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Windows to the Unknown: Cabeza de Vaca's Journey to the Southwest

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The Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University and The Witte Museum in San Antonio are currrently engaged in a joint project to present an integrated public program at both sites. This project, funded by a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, draws from the resources of these two institutions: Texas State's rare 1555 edition of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's La Relación and the Witte's numerous artifacts from European and native cultures with whom Cabeza de Vaca was associated. The purpose of this planning grant is to design a joint program that will piece together the still tantalizing and often puzzling parts of the story of Cabeza de Vaca (1490?-1557?), the first account of a European in the "New World" before it was irrevocably altered by more Europeans, horses, and diseases. This program exemplifies the truly interdisciplinary nature of studying the past. It brings anthropology, history, and literature together to focus on one of the most compelling stories of survival and intercultural accommodation in North America, a story still fresh after almost 500 years.

The text of the Relación of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is his narrative of the ill-fated 1527 Narváez expedition. He describes the shipwreck of the expedition on the coast of Florida and his landing on an island near what is now the Texas coast. To supplement and perhaps, at times, to challenge this narrative, the Witte will present artifacts of the Indian population living during this time, small family bands of hunter-gatherers scattered throughout Southwest that have now disappeared. Combining remnants of this culture with the Cabeza de Vaca narrative will allow the University and the Museum to present an intriguing account of what Southwest life may have been like at the time of this extraordinary encounter. Archeologists, ethnographers, ethnobotanists, and environmental historians offer their sometimes divergent versions of the Southwest 500 years ago. Cabeza de Vaca's literary account offers in magnificent detail his own interpretation of this area's flora, fauna, and Indian culture. The process of how we interpret what life could have been like using all the interpretive tools possible—texts, artifacts, and archeological analysis—will be the original and provocative nature of this project.

A rare complete copy of the 1555 Relación is a central text in the Southwestern Writers Collection of the Alkek Library at Texas State. Probably the earliest text about exploration of the Americas, the Relación introduces themes to which later American history and texts repeatedly return: the meeting and often clashing of cultures, slavery, captivity, wonder and fear at the vastness of the American landscape. The narrative provides an opportunity to examine the assumptions and responses of an early European among native peoples of the Southwest, struggling (he claims) to be a good Spanish subject, to be a Christian, and simply to survive. Cabeza de Vaca's observations on native bands' cultural practices, child-rearing, eating, religious beliefs, and interactions with the landscape provide anthropologists, biologists, historians, political scientists, geologists, and literary scholars with a wealth of information about this story's historical, anthropological, and literary significance.

However, different disciplines' analyses of the story's importance vary from one another. Each finds value in different parts of the text, and different disciplines reach dissimilar, sometimes contradictory conclusions. When placed beside the numerous artifacts of European and native peoples at The Witte Museum, the narrative will help us look in a comprehensive way at the continuing puzzle of Cabeza de Vaca. This is the first example of distinct people learning to live together in the Southwest. A unified program about Cabeza de Vaca's encounter with native peoples will allow the public to step through window into the past. It will clarify not only details about an important historical figure's life and the time in which he lived, but will also help us understand some basic aspects of the human condition: adapting to the unknown to survive and responding to a radically different culture. In essence, Cabeza de Vaca's story of intercultural accommodation is the foundation of the Southwest. Its history continues even today in the clash and cooperation of different cultures.

By combining the expertise of Texas State University and The Witte Museum, we are planning a provocative project that will bring artifacts from two important institutions before the public. By focusing on a major historical figure and using objects and texts left us by the cultures involved, we will cross disciplinary boundaries to extend understanding of Southwestern history, particularly the cultural accommodations that have defined and challenged the Southwest for over 500 years.