Thursday, December 27, 2012

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Continuing my leisurely jaunt through the Norton Anthology of American Literature, I came across an account of a man named Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who was one of the many Spanish colonizers who traveled to the "New World" in the 1500s.  Many accounts of the Spanish colonization, like the voyages of Columbus, are tales of unspeakable tragedy and sorrow, but Cabeza de Vaca's experiences were markedly different.  

Cabeza de Vaca came from a family of soldiers.  His family name (translated "Cow's Head") was derived from a hero of the wars against the Moors who used a cow's skull "to mark a strategic route through an unguarded mountain pass."  Alvar's grandfather was a conquistador of the Guanache people of Grand Canary Island.

Continuing in the family military tradition, Alvar fought in the wars in Italy and Spain before sailing with conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez's expedition to Florida, which encountered a hurricane, a mutiny, and ultimately shipwreck off the coast of present-day Texas.  There he was taken as prisoner by the Han and Capoque clans of the Karankawa Indians.

And this is where the story gets interesting.  Without weapons or food, Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions (two other Spaniards and a black slave named Estevanico, a native of Morocco), were forced to learn the ways of their Indian captors, to survive.  Alvar spent nine years among various tribes of the Southwest before making his way back to Spain, where he published an account of his travels, which was much more sympathetic toward the Indians than any previous account.

Cabeza de Vaca's account is cited as an early example of anthropology, as it is characterized by a desire to understand the customs and lives of the people with whom he lived.  The tone is, throughout, one of wonder and curiosity and filled with pathos and humanity:

"These people love their offspring more than any in the world and treat them very mildly," he writes, "The people are generous to each other with what little they have.  There is no chief."

Eventually, Cabeza de Vaca makes his way to the Avavares and Arbadaos Indians of inland Texas, and writes, "The Avavares always treated us well.  We lived as free agents, dug our own food, and lugged our loads of wood and water...such was our life there, where we earned our meager subsistence by trade in items which were the work of our own hands."  Evantually, Cabeza de Vaca gained a reputation as a successful healer, and became well-respected by a number of tribes.

This basic generosity and good relations between Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians ended in tragedy, when, in 1536, they encountered the Spanish slave trader Diego de Alcaraz and his men.  The Indians offered "all the corn they possessed" to Alcaraz and his men, who responded by capturing and enslaving 600 of Cabeza de Vaca's native friends. Alcaraz informed the Indians that "his group were the lords of the land who must be obeyed and served."  The Indians had a hard time believing that Cabeza de Vaca was from the same country as the slave traders.

Before the Indians were taken as slaves, Cabeza de Vaca writes, "To the last I could not convince the Indians that we were of the same people as the Christian slavers."

The term "Christian slavers" is meant to be ironic, and to show the hypocrisy inherent in such European practices.  Upon returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca hoped his accounts of his travels would "enact an enlightened American Indian policy."  Sadly, such was not the case.

Apparently, there is a 1991 film called "Cabeza de Vaca" which is about this incredible story.  I want to watch it.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I am going to find that flick. I really believe that we are suppose to be living in the manner that he spoke of. Everyone should be responsible for themselves but still give back to the ones around them by giving their services to their community. Your service is what you are good at so it is done with love. It is amazing all the things we NEED to learn from the Native Americans... They have it right on so many levels.

    Christian Slavers Are Wicked!!!