Franciscans, Indigenous Peoples, and the Battle for the Sacred in Colonial New Spain

Conference on Latin American History 57
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
North Star Room (The Westin Copley Place)
Jeffrey M. Burns, Academy of American Franciscan History
Karen Melvin, Bates College

Session Abstract

The encounter between the indigenous peoples of what came to be known as New Spain in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the invading Europeans involved a profound conflict over the nature of the sacred. Indigenous societies had a well-defined deeply held sense of the sacred. To the incoming Spanish, the native religion smacked of idolatry, or worse, was inspired by the Devil. Integral to the Spanish efforts of conquest and evangelization was the role of the Franciscan Order. Franciscans brought their own concept of the sacred, which they believed was a great gift they were bringing native cultures. They were bringing the promise of eternal life. To reject the new faith was to put the natives very souls at risk. Unfortunately for the indigenous peoples, the Franciscan view did not allow for a great deal of diversity concerning concepts of the sacred. The result was often conflict, resistance, some accommodation. The papers in this session will explore the conflict over the sacred; what it meant to the indigenous people, what it meant to the Franciscans and the Spanish; and how the conflict resulted in concessions from both sides as new definitions of the sacred emerged. These papers cover a wide geographic area—from central Mexico to the Yucatan to Colombia and Ecuador. Mark Christensen’s paper explores the fundamental methods used by the Franciscans for conversion—baptism, and suggests the multiplicity of meanings of baptism which emerged as native catechists took over the act of baptizing.  John Cuchiak’s paper explores the resistance of the Mayas to conversion, and the Franciscan attempt to enforce their concept of the sacred. Rick Goulet’s paper explores the violent rejection of the Franciscan attempt to impose new concepts of the sacred in the native revolt of 1790. These papers reflect the dynamic encounter between indigenous peoples and the Franciscans and Spanish as all sought to affirm and maintain their definitions of the sacred.