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  • Salvation Through Slavery: Chiricahua Apaches and Priests on the Spanish Colonial Frontier
  • Matthew D. O’Hara
Salvation Through Slavery: Chiricahua Apaches and Priests on the Spanish Colonial Frontier. By H. Henrietta Stockel. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).

In this slim volume, Henrietta Stockel provides an overview of encounters between Spanish missionaries and native peoples along the northern reaches of New Spain. Stockel focuses on the Pimería Alta, the Spanish colonial term for what now comprises the borderlands between Sonora and Arizona. As the title suggests, the author pays special attention to the Chiricahua Apaches, though other native groups also figure prominently.

The introduction offers some conceptual framing, arguing that the missionary encounter between Europeans and native peoples (and the Catholic sacrament of baptism, in particular) amounted to “identity theft.” The use of this twenty-first century term in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century contexts that Stockel attempts to describe is not entirely clear, however, since its specific meaning for the Chiricahua and other native groups is not adequately explored.

Without downplaying the excesses of some missionaries or the social dislocation and violence that at times accompanied Spanish colonialism, Stockel’s use of the term is indicative of her tendency to rely on a facile interpretive grid of “good Indian, bad European” that ultimately undermines her analysis. This is accomplished through frequent editorializing and generalizations (“imperious Europeans” but “spiritual humble-heartedness [of frontier Indians]” (4)) but also uneven use of evidence (for example, Stockel initially notes that Apache attacks on European settlements were pragmatic, meant to pillage but not destroy, part of a longer tradition of raiding (74); a few pages later, however, we are told that “their [the Apache’s] intentions to rid their country of human contaminants [Europeans] went on almost unabated” (77)).

Chapter One discusses origin theories of the Chiricahua Apaches, and speculates about the migration that brought them to the Sonoran Desert. Based largely on contemporary ethnography and oral history, the chapter gives a general sense of Chiricahua attachment to the land, including its spiritual significance. Chapters Two and Three discuss the Pimería Alta missions, from their founding under the Jesuits in the seventeenth century through their transfer to the Franciscan order in the 1760s. Stockel follows the story through the late eighteenth century, when reforms motivated in part by the Spanish crown’s desire to strengthen imperial defenses caused the northern frontier and missions to receive greater attention from Mexico City and Madrid. Their borderlands locations meant that these missions were fragile institutions, clinging to a precarious economic foothold, subject to frequent raiding from native peoples, and parties to counter-attacks by Spanish forces against those same indigenous groups.

In the final chapters, Stockel raises the possibility that missionaries systematically sold native peoples into slavery to fund their spiritual enterprise (hence the book’s title). In the end, she offers little to substantiate this claim, noting “there is no unassailable proof of this activity, [and] nothing that can be corroborated” (126). “Most academic frames of reference,” Stockel tells us, “fail to address the range of contemporary Indian life and historic heritage (4).” While this may be the case, no satisfactory alternative is offered here.

Matthew D. O’Hara
University of California, Santa Cruz

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