- Conflict in Colonial Sonora: Indians, Priests, and Settlers by David Yetman
How did conflict shape patterns of cultural exchange, social interaction, military encounters, and economic development in the northern Spanish Borderlands? David Yetman’s insightful analysis of colonial Sonora during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offers the reader a pointed response to this question. Through a series of case studies that document settlement efforts, distribution of land, and strategies of negotiation in this northern region of New Spain, the author proposes that the clash of interests between different social groups contributed to changing alliances, violence, and distrust.
The first two chapters examine the history of northeastern Sonora, a region dominated by Opatan peoples, during the first half of the seventeenth century. The chapters highlight the difficulties in establishing stable Spanish settlements in territories claimed, but not controlled, by the crown. The parallel efforts of the Jesuits to evangelize natives moved at glacial speed, their activities hampered by their limited numbers, their unfamiliarity with local languages and geography, and the general distrust in which indigenous people held Catholic priests and settlers. Tensions between missionaries and colonizers surfaced early as each group sought to establish its own power base. Beyond their spiritual mission, clerics worked to extend their territorial claims, while settlers attempted to build up their coffers through ranching and mining. Like indigenous groups in other regions of central New Spain, the Ópatas learned the Spanish legal system by engaging it to seek restitution of land and at the same time forging fragile alliances with clerics and settlers alike, processes nicely illustrated with the transcription of a seventeenth-century court case in the book’s appendix. Yetman’s narrative thread of shifting alliances—between missionaries and settlers, between settlers and Indians, and between natives and missionaries—reveals the complexity of social interaction in frontier areas and the corresponding need for continual negotiation in an uncertain environment. [End Page 349]
For natives, resistance to colonization took on other forms. Chapter 3 recounts the failed efforts of multiple indigenous groups in the Opatería as they attempted to build a military coalition to overthrow Spanish rule in the region in the aftermath of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. According to the testimony of some acculturated Indians, native leaders met in mission fields where they got together to smoke (chupar) delivering rebellious speeches (tlátoles) designed to incite, and from where they would organize covert gatherings known as convocos. Yetman questions the extent of native intentions to conspire as well as the motives of European settlers who responded violently to perceived Indian threats. The 1704 sorcery trial analyzed in chapter four of Marcos Humuta, an Ópata governor, sheds light on the challenges of converting the natives to Catholicism, and of the strong opposing influence of Indian priests. More importantly, the case against Humuta reveals deep fissures among native leaders themselves, and the measures individuals took in order to dispose or discredit rivals.
Although Yetman proposes to move away from a narrative of European triumph, it is precisely the success of Spanish settlers, whose numbers increased dramatically in the late eighteenth century, that seems to define the outcome of colonization in the region. “Despite weaknesses in the Crown’s early plans for making Sonora into a Spanish province, the results after two centuries of occupation vindicated the overall strategy” (p. 208). The process was accentuated by the disappearance of missionaries but also by the suppression of natives who, according to Yetman, faded into the background. But while observers who wrote in the Independence period may have shifted their interests away from the activities of indigenous people, the Ópatas, Yaquis, Apaches and other indigenous groups continued to exert power in the region and to frustrate efforts of the emerging Mexican nation. Likewise, many natives were in the process of becoming peasants and, as such, changing their identities from Indians to mestizos.
Yetman has made a career of studying Sonora’s landscape and its people, and this expertise has allowed him to craft a well-written and...