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.