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Frontier Histories: Study Of Captivity Narratives Shows Panorama Of Indian Life In Hispanic America

August 27, 2001-- In 1628, a Spanish-colonial military captain named Francisco Nuñez de Pineda y Bascuñán was captured by Indians on the frontier in Chile. When he was freed several months later, he wrote a detailed account that shocked his contemporaries.

In contrast with some other captivity stories of that period, he said the Indians greeted him not with torture or enslavement but with a series of banquets and fiestas that continued throughout his stay. "We ate and we drank splendidly." Because his tale glorified Native American life and also contained harsh criticism of Spanish military practices, his manuscript wasn’t published until the 19th century.

Bascuñán’s story is one of dozens of accounts, many of them previously unpublished, that are analyzed in a new book by a University of Virginia Latin American Studies scholar that is the first comprehensive historical examination of Indian captivity in Hispanic America.

"Historias de la frontera: el cautiverio en la America hispanica" (Histories of the Frontier: Captivity in Hispanic America), by Fernando Operé, covers captivity accounts over four centuries in a territory stretching from the American Southwest south to Patagonia. The captives, whose stories are among the first descriptions of Native American life and the New World’s most remote regions, included men and women of European, African and mixed origins. Operé’s research offers a wealth of details about many varied Native American customs and early trade and migration patterns.

Unlike in North America, where captivity narratives -- from Captain John Smith’s in Virginia to tales of the Wild West -— became part of popular culture, in Hispanic America there was little contemporary interest in these emotional and exciting accounts, says Operé, a professor of Spanish and director of U.Va.’s Latin American Studies Program. In Latin America freed captives weren’t encouraged to write and few works were published.

Operé traveled to archives in Chile, Argentina, Spain, New Mexico and elsewhere to track down manuscripts of captivity stories, many of which were testimonials that former captives later gave to government officials. Today these early Spanish accounts offer important descriptions for making cultural comparisons for different parts of the Western Hemisphere.

The book, published in Spanish by Fondo de Cultura Economica (Buenos Aires), deals with Indian captivity in Spanish-controlled territory from the 16th to the 20th century. It focuses on areas where captivity was especially frequent, including Florida and the U.S. Gulf Coast, Chile, the Rio de la Plata and Pampas areas of Argentina, northern Mexican territory, and the still existing frontier of the Amazon jungle. The last area includes the exotic account of Helena Valero, who was taken by the reclusive, nomadic Yanomamo Indians of the Orinoco region in 1932 at age 11 and who lived with them for 23 years, completely adopting their culture.

Among the most important and best known Hispanic America captivity narratives analyzed in Operé’s history is that of the shipwrecked expeditioner Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who journeyed overland with Native Americans from the Texas coast through the Southwest in the early 16th century. It provides the first inside account of a European living among Native Americans deep in the New World. Unlike Bascuñán’s sumptuous experience in a different climate and region, Cabeza de Vaca describes a world of nomadic hunter-gatherers constantly searching for food.

Taking captives was a widespread practice among Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans, Operé points out. Indians took captives for many reasons: to rebuild dwindling populations, to put them to work and to trade for goods. Beginning with Columbus, Europeans began taking Indians captive too, often enslaving them in Hispanic America. The story of white captivity there is part of the overall Indian resistance to the European invasion, Operé says.

In Hispanic America, male captives taken by Indians were often traded for goods or sometimes killed, while women were often kept to work, cook and bear children. Because of this, captive women played a key role in the mingling of European and Native American cultures there, Operé found. Women of Spanish origin influenced the Indians in food, dress, arts and crafts, and agriculture and also brought back Native American knowledge and customs when they were liberated.

Despite the important role of captives and their firsthand descriptions of Indian peoples and the land in Hispanic America, "many of their voices have not been heard," says Operé.

Why was there so little contemporary interest in their stories? Some, like Bascuñán’s, were positive accounts of life with Native Americans and were downplayed by authorities, says Operé. The dominant Christian culture had problems accepting that some captives chose the Indian way of life. Also, acknowledging any stories about captivity showed weaknesses in the mighty Spanish colonial empire.

Another reason captivity narratives weren’t popularized in Latin America is that many Europeans lived side by side with Native Americans from the start, soon raising families and creating a new society with them. Stories about Indian life had less exotic appeal than in North America, where Europeans mostly stayed separate from Native Americans.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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