Anthropology Professor Receives Prize for Essay

Dr. Louise Burkhart, Professor and Chair in the Department of Anthropology, received the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference's Harold Grimm Prize for her essay, "The 'Little Doctrine' and Indigenous Catechesis in New Spain," Hispanic American Historical Review 94, no. 2 (2014). 

The award is given to the author of the best article published during the previous year in any journal "that reflects and sustains a broad understanding of the Reformation as a fundamentally religious phenomenon which permeated the whole civilization of Europe in the Reformation Era." It was presented at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference's general business meeting on Friday Oct 23, 2015 in Vancouver, BC. Canada.

This paper traces the history of a catechetical quiz widely used in colonial New Spain. A succinct summary of Jesuit father Jerónimo de Ripalda's widely-used 1591 catechism, the questionnaire was directed at less “capable” Christians. The text makes its first appearance in works published in the 1630s by secular clergy posted in indigenous communities. Jesuit father Bartolomé Castaño, laboring in the colony's northern missions, published the questionnaire's most frequently repeated version in 1644. Renditions in Spanish and in 11 (or more) indigenous languages vary somewhat in the number of questions and the exact questions asked, but a large number of shared questions, presented in the same order, allow the versions to be treated as variants of a single text, which Burkhart here calls the “Little Doctrine.” That this seventeenth-century text is a standard component of pictographic catechisms calls into question the conventional placement of these pictorial manuscripts into the evangelical tool kit of the sixteenth-century Franciscan and other friars. Burkhart proposes a later origin for the genre, as one of the legitimating strategies pursued by indigenous elites in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as they sought to retain and regain lands and privileges. She suggests that pictographic catechisms supported elites' claims that their noble ancestors accepted Christianity immediately upon the arrival of the friars, learning doctrine in pictographic writing because they had not yet adopted alphabetic script. She compares pictographic versions of the text with alphabetic ones and notes how indigenous artists transformed a text intended for “crude” native people into a testimony to the wisdom and faith of their picture-literate conquest-era ancestors.

This research was conducted in 2012-2013 when Burkhart held the Paul Mellon Senior Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.