Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880

By Phillip H. Round | Go to book overview

Prologue

SOMETIME BETWEEN 1838 and 1841 in rome, a young Native American man worked patiently on a manuscript entitled “Conversión de los Luiseños de Alta California.” The story was part of an assignment he had been given by his teacher, Giuseppe Caspar Mezzon Fanti (1774–1849), chief custodian of the Vatican Library. The young man, Pablo Tac (1822–41), was studying at the Urban College after having been taken from his California homeland in 1832. Tac’s manuscript, written in Spanish, tells the story of his people, known in their own language as the Quechnajuichom. Although intended for a European audience, the central story of the author’s conversion at times gives way to the sentiments of a seventeen- year- old whose pride in his tribal community equals his sense of duty to his new overseers. After two paragraphs of mission history, Tac launches into a description of his community’s most fearsome enemies, the Quichamcauchom (Kumeyaay) — their surprise attacks and their war regalia and weaponry. In the end, his nation turns to the Spanish for protection, and — as Tac approvingly relates — “merciful God freed us of these miseries through Father Antonio Peyri, a Catalan.”1

Tac’s little- known manuscript is interesting for many reasons. For one, it voices resistance even as it celebrates Christian conversion. In the paragraph after his panegyric to Father Peyri, Tac relates how his tribal leader, upon first meeting the Spaniards, challenged them, “What is it you seek? Get out of our Country,”2 thus undercutting the triumphant tale of conversion. For another, it is but one of hundreds of such manuscripts produced by the Native peoples of North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that scholars have yet to explore for the richness and variety of American Indian interactions with alphabetic literacy, manuscripts, and print during the period. Tac’s manuscript features not only an alphabetically literate Luiseño man’s narrative but also his drawings. At one point when describing a tribal dance, he produces an image of Luiseño ceremonial life that is striking for its immediacy (figure 1). The “Indians” in this sketch are not seen through an

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