Position Paper on Cabeza de Vaca Project
by William H. Goetzmann
I see my role in this project as pulling the significant findings of the experts in the different disciplines into a coherent, dramatic educational form.
Initially, we have raised several basic questions. Is the focus of the exhibition to be on Cabeza de Vaca? Or is it to be on his New World context? What role does his Relación really play? What kind of a document is it in the context of "the books of the brave" or conquistador fantasies of the time—those works that Don Quixote tossed into the fireplace? Clearly it is not a diary or daily journal, but a reminiscence or report. Is it history or "virtual history" and imagined geography?
What is not recorded in the Relación adds as much mystery as events set down in the text. Thus, I admire Frank de la Teja's skepticism about both the man and the tale. I find it hard to believe, for example, that Cabeza de Vaca nearly starved on Galveston Island, a place rich in bird life, small animals, fish and sea-weed, as well as the oysters de Vaca claims to have subsisted on. Therefore I suggest, given the expertise brought to bear on the exhibition project, that a truly searching reassessment of Cabeza de Vaca and the plausibility of his experiences be undertaken, including his own psychology. In some ways de Vaca has been mythologized as the man who bore a special and kindly relationship to the native peoples, i.e., that he and his cohorts had truly gone native. However, in his lecture at the University of Texas, Professor Howard R. Lamar strongly suggested that Cabeza de Vaca was and remained, despite his experiences, a tough Spanish soldier and a would-be conquistador. Is this true? Cabeza de Vaca's subsequent experiences on the La Plata in South America would seem to suggest this. So what of Cabeza de Vaca and the "other"?
There are, of course, many other questions in relation to Cabeza de Vaca's journey. Where did he actually go? Which natives did he encounter? How did he avoid tribal or clan warfare? What possible illnesses or injuries did his and Esteban's native patients have that they could cure with words? In fact most accounts of the Native Americans portray them as disease free—almost immortal—before the coming of the Europeans; this premise should be examined in the light of Cabeza de Vaca's recorded experience and archaeological evidence.
In turning to archeology and Native American folklore, why are there no native tales of these miraculous men, why no effigies or rock art portraying them? Their appearance and curandero activities must have been a major event in tribal experience, one akin to a comet in the night sky.
One could go on with questions such as these, laying out a most difficult research agenda for the project's experts. I emphasize the questioning and skepticism, however, as a method of making Cabeza de Vaca, not a fait accompli but as a living enigma today. Certainly we must view the Southwest through his eyes, but we must wonder about him, his companions and their experiences. To me, he remains an intriguing mystery.
I suggest that Cabeza de Vaca the "mystery" or the "enigma" be the focus of the exhibition. Mystery, what really happened or didn't or could have happened, is a powerful educational method that is seldom used in school history courses or even on history TV. Usually the story is laid out in "cut and dried" narrative terms but often this results in a "so what" reaction. I believe that by "prying up the floorboards"—making Cabeza de Vaca questionable and mysterious—that we will make him a live issue today, not some legendary figure out of a very dim past. We will also avoid clichéd and tedious sermonizing about the "others" (about whom we know very little).
Our objective should be to make Cabeza de Vaca as alive today as he was when he lived and to do our best to make his geographical, historical, ecological and anthropological context of the early sixteenth century as meaningful as possible to late twentieth century audiences. Where and who was "Waldo?"