier life as a mystic in France and her later involvement with the Ursu-lines in Quebec. Harvey contends that Marie's functionalism in Quebec had to do with her dedication to community and her mission to save lost souls, yet Marie's call for an active life was also contradictory and her relationship with Native American women tainted by her privileged position as a colonizer (135). (20) Marie's desires to save souls and participate in the conversion of the Natives were limited to her activities within the convent walls; she was confined in the cloister and viewed this space as civilizing. Natives were considered to be savages until they learned the true faith and converted, but Marie's awareness of her role as part of a micro-community, that of the Ursulines, and a macro-community, that of the mission, compelled her to write extensively about her didactic tasks among Native American girls and about her knowledge of the lives of the women close to her.

In another part of the hemisphere and a century later, Baltasar de Zuniga, the Marquis of Valero and Viceroy of New Spain, proposed to the Crown a convent for Indian women of the noble class. The Audiencia, the City Council of Mexico, and the Council of the Indies conducted the required investigations prior to approving the idea. Several priests and at least one nun--Sor Petra de San Francisco of the Convent of San Juan de la Penitencia, who later became one of the founders and abbesses of the Convent of Corpus Christi--gave their testimonies. Sor Petra defended, as Marie de lTncamation had done a few decades earlier in another mission post, the capacities of Nahua women to take religious vows as black-veiled nuns. Both nuns had been invited to utter their opinions on Native American women, based on the nuns (5) experiences in teaching them. One important contextual difference is that Marie was working with new converts while Sor Petra was writing about women born of families who had been Christian for at least two centuries, yet there were characteristics that these women shared despite their dissimilar situations.

Both nuns promoted the didactic tasks of their convents, and both subtly presented themselves as agents in the teaching of Natives without the presence of male superiors. Both Sor Petra and Marie wrote from privileged positions, since one was criolla and the other European. Furthermore, they both had authority within their communities, and they used their authority to write favorably about Indigenous women. The noble Indian women who were candidates to enter Corpus Christi had worked at Sor Petra's convent, and Sor Petra had prepared them for religious life, instructing them in the faith. In her testimony, Sor Petra refuted an attempt to portray Indigenous women negatively, denying claims that some of the women selected to become nuns had already been promised in marriage. Betrothal could prove their inconstancy, a focus of concern among detractors of the convent for Indigenous women. Sor Petra based her comments on the experiences she had had with the Indigenous women who had been attending didactic sessions with her in the Convent of San Juan in order to better prepare them for life as religious women. She stated that Indian women were " [a] ptas y capaces para el estado y por su virtud, recogixniento y muy buena crianza es que seran muy buenas religiosas" [suited to and capable of the religious life, and because of their virtue, solitariness and good upbringing, they will be good nuns] (Testimony).

In her description of Indigenous women, Sor Petra used the same stereotypical constructions about the nature of Native Americans as those found in male-authored accounts, just as Marie de l'lncarnation had used constructions found in The Jesuit Relationsy with which she was familiar. However, Marie's and Sor Petra's opinions on Indigenous women did not always concur. For Marie, the strongly melancholic nature of Native American girls prevented them from being suitable for enclosure in a convent, while Sor Petra held exactly the opposite opinion. Their views on the nature of Native Americans were most likely influenced by their own religious orders' ideologies, as well as by the differences in the length of time that Europeans had spent in New Spain and New France. Sor Petra and Franciscans in general thought that the melancholic nature of Indigenous women was ideal for life in enclosure, while Marie states that some of the "Savage" girls would become so melancholic in enclosure that they would fall ill (341). Whatever their motives and approach to evangelization, criolla and European women who came into close contact with Amerindian women were instrumental to inserting them into the historical record.


In addition to oral and written accounts of the active participation and occasional exemplariness of Native American women in religion, extant portraits of these women attest to the symbolic importance they acquired for their families and within their larger communities. These portraits represent valuable examples of material culture from this period and allow us to grasp what could have been these women's physical presence in their religious communities. For Catherine Tekakwitha, whose case for canonization was taken seriously by the two Jesuit priests, Chauchetiere and Cholenec, we have an oil portrait (fig. 1). The image, painted by Chauchetiere, places Catherine in what would have been seen as a civilized setting, whereas other visual depictions of Tekakwitha place her in the woodlands, in accordance with the stereotype of the savage Indian. In this portrait, a large church, an important civilizing force, can be identified in the background. Catherine's clothing combines European and Iroquois elements (Greer, Mohawk Saint 20).

Catherine Tekakwitha is represented with a small wooden cross in one of her hands; the other hand is placed on her chest, more specifically on her heart. Her head is covered with a long black cloth resembling religious women's habits, and her head is inclined to the side. Catherine is represented with a soft facial expression, as if she were in contemplation, and her sight is fixed on something or someone in the distance. Catherine's portrait can be placed in the genre of visual representations of saints. She was stripped of all exoticism usually related to Native Americans, particularly in the first years of contact. Symbolically, Catherine's image was brought into the language of religious conformity. Her image was reworked to present her as the first saint of New France, and it was created in accordance with written renditions of her exemplary life and her ascension into heaven upon her death. The visual image created by Chauchetiere after Catherine's death helped to promote her cause. The people who had not known Catherine in person heard her story and saw her portrait; as a result, she quickly became an important symbol for Native American converts in New France and a model for other women to follow. In his essay in the present issue of Legacy, Andrew Newman points out the importance of Catherine's portrait as a means of instructing the so-called savages in the life and manners of Catherine. Her portrait was not only an artistic rendition of an exemplary Native American; it became a means of religious instruction,


In the case of this image, it is worth noting the close relationship that existed among oral accounts, written documentation, and visual depictions of the same individual. All of these textual and visual documents use the same colonial rhetoric to bring about the sainthood of one particular woman. Yet the visual (and textual) construction of an Indigenous proto-saint combined elements of two competing cultural contexts. In the oil painting, Catherine is not wearing what the "Savage [s] " wore according to Marie de PIncarnation in one of her letters of 1640: "only a bit of fur or old blanket" (79). In this sense, the hybridity referred to by Dean and Leibsohn becomes evident. Catherine is celebrated for her ethnic difference, yet she is showcased because she has accepted European values. In the portrait, Catherine's clothes are more similar to European garments than to those of Native Americans. But Catherine is not represented only because of her ethnic difference; rather, her persona is recreated in painting because she has been granted special favors and regarded as a saint in her local community. To convey that special message in the portrait, Catherine's body appears to be floating, her feet barely touching the ground, as if she were in an in-between place, not totally earthly but not yet a saint. The effectiveness of the reconstruction and promotion carried out by the community of women who surrounded Catherine and of the Jesuits who got to know her is evident, as her cause survived and was carried on until she was declared Blessed by the Vatican in 1980 and preparations began for her beatification process (Bunson 5).

In the New Spanish context we find a different pictorial representation of Amerindian women. This representation is a kind of elite portrait known as a monja coronada (crowned nun), an image of a newly professed nun wearing her habit, a ring, and a flowered crown; she is typically holding a palm, a flowering staff, a book, a candle, a crucifix, and a doll-sized baby Jesus. These portraits usually contain a cartela, or legend, in which important information about the nun is included: The nun's name, her place of birth, the name and title of her parents, the convent she entered, and her profession date are among the most common items mentioned (Hammer 98).

Images of crowned nuns employ a conventional visual vocabulary of portraiture to represent the importance of these women in their religious communities and to testify to the social status of the families who commissioned them. Several art historians have devoted important works to the study of the genre of the crowned nuns. These studies have examined the symbolic language contained in these portraits, as well as the social and religious significance they acquired during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (21) What has not been examined in depth is the existence of at least two portraits of Indigenous women within the corpus of crowned nuns in Mexico. I propose that the failure to analyze these two portraits of Indians as a distinct artistic creation among the general production of crowned nuns has to do, again, with the "deceit of visibility" (Dean and Leibsohn 13). The visual elements that differentiate the Indigenous nuns from the criollas in the portraits are only a few and at first glance are almost imperceptible. Why ponder these differences if they are not visible enough? The incursion of Indian women into the genre of the crowned nuns and the cultural normalization of the Indigenous woman in religion speak loudly and clearly about the processes of colonization and the mechanisms used to include Amerindian women in the historical record. The visual language in the representations of nuns and of Catherine Tekakwitha attests to these women's active participation in conventual life, their continued conversion of other women, and, ultimately, their religious perfection. These portraits not only address the women's social status but also reveal the distinguishing features of their religious orders and the place they occupied in the larger hierarchical social structure of the colony.

Sor Maria Joaquina del Senor San Rafael, a noble Indian woman whose crowned-nun portrait survives, professed in the Convent of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels) in Antequera, present-day Oaxaca (fig. 2). This convent, founded in 1782, followed the Capuchin rule. Because written documentation of the convent is very limited, Sor Maria Joaquina's portrait is one of the few surviving pieces of material culture through which we can glimpse information about who these women were, their importance in the colonial religious world, and the manner in which they were incorporated into the historical record by means of a visual genre. (22) Her simple habit is contrasted with her grandiose and colorful flowered crown. Capuchins (1) habits were usually made of a coarse fabric in keeping with their strict observance of humility; they were always worn in the color brown. The elaborate flower design in the crown, however, when compared to the crowns in other nuns (1) portraits, is striking and affirms her elite status, and perhaps that of her family, as a cacique (noble) of Oaxaca.


Alma Montero has rendered a detailed analysis of the symbolic elements in Sor Maria Joaquina's crown. In the center of (he crown, the Archangel Michael appears triumphant with a lance, defeating the devil, who is lying at his feet. Three smaller angel figures can he found in the lower part ot the crown holding banners with, the inscription of the three vows taken at profession time: chastity poverty and obedience. On the very top of the crown we find the figure of the Virgin Mary surrounded by two other angels in white garments and three smaller cherubs clothed in red cloth, playing musical instruments. On the lower section of the large flowered staff is a figure of baby Jesus> seated in a reflective attitude on a heart. We also find butterflies fluttering around the staff of flowers (194-95).

Sor Maria Joaquina's crown, although embedded in the same visual language used in other criolla portraits, presents critical differences. The crown she is wearing seems to have the most elaborate flower design and the largest quantity and variety of flowers in the corpus of crowned nuns. Flowers have been an essential element in Indigenous culture since pre-Hispanic times, one that repeatedly appears in pre-Hispanic painted books (codices) and in poetry. The artist fused the importance given to flowers within the Indigenous community with familiar elements in this genre of nuns' portraits, rendering a unique representation of a cacique nun. Sor Maria Joaquina is also holding a bare white candle, a crucifix, a ring, and a rosary, all traditional elements of the profession ceremony. Her eyes are looking down in an expression of humility correspondent to her religious order, not necessarily to her ethnicity.

Crowned-nun portraits proliferated during the eighteenth century, and although the genre was influenced by the culture of the baroque, evident in the depictions of color and adornment, visual representations were vastly altered by the end of the century. The style of the late-eighteenth-and nineteenth-centurv portraits is much more austere, apparent in the limited number of flowers that appear in the nuns' crowns and elsewhere surrounding the central figure of the portrait. An example of this stylistic change can be found in the second portrait of an Indigenous woman from New Spain (fig. 3).

The portrait of Manuela Meza is a nineteenth-century artistic rendition of an Indigenous woman from the community of Capuluac, in the surroundings of present-day Mexico City. Manuela Meza professed in the last convent founded exclusively lor Indigenous women in New Spain and the first one that allowed Indian women to enter regardless of class. The Convent of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe or Ensenanza Nueva (the Company of Mary) was originally a school for Indigenous women, yet it was transformed into a convent in 1811, maintaining its didactic mission. Manuela Meza's portrait shows clear artistic differences that reflect the cultural and political changes of the nineteenth century. The nun is wearing the traditional black habit of the order and is holding a small prayer book between her hands; she is also wearing her profession ring and her rosary. The crown is considerably smaller than that of Sor Joaquina, and, although embellished with flowers, it contains an extra element: a small white dove in the middle of the crown, representing the Holy Spirit.


The crowned-nun portrait contains a cartela that provides important information about Manuela Meza, her family, her convent, and her dates of entry and profession. By including this textual information in Manuela's portrait, the visual representation allows us to read two combined languages that use the same colonial rhetoric. (23) From the legend in the portrait we know that Manuela professed in 1827 under the government of prioress Maria Luisa del Corral, the first Indigenous woman to occupy this post in that convent (Foz y Foz 437). It is significant that the portrait of an Indian woman as a crowned nun was produced under Indigenous government, because the portrait was a means to reaffirm the ethnic character of the convent and to strengthen the ethnic exclusivity and identity of the women residing in it.

The austere beauty of Manuela Mezas portrait speaks to the indisputable position Native American women came to occupy in the religious structure of the colony. By this time, Amerindian women's abilities were not contested, and their involvement in the Mexican Church had gone from a restricted entrance into a convent according to a woman's social status to the possibility of conventual life for any Indian woman desiring to undertake it. The portrait also confirms that ethnic identity had endured well into the national period and that Indian women found pride in the authority they acquired in their roles as nuns and teachers of other Indigenous girls. The representation of Manuela Meza with a book, performing the act of reading, is a triumphant construction of how Native American women in the religious sphere wanted to be remembered. The staged pose of nuns wearing crowns from previous years--holding flowered staffs and other symbolic elements--reproduces a fixed image of an apparently passive woman under the scrutiny of the spectator, while the reading nun is actively defying some gendered and ethnic stereotypical conceptions of Native American women.

The portraits of Catherine Tekakwitha, Sor Maria Joaquina, and Manuela Meza are products of colonial politics. As artistic renditions of three Indian women in the American colonies, they are full of ambivalence, following the hybrid nature of colonial rhetoric. The three women are portrayed on canvas because of their ethnic differences, yet a visual language of religious conformity brings them into the realm of the ideal, making them icons for religious instruction and exemplars for posterity. Catherine, as an early convert in the missionary settlements of New France, achieved accommodation and a certain degree of agency that allowed her, with the help of other women, to be inserted into the historical record as a religious icon. The two Indigenous nuns from New Spain were proudly presented as exemplary nuns within their Indigenous communities, attesting to the important roles they fulfilled in their convents. None of these women has yet reached the status of sainthood, but they have all become symbols of the achievements of the Catholic Church in American territory, and they functioned as a means of transmitting religious values in the communities to which they belonged.

The examples of Indigenous women in New Spain and New France mentioned above invite hemispheric considerations of Native American women's experiences of religious instruction and their roles in establishing the colonial Church in the Americas. A hemispheric reading of these instances also sheds light on the ways priests and friars relied on Native American women to establish a symbolic religious presence within the Indigenous communities and to lay the foundations of Catholicism among the original inhabitants of the territory. By addressing the lives of some Native American women and creating around them an aura ot exemplarity, colonial officials were able to bring religious values such as piety, chastity, bodily mortifications, and humility into a familiar realm for the rest of the Native population. For their part, Native American people were not passive recipients of these exemplary constructions; rather, they were participants in the location, creation, and embellishment of iconic women who could transcend and become gendered symbols of their Nations or pueblos. Through these brief considerations of imagined communities, promotional networks, and visual renditions, I hope to have shown the possibilities for further hemispheric studies of Native American women's experiences and agency in religious spaces. Through various mechanisms of adaptation, Native American women were able to inscribe themselves in official religious stories. Their lives were embellished and most likely altered; however, they were able to survive, and they successfully empowered themselves through religious instruction in colonial spaces opened by the Church.


I would like to thank Tamara Harvey and Jennifer S. Tuttle for their helpful suggestions.

(1.) Key historical works written in the 1960s by Lavrin and by Muriel (Las indias caciques) on religious women, followed in the late 1980s by groundbreaking literary studies by Franco, Arenal and Schlau, and Powell allowed for the consolidation of what Myers identified in 2000 as the subfield of female conventual writing in colonial studies ("Crossing Boundaries" 151). In their introduction, "Reclaiming the Mother Tongue: History and Spiritual Politics" Arenal and Schlau tell the stories of nuns who wrote, many of them in their own hand, while others dictated oral narratives (1).

(2.) By popular religion I refer to the way the people understood and experienced religion--not necessarily in clear opposition to official doctrine but as a negotiation of elements of European origin in the new colonial context. Drawing from historians of early modern Europe, Hall uses the term "popular religion" to distinguish the Puritan context from the European (4). In order to explore the ways people liveci religion in the new setting of New England, Hall focuses on "the role of the folk" the decentralized geography of religion, the appeal of traditions, and the power of literacy (5).

(3.) Women's oral accounts are more commonly brought into the written form by-male witnesses of Native American women's piety than by other Native American women; nevertheless, the existence of these oral accounts in the colonial religious archive is significant.

(4.) I use the term "contact zone" following Pratt's influential book Imperial Eyesy in which she writes of 'the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involv-ing conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (8).

(5.) Here I invoke Anderson's concept of "imagined communities"--alliances based not on the bonds of blood or political affiliation but on the shared concepts, beliefs, and activities of their members and maintained through technologies ol communication, whether oral, textual, or visual.

(6.) I use the general term Indigenous or Indian to refer to Amerindian religious women in New Spain because these women refer to themselves in their writings as such. However, we know that at least in the Convent of Corpus Christi there were Nahua, Olomi, and Chichimec women; in the Convent of Nuestra Senora de Cosamaloapan there were Tarascan women; and in the Convent of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles there were Mixtec and Zapotec women (Muriel, "Los conventos de monjas" 81).

(7.) In "Angels of History and Colonial Hemispheric Studies" Mcrrim urges scholars of Hemispheric Colonial Studies to move from large categories "toward inductive analysis that begins locally and texturally" (69), an approach that informs my incursion into hemispheric studies with a focus on Amerindian women in New Spain and New France.

(8.) See, for example, Jaffary, Gender, Race, and Religion; Kostroun and Vollendorf; Campbell and Larsen; and Brayman Hackel and KelJy.

(9.) See, for example, Kostroun and Vollendorf, as well as Jaffary, Gender, Race, and Religion.

(10.) Fundamental studies on the formal and informal participation of women in the Spanish American colonial religious sphere include Burns; Chowning; Gunnarsdottir; Holler; Jaffary, False Mystics; and Myers, "Crossing Boundaries," Neither Saints, nor Sinners, and Word from New Spain.

(11.) The hagiographic biography is a hybrid genre that merges formal elements traditionally found in saints' narratives with biographical information to make the life narration more exemplary than real. For more detailed explanations, see Donahue and Greenspan.

(12.) Myers explains how the genre of the vida came to be: "At times, confes sors requested that a nun record in a written form her innermost thoughts ... as a method of advancing this process of self-examination and of extending the confessor's knowledge of his spiritual daughter" (Introduction 2).

(13.) To make the excerpts in Spanish more accessible, I have modernized the orthography and syntax. All translations are mine. For a larger sample of these sources, see Diaz 161-62.

(14.) Vollendorf explains thai the model of the Spanish nun "Teresa of Avila as a writer-reformer paved the way for secular and religious women's engagement with the written word inside and outside the convent setting" (83).

(15.) Texts written by nuns about other nuns were prevalent in the convents for criollas and in European convents, as well; they were not particular to convents for Indigenous nuns. Yet pioneering scholarship devoted to women's conventual writing has privileged autobiographical works over texts written in the third person, which have received less critical attention.

(16.) Cholenec's Vida of Catherine (1717) was translated into Spanish by another Jesuit, Juan de Urtassum, and published in Mexico City in 1724. The translation of Catherine's life worked in support of the foundation of the Convent of Corpus Christi and served. as an example of the capacities of Native American women to keep the vows necessary for religious life. For a more elaborate discussion see Greer, "Iroquois Virgin"; and Diaz, ch. 2 (42-62).

(17.) Sec Newman's essay in this issue of Legacy for an extended study of the construe-tion of Cholenec's hagiography of Catherine Tekakwitha based on the life of Catherine of Siena.

(18.) Bilinkoff explains that in colonial America the term saint applied to "any figure regarded as saintly or exemplary to a community of believers, not only [to] someone officially canonized by the Catholic Church" (xiii). The existence of people considered to be saints or exemplars by a local community points to another possibility for links among the Puritan and Catholic contexts in the early Americas.

(19.) For a detailed treatment of Amerindian women in Marie de lTncarnation's letters, see Bruneau, particularly ch. 5 (101-34). It is important to mention that Bruneau identifies another source for Marie's information on Native American women: The Jesuit Relations (108).

(20.) Bruneau refers to Marie's double call for religious life (as mystic and missionary) as a product of the seventeenth century, when scientific and theological discourse relativized bodily phenomena and therefore mystical discourse (44). This double call, according to Bruneau, offered Marie a "way to self-determination and recognition" (40).

(21.) See, for example, Cordova, Hammer, Montero, and Muriel, "Los conventos de monjas en la socredad virreinal."

(22.) The first funerary eulogy dedicated to an Indian nun, Sor Maria Teodora de San Agustin, founder and abbess of the Convent of Santa Maria de los Angeles in the city of Antequera, along with her correspondence, and documents concerning the opening of the convent are some of the few sources I have been able to locate from this convent.

(23.) Martinez-San Miguel uses the term "colonial rhetoric" to connote the discursive and narrative strategies constructing a perspective that negotiates its place within an imperial project (39),


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MONICA DIAZ Georgia State University
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Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
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Date:Jun 1, 2011
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