The Pueblo Rebellion (1680)

The people of Acoma Pueblo had suffered greatly at the hand of the Spanish almost 400 years ago. In a battle against the Acoma Indians on January 22, 1599, the Spaniards lost 12 men while killing more than 800 Indians. To further subdue the insurgents, Oñate ordered a foot cut off every male 25 years and over in the pueblo. Males between the ages of 12 and 25 were sentenced to 20 years of hard labor.

Although the Spanish government eventually tried and punished Oñate for this atrocity, many of the native peoples up and down the Rio Grande did not forget their treatment by him and other Spanish colonizers. After 80 years of forced labor and the destruction of their way of life in the 17th century, the various northern pueblos rebelled, driving the Spanish south in the famous Pueblo Revolt.

When the first Spanish explorers discovered the Pueblo Indians of present-day New Mexico, they found thriving tribes with rich cultures. The Pueblo Indians had come a long way from their hunting and gathering ancestors. They had learned the art of agriculture from the peoples of Mexico centuries before and planted much of their own food. Hunting had also become an easier task with the introduction of the bow and arrow by the Mogollon tribe.

The natives had learned to make their homes out of mud, forming it into any shape, building one-and two-story structures. They lived in small, tightly-knit communities, sharing culture and sometimes language, but each pueblo remained independent. Because of their way of life, the Spanish named them ” Pueblo,” meaning “town.” They lived their “religion” daily, for their gods were to be found in every aspect of their life.

Although early explorers such as Coronado had encountered these Indians and the Indians had suffered loss of life, they received Oñate’s expedition in apparent friendship. Historian Robert Silverberg says, even so, Oñate “claimed himself the master of domain” of Pueblo tribes all the way to El Paso.

Oñate forced the natives to provide food and other supplies for the Spaniards, while they destroyed all outward evidence of native worship, including the underground kivas where rituals were performed. The Indians had to convert to Christianity or become refugees in their own land. Indian leaders who promoted native religion were sought out and killed.

The friars taught Christian doctrine to the Indians who, in order to “thank” their oppressors, had to build missions under the watchful eye of the Spanish. Historian Randy Eickhoff writes that the natives then had to attend these same churches and be punished for various religious infractions by being publicly whipped and enslaved and their leaders hanged.

Indian slaves were sold in Spain, orphans in converted pueblos were seized to be used as house servants and all was excused under the guise of saving the souls of these people from eternal damnation. The Indian populations were drastically reduced by hostilities, famine, force labor and epidemics of diseases that the Europeans had brought with them.

An incident in 1675 served as the compelling motivation for the big Pueblo rebellion. The Spanish arrested 47 medicine men, publicly whipping them and hanging four in the plaza of Santa Fe. In the group of the survivors was one man who had enough of the Spaniards’ cruel injustices and would become their worst adversary. His name was Popé (pronounced Po-PAY).

Popé, whose name meant “Ripe Squash,” was born a Tewa Indian in the village of Grinding Stone in the San Juan Pueblo across the Rio Grande from the early New Mexico capital of San Gabriel. As a child, Popé was especially interested in the Tewa medicine men and their healing abilities. He participated in three ritual ceremonies that all Tewa children must perform to be inducted into adulthood.

Popé decided to become one of these wise men, an extremely hard task to accomplish. Trainees had to go through years of intense training, acquiring vast amounts of knowledge of their people, rituals, customs and dances. Medicine men were the most knowledgeable members of their tribe. Popé early gained a reputation as an especially mystical, highly intelligent medicine man. He knew that only extreme action could rid the Pueblos of the Spanish who now ruled them.

Popé started devising a plan that took many years to put together. He told of a dream he had in which three Indians shooting fire out of their bodies appeared to him and gave him the idea of the revolt and helped him plan it. Popé convinced leaders from several pueblos to help with the secret plans.

Because the Pueblos spoke different languages, historians conjecture that Popé used drawings on deerskin representing the method of attack against the Spanish. He sent to every village cords with knots in them representing the number of days left before the revolt. The plan was to go into effect August 11, 1680. However, the Indians moved up the date of the attack to August 10 and surprised the Spanish, killing many and driving the rest south and east, where they would be trapped by other Pueblos.

Unfortunately, the messenger with the news of the surprise assault had not arrived at the Isleta Tigua Pueblo, and the Spanish were able to overtake this site. In Santa Fe, the Spanish were effectively defeated, left with no water and with the road south blocked by their Indian foes who burned everything Spanish. New Mexico governor Otermín was compelled to bargain with Popé, who allowed the Spaniard and about 100 soldiers to retreat south.

Historians disagree on what happened at the Isleta Pueblo. Some have suggested that the Isleta Tiguas had refused to join the rebellion. Others say that because the Spanish had been able to take over the pueblo, they took hostages south with them to insure their own arrival. In any case, the first Tiguas began their trek south where they would be forced to establish a new home, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.

A year later, Otermín and his men returned to the north, destroying crops, setting fire to several pueblos, and killing many Indians. The Spanish also brought back another group of Isleta Tigua hostages to Ysleta.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was a great victory for the Indians, but it was short-lived. Popé made himself governor of the Pueblos and became very demanding of them. Arguments evolved. And the unity of the villages dissolved. The pueblos furthermore were continuing to suffer from a long-time drought. Food was scarce and many starved. By the time Popé died in 1688, the pueblos were weaker than ever. The Indians suffered for 12 years, and in 1692, Diego de Vargas and his expedition reconquered Santa Fe. One of Popé’s lieutenants, Tapatu, even embraced de Vargas, thinking life would improve under new Spanish authority.

For at least a few years, however, the Pueblos had lived without the tyranny of the Spanish. But the pueblo Revolt caused a split in the tribes which has never healed.

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