The book, A Land so Strange, tells of an expedition of 300 men, women, and enslaved Africans who set sail from Spain in 1528 under the leadership of Pánfilo de Narváez with the dream of settling Florida. Yet, a hurricane, lost ships, navigational errors, leadership follies, and challenges from Indians well capable of holding off would-be European conquest added up to a colossal disaster. Expedition members ended up wandering along the Gulf Coast before taking to the water on handmade rafts which finally washed up on the Texas coast, in course of which their numbers rapidly diminished as they fell victim to drowning, dehydration, starvation, and cannibalism (by their fellow castaways). A mere four survivors-Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and an enslaved Moor known only as Estebanico remained.
Throughout this reading, it will become quite clear that working with the Indians instead of against would have provided a more viable solution to the Spaniards survival predicament. Furthermore, the success of the Spanish in North American depended greatly on their relations with the natives. This will be seen through the embarrassing death of Narvaez and the success that Cabeza de Vaca experiences. Eventually, Cabeza and his crew begin to see the Indians as human beings and as a possible alliance in the harsh environment they are trying to conquer.
The Spanish ideals of non-christians were very strong. Even the converts were criticized, “Such converts were euphemistically referred to as new christians, and were often the target of discrimination in an empire that had become unified on the basis of militant religiousity.” Such an age of ego drove the kings to explore territory not only for riches and fame, but for the possibility of “spreading the good word”. During Cabeza de Vaca’s amazing journey, he went from the hunter to the hunted, from the giver to the begger, and from the fat to the starving. At one point, during a seemingly endless walk in a dessert, Narvaez notices a group of Indians.
He is dying of thirst and barely has any food. However, he looks upon the Indians and says, “What poor and wretched creatures.” Even at the lowest point, he still condemns the Indians instead of approaches and begs for some form of charity. Things got worse. He later gave up all hope of survival and proclaimed, “It was no longer time for some men to rule over others, but that each one should do whatever seemed best to save his life.” Narvaez died a painful death lost at sea on a raft carried by the tided. He wanted nothing to do with the Indians, even to the point of death.
Such pain seemed to attract the leadership of false-superiority. Only at Cabeza de Vacas lowest point did he realize that the Indians could actually help him and the remaining survivors. He was shipwrecked on a small island with no food or drink. It is here where he stated the following after seeing its inhabitants, “Whether or not they were of great stature, our fear made them seem like giants.” His fear was obviously overwhelming and he had no choice but to succumb to whatever treachery the Indians were to release. To the surprise of the castaways, the Indians brought food and drink to the survivors. They were astonished by the generosity of the Indians.
The Indians eventually adopted and took care of them even through the toughest of seasons. Throughout the remainder of the story, Cabeza depended on the Indians for survival. He even went far enough to state, “These are the people most fit for war of all I have seen in the world.” The Indians carried with them a great weight, for the stranded were quite useless when it comes to surviving in harsh conditions. Through persistence and persuasion, Cabeza eventually became a medicine man convinced he was sent by God to heal those in need. He worked his way up the ranks and finally came home to an astonished emperor.
It is quite obvious that working with the Indians instead of against provided the best solution to the Spaniards issues. Narvaez chose a path of stubbornness and superiority while Cabeza de Vaca chose a path of harsh reality and acceptance. The Indians were taught at birth the laws of nature and how to overcome the most horrible of environmental circumstances, the Spanish came with little knowledge but a passion for fame and fortune. The following statement by Cabeza de Vaca sums it all up, “Together, Europeans and Native Americans could make the New World yield spiritual as well as material wealth” (218). Surviving in a land so strange can be strenuous beyond comprehension, there comes a time when the best ideal is cooperation.
Resendez, Andres. A Land so Strange. New York City: Basic Books, 2007. ———————–
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