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Goals and Objectives

This program seeks to examine the compelling human questions raised by Cabeza de Vaca's narrative:

  • How can Cabeza de Vaca's text be examined in juxtaposition to the artifacts so that the historical, literary, and anthropological evidence is viewed cohesively?
  • What are the limitations and various interpretations of research about Cabeza de Vaca and the Southwest in the 16th century?
  • What can contemporary audiences learn from studying his story given the fact that intercultural accommodation is still the principal fact of he Southwest?
  • What effect did he have on the native peoples he encountered? Might his impact as healer or shaman have established the curandero tradition that is still so strong today across the Southwest?
  • Was he really transformed by "going native" and learning to sympathize with his native captors? Or is the text primarily rhetorical?
  • What can we know about the details of his experience such as his route, the daily lives of the native peoples, and the plants and animals he discovered? What effect did his story have on the conquistadors?
  • How did a "civilized" man survive for eight years stripped of all his civilized instruments, set down naked among native people who did not speak his language? How did he maintain his identity? How did they?

Cabeza de Vaca's experience in the Southwest has recently undergone extensive scholarly reevaluation, primarily because it was the first lengthy Southwestern encounter between Europeans and native peoples and because Cabeza de Vaca's apparently sympathetic response to the native peoples seems a contrast to the conquerors' role widely played by Europeans at first contact. Two translations (Arte Publico Press, 1993, and Univ. of California Press, 1993), a book that focuses on Cabeza de Vaca and other explorers (Into the Wilderness Dream: Exploration Narratives of the American West, 1500-1805, Univ. of Utah Press, 1994), a monograph about Cabeza de Vaca (Peter Wild, Cabeza de Vaca [Boise State Western Writers Series, 1991]), and the appearance of portions of his account in American literature anthologies indicate this increased interest in Cabeza de Vaca's story. Although most historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars acknowledge the importance of Cabeza de Vaca's story, several puzzling, tantalizing, and unexplored aspects remain: the route he traveled, his impact as a healer, his motivation for writing the text, the extent of his transformation, and the lives of the native peoples he encountered, all of which will be examined in our program.