Marc Simmons: Spanish diplomacy with tribes included gifts

A controversial sculpture depicts the Spanish explorer Juan de Onate. Photo from Advanced Source Productions / Flickr

Historian Marc Simmons explores the gift-giving tradition that characterized early relations between tribal nations and foreign governments:
Shortly before Juan de Oñate departed southern Chihuahua with a caravan on his way to settling New Mexico in 1598, his expedition underwent a review by a royal inspector.

Its purpose was to establish that Oñate had acquired the proper supplies for the important task ahead. His inventory included a long list of items as gifts for Indians.

They ranged from butcher knives, scissors, thimbles and thread, Flemish mirrors, cloth hats, toy trumpets and flutes for children, glass earrings, awls and tobacco to more than 1,000 religious medals made of alloy.

In the beginning, missionaries handed out such gifts as they attempted to win over the Native people. But by the 1700s, that duty had been delegated to soldiers and governors.

The reason was that the distribution of gifts to nomadic tribes had become a key feature in making peace and preserving it. That so, the finest gifts, usually presented to Indian leaders, had the effect not only of honoring them, but also of confirming their high status and nourishing a new loyalty to the Spanish government.

In early 1786, for instance, New Mexico Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza met a delegation of Comanches at Pecos Pueblo. In a ceremony establishing permanent peace, Anza bestowed upon the tribe’s high chief the title “General of the Comanche Nation.” Then he presented him with a cane, or staff of office, a sword, banner, medal, a head dress of scarlet cloth and a horse.

Earlier, England and France had started the custom of presenting official peace medals, usually of silver, to loyal Indian chiefs. Belatedly, Spain was forced to follow suit.

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Marc Simmons: Trail Dust: Spanish diplomacy with Indians included gifts (The Santa Fe New Mexican 11/8)

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