San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh)

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San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh)


San Juan Pueblo (pronounced sahn HWAHN PWEB-loh). The Spanish term “pueblo,” which means “town,” refers to both the Pueblo people and the pueblos (cities) where they live. In the Tewa language of the San Juan people, their pueblo is called Oke Owinge. In 1598 the Spanish gave it the name San Juan Bautista (sometimes also called San Juan de los Caballeros) in honor of St. John the Baptist, a Christian saint. In November 2005 the people changed their pueblo’ name back to their original, pre-Spanish name of Ohkay Owingeh, meaning “place of the strong people.” In addition to the common name, the pueblo also has a ceremonial name, which means “village of the dew-bedecked corn structure.”


The San Juan Pueblo, a federal reservation of more than 2,000 acres, is located 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Santa Fe in north-central New Mexico, northeast of where the Rio Grande River meets the Rio Chama.


In 1680 there were an estimated three hundred San Juan Pueblo. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 1,081 people identified themselves as San Juan Pueblo. Although the 2000 census showed a total of 6,748 people living on the reservation, only 1,438 people in the United States classified themselves as San Juan Pueblo. Statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs indicated there were 2,723 members of the San Juan tribe in 2001.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

San Juan oral history traces the tribe’s origin to a land in the North where the first people emerged from beneath a lake. From this place the people migrated to the Rio Grande, the river that separates Mexico from the United States at the Texas border and stretches throughout central New Mexico. There they eventually created seven pueblo communities, of which six still exist.

The San Juan Pueblo’s closest allies have always been the other Tewa-speaking communities of Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambé, Pojoaque, and Tesuque. The six groups share a common ancestry and similar mythologies and customs. The San Juan also had mostly friendly relations with the other pueblos in New Mexico and with the Jicarilla (pronounced hee-kah-REE-yah) Apache.

The people of San Juan, the northernmost of the pueblos containing Tewa speakers, called their pueblo the “Mother Village.” They have lived and cultivated crops on the reservation’s flat farmlands for at least seven hundred years. The San Juan group has carefully adopted parts of the white culture that are most useful to them while maintaining the most meaningful of their traditional ways.


Spanish persecution

The Tewa-speaking peoples first made contact with Europeans in 1541 when men from the Spanish expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554) traveled through the area looking for food. Fearful of these strangers, the people retreated to easily defended villages in the mountains. In 1591 Don Juan de Oñate (1552–1626) and his group made their way to the lands of the Tewa-speaking people to establish a permanent Spanish settlement.

Throughout the seventeenth century the people of San Juan and other pueblos endured religious persecution at the hands of Spanish Catholics and were forced to work for the benefit of Spanish settlers. This oppressive situation sparked a spirit of revolution among the Natives that fueled the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (see Pueblo entry). One of the leaders of the rebellion was a San Juan man named Popé (died 1692).

Important Dates

  • 1541: Spanish expedition headed by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado enters Tewa territory.
  • 1591: Spanish colonization of Pueblo land begins.
  • 1680: The Pueblo Revolt pushes the Spanish from the area for 12 years.
  • 1846–48: Mexican-American War is fought; San Juan lands become part of U.S. territory.
  • 1924: Pueblo Lands Act reduces size of San Juan reservation.
  • 2005: The tribe changes its name back to its original, pre-Spanish name of Ohkay Owingeh.

Alliances with the Spanish

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was one of the most dramatic victories against white settlement in Native American history, but it drove the Spanish from the region for only 12 years. The rebellion failed to bring the peace and prosperity sought by the people of the pueblos. Drought, famine, and attacks by the Apache (see entry) compounded problems. In time the alliances among the San Juan and other Natives that had been formed during the revolt weakened.

The Spanish returned to the area in 1692, but this time some of their leaders took an attitude of greater tolerance and moderation. Because San Juan was centrally located for the Spanish, it became a religious and trade center for the area. Throughout the 1700s the Pueblo peoples and Spanish settlers supported one another in the face of attacks by Native American raiders like the Apache and the Comanche (see entry). Sometimes the Spanish and the people of the pueblos held joint ceremonies to celebrate their victories in battle, and in this way their friendship was cemented.

Facing U.S. expansion

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 members of the San Juan Pueblo were given Mexican citizenship. About 25 years later, following the Mexican-American War (1846-48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States), the territory of San Juan was made part of the United States. Like other pueblos, the San Juan had to face settlers claiming their land in an ever-expanding United States.

The San Juan Pueblo was made a reservation in 1858. The U.S. government claimed it recognized the rights of the San Juan to their homelands, but its actions over time proved otherwise. For example, the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 reduced the size of the San Juan reservation from 17,544 acres to 12,234 acres. And, over the course of the twentieth century, the land and water rights of the San Juan were the subject of a number of disputes. In 1995 the governor of New Mexico appointed a Special Assistant on Indian Water Resources to settle water rights issues without costly legal battles. By the early 2000s state funds were available for providing water to reservations.


Traditional San Juan religious beliefs are linked to all aspects of everyday life. In fact, there is no Tewa word for “religion”; native religious practices are simply known as the “Indian way.”

The whole tribe takes part in ceremonial dances, prayer retreats, and games, which are all considered important spiritual events. The San Juan use ceremonies and rituals to thank the Creator for good fortune and to ask for his blessings.

Highly honored groups within the tribe are called sodalities (pronounced soh-DAL-uh-teez). Members of sodalities organize and carry out the major social and religious rituals of the San Juan people. Tribal members who are accepted into these high-level sodalities are known as the Pa Towa or “Made People.”

Most modern-day San Juan people are Roman Catholic, but they typically combine their Christian faith with important aspects of the traditional tribal religion. For example, marriage ceremonies and naming/baptism ceremonies have both Catholic and Native elements, and the celebration of the Catholic San Antonio’s Day (St. Anthony’s Day; June 13) features a traditional Corn Dance.

Don’t Believe What People Tell You

One day Rabbit Boy was nibbling on some nice green plants. He was so busy nibbling that he did not notice Fox Man creeping up on him. Fox grinned at Rabbit Boy. “What a coincidence. I was just thinking how nice it would be to have a fine, fat, juicy rabbit for dinner, and here you are. This is my lucky day.”

Fox was about to leap upon Rabbit Boy and eat him up, but Rabbit Boy stopped him. “Wait a minute, friend, not so fast. Don’t you know that it is very unhealthy to eat rabbits without having a drink of water first?”

“I guess I forgot it,” said the Fox Man. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“The brook is right over here,” said Rabbit Boy.

While Fox Man was slurping up water, Rabbit Boy quickly picked up a big round stone, as heavy as he could lift it. Fox Man had just about finished drinking, but before he could turn around, Rabbit Boy told him: “Dear friend, if you close your eyes and open your mouth wide, I’ll jump right in and save you the trouble of bending over and picking me up.”

“You are really very considerate,” said Fox. “I am almost sorry for making a meal of you, but as you know, one has to eat.”

“Certainly, one has to eat,” said Rabbit Boy.

Fox Man was sitting up, his eyes closed and his mouth wide open, waiting for his treat, and Rabbit Boy threw the big round stone down Fox Man’s throat. The stone knocked out all of Fox Man’s teeth. The stone was stuck in his throat. Fox Man was choking, sputtering, struggling, trying to cough up the stone.

“You don’t have to always believe what people tell you, such as it being unhealthy to eat rabbits without drinking water first,” said Rabbit Boy as he was running away.

Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Viking, 1998.


The San Juan people speak a dialect (variety) of the Tewa language, part of the Tanoan language family. Tewa speakers originally spoke several languages and could communicate with the other pueblos and neighboring tribes. But when the Spanish took charge of the area, the San Juan began using the Spanish language as their primary means of communication. English later replaced Spanish as the tribe’s main language.

Some Native children continue to learn Tewa at home, but doing so has become increasingly difficult. The population of Tewa speakers is aging, and most grandparents no longer live in the same house with their grandchildren. The youngest generation of San Juan Indians is therefore not exposed to the Native language on a regular basis. To remedy this, all children at the Ohkay Owingeh Community School (grades K–8) are being taught Tewa.


Unlike most other Native American tribes, the San Juan government operates with no constitution. Three types of government leaders are in place: civil (nonreligious) officers, tribal religious leaders, and officers of the Catholic Church.

The civil government dates back to the time of Spanish rule in the early 1600s. It includes a governor, two lieutenant governors, a sheriff, and a tribal council. Officers are appointed to one-year terms by the tribal religious leaders, but they may serve an unlimited number of terms. The tribal council is composed of the serving governor, lieutenant governors, a sheriff, all former governors, and the heads of the religious societies of the village. Active religious leaders select other officers, as well as civil and Catholic officers. A tribal court was established in 1976. In the early twenty-first century San Juan served as the headquarters of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council.


The emergence of wage labor

For centuries the San Juan people relied mostly on farming, cattle raising, and trade to make their living. All members of the community once shared farming efforts and crops, but in modern times working for wages has become more common.

In 1965 a tribal program was introduced to help the pueblo gain federal funding for construction projects. Since then they have constructed a youth center, a senior center, a tribal office, a tribal court, a warehouse, and a post office. The tribe’s bingo facility provides modest profits and employment for tribal members. Among the other facilities owned by the tribe are a service station, the Blue Rock Office Complex, and a variety of service and tourism businesses. Some mining of sand, gravel, and adobe (pronounced uh-DOE-bee; a sun-dried mud made of a mixture of clay, sand, and sometimes ashes, rocks, or straw) building materials adds to the tribe’s income.

Growth in arts, tourism, professions

Locally produced art of all kinds is on display at the Oke Owinge Artisan’s Cooperative, a business that offers art classes and workshops, as well as a studio, gallery, and shop space. More than one hundred Native potters earn at least part of their income from the sales of San Juan pottery, which has earned the praise of art experts. The Okhay Casino Resort offers Las Vegas style gaming action and brings the pueblo additional income. Ceremonial dances attract visitors to the pueblo throughout the year, although the San Juan people also hold dances that are not open to the public.

By the start of the twenty-first century a growing number of San Juan people were graduating from high school, attending college, and working in business, health care, various fields of science, and tribal government.

Planning for the future

The San Juan Agricultural Cooperative formed in 1992 to bring farming back to pueblo lands. At that time the tribe had about two thousand acres of farmland, but only two hundred acres was being used. This co-op, along with Sandia National Laboratories, installed a solar oven on the pueblo. Capable of baking forty loaves of bread at once or of drying large quantities of food, the oven is intended to take the place of the horno, the large traditional wood-fired oven the community has always used. In addition to saving fuel, which is scarce, the oven encouraged greater crop growth for preservation and increased sales of prepackaged foods under its brand name of Pueblo Harvest Foods.

In 2000 the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo initiated a variety of programs for community planning and economic growth. Their Master Land Use Plan presented designs for housing and retail/commercial buildings using traditional-style architecture. In 2003 they completed the first project: a forty-unit development that included a community center and a mix of full-price homes and low-income housing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2004 awarded them the Small Communities Smart Growth Achievement Award. Since then the pueblo has continued to move forward with their long-term planning for economic growth and expansion.

In 2007 the state of New Mexico approved $1 million in funding to improve the Ohkay Owingeh airport. In addition to expanding the airport from a landing strip to a commercial airport, the money was also channeled into upgrading the industrial park and making hangar space available for tenants.

Daily life


The San Juan Pueblo once consisted of two-story adobe structures built around public squares. Individual two- to four-room homes shared common walls to form adjoining “apartments.” Because the buildings were made of bricks of mud, the village blended in with its surroundings and was only visible from a few hundred feet away, making it more difficult for enemies to find and attack.

Much of this original pueblo still exists, although the second stories have disappeared. Maintaining the village is an expensive proposition, and many modern-day families live in American-style homes or trailers. During the 1950s and 1960s a relocation program moved some San Juan people to various western cities, but within twenty to thirty years many of these families moved back to the pueblo. By the late 1990s a program was launched to renovate (fix up) the adobe homes around the pueblo’s central square, and families continued to occupy the old village during ceremonial periods.

Clothing and adornment

Although most San Juan people now wear modern dress, the tribe maintains traditional ceremonial costumes. Large headdresses worn by the men for the Deer Dance are made of a fan of painted split cane, antlers, and turkey feathers. Cotton leggings complete the outfit. Women wear lavishly embroidered dresses with woven belts.


The tribe’s thousands of acres of fertile, well-watered land have been cultivated for centuries. The San Juan people raised corn, beans, squash, and chilies and made use of wild plant foods such as asparagus, mint, and amaranth, an edible plant with colorful leaves and tassel-like flowers They also collected pine nuts from the surrounding hills and mountains.

The Spanish introduced many new crops to San Juan—wheat, melons, apricots, apples, and onions among them. At first these crops were grown merely to trade with the Spanish, but in time they became staples of the San Juan Pueblo diet. Likewise, exposure to the Spanish led the San Juan to begin raising livestock such as goats, sheep, cows, horses, chickens, and pigs. These animals provided the tribe with a new source of meat and proved useful for plowing, harvesting, and transportation.

During the 1990s residents and returning retirees began to do more farming at San Juan. Additional crops now raised on the pueblo include a variety of vegetables, chilies, alfalfa, and orchard fruit. The tribe owns about fifty head of cattle.

Pueblo Oven Bread

In the pueblos, this bread is baked in outdoor ovens called hornos. This recipe has been adapted for indoor home ovens.

  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 1/2 tablespoon shortening [or lard]
  • 1/4 cup honey or sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Mix well and set aside.

Combine lard [or shortening], honey and salt in large bowl. Add 1 cup hot water and stir well. When mixture cools to room temperature, mix well with yeast mixture.

Add 4 cups of four, stirring well after each cup.

Spread 1 cup of flour on cutting board and place dough upon it. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic (about 15 minutes). Put dough in large bowl, cover with cloth and put in warm place until dough doubles in bulk.

Turn dough onto floured surface again and knead well. Divide dough into two equal parts. Shape each into loaves or rounds.

Place the loaves on well-greased cookie sheet, cover with cloth and allow to double [in size] in warm place. Put into preheated 350-degree oven and bake until lightly browned (about 1 hour). Use oven’s middle rack and place a shallow pan of water on the bottom of the oven.

“Pueblo Oven Bread.” Traditional Native American Recipes. (accessed on August 11, 2007)


At a very early age San Juan children learn the importance of responsible behavior. Formal schooling starts at the preschool level, with three- and four-year-olds attending a Head Start program; in 2007 eighty children had enrolled in this program. There are two grade schools on the reservation. Students can also attend a public school or one operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Junior and senior high school students may attend public schools in several nearby towns or the boarding school in Santa Fe.

In 1996 the tribe established The Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh Department of Education to oversee their students’ schooling. Some of the projects they implemented included getting grants to install high-speed Internet in the reservation schools and in many homes, providing scholarships to college-bound students, holding leadership institutes, paying for students to attend conferences, and overseeing the education of pueblo students.

In the early twenty-first century the Ohkay Owingeh Community School (OOCS) provides students in grades K–8 with a traditionally based curriculum. The school’s motto is “Don’t teach me my culture, use my culture to teach me!” In keeping with this philosophy, children learn to speak their native language, Tewa. The school also offers summer programs taught by tribal elders to pass on such traditional skills as pottery-making, farming, and cooking as well as academic subjects and arts appreciation.

Healing practices

Traditional San Juan believed that illnesses were caused by evil spirits or witches called chuge. People often used charms to protect themselves from harm and disease.

In early times members of the Bear Medicine Society were responsible for curing the sick. Modern-day San Juan people obtain health care at a hospital in Santa Fe. A community health program on the pueblo offers some services, and the New Moon Lodge provides treatment for alcohol abuse.



Since ancient times the San Juan people have divided the physical world into three parts. The first part is comprised of the village and adjoining areas, which belong to the women and are marked by four sacred objects indicating the directions north, south, east, and west. The second part is made up of the mesas (pronounced MAY-sas; a Spanish word meaning “tables”). Mesas are large hills with steep sides and flat tops. They surround San Juan Pueblo and are open to men, women, and children, but they are under male authority. The third part of the physical world is the outside world (beyond the mesas). Belonging solely to the men of the tribe, the outside world is the place where they hunt, defend their people when necessary, and seek spiritual guidance.

Childhood and adult rites

The San Juan people observe a series of rituals to bring a child into the community. A “water-giving” rite makes the child a member of a moiety (see “Moieties”) during the first year of life. A “water-pouring” rite takes place between ages six and nine. An initiation rite officially accepts an adolescent into the Tewa religion. Other rites are associated with sex, marriage, community offices, and membership in various groups.


Every San Juan family belongs to one of two social groups known as moieties (pronounced MOY-uh-teez). Membership in the Winter and Summer moieties determines the roles played by individuals in religious, political, and economic matters of the pueblo. For example, the annual schedule of religious dances is divided between the moieties. Winter events are usually associated with hunting and trade, while summer rituals are related to farming and gathering wild plant foods.


In the early twenty-first century the pueblo houses the Oke-Oweenge Crafts Cooperative, where artists from the eight northern pueblos sell their wares. Most of the Jemez craftspeople are known for their redware pottery. They create these distinctive pieces from clay native to the pueblo. The artists cut geometric pattern into each vessel. When the pieces are fired, they have an inner glow and luster that make them unique. Other craftspeople also do weaving, painting, stone and wood carvings, and jewelry-making.


During the 1700s, when the Spanish and the pueblo people were on friendly terms, festive dances were held to celebrate their victories over raiding tribes of Native Americans. The dances were called Scalp Dances or Chief Dances. At these events a male dancer dressed up as a chief; a female dancer followed him as he danced. The family of the male dancer gave a variety of gifts to the female dancer, and baskets full of household goods and fruit were tossed into the crowd. Other couples followed them, also dancing and distributing gifts to give thanks for their warriors’ safe return.

Buffalo, Animal, and Deer Dances are still held each February in the San Juan Pueblo, and each one is regarded as a significant occasion. The Deer Dance, for example, is performed to assure prosperity for the coming year. Deer dancers often poke fun at Apache-type hunters, stalking the other dancers and pretending to hunt them down with sunflower-stalk arrows. Clowns are major features at other dances held throughout the year.

Additional San Juan celebrations include the June feast days of San Antonio and San Juan and the Harvest Dances in September. The Turtle Dance is an important winter ceremony, marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next. In December the Matachine dance, which depicts Spanish oppression, is held. Some festivities are open only to tribal members, and certain aspects of the celebrations are kept secret.

Current tribal issues

Maintaining the tribe’s centuries-old right to water is a critical issue at San Juan. Water is needed for farming and for the development of projects like the San Juan Tribal Lakes Recreation Area, which attracts tourists and provides funds for the tribe. At the end of the twentieth century the state of New Mexico was seeking legal means to limit tribal water rights. In 2007 the Ten Southern Pueblos Council endorsed legislation to provide $10 million for Native American water rights settlements, greater education and health care opportunities, more substance abuse programs, and a minimum wage increase. Their efforts were backed by Jemez Pueblo Governor Raymond Gachupin, chairman of the group.

A proud and honorable people, the San Juan are increasingly concerned about the way their culture has been portrayed by outsiders. Since the late 1800s many scholars have visited the pueblo and later published articles about the tribe’s “dying way of life.” The San Juan object to the nature of such commentary and are making efforts to review and approve the content of future articles.

Notable people

Popé (died 1692) was born at San Juan, but moved to the Taos Pueblo during the 1670s. In 1680, he led the most successful Native American uprising in United States history. His forces drove the Spanish from New Mexico and worked to return the Pueblo to their earlier religion and traditions. After his death the Spanish reconquered Pueblo lands, but they were never again as strong a force as they had been

Alfonso Alex Ortiz (1939–1997), an author, received his PhD from the University of Chicago and went on to teach anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Ortiz’s works include American Indian Myths and Legends,New Perspectives on the Pueblos,North American Indian Anthropology, and The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society.

Esther Martinez (1912–2006), author and storyteller, received many awards. In 1996 she was named a Living Treasure of New Mexico; in 1999 the National Congress of American Indians chose her Woman of the Year; and in 1999 New Mexico honored her for her contributions to the arts. Her books include The San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary,The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote, and My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez.

Agoyo, Herman, and Joe S. Sando, eds. Po’pay: Leader of the First American Revolution. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishing, 2005.

Goodman, Linda, J. “San Juan.” Native America in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, and Josephine Binford, eds. My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Ortiz, Alfonso. “San Juan Pueblo.” Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 9: Southwest. Ed. Alfonso Ortiz. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1979.

Ortiz, Alfonso. The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Peaster, Lillian. Pueblo Pottery Families: Acoma, Cochiti, Hopi, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni. Lancaster, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2003.

Roberts, David. The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1992

Sweet, Jill D. Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians: Expressions of New Life. Santa Fe, NM: School Of American Research Press, 2004

Wallace, Susan E. The Land of the Pueblos. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2006.

“Ohkay Owingeh Community School.” Department of Education: San Juan Pueblo. (accessed on August 11, 2007).

“San Juan Pueblo Pottery.” ClayHound Web. (accessed on August 11, 2007).

“San Juan Puelbo O’Kang.” Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. (accessed on August 11, 2007).

Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards

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San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh)

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