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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 141-142

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Book Review

From Savages to Subjects: Missions in the History of the American Southwest

From Savages to Subjects: Missions in the History of the American Southwest. By ROBERT H. JACKSON. Latin American Realities. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2000 . Photographs. Maps. Tables. Figures. Bibliography. Index. xvii, 151 pp. Cloth, $48 .95 . Paper, $21 .95 .

It is ironic that in the jubilee year 2000 , when Pope Paul II issued the bull Incarnationis mysterium calling for the church to admit guilt for the sufferings and wrongs committed by its sons and daughters, Robert H. Jackson has produced what amounts to a catalog of the evils of the mission system on the northern frontier of New Spain, Mexico. For almost two decades, the author has published the results of scholarly investigations of the indigenous demographics of these frontier missions and their relation to mission economics. This slim volume synthesizes the author's thinking on this theme.

The book focuses on mission areas that now form part of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Baja California. Organized by theme, chapters cover mission economics and construction, social and cultural change, Indian resistance and social control, the decline of the mission populations, and the demise of the mission system. Different circumstances characterized these areas, making generalizations difficult. Relying on quantitative data from earlier studies, Jackson convincingly argues that the conventional view of population decline among Native American populations, emphasizing epidemic disease as the main cause, does not adequately explain the situation at every mission. Living conditions at some missions, particularly at those California missions where unmarried women and men were housed in separate dormitories in unsanitary conditions, contributed to the [End Page 141] spread of illnesses. Other factors, such as increased labor demands, corporal punishment, and humiliation, further weakened mission Indians.

The author notes several factors that led to the collapse of the mission system, including such elements as governmental reforms, civil war, secularization, and demographic decline of the mission Indian population. Mission Indians either died or fled the missions. Discussing race and status in the context of the demise of the missions and citing specific data only from Sonora, Jackson states that the caste system was not as fully developed in the north as elsewhere in New Spain. Presumably this explains why there is no discussion of Hispanization, whereby Indians moved from their special status to occupy the lower ranks of mainstream society. The lack of data from other areas under discussion make this conclusion seem premature.

This book is part of a series dealing with nontraditional history, areas of research insufficiently covered in standard historical surveys. Since it is obviously intended for course adoption at colleges and universities, it must be noted that the book is so plagued by typographical errors that it detracts from the work. It is impossible, for example, to determine whether the author is informing us that the correct singular is Pimas (rather than the more traditional Pima), because the usage varies so much.

The series editor, Robert L. Levine, comments in the foreword that "Spaniards dealt brutally with any evidence of the survival of Indian beliefs" (p. ix). Jackson's account is more nuanced and notes the role of religious syncretism in New Mexico and California. Levine also recounts the truly horrifying story of women who were suspected of aborting their fetuses being lashed and made to stand in front of the church in leg irons holding a grotesque wooden doll. Jackson indicates that this practice was recorded "in several oral history accounts given by former residents" (p. 104 ) of California missions. The practice was atypical of the mission system in general. These two examples highlight a troubling aspect of this book. The scope of the book is so broad and the range of topics so large that with so little space devoted to the considerable differences in each specific geographical zone, the generally grim view of the mission system overwhelms the subtleties of how it was implemented from place to place; the sensational...


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pp. 141-142
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Archived 2004
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