Earlier this month, Westmont historian and acting provost Richard Pointer presented his audience at the University Club a rarely voiced perspective on the “direction of influence” in early America. Tales of European conquest and the forced assimilation of Native Americans give an incomplete picture of the influence the groups had on one another, according to Pointer’s careful research of the period.
Pointer’s lecture, “Going Native,” urged the audience to wonder about the influence Indian peoples had on European settlers, and to “give justice to all the actors in American history.” His research goal is to reveal examples of significant influence on settlers by native groups, specifically focusing on religious life.
One intimate form of cultural exchange involved traders from Montreal, Canada, who often had wives and families among native people whom they met traveling the trade routes in the interior. Often they had wives and families at “home” as well-one reason, perhaps, that the Native American family relationships were not more publicly broadcast. Pointer described a “network of connections” through which Native Americans and Europeans traded cultural and religious traditions as well as goods.
Pointer’s lecture included an example of Spanish settlers’ interaction with native people in central Mexico via Catholicism, but it wasn’t the familiar story of violent religious persecution of unsuspecting locals by colonial powers. He called it “a musical partnership and Catholic worship.” For a period of decades beginning about 1520, he said, worship music was “the first tool to get the [Catholic] message across.” It served as an attractive and enjoyable way to draw Nahuatl and other native people into “partnership” with their local friars. Among the attractions were a tax exemption for church musicians and the exemption from demanding physical labor. The Indians also simply liked playing music, which was already a significant component of their own worship. In this way, the church music began to incorporated indigenous elements, including the Indian’s own instruments, and the use of Catholic lyrics set to Indian tunes. Similar examples exist among other groups in the Americas during the same period, according to Pointer.