The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was born in Jerez de la Frontera into a family that took the title Cabeza de Vaca, "head of a cow," from his mother's side of the family. In 1212, one of her ancestors, a shepherd named Martín Alhaja, had helped the Spanish Christians win an important battle against the Moors by marking an unguarded mountain pass with a cow skull. The Christians attacked, scoring a major victory, and Alhaja and his descendants were honored with the title Cabeza de Vaca.
In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed the treasurer of a 300-man royal expedition to Florida led by Pánfilo de Narváez. In April of 1528, the expedition sailed into Tampa Bay, began an overland march to Apalachee Bay, and then attempted to reach Mexico in makeshift boats. Separated from Narváez, Cabeza de Vaca led a small band of survivors to an island, probably Galveston, where the band was captured by native people. Early in 1535, Cabeza de Vaca and the three other survivors of the expedition, Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban (the escaped Moor), began a journey across what are now the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In 1536, they reached a Spanish settlement on the Sinalo River in Mexico. In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain and was rewarded with an appointment as governor of Río de la Plata (now largely Paraguay).
Cabeza de Vaca's account of the Narváez expedition, Relación, and his tales of the Zuñi and their villages, the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola, encouraged other expeditions to America, particularly those of the explorers Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. An early-Renaissance Spanish citizen grounded in Christian philosophy, Cabeza de Vaca in the Relación describes his struggle to survive as foreigner, captive, slave, and faith healer among the native inhabitants of what is now the southwest U.S. Often near death from starvation and exposure, he wandered from the Texas coast west, perhaps to New Mexico and, finally, south to Mexico, where he encountered fellow Spaniards.
Cabeza de Vaca is usually remembered for this historical importance, and as William T. Pilkington points out in his afterward to the Cyclone Covey translation (University of New Mexico Press, 1983), "the historical significance of Cabeza de Vaca's wanderings with three companions over six thousand miles and eight years cannot be doubted. The Spaniards' adventures in the uncharted lands to the north ignited considerable greed and ambition when the wanderers appeared in Mexico City in 1536…[and] were the first link in a chain of events that resulted in the Spanish colonization of the Southwest" (145). For historians, Cabeza de Vaca's importance comes from his having been the first European to travel the Southwest and to write reports that increased exploration of the region, but the text has never been fully examined side-by-side with important objects from the period.
Cabeza de Vaca's reports on his journey across the Southwest from 1528-1536 include information about numerous tribal bands: the Karankawas, Caddoes, Atakapans, Jumanos and Conchos, Pimas, Opatas, and the loose bands of hunter-gatherers now called Coahuiltecans. Unlike many other indigenous peoples in much of North America, who were often organized into complex tribes, Cabeza de Vaca encountered small wandering bands of people who congregated seasonally for celebrations called Mitotes. These groups, usually small families, were for the most part egalitarian—no chiefs and usually no more than 25 people. Among the artifacts of importance at the Witte Museum are numerous pieces from many of these native peoples: metates, stone materials, arrow points, ceramics, and baskets. Donald Chipman, in Spanish Texas 1519-1821 (University of Texas, 1992), points out the importance of Cabeza de Vaca's memoirs to our understanding of native peoples:
The Cabeza de Vaca account…is a primary document on the Karankawas as well as inland hunting and gathering cultures, for Cabeza de Vaca lived among those groups and survived to write about the experience. His portrayals of the Mariames and Avavares, with whom he lived for about eighteen months and eight months, respectively, make them the best described Indians of southern Texas; his account is especially revealing of their cultural traditions. Thanks to firsthand observations recorded in Los Naufragios, unique ethnographic information is preserved. In Cabeza de Vaca's narrative and the Joint Report, the observations of three Europeans and an African on early Texas landforms, flora, and fauna are also recorded. A careful reading and interpretation of both sources does much to illuminate the probable course of the Castaways across the Texas landscape. No other Spanish province within the present United States was described so early or with such detail. (243-44)
His discussion of these various peoples is the first anthropological record about many of them, and for many of the archaic bands, is the only contemporary observation available.
Historians and anthropologists have often pointed to the importance of Cabeza de Vaca's work, but usually for different reasons. More recently, Cabeza de Vaca's Relación has received increasing analysis as a work of literature. Pilkington notes that Cabeza de Vaca's more lasting significance has been literary and cultural, not historical. Pilkington continues: "Cabeza de Vaca was not only a physical trailblazer; he was also a literary pioneer, and he deserves the distinction of being called the Southwest's finest writer."
Although some literary scholars would dispute this assertion, Pilkington bases his conclusion on his belief that Cabeza de Vaca's book serves as the prototype for much American literature that followed: "One of its underlying themes, for example, is the physical emotional struggle for an accommodation between races—a conflict that has never been very far removed from the American consciousness and one that has always been a factor in the works of our best and most vital writers" (145-46). Frederick Turner, in Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit against the Wilderness, suggests that Cabeza de Vaca's story serves as the first captivity narrative, which became the most significant early American narrative and the basis for the Western, from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood:
Among the thousands of artifacts left to us, the inheritors of the centuries and acts of exploration—stone markers buried deep in jungles, rusted bits of armor accidentally exhumed, moldering slave castles, sailing orders, and cairns in wooded swamps—perhaps none is so absorbing as our legends of whites captured by natives. And none might have as much to tell us of the spiritual stakes involved in exploration. (231)
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian William Goetzmann finds a profound spiritual transformation in Cabeza de Vaca's change, from conquistador to healer, that resulted during his captivity. Goetzmann writes:
Although his account remains humble throughout, Cabeza de Vaca's experiences begin to resemble those of Christ himself as he toured the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Hailed as godlike persons and saviors, he and the other Spaniards went from tribe to tribe and band to band among the Coahuiltecans and far across Northern Mexico to Sinaloa, where at last they found their own kind—Christian-Spanish soldiers who "wished to make slaves of the Indians we brought." As the Indians were being harassed by the slave hunters, the Indians contrasted them to the four healers, creating what amounted to an Indian set of beatitudes (No Traveler Remains Untouched 12).
The Controversy behind the Text
Not everyone is convinced by Cabeza de Vaca's self-reported conversion or the story's impact. Some, such as Texas State historian Jesus de la Teja, question the authenticity of Cabeza de Vaca's story, suggesting that the real sub-text to his written work is his desire to save his reputation after a major failure and that his purpose was to convince the king that he was worthy of receiving another major appointment. In this view, Cabeza de Vaca's opposition to enslaving the Indians revealed simply his support for the anti-slavery position Spain endorsed at the time. Others question the value that literary scholars place on the captivity narrative. Still others, such as anthropologist Thomas Hester, question the continuing use of suggested routes now long discredited by archaeological evidence.
The Healer or Shaman Tradition
Another tantalizing and unexplored aspect of Cabeza de Vaca's experience concerns the possible importance of Cabeza de Vaca as a healer as a foundation for what exists today. He tells of his experiences healing the sick by making the sign of the cross over them and the growth of his reputation:
During all this time the Indians came from many places to seek us and said that we were truly children of the sun….All of us became medicine men, though I was paramount among us in daring and in attempting any sort of cure. And we never healed anyone who did not then tell us that he was well, and they were so confident that they would be cured if we healed them, that they believed that as long as we were there none of them would have to die. (73)
The possibility that Cabeza de Vaca's experiences as a healer may have begun a tradition that continues today has not yet been fully established. Shamanism, the belief system of hunter-gathering people, seems to have crossed the Bering Strait with the first people, who told of a long time ago when all things, living or inanimate, human and animal, shared a cosmos and moved easily between the world of flesh and spirit. When this ability was lost, only a chosen few, the shamans, could make the perilous journey to the other world. In the spirit world, the shamans interceded with the supernatural forces for the well-being of the members of their communities. When Cabeza de Vaca landed in the Southwest, he was introduced to this shamanistic culture and soon, as he reports, he began to make the sign of the cross over those who were sick and healed them, he says, with an amazing success rate. The native peoples came to believe that he was a shaman; they were prepared by their own traditions to accept his signs as powerful. Like other shamans or healers, he was treated with the very best foods, elevated, and showered with gifts.
For contemporary audiences, the fact that Cabeza de Vaca may have been the first curandero in Southwestern history will have special interest. By combining Christian iconography with native belief systems, Cabeza de Vaca may have established a cultural tradition that continues to have a major impact across the Southwest. Today, throughout the region, native healers, curanderos (male) or curanderas (female), have a tremendous influence on daily lives. Some curanderos, such as Don Pedrito Jaramillo, have achieved an almost cult status with thousands of people yearly visiting his shrine just north of Falfurrias, Texas, to leave candles and pray for loved ones. Widely considered a saint among Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, Don Pedrito was also known as "the Curandero of Los Olmos," and even though he died in 1907, statues and pictures of Don Pedrito still hold places of honor in many south Texas homes. Another indication of the continuing importance of the curandera tradition is the popularity of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless, Me Ultima (1971), the classic Chicano novel, whose title character is a curandera.
Cabeza de Vaca's own words demonstrate how he and his compadres achieved healer status, and artifacts at the Witte Museum help us understand the importance of the healer or shaman to the native peoples among whom Cabeza de Vaca traveled. For example, included in the Witte Collection is a shaman gravesite with skeletal remains and burial items from around the 4th century. The many significant artifacts buried with the shaman (his pipe, hallucinogens, snake adornments, mountain laurel beans, baskets, trinkets) as well as his skull demonstrate the status of healers among native peoples. The shaman's mandible includes a full set of teeth, demonstrating that his diet and health were much better than the average tribal members, who usually lost their teeth early. Although the shaman's head (like other native peoples' bones) cannot be displayed, a brass reproduction of it is being prepared and can be among the exhibits of materials associated with our proposed project on Cabeza de Vaca. By understanding the long history of shamans, healers, and curanderos, our audience will be able to make a clear connection between the experiences of Cabeza de Vaca and their own lives, especially the interpenetration of cultures that continues to define the Southwest and that will characterize the audience viewing this program.
Cabeza de Vaca's Route
Another question about Cabeza de Vaca's story concerns the route of his travels. The attempts to trace Cabeza de Vaca's route demonstrate the difficulties in reconstructing cartographical detail based on experiences recollected years after the fact and based upon physical descriptions of landscapes that have been significantly altered since the original experiences. For many years now, the work of Cleve Hallenbeck, an amateur historian, has served as the basis for understanding Cabeza de Vaca's route. Hallenbeck's Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: The Journey and Route of the First European to Cross the Continent of North America, 1534-1536 (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company), published in 1940, has been reexamined. Now, at least five separate possible routes have been charted: Hallenbeck's, a second by Alex D. Krieger (refined by anthropologists T.N. Campbell and T.J. Campbell, and further refined and championed by Chipman), a third by Texas State historian Jesus F. de la Teja for novelist James Michener in Texas, a fourth by historians Herbert Davenport and William Davis, and a fifth by geologist Robert Hill. Chipman concludes:
Any detailed analysis of the Cabeza de Vaca journey requires…the route interpreter [to] coordinate the texts…with all available data, physiography, time and distance of travel, ethnographic information, biota, geographic knowledge, geographic perceptions of the castaways, and the overall objective of the trek, which…was to reach Panuco on the gulf coast of Mexico. The problem with too many route interpretations has been the lack of objectivity, or a somewhat myopic concentration on only one or two indices (In Search 142). In short, to understand Cabeza de Vaca's route requires a thorough interdisciplinary approach to the details and the nuances of the text, which is the approach of this program.