Family, Spiritual Kinship, and Social Hierarchy in Early California
Abstract

The study of kinship offers a rich opportunity for historians of early America to examine impositions of colonial power, subtle acts of resistance, and cultural adaptations evident in quotidian encounters between indigenous peoples and European American colonists. In Spanish and Mexican Alta California, colonial implementation of compadrazgo (Catholic godparentage) and the use of family metaphors, as well as the presence of Christian Indian auxiliaries from previously colonized regions, reveal colonial social hierarchies and evolving constructions of race, ethnicity, and class. While colonists and indigenous Californians both invested significant meaning in consanguineal and affective bonds, including spiritual kinship, Native peoples struggled to preserve and express precontact family values that included more fluid practices in marriage. Spanish-Mexican settlers and Franciscan missionaries attempted to impose a kinship system that would further goals of conquest and acculturate indigenous peoples by eradicating such fluidity. Spanish Mexican settlers, however, also exhibited an expansive understanding of kinship and family obligations, invoking them to function as a social safety net, as needed, and incorporating newcomers into existing networks. Thus, kinship is a useful measure of social relations and economic conditions and helpful for unraveling the scope and limitations of colonial rule in Alta California.


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