On 23 February 1540 Francisco Velasques de Coronado set out from Campestola, Mexico, on an expedition that was to have a decisive impact on the life and history of the populations of the American Southwest. The mission of the 600 soldiers and six Franciscan friars was to subjugate and conquer, and the operation brought about profound changes in the way of life and thinking of the natives, with consequences which persisted well beyond the presence of the Spanish in America. The first people whom the conquistadores encountered were the Pueblo Indians. They wore jewels made of various materials including orange discs and beads which the Spaniards took to be coral.
In 1581 Herman Gallegos had this to say concerning the expedition led by Rodriguez Chamuscado in New Mexico against the Jumano Indians of the Rio Grande: "...some of the Indians who approached us wore white and colored coral of a poor quality attached to their noses when we asked where it came from, they indicated that it came from the sea". This suggests that there was some sort of trading between the Rio Grande and the Gulf of California, over 700 miles away. We find another mention of the presence of coral among the Zunis in the Governatore Juan de Onate’s record of his journey from the Rio Grande to the Rio Colorado in about 1604: the Yuma Indians ...are the ones who bring coral from the sea, calling it 'quacame’, ...given the considerable distance from the coast they do not have much of it in the province of the Zunis there is more, and it is bartered. The Zunis say that the Indians of the Valle Senora come and sell it, and they are no more than six days' march away".
Since we lack any archaeological evidence for the presence of coral in ornaments from prehistoric times, and since no red coral grows along the western coast of Mexico, only the porous purple and white varieties, it seems likely that when the Spaniards spoke of "coral" they were actually referring to the reddish seashell of the spiny oyster, a bivalve mollusc still used in Pueblo jewelry and plentiful right down the seaboard from the Gulf of California to Ecuador. An account by Father Jacopo Sedelmayer of 1746 seems to confirm the doubts concerning the true nature of the "coral" used by the Yumas, who adorned themselves "with necklaces of seashells woven together with other colored shells looking like coral that they fashion and pierce". From the mid-16th century the Spaniards began to make their way up the coast of Mexico towards the interior of the American continent along what came to be known as the "Camino Real de tierra adentro". Catholic missions were set up along the route, and these gradually became trading posts. Over several decades Indians poured into these emporia, which instituted an exchange of products coming from Texas with those from Mexico. The missions were supplied with objects of little or no monetary value, such as the crucifixes and medals worn by the missionary friars, brought by the Spaniards as gifts to bestow on acquiescent local chieftains and as a way of entering into relations with new tribes. There were also objects of more superior craftsmanship such if, as holy images, altar furnishings and rosaries comprising glass, crystal, jade and coral beads. All these objects connected with the Catholic cult began to influence the style of ornaments used by the natives. Coral in the form of rosary beads began to/be inserted into the traditional ornaments made of turquoise and seashells. An archaeological expedition in 1975 in the Missions of San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista, on the borders of Mexico and Texas, turned up various types of ornamental material including thirteen salmon pink coral beads in globular or barrel shapes. Similar beads were also found on the site of missions in Texas (Rosario in Goliad County) and California (San José). It seems likely that they came from rosaries given to the Indians in the Spanish period.
The beads found in the Rosario mission can be dated to 1750-1780, while those found in California date from some ten years later. The medals in silver, bronze and copper connected with the Christian and Moorish tradition imported in the 1600s found their way into the indigenous ornamental symbolism without however eliminating the animist connotations deriving from local beliefs predating the arrival of the conquistadores. Two examples are the Lorraine cross, with its two horizontal limbs, and the pomegranate. The former was adopted by the Pueblos, Hopis and Navajos because it recalled the form of the dragonfly, which featured in their culture as a symbol of the period when the maize ripened and the life-giving potential of the spring rains. For the natives the cross was first and foremost an ornament; they wore it to placate the missionary zeal of the friars, while continuing, often in secret, to honour the beliefs they had held for centuries. We cannot, however, simply affirm that as time went on Indians never viewed the cross in the way the Spaniards intended. Following their conversion some of the Pueblo Indians wore jewels sewing as rosaries made of coral and metal. The pomegranate was another symbol imported by the Spaniards. They in turn had acquired it from the tradition of the Andalusian Moors, who considered it one of the gifts of Allah and symbol of fertility and abundance. After all the capital of the Andalusian kingdom was called Granada, the Spanish for "pomegranate".
This shape is still very popular in the jewelry of the Navajos and Zunis, in the "squash blossom" necklaces and in conjunction with the upturned crescent (naja), another supreme Islamic symbol which the Native Americans may first have seen adorning the reins of Moorish horses. All these various symbolic elements, like coral itself, reveal the influence of Spanish and Mediterranean traditions on the native cultures during some three centuries of coexistence.
- Posted in: