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The Ópatas

In Search of a Sonoran People

David A. Yetman

Publication Year: 2010

In 1600 they were the largest, most technologically advanced indigenous group in northwest Mexico, but today, though their descendants presumably live on in Sonora, almost no one claims descent from the Ópatas. The Ópatas seem to have “disappeared” as an ethnic group, their languages forgotten except for the names of the towns, plants, and geography of the Opatería, where they lived. Why did the Ópatas disappear from the historical record while their neighbors survived?

David Yetman, a leading ethnobotanist who has traveled extensively in Sonora, consulted more than two hundred archival sources to answer this question. The result is an accessible ethnohistory of the Ópatas, one that embraces historical complexity with an eye toward Opatan strategies of resistance and assimilation. Yetman’s account takes us through the Opatans’ initial encounters with the conquistadors, their resettlement in Jesuit missions, clashes with Apaches, their recruitment as miners, and several failed rebellions, and ultimately arrives at an explanation for their “disappearance.”

Yetman’s account is bolstered by conversations with present-day residents of the Opatería and includes a valuable appendix on the languages of the Opatería by linguistic anthropologist David Shaul. One of the few studies devoted exclusively to this indigenous group, The Ópatas: In Search of a Sonoran People marks a significant contribution to the literature on the history of the greater Southwest.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-6

List of Maps

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pp. vi-7

List of Figures

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pp. vii-8

List of Plates

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pp. viii-9

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pp. ix-xi

During Holy Week in 1964, some friends and I ventured into the backcountry of eastern Sonora south of Douglas, Arizona, heading, we hoped, for the Sierra Madre. The highway then was a rough, dusty, unpaved road infrequently traveled, that wound for one hundred kilometers through interminable mountainous wilds before finally dipping into the valley of the Río Moctezuma. As we passed...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Numerous individuals helped make this book possible. University of Arizona Library Special Collections personnel provided considerable assistance with locating and identifying documents. Michael Brisque, Dale Brenneman, and Diana Hadley of Documentary Relations of the Southwest in the Arizona State Museum...

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1. Sonora: The Opatería

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pp. 1-17

The Ópatas are gone. After four decades of searching throughout the backcountry of Sonora, I have found only a few persons in Mexico who profess to be Ópata. This seems odd, since four hundred years ago the loosely related peoples now referred to as Ópatas were the largest indigenous group in what is now Sonora,...

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2. Where They Were: The Land and the Limits of Opatan Unity [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 19-44

In the 1530s, Spanish conquerors in search of slaves and precious metals made their way west and north from Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) to the coast of what is now Nayarit. Reaching the Pacific, they established a shipping point at San Blas, the last natural harbor heading north until Guaymas. They veered northwestward...

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3. Opatans as They Were When Spaniards Arrived

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pp. 45-79

The Opatans were hardly a gentle people innocent of conflict prior to the arrival of Europeans. They were intertwined in vigorous trade with other peoples in all directions. Their numbers, upwards of sixty thousand, required food in such quantities that skirmishes among groups competing for the same land...

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4. The Jesuits in the Opatería

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pp. 81-149

The arrival of the Jesuits, priests of the black robes, in Northwest Mexico was part of the Crown’s plan to pacify the region and open it up to settlement and economic exploitation. The missions were intended to be temporary institutions, calculated to pacify natives, Christianize and Europeanize them, transform them...

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5. The New Conflicts: Mining and Miners

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pp. 151-176

The earliest Spanish explorers lost no time in discovering that the mountains of the Opatería were brimming with high-grade mineralization, far more so than any other portion of Northwest Mexico. By 1640, Pedro de Perea had discovered gold. He died in 1645, but others of his party discovered enough gold...

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6. The Opatería Following the Jesuit Expulsion

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pp. 177-222

“Once and for all, subjects must know that they have been born to obey, not to discuss lofty governmental designs.” Thus read the decree expelling the Jesuits.1 To obey the king, that is, not a pontiff or some other leader, that was the message. Whatever the real reasons for the expulsion, it was carried out with...

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7. Opatan Resistance: Summary and Discussion

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pp. 223-258

The expulsion of the Jesuits was followed, as we have seen, by an abrupt decline in the missions and in the religious zeal of indigenous northwesterners. One might interpret this degeneration as a sign of failure by clerics to Europeanize the Indians. We can just as well interpret it as a sign of ongoing native...

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Appendix. The Languages of the Opatería - David Shaul

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pp. 259-271

In this appendix, the Lord’s Prayer is given in Ópata, Eudeve, and Jova. A literal translation is given below each word; then a more literal translation is given of each sentence. In this way, the general reader may see what the languages were like, using a familiar text. Readers may want to even try pronouncing each selection....


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pp. 273-315


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pp. 317-328


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pp. 329-339

About the Authors, Other Works in the Series

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pp. 341-344

E-ISBN-13: 9780816501090
E-ISBN-10: 0816501092
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816528974
Print-ISBN-10: 0816528977

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2010