De Vaca’s Change in Ideology and Perception of the Native Americans and their Culture

de vaca

The following selections from The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca seek to show the change in ideology and perception of Native Americans in de Vaca throughout he and his party’s travels throughout the Americas. De Vaca arrives in America with more or less the ulterior motive of conquering in the name of Spain; towards the end of the voyage, however, nothing has been officially “conquered,” and de Vaca’s main achievement has simply been the narrative he has recorded throughout the entire trip. This collection seeks to emphasize the obvious theme behind this: de Vaca’s transformation from a furious conqueror into a true explorer. In the beginning of the voyage, de Vaca views the Native Americans in a much more savage light – the fear of the unknown plays a large part in how they are portrayed in his writings. Towards the end of the document, however, we see a more human side to these new beings. De Vaca pays more attention to their customs and meanings behind them – he has mentally evolved into realizing the human nature that can be found within the inhabitants of this land. The following selections seek to express de Vaca’s change in heart through the points he focuses on in his writing as the narrative progresses.

DEDICATION (pg. 45-47)
De Vaca is apologizing for his return’s lack of more than his own account of his travels. After having been gone for eight years, all that he has to show of it are his personal memories and recollections – he attributes the many trials they faced as God testing them for their many sins.
This is a kind of apology from de Vaca to the King of Spain for not conquering new territories in his honor, and also a rapid explanation of his encounters in the New World. It’s clearly a hastily written piece – this is observed with the thought that, perhaps, the intention behind this piece was not the same as the words written. I find this to be a testament to de Vaca’s change in nature – the conquistador mindset is gone but not something that he would have wanted to admit to the King; this is covered up with apology and sorrow, but also the implication that, in the very least, he was able to “bring them to knowledge of the true faith and the true Lord and service to Your Majesty.”

CHAPTER 7: Of the character of the land (pg. 65-70)
De Vaca describes the physical features of the land as well as encounters with the people there. The author provides descriptions of wars between the Indians they meet and their attempts to drive out and defeat the party of explorers.
This is setting the stage for de Vaca’s initial interpretation of the land and it’s inhabitants. We’re given examples of the “war-like nature” of the Native Americans as seen in de Vaca’s eyes. He notices their weapons skills (“All the Indians we had seen from Florida to here are archers”) and presents them in an animalistic fashion, describing their build as one would describe a show dog: “They are a people wonderfully well built, very lean and of great strength and agility.” We see de Vaca viewing the Native Americans as something slightly less than human, as a diversion in the ultimate goal of conquering the land.

CHAPTER 11: Of what happened to Lope de Oviedo with some Indians (pg. 83-84)
De Vaca orders Lope de Oviedo to go and survey the island and learn more about it’s features. While doing so, he discovers that there are Indian huts nearby; De Vaca begins to worry and sends men to check on him. Upon finding de Oviedo, he is followed by several Indians with bows; they exchange beads and bells for arrows as a sign of friendship.
This is an important instance of friendship. Here we see de Vaca and his men actively trying to make peace and friendly relations with the Indians, and they are doing likewise. This exchange in friendliness is especially explicit in the last sentence: “they told us that they would return in the morning and bring us food to eat because at that time they had none.” Clearly, these Native Americans were out to help de Vaca and his men in this unfamiliar territory. This passage is important as it helps us to see where de Vaca is beginning to change his mental allegiances and question the motives behind their expedition.

CHAPTER 14: How four Christians departed (pg. 89-93)
Great, detrimental storms hit the area and de Vaca describes the destitute state that it leaves the Indians and their party in. De Vaca observes and reports the appearances and customs of the inhabitants of the area, as well as providing explanation behind the customs. De Vaca and his party depart at the end of April.
De Vaca has started to develop a sympathy for the Indians at this point. He pays specific attention not only the physical descriptions of the inhabitants of this area, but also to their unique customs. De Vaca is beginning to argue here that these people are not quite as savage as was previously purposed – the explanations behind all of their rituals (“They mourn all the dead… except for the elderly, to whom they pay no attention, because they say they have lived past their time, and from them no gain is to be had, rather, they occupy land and deprive the children of their share of the food.”). These explanations are an attempt at reconciling the what would be perceived as “different” behavior in the eyes of the King.

CHAPTER 36: Of how we had churches built in that land (pg. 167-169)
De Vaca commands the Indians of the area to begin the spread of churches in America, as well as baptizing the children of important people in their group. De Vaca also makes a request to the King that the ultimate goal be to Christianize the people of this land, as well. De Vaca and his party leave and arrive in Mexico.
This is the clearest example of de Vaca’s transformation – here he has explicitly requested to the King that these people become a part of his kingdom, but also the kingdom of God. This chapter depicts the end-product of de Vaca’s stay in the New World – his hopes for a Christianized nation. While it is true amongst other explorers that these motives were often backed by ill-willed inner hopes of glory, it’s clear in this account that there is some semblance of interest in the well-being of the newly-acquainted Native Americans.

After reviewing selections from the Heath Anthology of American Literature, I was intrigued to note some of the more negative encounters that were chosen in summarizing the voyage as a whole. “The Character of the Country” and “The Assault from the Indians” are some of the more clear examples of miscommunication between the Spaniards and the Native Americans – similar to my own choices, however, these accounts are from the beginning of the voyage. By the end of Heath’s selection, we see chapters such as “We Moved Away and Were Well Received” and “The Indians Give Us the Hearts of Deer,” emphasizing the shift in positive encounters and de Vaca’s own acclimation to the reality expressing that the unknown (Native culture) isn’t such a terrifying and horrible thing. It’s obvious that the “Narrative’s” role in literary history has been a part of shaping what was believed about the beginnings of the country at the time – years of continued prejudice against the Native people center around a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the people and their culture.

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