Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Native American Women and Religion in the American Colonies: Textual and Visual Traces of an Imagined Community

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Native American Women and Religion in the American Colonies: Textual and Visual Traces of an Imagined Community

Article excerpt

Sister Antonia de Cristo, born in Puebla de los Angeles in New Spain, joined the first convent that allowed Indigenous women to profess as nuns in 1724. She did not write an account of her life as did many other nuns in the Hispanic world. Rather, another Indigenous nun in the cloister recounted in a brief biography the "miracles" that occurred during Sister Antonia de Cristo's lifetime and at the moment of her death, such as the beautiful music that people from outside the convent were able to hear when she died (Apimtes 13) J Forty years earlier, in the Jesuit mission to the Iroquois Indians of New France, another Indigenous woman's death provoked accounts of miracles. Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert who followed a life of penance and chastity without having taken formal religious vows, died in April 1680; after her death, Indigenous women of New France described Catherine's "apparitions" to them in which she bid farewell and rose into heaven (Greer, Mohawk Saint 19).

These two cases in New Spain and New France point out the key roles played by Native American women in the expansion and definition of popular Catholic beliefs and practices in the colonial Americas. (2) They also reveal the existence of gender alliances among Indigenous women, regardless of their ethnic distinctions, and indicate Indigenous women's reliance on these alliances for the purposes of preserving in the historical record their participation in the colonial Church, sometimes through accounts of their piety and religiosity, at other times through letters and legal documentation. (3) In addition to written records attesting to Indigenous women's membership in the Catholic Church and their contributions to the diffusion of religious values, painted portraits of these women constitute a medium through which scholars may study Native American women's agency and performance in colonial spaces.

Indigenous women in the Americas interacted with colonial institutions in the spaces of missionary settlements, convents, beaterios (religious places for lay women), schools, and churches. These "contact zones" allowed for experiences of transculturation in which women ably fused their cultural identity with the new expectations of the Church, redefining themselves and becoming not only active in religious matters, but on occasion even models to be followed (Pratt 6). (4) Gender roles were forged in colonial spaces in ways that differed greatly from those that characterised European centers, since the social composition of the American territories varied dramatically from their European counterparts. A complex array of ethnic groups and languages, as well as remote and hostile geographies, allowed women in general and Native American women in particular to exercise agency in new ways. Sherry B. Ort-ner distinguishes between women's "agency of power," or "resistance,'1 and what she calls "an agency of intentions," arguing that the latter is not necessarily about domination: "It is about people having desires that grow out of their own structures of life, including very centrally their own structures of inequality" (81). To understand the cases in which Native American women converted to Christianity instead of resisting the hegemonic culture, we must take into account this definition of the "agency of intentions" and identify how these colonial subjects found accommodation and resistance within the colonial system itself. We may never know why Indigenous women chose to convert to Catholicism or to enter a convent. The archive provides us only filtered, rhetorical documents by which to enter into these women's experiences, yet it is precisely these sources that allow for a hemispheric reading of Native American women's religious roles in the colonization of the Americas.

The sources I examine here suggest the existence of both "imagined communities" of Native American women in religious settings and promotional networks that recorded and embellished their presence in the Church through textual and visual renditions of these women. …

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