views updated



San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico


San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico

Tewa Pueblo medicine man and political leader

Popé was a seventeenth-century revolutionary leader of the Pueblos, a Native American group in present-day New Mexico. Defying laws established by Spanish conquistadors (conquerors), Popé practiced the traditional Pueblo religion and urged Native Americans to reject Roman Catholicism. (Roman Catholicism is a branch of Christianity that is based in Rome, Italy, and headed by the pope.) Popé also advocated a return to the old Pueblo way of life that had existed before the arrival of the Spaniards. In 1680 Popé organized a revolt at Santa Fe against Spanish forces. During the siege four hundred missionaries and colonists were killed, and the Pueblos forced the survivors to flee hundreds of miles southward. The Pueblos were finally rid of the Spanish. Popé then set about removing all traces of Spanish influence: he outlawed the Spanish language, destroyed Catholic churches, and "cleansed" the people who had been baptized by missionaries. Within a decade, however, Popé's power was weakened by Apache raids, internal Pueblo dissension, and his own tyrannical (being abusive with power) rule. In 1692, less than two years after Popé's death, the Spaniards once again conquered the Pueblos.

Spanish conquest of Pueblos

In 1680 Popé organized a revolt that expelled the Spanish from New Mexico, thus ending eighty-two years of oppression that had virtually obliterated the Pueblo way of life. When the conquistadors under Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (see entry) passed through Pueblo territory between 1540 and 1542, they forced the Pueblo people from their homes. They were primarily interested in the possibility of finding gold on the land. In 1591 Don Juan de Oñate, the head of a wealthy Spanish family, established his capital at the town he called San Juan. He then ordered Native Americans to move to nearby villages. As friars (clergymen) tried to convert the Native Americans, troops searched for treasure. These actions provoked a rebellion at the Pueblo town of Acoma, where villagers threw the Spaniards over the sides of cliffs. Spanish reinforcements arrived, and in the subsequent fighting more than one thousand native warriors died. Others were tried and convicted, and their hands and feet were chopped off as punishment. Acoma women were enslaved.

After founding the capital of Santa Fe, Spanish officials demanded that Native Americans pay annual taxes in the form agricultural products or other goods in addition to providing forced labor. Some Pueblo people accepted Christianity, although traditionalists continued to resist Spanish efforts to convert them. By the 1770s droughts had begun to reduce the food supply for the growing population, and starving Apaches attacked Pueblo peoples for food. Some Native Americans feared that their old gods had been offended. In 1675 a medicine man named Popé emerged in San Juan and rallied the Pueblos against the Spanish, whom he blamed for the recent hardships and injustices.

Defies Spanish authorities

Little is known about Popé prior to 1675 (a few historians place the date around 1660), other than he had been practicing for some time as a Tewa medicine man (a priestly healer) of the San Juan Pueblo. Around 1675 he became well known for his attempts to prevent Native Americans from following the teachings of Spanish Catholic missionaries. Traveling from village to village, Popé conducted traditional Pueblo ceremonies in kivas (secret chambers) where kachinas (dancers costumed as ancestral spirits) appeared to participants. As punishment for Popé's observance of the Native American religion, the Spanish seized and enslaved his older brother. Shortly thereafter a series of droughts reduced the food supply. Starving Apaches attacked Pueblo peoples, who feared that their gods had been offended by their passive acceptance of Spanish customs and religion.

Popé announced that the droughts were caused by the Spanish friars and demanded that they leave so that rainfall would begin again. As Popé's following increased, Spanish attempts to suppress him caused a panic. In an attempt to impose order, Spanish authorities imprisoned Popé and forty-six other Native American medicine men in Santa Fe. All were charged with witchcraft (use of supernatural powers to influence events) and three were hanged. At this point the Pueblos were frantic, convinced they would die without medicine men to protect them against evil forces. Seventy Native Americans confronted the Spanish governor at Santa Fe and threatened to kill every Spaniard in New Mexico if the medicine men were not released. Finally the governor gave in and freed the prisoners. This show of weakness on the part of the Spanish only further inflamed the Native Americans.

Heads violent revolt

Soon Popé was plotting an organized rebellion. Again he traveled around New Mexico, urging chiefs and medicine men to rid the land of Spaniards and restore traditional Pueblo customs. He dramatized the anger of the gods by staging kachina dances in kivas. Although Popé had substantial support, he knew many Native Americans remained loyal to the Spaniards. Therefore he decreed that any informers would be put to death. To show that he would keep his word he had his brother-in-law executed for spying for the Spanish. By 1680 Popé had formed a tribal alliance and set August 11 as the date for a general revolt. To guard against news of the plan reaching the Spanish, he sent a signal to his most trusted allies—cords that had been tied into knots representing the number of days remaining until August 11. To less trustworthy followers Popé sent cords with knots indicating that August 13 was the day of the planned rebellion. Predictably, the Spanish heard about the August 13 date, but by then the Pueblos had already launched their assault.

Eyewitness account of Pueblo revolt

The Spaniards were so shocked by the Pueblo revolt of 1680 that they collected testimony from Native Americans about the reasons for the rebellion. Excerpted below is the eyewitness account of Don Pedro Nanboa, an elderly Alameda Pueblo who had observed Native resistance to the Spanish for several years. Nanboa's story was recorded through a translator by Spanish official Antonio de Otertmín.

. . . Having been asked his name and of what place he is a native, his condition, and age, he said that his name is Don Pedro Nanboa, that he is a native of the pueblo of Alameda, a widower, and somewhat more than eighty years of age. Asked for what reason the Indians of this kingdom have rebelled, forsaking their obedience to his Majesty and failing in their obligation as Christians, he said that for a long time, because the Spaniards punished sorcerers and idolaters, the nations of the Teguas, Taos, Pecurfes, Pecos, and Jemez had been plotting to rebel and kill the Spaniards and the religious, and that they had been planning constantly to carry it out, down to the present occasion. . . . that what he has heard is that the Indians do not want religious or Spaniards. Because he is so old, he was in the cornfield when he learned from the Indian rebels who came from the sierra that they had killed the Spaniards of the jurisdiction and robbed all their haciendas [homes], sacking their houses. Asked whether he knows about the Spaniards and religious who were gathered in the pueblo of La Isleta, he said. . . . that they set out to leave the kingdom with those of the said pueblo of La Isleta and the Spaniards—not one of whom remained—taking along their property. The Indians did not fight with them because all the men had gone with the other nations to fight at the villa and destroy the governor and captain-general and all the people who were with him. He declared that the resentment which all the Indians have in their hearts has been so strong, from the time this kingdom was discovered, [by the Spanish] because the religious and the Spaniards took away their idols and forbade their sorceries and idolatries; that they have inherited successively from their old men the things pertaining to their ancient customs; and that he has heard this resentment spoken of since he was of an age to understand. . . .

Antonio de Otertmín

Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1993, p. 46.

Erases Spanish influence

The coordinated attacks were highly successful. Within a few days, the entire Spanish community had retreated to Santa Fe. After several days of fierce fighting the Pueblos burned Santa Fe to the ground. They killed four hundred settlers and forced the survivors to flee southward hundreds of miles to El Paso (a present-day city in Texas). New Mexico was now totally under control of the Pueblos. Popé ordered that every trace of the Spanish culture be erased. He banned the Spanish language and the Christian religion, and he required converts to be ritually cleansed of their sins with yucca (a plant with long fibrous leaves on a woody base and large white blossoms) suds. Within a short time all evidence of the Spanish presence had vanished. Nevertheless Popé eventually lost the support of his followers, who had become accustomed to European trade goods. More significantly, he was an unwise and unjust ruler, resorting to abuses of power and becoming as brutal as the conquistadors. In addition, the Pueblos were attacked by Apaches, who seized their horses and brought them into contact with other Native cultures. After Popé died sometime around 1690, Pueblo unity eroded. In 1692 the Spanish returned in force and reasserted their authority in the Southwest.

For further research

Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas. Newport Beach, Calif: American Indian Publishers, 1991, pp. 560–61.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1993, p. 46.

"Popé." http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/wpages/wpgs400/w4pope.htm Available July 13, 1999.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Profiles: Cultural Identity through Centuries of Change. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1995.