Saturday, February 17, 2018


Cross of Caravaca,
photo: Wikimedia,
public domain.

Widow skimmer dragonfly
close-up, http://www.public

When the Spanish colonized in the American southwest they were accompanied by priests. The original motives of these Spanish had been to find gold, new land, and souls to convert to Catholicism, but in the generally arid southwest the desire for gold and land generally faded away before too long, however, the need to convert heathens to the true faith always remained. Because of this, they were accompanied by missionaries whose job was to tend to the religious needs of Spanish settlers as well as convert Native Americans to the church. These missionaries were Franciscans or Jesuits (generally at different times) but both of these carried the double-barred Cross of Caravaca to the New World.

Shield, star, and dragonfly,
Galisteo dike, NM.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

Dragonflies, La Cienegilla,
                Santa Fe, NM. Photo: Pat
                 Price, Dec. 1991.

It is not my purpose to rewrite the history of colonizing and the missionaries in New Mexico and the American southwest, there are plenty of good references for those stories. My purpose here is to explore the influence of symbolism in the success of that effort. The cross of Caravaca is a double-barred crucifix, like the better known cross of Lorraine, and whether by coincidence or by divine influence it very strongly resembles the Native American symbol of the dragonfly.

Cross of Caravaca created by
Native American craftsman with
influences of the dragonfly.
Public domain.

This was touched upon in Bahti (1970) when he wrote "the similarity between the Franciscan's double-barred cross of Caravaca and the dragon fly designs used on Pueblo pottery resulted in the ready acceptance among Southwestern tribes of this religious symbol for non-religious reasons." (Bahti 1970:3)

In my admittedly cursory research I found it much easier to locate references to Jesuits and the cross of Caravaca than Franciscans, but I will not dispute Bahti, I will, for this column, assume that he is correct and that both may have carried the cross of Caravaca, and that it had the same basic effect upon the natives.

Three Rivers, Otero County, NM.
Photo: J. & E. Faris, 1988.

Bahti's position, I believe, is basically that the Native peoples saw these strangers entering their land, but carrying a recognizable symbol that seemed to be one they shared, and so they afforded the strangers a less hostile reception.

"The Hopi and their ancestors have always venerated the dragonfly. They often asked the dragonfly to confer benefits on their people. Dragonflies are portrayed on altars, pottery, and petroglyphs because the Hopi believe that dragonflies have great supernatural powers and are shamanic. They are positive symbols of water, fertility and abundance. The Hopi people actually credit dragonflies with saving their tribe from starvation by using their supernatural powers to grow corn to maturity in four days at the ancient time when their tribe was migrating in search of their permanent home. Dragonfly song is believed to warn men of danger and resembles the Hopi word for water: twee,tsee,tsee." (

Shaman Rock near Helena,
Montana. Photograph by Julie

"In the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, the dragonfly was considered a medicine animal, associated with healing and transformation, whose spirit was often called upon by medicine men and women. Killing a dragonfly was considered highly taboo in the Pueblo tribes. To the Navajo tribe, the dragonfly is a symbol of water, and dragonfly images frequently appear in sacred sandpaintings to represent the element of water. In Plains Indian traditions, dragonflies are symbols of protection or even invincibility, and pictures of dragonflies were often painted on war shirts and tepee covers to ward off danger and injury." (

By the time the Native peoples learned that the symbol carries by the Spanish priests was not, in fact, their dragonfly, and did not mean shared beliefs and mores, it was probably too late, and the conquest of the New World continued apace. It is, however, and interesting example of a single symbol meaning completely different things to two peoples, and a conundrum which we now face, which is it - cross or dragonfly?


Bahti, Tom
1970 Native Religions and Foreign Influences, Southwestern Indian Ceremonials, KC Publications, Las Vegas.

Native American Dragonfly Gods and Spirits, 

Ryder, Julie,


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