>A spectrum of questions
A funny thing happened as I was digging more deeply into the research that has been done on Yaqui religion over the last 30 years or so. I discovered that a number of prominent scholars who study Yaqui culture have openly questioned whether the Yaqui Indians actually converted to Christianity in the first place!
It’s a tricky issue, and very basic questions about the nature of religion and religious identity are involved here. The trickiest issue, and the most basic question of all is: what does it mean to say that the Yaqui converted? It is very easy to overlook this question. I mean, well, everyone knows what “conversion” means, right? Wrong.
Exhibit A: When Dr. Carlos Gonzales, a Yaqui, did the opening prayer at the recent memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, he called upon the spirits of the Four Directions, on Father Sky, and on Mother Earth, and so forth. He did not mention Jesus, but there was a reference or two to “God”, along with “creatures that walk, swim, slither or move on four legs and two legs.” So, does that sound like someone from a society that abandoned its own indigenous religious traditions in favor of Christianity four hundred years ago?
But there’s more at stake here than just what heading Yaqui religion properly belongs under in the family tree of human religions. The nature of conversion is also of fundamental importance for understanding all of the conversions to Christianity and Islam that have occurred over the last 1700 years. These “conversions” now account for over half of the human population! Properly understanding these “conversions” is also essential to the question of the relationship between modern and ancient Paganisms.
Long before anyone began to wonder whether or not the Yaquis had really converted to Christianity or not, indeed, long before the time when they supposedly did convert, serious doubts were raised about the completeness of the process of Christianization in Europe. In fact, throughout the entire history of Christianity, and right up until quite recently, it was widely accepted that, long after Christian conversion had officially taken place, remnants of ancient Paganism continued to exist as pockets of resistance within Christendom. The motif of the “Witches Sabbath” was based on just such a belief, although this provides but one (in)famous example.
Another example is the notion that there was a revival of Paganism during the Renaissance, a view held by modern historians such as Ludwig von Pastor (1854-1928) and George Voigt (1827-1891). It was not until P.O. Kristeller’s work in the mid 20th century that the theory of a “Pagan Renaissance” was seriously undermined among academics (although Kristeller’s revisionism was never universally accepted and is now facing real challenges.)
Belief in the survival of Paganism persisted into the 20th century, as is demonstrated by the popular, and even scholarly, interest in the writings of Charles Godfrey Leland and Margaret Murray, both of whom claimed that at least some of those accused of “witchcraft” really were representatives of surviving pre-Christian (or, more precisely, pre-Christianization) religious traditions. Carlo Ginsberg provides a more recent example of scholarly support for the idea that non-Christian religious traditions in Europe successfully survived the process of Christianization.
Nowadays, one routinely encounters people (including many “Pagan” “scholars”) who insist that all such notions about the survival of Paganism have been thoroughly debunked and irreversibly consigned to the dustbin of bad history. The simple fact is that nothing of the sort has taken place. Even Ronald Hutton has repeatedly conceded that modern Wicca has a “distinguished and long pedigree”. Although vanishingly few people demonstrate any familiarity with the more subtle aspects of Hutton’s writings on the subject of Pagan history, it is clear that he, at least, readily accepts that the issue is not reducible to the binary choice: “did Paganism survive or not?”.
Notwithstanding the fact that he is often understood to be saying the exact opposite, Hutton’s writings unambiguously demonstrate that instead of simplistic dichotomies, we must pose a whole spectrum of questions about the degree to which Pagan beliefs and practices survived, the ways in which they did so, the manner in which these persistent beliefs and practices evolved in Christian dominated societies, the mutual interactions between Paganism and this thing called Christianity, etc. Most importantly of all, there is no doubt that there are many and varied ways in which modern Paganism is meaningfully related to, and is therefore a continuation of, ancient Paganism.
Well, did the Yaquis convert, or didn’t they?
But back to the Yaquis. In his 1980 book, The Yaquis: A Cultural History, Edward Spicer raised serious doubts about the wisdom of blithely asserting a Yaqui conversion to Christianity. Two decades later, Kenneth Morrison summarized Spicer like this:
“By 1980, Edward Spicer … carefully developed an argument that the Yaquis only partially accepted the Jesuit missionaries’ teaching about Christian cosmology. Spicer shows that the Yaquis came to accept the great others [that is, Jesus, Mary, and the Saints] of Catholicism as well as their distinctive location in heaven, or glory. At the same time, however, the Yaquis neither rejected their traditional cosmological system, nor accepted the Jesuits’ distinction between a perfect heaven and a tainted worldly existence.”
Morrison then moves on to more recent research that builds on the work of Spicer:
“Two recent works on the Yaqui, Muriel Painter’s With Good Heart (1986), and Lawrence Evers and Felipe S. Molina’s Yaqui Deer Songs (1987), have brought together a great deal more ethnographic information on Yaqui religion. Significantly, they agree with Spicer’s view that the Deer Dancer derives from pre-contact Yaqui tradition. The richness of their data makes it possible to see that Yaqui acceptance of Catholicism hardly amounts to conversion in its usual sense of turning away from the truths of tradition to the truths of another. Instead, the Yaqui extended the religious insights of tradition to make sense of their relationship with the great others of Christianity. Unlike Spicer, then, Evers and Molina, and, to a lesser degree, Painter, locate the ‘sacred’ characteristics of Yaqui religion, its understanding of traditional and Christian power, in the pre-contact tradition.”
[Sharing the Flower, Kenneth Morrison, 2002, pp. 110-111]
Even more recently, there is David Delgado Shorter’s (2009) We Will Dance Our Truth, in which we read that
“historical claims of conversion not only fail to tell the whole story of native agency in colonial zones but also overlook the role of indigenous performance in historically narrating a consistent and practical precolonial ritual logic.” And also this: ” Tropes of religious conversion assume that European cultures were superior, that Christianity provided a undeniable ‘truth’, and that precontact religiosity was abandoned.”
We Will Dance Our Truth won the 2010 Chicago Folklore Prize, awarded by the American Folklore Society and the University of Chicago. Shorter provides a fresh look at the history of the original “contact” between the Yaquis (who are also referred to as Yoemem) and the Spanish, and the early post-contact history unfolds:
“The Yoemem defeated Spanish armies at least three times between 1533 and 1609 and therefore negotiated a contact situation on their own terms. Their engagement with the newcomers was selective and tactful. Yoemem invited Jesuit missionaries to their pueblos in 1617 and kept the Spanish conquistadors at bay at the same time. Yoeme strength clearly controlled the influence of Catholicism on precontact traditions. Like other early colonial encounters, this control included a significant amount of indigenous agency and maneuverability. Yoemem enforced and strategically maintained their territorial adn cultural boundaries and sustained sovereign control of their land from pre-Columbian times through the period of Jesuit collaboration.
To understand Yoeme cultural dynamics, we must grasp that roughly 30,000 Yoemem decided to befriend five or six Jesuit missionaries, ultimately choosing which aspects of Christianity and European life were sensible and adoptable. Yoemem also decided which practices were to be rejected. Control maintained continuity in a time of change.”
In his redaction of this history, Shorter clearly (and sometimes greatly) exaggerates the “agency” of the Yaquis in determining the course of their own destiny.
In the sphere of religion, this “agency” was indeed significant. However, the Yaquis were forced to accept Jesuit political rule over them. They were forced to accept being reorganized into mission villages, with Jesuit appointed leaders, in the same way other Indian groups. They were forced to allow Spanish settlers access to their ancestral lands. There were, like all Indios, subject to the various forced-labor laws that mandated periods of unpaid work in the mines and haciendas of the Spaniards. And over the course of the subsequent decades they also lost control even of their own agricultural output, which the Jesuits appropriated.
Most egregiously of all, Shorter inexcusably denies the simple reality of the blatantly coercive nature of the situation the Yaqui were in when they “negotiated” with the Spanish. No amount of appeals to “agency and maneuverability” can obliterate the fact that the Yaquis, like all indigenous people, essentially had guns pointed at their heads during all their dealings with the Spanish. In the end, all agreements made under such circumstances must be viewed as falling in the class of “offers they couldn’t refuse.” Nevertheless, especially when it comes to the subject of religion, Shorter’s narrative does provide a necessary corrective.
In fact, one begins to get a clearer appreciation of the scale of the savagery involved in the European conquest of the Americas when one considers just how fortunate, relatively speaking, the Yaquis were! And Shorter’s point really is that this is not simply a matter of “fortune”, but rather a quite striking example of the principle: fortes fortuna adiuvat.