INDIFFERENT COMPARISONS


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“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.

THE GENERAL AND THE MADAM


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Stephen Watts Kearny was promoted to Brigadier General when the Mexican-American War broke out. He had been serving as military governor in California for a few months, but upon his promotion he gathered a force of 2,500 men and led them from Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas territory to the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kearny was a handsome,serious and youthful 52 years old at the time. He had been well-liked during his governorship, and Kearny Street in San Francisco was named for him.

The Mexican soldiers stationed in Santa Fe scattered when they heard he was coming leaving Kearny to take control of the territory. He appointed Charles Bent, an American trader living in Taos, as governor, and left for California with 300 men. He left 800 soldiers in Santa Few and sent another 800 to capture El Paso

However there was a minor problem. The payroll for the U.S. soldiers was late in arriving in Santa fe, and the soldiers weren’t getting paid.

At the same time, there was in Santa Fe a successful madam, who ran a gambling house that the American soldiers patronized. Maria Gertrudis Barcelo realized that Santa Fe under the Americans would be very good for her business.

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Her saloon, with sparkling crystal chandeliers and floors covered with European carpets, was described as running the length of a block in the center of town. Barcelo, known as La Tules, was very good at gambling. According to reports, she was always richly dressed and covered with jewelry. Some said she was beautiful, others reported that she was not so good looking, but everyone agreed there was no one better at the card game monte than she was, dealing night after night often until dawn.

She was well-known and politically connected in Santa Fe, and it was said that Kearny gave her a military escort to the Victory Ball at La Fonda Hotel. It was also said that she was the one who persuaded the Mexican governor of Santa Fe to leave and let the Americans take over the place.

When La Tules heard that the American soldiers weren’t getting paid, she lent the U.S. Army the money to take care of the payroll.

Because she heard gossip in her saloon by highly placed political figures of every make, she could also pass valuable information on to the U.S. Army. In December, 1846, she warned the Army of a Mexican-Indian conspiracy that threatened the Americans.

La Tules died a very wealthy woman and left a good part of her fortune to the church, ensuring an impressive funeral presided over by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom you will remember from Willa Cather’s fine book “Death Comes To the Archbishop.”

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A few years later, in the 1960’s, Dr. Advice with a group of colleagues, stayed at the La Fonda for two or three weeks. Twenty years later, on another visit to Santa Fe, he asked if the owner was still living, and was assured that she was on the premises and would be glad to see him. A very elderly lady emerged from the back office, and after being introduced she smiled and said “Oh you’re part of those troublemakers who stayed here twenty years ago! Of course I remember you.” She graciously paid our room tab and supplied a delicious dinner. The La Fonda is still a fine historic hotel in the middle of the Plaza. I never found out exactly what that group of youngish “troublemakers’ had done to warrant her remembrance.