"That All Might Burn and No Memory Remain": Jesuit Relics and Native "Idols" in Northern New Spain

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Salon 2 (Palmer House Hilton)
Brandon Bayne, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In December of 1600, the Jesuit missionary Hernando de Santaren and Spanish Captain Diego de Avila set out to “pacify, convert, and settle” dispersed Acaxee communities of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northern New Spain. They had begun the process of reducción earlier in February, but now returned in hope of gathering nearly 1,700 people into ten towns. Not always the case, these particular representatives of church and state worked together. Santaren would help Avila bring the Acaxee to work his encomienda, while the Captain would secure the Jesuit’s evangelistic work in the wake of recent unrest, including the 1594 killing of Father Gonzalo de Tapia in nearby Sinaloa. Before evangelization could commence, Santaren hoped to uproot existing “superstitions,” ordering residents to bring him their “idols.” Through enticements and compulsion, they prodded the Acaxee to surrender stone figures and ritual bowls as well as skulls, teeth, and other human bones. Once assembled, they set them on fire, so that “that all might burn and no memory might remain among these people of such an abominable sacrifice.” While Jesuits branded native ancestral bones “idolatrous,” they simultaneously sacralized their own as relics. Santaren had first arrived in this mission in June of 1594, just eleven days before Tapia’s death. In the ensuing weeks and months, he and his colleagues recovered their fallen colleague’s skull and arm and brought them to their college, where they venerated them for their miraculous ability to resist burning, effect conversion, and extirpate vices. This paper examines the 1594 killing of Father Gonzalo de Tapia and the 1600 attempted pacification of the Acaxee in northern New Spain to compare Jesuit and native practices of bone collection, veneration, and destruction. It argues that bones became crucial objects of religious confrontation that both sides used to contest or display power.

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