“The Old Arrow Maker” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

The stories of our state’s Native Americans and those of New Mexico have intriguing similarities. I have been writing about the Indians of the Southwest for some time without comparing the histories of the local people.

Santa Fe became a capital city 200 years before Washington, D.C. was founded. The Spanish stared colonizing New Mexico 100 years before California. Native Americans still make up almost 10 percent of the population of New Mexico, while in California less than 2 percent are listed as Native Americans.

Although the two states became part of the United States at the same time, it took New Mexico 62 years longer to achieve statehood.

The arrival of Europeans was disastrous to both states’ Native Americans. The white man’s diseases—measles, smallpox, and diphtheria—killed thousands.

California Indians were gatherers and hunters. When they had exhausted the resources of a place, they burned their rough wooden structures and moved on. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico were farmers who grew corn, squash and beans. They built permanent houses of adobe in villages that had been in the same place for 1,000 years.

The mission system in New Mexico was very different, but still cruel in its attempt to eradicate the ancient culture by destroying sacred artifacts and forcing a foreign religion on a deeply spiritual people. One priest boasted he had burned many sacred Indian masks.

The Pueblo Indians knew how to grow things. The Spanish conquerors demanded a tithe and confiscated many of their crops.

When the Spanish missionaries arrived in California, there were 300,000 Indians. By the time the United States took over in 1848, 150,000 were left. The great influx of people with the Gold Rush sounded a death knell for those remaining. By 1900, thee were 15,000.

There are 19 self-governing Pueblo nations in New Mexico, where Native Americans keep their culture, traditions and language. Most villages speak a variety of the root languages Tiwa or Tewa.

How did they manage to preserve their heritage? Perhaps it was because of charismatic leader Po’Pay, who brought together the different factions of his people to revolt against the tyrannical rule of the Franciscan priests and Spanish rulers. The Pueblo Indians—armed with bows and arrows—drove out their Spanish conquerors—whose soldiers had guns and metal armor—in 1680.

Drought and the Apaches hit the pueblos in the 1670’s and Po’Pay took up residence in Taos and plotted the rebellion among the 46 Pueblo towns in the Rio Grande valley. In the Acoma Massacre the Spanish killed and enslaved hundreds. Twenty-four men had a foot amputated when trying to escape from the “mile-high” city atop the mesa.

To spread the word among the villages he gave a knotted cord to runners sent to all Pueblos. Each day a knot was untied until the final knot which would signal the people to rise up against the Spanish. After the revolt survivors fled to Santa Fe and Isleta which was 10 miles south, and which did not participate in the rebellion. All the Spanish fled to El Paso.

For 12 years, the Pueblos were independent. In 1692, the Spanish regained control of the Pueblos, but this time they were more accommodating, allowing the Pueblos to keep their own spiritual practices as long as they also followed Catholicism.

As an interesting aside, in one or two villages the Franciscans paved a small area in front of the entrance to the churches, ostensibly to “make a better place for the Indians to perform ceremonial dances”. This however, removed the direct connection of their feet to Mother Earth, so they did not use the architectural improvement.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.


  1. Interesting history including the cruelty of man. Much the same happened and still is happening here in Australia. I just loved that the entrance to the churches paved with stone were avoided… Great water colour. Thank you.


  2. It seems the cruelty of man abounds wherever we look. I guess it has ever been so.
    Another fun thing the “Anglos” did for the Indians is to dig a well at Acoma about 60-70 years ago. As I mentioned Acoma is at the top of a high mesa and prior to recent history the only access was to climb the mountain. No road up. The Indians took great offense at the digging of the well and blew it up. You don’t dig holes in Mother Earth. My friends Emmett and Georgia Oliver were teaching in the village at that time. They had some great stories.

    Glad you liked the painting. Thanks Gerard.


  3. It’s funny. Despite being exposed to the work of assorted watercolorists, there’s still something inside me that equates watercolor with pastels. I’m always startled to see a piece like “The Old Arrow Maker,” with its strong lines and vibrant colors, done in watercolor.

    It’s a wonderful piece. A sense of amusement is palpable. I have a feeling he’s seen a good bit, has judged most of it, and doesn’t consider himself lacking in any good thing.

    The histories of “civilization meets the tribe” are pretty interesting, no matter where they occur. And memories are long. In a traditional society, saying “Oh, well… that happened a hundred years ago” just doesn’t cut it. We’re the ones with attention spans shorter than a flea’s.


    1. Though I admire traditional watercolors with their ethereal quality, I seem to have always liked the feel of more depth of color. I do paint with oil and sometimes acrylic, I love the look of watercolor sliding into a wetness on the paper. The old Masters could do it, so I obviously have a lot to learn.

      You got the same feeling I had with the old man. “Don’t tangle with me–I’ve already been there.” Lots of them have that look. Indians have long memories!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Another wonderful painting, Kayti! I have been to Acoma and have always remembered this story:

    In Acoma, a drunken Spanish Priest killed a young servant boy ostensibly for spilling turkey grease over the priest’s robes. The people of Acoma retaliated by throwing the priest off the 357 foot high mesa.


    1. Talk about coincidences—Dr. Advice is rereading “Death Comes For the Archbishop”, and mentioned that incident in the book just last night! My first visit to Acoma was in 1966 with my friend Georgia Oliver. There was to be a dance, and we drove up the mountain to see it. Two or three Indians positioned along the road with rifles stopped us and we were told to return the next day. Being an Indian didn’t hold water unless you were from Acoma. Now there is a bus which takes tourists up to the top and it has become a bit commercial–as everything does.


      1. The reason I wanted to go to New Mexico in the first place was reading “The Professor’s House”. I visited Acoma in about 1990, so it was already commercial compared to when you were there. I bought a couple of lovely little pots.


  5. I saw “The Professor’s House” t Half Price Books yesterday! That’s one of Cather’s we don’t have so I’ll buy it tomorrow. As a potter, you know I love pots and we have lots collected through 50 years, not only Native American and my own and my potter family, but whenever I see one I can’t leave behind! Books and pots are going to drive us out of this house one day. I’m glad it’s a fairly large house.


    1. I found the first part of “The Professor’s House” a bit slow, but I’m glad I stayed with it. Books are a lovely thing to fill a house with. I always have to think about what John Kennedy Jr. said when his mother died: “She was surrounded by her friends and family and her books and the people and the things that she loved.”


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