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February 10, 1997

Team receives $300,000 grant to study Christianity's roots in Andean regions

By Barbara McKenna

Following Spanish invasions in the 16th through 18th centuries, Christianity emerged as a dominant religion in South America. The general assumption has been that Spanish missionaries brought the religion to natives who then adopted it in place of their own religious beliefs. But three professors from three different universities are collaborating on a research project that offers a different perspective--that Christianity often took hold and evolved not through the work of Christian missionaries but because it was reinvented by the "indigenous elite," the native nobility.

The project, "Indigenous Elites and Christian Identity: Mediating Mind, Body, Spirit in Mid-Colonial Peru," just received a $300,000 three-year grant from the Pew Charitable Trust. Lead researchers on the project are Carolyn Dean, assistant professor of art history at UCSC; Kathryn Burns, assistant professor of history at the University of Florida; and Jean-Jacques Decoster, professor-investigator of anthropology at the Facultad Latinoamericana De Ciencias Sociales in Quito, Ecuador.

Their research will focus on the Andean regions of Peru and Ecuador, populated by, among other indigenous groups, the Inca.

[Photo of Carolyn Dean] "Andean elites were crucial in the history of Christianity in this area," said Dean. "From our perspective the Andeans take center stage in the process of Christian conversion as opposed to the Spanish. That enables us to shift away from the view of Spanish missionaries as the active evangelizers and natives as the passive recipients of a set of beliefs."

Each professor will look at this premise from their particular academic perspective. Dean, who is focusing on visual representations, notes that there is an abundance of imagery from the High Colonial era that refers to Andean Christian religious practices in great detail.

"The nobility of the region literally documented their participation in Christian festivals, often in oil paintings on canvas. There are representations of Inca and other ethnic leaders participating in Christian ritual performances, such as Corpus Christi. You see in these paintings that traditional western Christian symbols and icons are used right alongside traditional Andean religious symbols and icons. Andean symbols are made relevant in the Christian world of colonial Peru, and it is the Andeans themselves who assert their relevance."

Another essential component of the project will be archival work, mostly of very old and fragile government records--some more than 400 years old. As part of her research last summer, Dean was reading through some of these documents--indigenous wills dating as far back as 1680. "Every time you turn the page of a 16th-century document," she observes, "bits of the paper break off. Indexing these records will help to preserve them."

As part of the project, the collaborators will host an international symposium and write a book on their subject.

The project is being administered by the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida.

The Pew Charitable Trust, a national philanthropy based in Philadelphia, supports nonprofit activities in the areas of conservation and the environment, culture, education, health and human services, public policy, and religion.

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