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Questions About Cabeza de Vaca for Comment

1. Cabeza de Vaca alongside artifacts to demonstrate historical/literary/anthropological connections.

  • There are a few items of Spanish material culture that might be useful in mounting an exhibit of 16th century Spanish presence on the Gulf coast. Some items can be used from the underwater archaeology salvage—especially crossbows, pistols, muskets, and other objects of armament, including chain mail, etc. While we would not like to depict Cabeza de Vaca in chain mail, it would be interesting to demonstrate why he probably preferred to travel naked!
  • A small composite exhibit showing Spanish ship construction, size and sophistication of their coastal vessels, would greatly aid in a viewer's appraisal of the Narvaez expedition. In this same vein, it would be instructive to show the livery and tack of the typical mounted Spanish soldier. The loss of the horses was no minuscule episode.

2. Limitations of research and interpretation of Cabeza de Vaca in 16th century.

  • As intimated in the body of these writings, the works of Cabeza de Vaca have rarely been studied in the context of the debate over Indian rights, slavery, just war, etc. Yet the two parts of his work are elaborate examples of the central issues conjoined in the peninsular debate. An appraisal of his work from the Spanish point of view would be enlightening and might act as a corrective balance to what Americans take for granted. Cabeza de Vaca was clearly a very involved political personality. Unraveling the complexities of that involvement would add significantly to our understanding of the man and his writings.

3. What can contemporary audiences learn from Cabeza de Vaca? Intercultural accommodation.

  • The value of cultural sensitivity as exemplified by Cabeza de Vaca's patient acceptance of native foods and life ways.
  • The importance of maintaining cultural links for survival as seen in Cabeza de Vaca's searching out and concern for other members of the expedition.
  • The central importance of faith and conviction, especially when based on the universal values of love and service, not ritual rigidity.
  • The value of humility which is seen in Cabeza de Vaca's patient acceptance of humiliation while never succumbing to a loss of dignity and self-worth. The sustaining power of high human values learned from childhood and lived out in manhood.

4. Cabeza de Vaca effect on native peoples. Connection to curandero tradition?

  • The recognition of Cabeza de Vaca as healer is profound, as much for the effectiveness of his healing as for the native extension of their own attitudes toward the healing powers of shamans.
  • It is of considerable note to see the social effect of Cabeza de Vaca's power as healer and savant. Whole villages followed him and became engaged in massive pot-latch types of exchange. The presence of an educated and disciplined person within a group can occasion wide-spread interchange and acceptance.
  • I would caution any inference that Cabeza de Vaca influenced the curandero tradition; if anything, the curandero tradition is an adaptation of the pre-columbian shaman tradition, modified to operate in the context of a Christian (Roman Catholic) culture.

5. Did Cabeza de Vaca assimilate or not? Is text rhetorical?

  • There is little doubt that Cabeza de Vaca made great strides in assimilating to the native culture in terms of life style, diet, and general demeanor, but he did not lose his deep Christo-centric belief structure. He acts in many ways like an American mystic who sees in his hardships and reversals the role of an alter-Christus. Nothing is to be gained by diminishing the religious posture of Cabeza de Vaca, who remains a deeply religious man in a humanly difficult situation.
  • The Relación and Commentaries clearly served political purposes in the great debate over Indian rights and Spain's justification of conquest. The inclusion in the text of the conceptual sequence of the requerimiento stands out as a key example. These passages are hardly the stuff of diaries, but they are good guidelines to organize one's reminiscences and memoirs of events that involve such ethical issues.

6. Details of route, daily lives, plants, animals. Story's effect on conquistadores.

  • I am not really that much of an expert on early Indian trails or other features mentioned in the Relación. It seems fairly obvious, however, that Cabeza de Vaca and his companions did come ashore on Galveston Island. The description is too suggestive not to recognize these properties of the island. The tragedy is that private real estate developers have wantonly disregarded the high probability of this historic site and have almost completely destroyed the site and any archaeological evidence that might have proven its authenticity.
  • The travel routes into the interior are also sufficiently vague to make certification of given sites next to impossible. But the cumulative evidence of Cabeza de Vaca's movements with the various tribes he lived with do seem to point to San Marcos as being one of the northern nodes of his travels. Obviously, comparisons with the records of the DeSoto/Moscoso travels can be illustrative of possible paths taken by Cabeza de Vaca.
  • It would be hard to determine the effect that his narration had on other conquistadores. The DeSoto expedition was built on the same Caribbean spring board as that of Narvaez, and the Coronado expedition was contingent on the information brought back by Cabeza de Vaca regarding the mythical cities of Cibola. But neither the Relación nor the Commentaries were available in time to influence later expeditions in North America or the Argentine.

7. How did he survive? How did he maintain identity? How did natives persevere?

  • How Cabeza de Vaca survived will always remain a mystery, if not a miracle. He wan uncannily aware of his need to protect his body and his health, despite his nakedness and exposure. His acceptance of native life styles allowed him to take advantage of the resources around him even though they may have been repugnant to his up-bringing.
  • The astonishing thing about Cabeza de Vaca was his dependence on his religious faith. This became a central factor in maintaining his sanity and identity. He lived for higher purposes and thus could accept the contradictions of his human condition. It seems that when hierarchies of values are clearly in place, a person can accept and adapt to completely alien conditions. Although the religious overtones of his Relación may have been strongly influenced by his knowledge of the audience he addressed, there is no other way to explain how he remembers and integrates his experiences with religious concepts except that they were fundamentally associated with the experiences themselves. Simply stated, religion for Cabeza de Vaca was real, not rhetorical.
  • His influence on the native populace was astonishing because he offered no material reward, or punishment. The only power he held was healing; the only punishment he could expend was to withhold his healing powers.