American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Spanish Influence

Spain was the first European country to extensively colonize what today is North America. The Spanish approach to the region came from two directions. One was from the Caribbean area, primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico, into Florida. At its height of development, Spanish Florida included the coastal regions of Georgia and southern South Carolina. The second was into central Mexico and then northward to what today is the northern tier of Mexican states and California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in the United States. The Spanish influence on the Native peoples of America went beyond the actual territories that they colonized. The Spanish first introduced modern horses into North America. Native peoples' acquisition of horses transformed their economy and sociopolitical organization, including those of peoples who moved to the Great Plains on a full-time basis. Spaniards did venture onto the Great Plains but never colonized the region.

Several elements framed the Spanish colonization of the north Mexican frontier and Florida. The first was the reconquista, the seven-century-long process of the reconquest of much of Iberia from the Muslims, who first invaded the region in 711. The protracted reconquista often proceeded in fits and starts, and the frontier between Muslim and Christian was permeable. However, the conflict had a profound influence on the development of Iberian Catholicism and Iberian society, which in turn would impact Native America.

Iberian Catholicism became especially chauvinistic, exclusivistic, and militant. The Spanish state of Castile was the first to initiate a national inquisition independent of the papacy. As the reconquista drew to a close in 1492 with the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim state in the southern part of Iberia, the Catholic Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. About a century later in 1609, the crown ordered the expulsion of the remaining Muslim population in southern Iberia. Iberian Catholicism also had a strong thread of mysticism and Marianism, and championed the acceptance by the Catholic Church of the concept of the Immaculate Conception. Finally, the reform of the church, and particularly of the mendicant and monastic orders, created a pool of missionaries to be sent to the newly conquered lands to convert the Natives.

Following the discovery of the New World after 1492, the papacy theoretically assumed responsibility for the organization of missions to evangelize the newly encountered peoples. However, the papacy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was embroiled in convoluted Italian politics, wars, and massive building projects that left the popes with insufficient resources to undertake such a massive enterprise. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain ratified the donation and division of the non-Christian world between the two countries by the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503). The papacy later made a number of concessions to the crown of Castile known as the real patronato (royal patronage).

In exchange for organizing and financing the evangelization of the large Native populations in its newly acquired territories, the crown gained considerable authority over the Catholic Church in its American territories. When the Spanish colonized Florida and the north Mexican frontier, the mission evolved as an important institution that combined the attributes of church and government, through the real patronato.

The Spanish developed a colonial Indian policy based on some of the sociopolitical structures of the Native peoples they encountered in central Mexico and other areas such as the Andean region (the Aztecs and the Incas). In these areas the Spanish encountered and conquered highly stratified hierarchical polities. The Native residents of these polities had a tradition of paying tribute and of providing labor services to the state, a system that resembled Spain's in some ways.

The Native peoples of central Mexico lived in nucleated communities, which made it easy to organize labor drafts. Moreover, the Spanish created a system of indirect rule, allowing the Native communities autonomy as long as they complied with their obligations to the Spanish, a system that meshed with prior practice in Spain.

Moreover, community leaders were made responsible for the delivery of tribute and could be held personally accountable for arrears, a structure that the Spanish had used long before they encountered Indian nations.

On the northern frontier of Mexico, Spanish policy created communities modeled on those in central Mexico from scratch, whenever they encountered Native peoples who were not sedentary agriculturalists. The Spanish created the mission as a cost-effective institution to transform the sociocultural and political structure of the Native populations and to convert them to Catholicism.

Through the real patronato, the crown controlled the Catholic Church in Mexico and used this control to employ missionaries as quasi representatives of the colonial state. The missionaries created new communities from scratch (except in New Mexico), congregated Natives on the missions, and initiated the process of evangelization and sociocultural change. After a period of time, when the Natives living on the missions were deemed to be sufficiently acculturated, the missions were to be transformed into self-supporting communities. Franciscans and Jesuits staffed the vast majority of missions on the north Mexican frontier, and in 1773 Dominicans assumed control over the Baja California establishments.

After 1770 royal officials experimented with a new Indian policy geared more to the challenge of trying to control Native peoples living on the southern Great Plains and other areas beyond the pale of Spanish control. Peoples collectively identified by the Spanish as Apaches and Comanches, for example, rejected life on the missions and saw greater benefit from trade than subjugation.

The new policy entailed greater coordination of the frontier military, the reorganization and relocation of the military garrisons, campaigns to defeat the Native bands known as Apaches, and a military-trade alliance with the Comanches. Moreover, the Spanish created reservations where they resettled and subsidized bands of Apaches. Finally, the Spanish relaxed their prohibition on providing firearms to Native peoples as a whole. (The Pueblos had been armed before 1770.)

The Spanish also sought to enhance the dependence of the Natives by providing defective weapons that would break down and require repair and by a growing reliance on trade goods supplied by the Spanish. This new policy became practical following the defeat of the French during the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the acquisition of Louisiana by Spain. Prior to the ouster of the French from North America, they had served as a viable alternative to Native groups who did not want to live on the missions but who wanted to acquire European trade goods. The reservation and trade policy broke down with the beginning of the independence war in Mexico, which forced the royal government to suspend funding of the policy.

What other influences and effects did the Spanish colonization of northern Mexico have on Native peoples? In terms of material culture, the Spanish introduced livestock and horses, metal tools, and new crops such as wheat. There is no question that the resettlement of Natives on the missions modified their culture and social structure, but the extent of change is difficult to measure. Royal officials required the missionaries to report on conditions on the missions, and the missionaries themselves measured conversion by the number of sacraments recorded. At the same time there is extensive evidence of the persistence of traditional culture and particularly religious beliefs, generally in covert forms. In New Mexico, for example, the Katsinas (Katchina) religion survived efforts by the Franciscans in the seventeenth century to extirpate idolatry. Moreover, syncretism occurred in New Mexico. For example, some Pueblos still perform the Matachina Dance based on passion plays introduced by the missionaries. At the same time there are a number of reports written by missionaries that recorded the persistence of mitotes, pre-Hispanic dances, and of the continuing influence of shamans. Another important consequence of Spanish colonization was the demographic collapse of the Native populations resulting from the introduction of highly contagious crowd diseases and other factors. Many Native groups completely disappeared or merged with other polities.

Robert H. Jackson


Further Reading
Deeds, Susan. 2003. Defiance and Deference in Mexico's Colonial North: Indians Under Spanish Rule in Nueva Vizcaya. Austin: University of Texas Press.; Gibson, Charles. 1964. Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.; Jackson, Robert H. 1994. Indian Demographic Decline: The Missions of Northwestern New Spain, 1687–1840. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Jackson, Robert H. 2005. Missions and Frontiers of Spanish America: A Comparative Study of the Impact of Environmental, Economic, Political, and Socio-Cultural Variations on the Missions in the Rio de la Plata Region and on the Northern Frontier of New Spain. Scottsdale, AZ: Pentacle Press.; Jackson, Robert H., and Edward Castillo. 1995. Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Jackson, Robert H., ed. 1998. New Views of Borderlands History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Lockhart, James, and Stuart Schwartz. 1983. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.; Milanich, Jerald. 1999. Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Wade, Maria. 2003. The Native Americans of the Texas Edwards Plateau, 1582–1799. Austin: University of Texas Press.; Worth, John. 1998. The Timucuan Chiefdoms of Spanish Florida. 2 vols. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
 

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