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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Pueblo Rebellion

Updated: May 15, 2022

Un Sueño de Santa Fe, Agosto 1680 (A Dream of Holy Faith, August 1680) Ramón José López 2013 (detail)

"As they had been in ancient times, free from the labor they had performed for the religious and the Spaniards, who could not now be alive. He said that this is the legitimate cause and the reason they had for rebelling because they had always desired to live as they had when they came out of the lake of Copala."

Pedro Naranjo of the Queres Nation, December 1681

The Pueblo revolt of 1680 is perhaps the most successful rebellion by indigenous people in North America. The Pueblo Native Americans of what is now New Mexico rose up in an attempt to free themselves from the oppressive policies of the Spanish colonizers. They were able to drive the Spanish out of New Mexico for nearly twelve years, and even when the Spanish returned, Pueblo society did not entirely return to pre-revolt conditions. The significance and symbolism of the Pueblo rebellion have stretched across the centuries to find new meaning in today's world.

Taos Pueblo

Upon first exploring the southwestern sections of the United States, the Spanish came across Native tribes that lived in fixed locations with permanent structures. The Spanish called these "pueblo" the word used in Spain to mean village or town. The Zuni and Taos in New Mexico and the Hopi in Arizona are among the Pueblo Native Americans who trace back to the indigenous populations of the southwest. At one time, Pueblos were found throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado as represented by Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde archeological sites. Several languages were spoken indicating the Pueblos were not a unified, homogeneous group, but they did share some cultural characteristics.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led several expeditions into this part of the southwest during the mid-16th century. These were mainly privately funded commercial enterprises. He was searching for gold, spices, a trade route to the Indies, and land suitable for the establishment of large estates. Coronado ultimately did not find any of these. What he did find was a terrain that provided little in the way of supplies, and that the stories of wealth were lies. The Pueblos of western New Mexico assisted Coronado in going east to the fertile plains of the Rio Grande valley. Here, Coronado forced the Pueblo communities in the region to give him needed supplies. Some resisted and Coronado suppressed most of the dissent. Yet he did not stay long in the region and soon was returning to Mexico City.

Statue of Juan de Oñate

It would be towards the end of the 16th century before the Spanish ventured this far north again. This time they had an entirely different purpose in mind. They sought to subjugate the native populations and convert them to Catholicism. In 1598, Juan de Oñate returned to the region bringing with him settlers and Franciscan missionaries. Oñate divided the newly created province of Nuevo Mexico into seven districts. He dispatched priests to each district, and the Franciscans began the process of conversion. Utilizing a policy known as reducciones de indios, the Spanish consolidated Pueblo communities. This made it easier for them to control, tax, and convert the natives. It also created a large, concentrated labor force for the civil authorities and the clergy. There were a few Franciscan friars who tolerated the Pueblos continuing to practice their traditional religion as long as they kept up a public show of Catholicism. Most of the priests, though, were not so accepting. They were ruthless and brutal in their suppression of traditional ways.

Zuni kachina doll (Brooklyn Musuem)

They destroyed kivas, structures where religious ceremonies were performed, and sacred objects like the kachinas. Kachinas were thought to be spirits in the Pueblo belief system. The kachina was manifested by three aspects: the supernatural being itself, a dancer dressed as the kachina, and a doll fashioned after the image of the kachina. Kachina dancers and kachina dolls were and still are an integral part of religious ceremonies among the Pueblo Native Americans. Destroying a kachina was akin to the desecrating of a church for the Pueblos.

The Spanish also established the policy of ecomiendas. This was a feudal like economic system of large landed estates. The owner of the estate demanded loyalty, tribute, and forced labor from the conquered natives. Intermittently, a few of the Pueblos would revolt. But lacking unity and insufficient warriors, most of these resurrections were quashed by the Spanish. Dissidents were killed or sold off as slaves.

In December of 1598, the Acoma Pueblo decided they were not going to pay the "food tax" to the Spanish. A small contingent of Spanish soldiers was sent to Acoma to seize the food owed. When some of the Acoma women were assaulted, a fight broke out between the Acoma warriors and the Spanish. All the Spaniards were killed. Upon hearing the news, Oñate sent a larger military force, over seventy men, to Acoma.

Acoma Pueblo, ca 1900

They reached the pueblo on January 21, 1599. They encountered some resistance leading to a three day battle for the mesa on which the pueblo was located. On the third day, the Spanish reached the top of the mesa, deployed a cannon, and bombarded the pueblo. They then stormed the village. Afterward, nearly 500 Acoma warriors were dead as well as 300 women and children. Over five hundred were taken prisoner by the Spanish and suffered a brutal punishment for their defiance. Men over 25 had the toes of their right foot cut off (folklore says it was the entire foot) and enslaved for twenty years. Men between 12 and 25 along with women over 12 were also enslaved for twenty years. Sixty of the youngest females were sent to convents in Mexico City. (Though many historians believe they were sold into slavery.) The news of the Spanish atrocities rippled through the Pueblo communities from Arizona to the Rio Grande. Despite their differences, the Pueblos were connected by shared commerce, alliances, and cultural identity. The incident shocked and appalled them. The memory of the Acoma Pueblo remained among the oppressed Native American tribes.

Throughout much of the first half of the 17th century, tensions between the Spanish and the native population continued to grow. With each act of resistance came harsh punishment. Matters became worse when the Spanish brought in the Inquisition to oversee the conversion of the Pueblos. Many native religious leaders were imprisoned or killed as heretics. On top of this by the 1650s and 1660s, the region suffered from extreme drought and higher than normal temperatures. Food, water, and other resources became scarce and placed further strain on the indigenous population. Even the Spanish were affected, and they doubled their efforts to extract food and labor from the Pueblos. Famine and disease decimated many of the pueblos.

Po'pay statue, US Capital Building

In 1675, then governor of the province Juan Francisco Travino arrested over forty Pueblo leaders and religious men. He accused them of sorcery and planning on instigating a rebellion. He had four of the men sentenced to hang. The others he had publicly whipped and sold off to slavery. Seventy warriors descended upon the governor's palace in Santa Fe to demand the release of all the prisoners. Travino, his troops off fighting the Apaches, conceded to the demands. He feared starting a rebellion especially then with the Navajo and Apaches causing unrest. One of the leaders released was Po'pay of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (aka as the San Juan Pueblo). Little is known about Po'pay before his arrest. He grew up during a time of severe hardship and he probably witnessed the many ways the Spanish sought to eradicate his people's way of life. He has been described as a fierce individual who commanded a respect bordering on fear.

After his release, Po'pay sought refuge at the Taos Pueblo, then the northernmost outpost of the Spanish colonial empire. The Taos Pueblo was also known for its aggressive resistance towards the Spanish. From this base of operations, over the next five years, Po'pay began planning a rebellion with one objective: drive the Spanish from their ancestral homelands and return back to the traditional ways. Traveling to the various pueblos, Po'pay was able to overcome their differences by leveraging the shared animosity toward their colonial oppressors. He knitted together a confederation that was the nearest the pueblos had come to political unity. He garnered the support of the northern Pueblos as well as some of the Navajo and Apache. He forgoed the southern Pueblos. They were too assimilated and Po'pay questioned their allegiance.

The date of the rebellion was set for August 11, 1680. Since native people were not allowed to ride on horseback, Po'pay dispatched runners to the various pueblos. The runners had knotted cords. He instructed the pueblo leaders to undo a knot each morning. When the last know was untied, that was when they would rise up in unison against the Spanish. Each pueblo would destroy the mission church and then kill the priests and Spanish settlers. Then they would all join and march down to the capital at Santa Fe. The Spanish authorities captured two of the dispatched runners and uncovered the plot. Realizing they had been compromised, the leaders of the rebellion quickly sent word that the new date was August 10. The Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma Pueblos did not receive the new plan in time due to the great distance messengers had to travel. They would join the revolt on the day originally planned.

Petroglyph of Pueblo warriors

The pueblos rose up on August 10th. Within three days they overran many of the Spanish settlements and were heading to Santa Fe. The governor tried to rally a defense, but by August 15th, an army of 2500 Pueblo warriors had surrounded the Governor's Palace trapping nearly a thousand refugees. The Spanish were trapped for almost a week with little food and no water. Eventually, on August 21, they were able to escape Santa Fe and head southward. As they headed south, they joined up with other groups of Spanish refugees. Meanwhile, the Pueblo warriors shadowed but did not engage the fleeing Spanish. The Spanish were chased all the way down to El Paso.

Po'pay had achieved his goal: the complete expulsion of the Spanish. He set about restoring the pueblo traditional way of life and removing all evidence of the Spanish occupation. Yet Po'pay's unification of the pueblos was built on the common animosity of the Spanish. Once the Spanish were driven from northern New Mexico, that tenuous confederation began to unravel. The tribes splintered into factions once more. Some of the pueblos realized that many of the issues suffered under the Spanish were still there or worse than before. Some began to long for the return of Spanish rule.

It took twelve years for the Spanish to return back to the region. It was an almost bloodless return as many communities welcomed them back. But the Spanish return did not mean the return of the harsh and brutal rule prior to the rebellion. During those twelve years, Spain modified its policies in colonial America. For the pueblos, this meant the end of the ecomiendas, and they were allowed to retain many of their traditional practices and ceremonies. They also won back much of their autonomy. Much of this has to do with the waning of Spanish power in Europe. The Spanish now considered the territory a buffer zone. They viewed the inhabitants as allies in defending Mexico from the encroaching French and English. Of course, there would be some resistance and further revolt right up to Mexican independence in 1821.

Un Sueño de Santa Fe, Agosto 1680 (A Dream of Holy Faith, August 1680) Ramón José López 2013 (on bufalo hide)

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and its significance to Pueblo Native Americans have always been part of the history of the pueblos. Until recent decades though, it remained unknown outside the native southwest. New generations of Native Americans are rediscovering the rebellion and what it means to them. The rebellion challenges the Anglo-centric heavy history of colonial America which is focused on Plymouth and Jamestown. But the rebellion has also become even more relevant given this summer's protests against racial injustice. Statues of Juan de Onate were centers of controversy and ultimately removed by officials in New Mexico. ("Statues Of Conquistador Juan De Oñate Come Down As New Mexico Wrestles With History", NPR) Through the remembrance of the revolt, Native American rights were added to the chorus of Afro-Americans and other minorities. Our history is what it is. For good or bad, it is woven into the fabric of our nation. We can choose to gloss over it and pretend it never happened or we can allow history to inform us and help guide us to a better future for all.


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