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“Grave Offenses Worthy of Great Punishment”: The Enslavement of Juan Suñi, 1659

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 3, Autumn 2012
pp. 437-452 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0025

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It is well known that enslavement of Indians was common practice among Spaniards in New Mexico in the seventeenth century; however, the methods of enslavement are less clearly understood. Recent studies (Brooks 2002; Stockel 2008; Weber 1992, 2005) have emphasized ransom (rescate) and capture through a “just war” as the most common of these, discussing only in passing the role of secular courts in imposing lengthy terms of slavery.1 This omission is not surprising given the dearth of documents detailing court proceedings of Indians in New Mexico prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Nevertheless, the Hopi Documentary History Project, spearheaded by Thomas E. Sheridan of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, has translated one such document from this period—a 1659 transcript of a trial of a Hopi named Juan Suñi.2 The document offers insights not just into the life of a young man from Awat’ovi but also into the ways in which colonial Spain’s criminal justice system was used as a means to enslave delinquent Indians. In the following pages I offer an overview of the Juan Suñi trial, along with a discussion of some of the methods employed by Spanish colonists to acquire the much-needed unpaid Indian labor that formed the economic foundation of the province of New Mexico in the 1600s. Using the case of Suñi as an example, I suggest that the practice of sentencing Indians to enslavement was as common in New Mexico as it was in other parts of New Spain. Indeed, the high regional demand for forced labor, along with a culture of nepotism and the general lack of oversight of secular officials in the province, created an environment particularly propitious for use of the courts as an alternate means of enslavement beyond the equally widespread practices of ransom and capture through “just war.”

Background to the Trial

Until now, the Juan Suñi case has been discussed only fleetingly in secondary sources on Spanish colonial history. France Scholes dedicates three paragraphs to a summary of Suñi’s trial in Troublous Times in New Mexico (1942:14–15). Subsequent references to the young Hopi (Cutter 1986:31; James 1974:48; Kessell 2008; Trigg 2005:92, 121) appear to be drawn entirely from Scholes’s brief, compelling, but very limited overview of the case.3 It is only now, as part of the forthcoming volumes Moquis and Kastilam: A History of the Hopi Indians and the Spaniards (University of Arizona Press), that the ten-folio document will be translated in its entirety into English. The case is significant in that it is the only trial of a Pueblo Indian that has been preserved among those Spanish documents that survived the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (Scholes 1942:15).4

Juan Suñi’s troubles with Spanish officials, we are told in the document, began long before his 1659 trial in Santa Fe. The court transcripts of his case detail a litany of prior transgressions—“grave offenses worthy of great punishment” in the words of the court—committed by Juan over the previous three years. The first of these—indeed, the incident that catapulted Suñi into a life of servitude in Santa Fe—occurred in the village of Awat’ovi in Suñi’s native province of Hopi.5 At an unspecified date in 1656, the transcripts state, while the resident priest was absent, Suñi entered the church of Awat’ovi, donned the priest’s vestments, and summoned the villagers with the church bell. Once an audience had gathered, he filled the altars with incense and tossed holy water on the crowd “like the priests do.” Suñi then performed a mock sermon, “imitating his minister” and “leading the Indians of the pueblo to understand things he shouldn’t have.”

This act of mockery and defiance, conceivably carried out in the spirit of Hopi ritual clowning, rattled the clerical leadership at the time (Daughters 2009).6 News of the incident reached the padre guardián of Awat’ovi, Father Alonso de Posada, a somber, hard-nosed Franciscan who would later be instrumental in the downfall of two governors of New Mexico.7 Upon...

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