On July 4, 1776, as several dozen sweating American colonists sat in the stuffy Pennsylvania State House wondering what would befall them for having dared to rebel against their king, a lone, hungry Spanish priest lay in the windswept stone plaza of a Hopi village wondering what would befall him for having dared to serve his own.
The cleric’s position was more precarious. The colonists might be hanged, as one of their number famously warned, but at least that misfortune, should it come about, lay in the future. The bearded, black-haired, black-eyed priest was surrounded by dozens of agitated warriors. He might not survive the hour.
Fr. Francisco Garcés’s Indian friends had begged him not to go to Oraibi, Arizona. The Hopis would kill him, they said. But Garcés had been undaunted. For months he had been traveling through the wilderness. Unarmed and hundreds of miles from the nearest Spanish soldier, he might be murdered at any moment. Still, by going to the Hopis’ principal village, he was courting even more danger than usual. Garcés was a Franciscan friar, and the history of his order’s interactions with the Hopis was not a happy one. In 1653, for example, one friar had taken a converted Hopi as his mistress. When a Hopi man began to rally the community against this transgression, the priest had him killed by two native officials. Fearing they would reveal his crimes, he then had those officials hanged. Some years later, another Franciscan drenched several Hopi men with turpentine and set them on fire. As one of his victims ran for a spring to douse the flames, the priest rode him down and killed him. In light of such crimes, it is not surprising that during the region-wide Pueblo Revolt of August 1680 the churches built by the Franciscans on the Hopi mesas were destroyed, and the four friars who served them slain.