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The Chaco Mission Frontier: The Guaycuruan Experience & Empire of the Sand: The Seri Indians and the Struggle for Spanish Sonora, 1645--1803. (Reviews).

The Chaco Mission Frontier: The Guaycuruan Experience. By James Schofield Saeger (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000. xviii plus 266 pp. $50.00/cloth).

Empire of the Sand: The Seri Indians and the Struggle for Spanish Sonora, 1645--1803. By Thomas Sheridan (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. vii plus 493 pp. $65.00/cloth).

During some three centuries of colonization in the New World, the Spanish encountered and had to relate to a large variety of native peoples, from sedentary agriculturalists living under hierarchical state systems to nomadic hunters and gatherers in small bands. The Spanish erected a complex colonial system to replace the hierarchical indigenous state systems such as the Mexica-Aztec of central Mexico and Tawantinsuyu in the Andean region. However, conquest and colonization were difficult on the fringes. The primary institution that evolved along the fringes was the mission/reduction, designed to transform the native peoples along the lines envisioned by the Spanish. The natives were to be converted to Catholicism, the official religion of empire, and changed into sedentary agriculturalists.

In recent years a number of scholars have turned to examine missions/reductions in different parts of Spanish America, and among different native groups. The two books reviewed here examine Spanish-native interactions and efforts to establish missions among groups of largely nomadic hunter-gatherers. In the first book James Saeger studies the Guaycuruan, different groups that inhabited the Chaco region now divided among Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. The different Guaycuruan groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers when the Spanish arrived in the region in the mid-sixteenth century, and modified their lifestyle, economy, and way of waging war by adopting Spanish livestock, particularly the horse, and the use of iron for tools and weapons. The Guaycuruan, who were militaristic at first contact, developed an uneasy relationship with the Spanish based primarily on trading and the raiding of Spanish settlements. Guaycuruan bands even rustled livestock from one Spanish community to trade to another, brand and all.

The pattern of trade and raiding persisted for two centuries, and during that period the Spanish made efforts to establish missions that largely failed. However, beginning in the 1740s and 1750s many Guaycuruan bands asked Spanish officials to establish missions for them. Saeger argues that drastic ecological changes, such as depletion of traditional sources of plant foods such as palms, left the natives few options. However, in the missions the Guaycuruans did not immediately change their culture or adopt Christianity. There were even instances of Guaycuruans from different missions raiding each other or even Spanish settlements. The missions survived until independence in the region after 1810.

Saeger outlines different aspects of Guayuruan life both outside and in the missions. The strength of the book is the ethnohistorical synthesis based on the pioneering works of scholars such as Furlong, Metreaux, and Susnk, as well as several detailed first hand accounts of the Guaycuruans written by missionaries in the eighteenth-century. Given the paucity of data, Saeger's coverage of the missions is not as detailed as is the ethnohistorical sections of the book. Saeger uses an article written by David Sweet as the baseline against which to construct his analysis of the Guaycuruan missions, and not surprisingly Saeger concludes that not all aspects of Sweet's generalizations on native experiences in frontier missions apply to the case he studies.

Saeger has written a solid and competent book that benefits from extensive previous ethnohistoric scholarship, and contributes to the growing literature on frontier missions. Having said that, I found a number of problems with the book. Saeger draws comparisons between the culture and historical experiences of the Guaycuruans and other native groups in the Americas, but the comparisons chosen are not always the best. Moreover, Saeger demonstrates a limited knowledge of the literature on missions in different parts of the Americas. I raise this point primarily because Saeger could have drawn more useful comparisons for the case study he examines. For example, the story of the missions the Spanish attempted to establish for the Lipan Apaches of Texas could have offered important insights for Saeger's study. Moreover, the history of Spanish-indigenous relations in the Texas-Louisiana borderlands region would have offered interesting comparisons, as well as the history of the Spanish-Araucanian centuries long re lationship in southern Chile.

There are two specific areas of analysis that I think are weak. The first regards the author's discussion of historical demography. There is little detailed information on demographic patterns in the Guaycuruan missions other than a handful of censuses, but in my judgment Saeger could have made better use of these censuses. Moreover, Saeger misinterprets how epidemics of contagious crowd diseases as smallpox affected populations. My sense is that the idea of "virgin soil" epidemics is overblown. Until the development of modern vaccines there always were segments of populations vulnerable to epidemics, namely young children born since a previous epidemic outbreak. There is an assumption that over generations populations built up immunities to disease, but there is no proof for this assumption. Rather, epidemics killed off numbers of children, and those children who survived acquired a degree of immunity. Saeger also misses one important point regarding the spread of epidemics. Dispersed hunter-gatherer populat ions living in small bands would have been less vulnerable to epidemic outbreaks then sedentary populations. Given the paucity of mission records, specifically registers of baptisms and burials, there is no evidence for demographic patterns in the missions. Finally, Saeger cites comments about the robust health of Guaycuruans, which most likely reflected the perception of sedentary peoples of a level of health resulting from a more athletic lifestyle when compared to sedentary peoples.

The second problem I see with Saeger's book is his notion of the level of religious conversion among the Guaycuruans, based on the numbers of baptisms reported in the handful of surviving mission censuses. I recall making similar comments to Saeger at a conference some years ago where he presented the same data as evidence of religious conversion. The author does recognize that baptism does not signify conversion and he notes resistance to conversion by many adults, but at the same time he does seem to accept at face value statements made by missionaries regarding acceptance of Catholicism. One sacrament, communion, does offer more of a sense of what the missionaries believed to be the basic knowledge of the new religion. Unfortunately, there appear to be no records on the number of Guaycuruans allowed to take communion. On the other hand, a number of scholars have pointed to the process of syncretism that occurred in the missions, and the common problem of exposing natives being indoctrinated in the mysterie s of the new faith to newly reduced natives who still fully embraced old beliefs and often covertly practiced traditional religion. The experience of religious indoctrination and the level of conversion is more complex than Saeger implies, and the author does not avail himself of other studies that explore these issues.

The second volume reviewed here deals with the Comcac who were and are nomadic hunters and gatherers of the coastal region of Sonora and offshore Islands, better known as the Sen. In this volume Thomas Sheridan brings together a collection of documents in Spanish and English translation that span the years 1645 to 1803 to document the varied relations between the Spanish and Comcac. The Spanish first encountered the Comcac in the second decade of the seventeenth century, and for nearly 200 years the relationship consisted of efforts by the Spanish to establish missions for the Comcac, raids on Spanish settlements, and Spanish military expeditions against the Comcac. Sheridan introduces the book, and also has written an introduction for each thematic chapter and for each document. The pattern is very similar to Spanish-Guaycuruan relations in South America, characterized by raids, retaliatory Spanish campaigns, and efforts to establish missions.

The documents in the collection are a valuable resource for scholars interested in the history of Sonora, and Spanish-indigenous relations in northern Mexico, and this volume is a major contribution to the literature. At the same time the book has limitations. It is oriented more toward the military side of the relationship, and two long documents take up a large part of the book. The first is an account of a 1750 expedition to Tiburon Island located in the Gulf of California. The second is a detailed 1771 report on a multi-year military expedition against hostile natives in the Cerro Prieto Mountains. While these campaigns certainly were an important part of the history of the relationship between Spaniards and Comcac, the mission experience receives disproportionately little attention. In particular, there are detailed censuses that document, among other things, Comcac family structure. There also survives fragments of mission sacramental registers that can provide invaluable details on kinship. Perhaps th ese types of records can appear in a subsequent volume. With these limitations in mind, this book is still a valuable resource.
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Author:Jackson, Robert H.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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