Dr. Juliana Barr is an associate professor in the Department of History and University of Florida Research Foundation Professor. In 2011, she held a residential fellowship at the Newberry Library in Chicago, a world-renowned independent research library founded in 1887 and focused on the humanities. Barr, who specializes in the history of early America, the Spanish Borderlands, American Indians, and women and gender, was awarded the Newberry’s prestigious Lloyd Lewis Fellowship in American History in the 2010-2011 annual competition. The fellowship allows researchers to utilize the vast collection of the Newberry Library which has strengths in a number of fields, including primary source collections in native American history, European and Western Hemisphere history, and literature and culture since the late medieval period.
Dr. Barr’s current research project is entitled “La Dama Azul (The Lady in Blue): Gender and Religion in Spanish and Indian Worlds.” This project focuses on seventeenth-century claims of supernatural events connected to María de Jesus de Ágreda, a Franciscan nun from Spain. Ágreda had religious visions and fell into trances, and during these visionary experiences claimed to appear miraculously to the distant Native Americans of the North American Southwest as a “woman in blue” in the sky. By this means, she encouraged them to seek salvation through Christianity. In particular, Barr’s research, using methods derived from anthropology, archaeology, and history, seeks a better understanding of how Spanish and native peoples perceived Ágreda’s apparitions. At the Newberry Library, she was able to consult the extensive collection of primary and secondary source material in American, American Indian, and Latin American History, which helped tremendously in advancing her work. Barr also sought out comparative information on religious interactions between Spaniards and Indian nations throughout the Americas as well as archaeological and anthropological sources that might help to explain tales of the Lady in Blue sightings within the context of indigenous belief systems. Barr explains that the reports of a Lady in Blue varied as Spaniards spread further west, and that there were significant differences among the tales told in various regions. For example in present-day Texas, the Lady in Blue was seen as a benevolent spirit, while along the current Arizona-California border the female apparition was perceived more as a demon that spoke in a strange, unknown language and evoked fear. Thus, Barr’s research asks why the perceptions of the Lady in Blue took so many forms as they reached such broad range of indigenous peoples.
Barr was in residence at the Newberry Library for six months, where the financial support, time for research, and access to primary sources from the fellowship allowed her to advance her project significantly. During her tenure at the Newberry Library, Dr. Barr was able to examine original manuscripts from the seventeenth century relating the Lady in Blue tradition. She also had the benefit of interactions and dialogue with fellow scholars of Latin American and American Indian history, who advised one another on research. This collaboration helped her reconfigure her project in important ways.
Dr. Barr’s current book project on the Lady in Blue seeks to change people’s perceptions of early America’s beginning by focusing on this legend, the historical moments that gave shape to the story, and the course of Spanish-Indian relations upon which the tale had consequential influence. Barr hopes that, “the story of María de Ágreda and her interactions with American Indians offers an equally powerful origin story for early America to rival that of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s apparition before Juan Diego in Mexico City, Squanto’s Thanksgiving with the Puritans in New England, and John Smith’s salvation by Pocahontas’s intervention in Virginia.” Along the way, she hopes that we begin to recognize more clearly that “all of North America was early America.”
If Spaniards arrived first from the south, Frenchmen arrived next from the north, and Englishmen came last from the east, the colonial narrative of that past cannot be taught simply from east to west. Thus, Barr wants to re-envision early America more continentally, because the view from all points, east and west, north and south, helps us see that early America was occupied by indigenous peoples, and that Europeans, no matter their direction, trespassed the peripheries of a vast Indian world, with multiple cores of its own, stretching from the Inuits’ Nunavut to the Yaghans’ Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. The story of the Lady in Blue helps to illuminate the western roots of the history of colonization and Christianization of the Americas.
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