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The Southwest

The Southwest

The origins of the Southwest Indians are far-reaching, spanning two continents and many centuries. The term “Southwest Indians” refers to North American Native groups living in the American Southwest (present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas) and in the region that is now northern Mexico. These groups include, among others, the Hopi and Zuñi—Pueblo Indians of Arizona whose roots and language can be traced to Mexico and Central America—and the Navajo and Apache peoples—Athabaskan speakers from the Northeast who began migrating to the Southwest around 1000 ce . The Southwest Indians are well known for their farming techniques (these are said to have originated in Mexico), their permanent, multistoried settlements, and their crafts, including distinctive painted pottery, basketry, and woven items.

Early history

Evidence of early Southwest Indian settlement may date back as far as ten thousand years. The Cochise (pronounced koh-CHEES ) cultures most likely developed in present-day Arizona and New Mexico around 5000 bce . In this mostly arid (dry) environment, these prehistoric societies constantly adapted their economic practices, social patterns, and living arrangements to meet the prevailing conditions. Moving with the change in seasons, they built homes among cliffs, in caves, and along desert valleys. By gathering many different types of plants, the Cochise people are believed to have paved the way for extensive agricultural development in the region by later peoples.

Ancient Native cultures and traditions

Four agricultural Native American cultures—the Hohokam, the Mogollon, the Patayan, and the Anasazi—dominated the prehistoric Southwest.

The Hohokam

Small, permanent villages appeared in the Southwest around 1 ce , marking a shift in the region’s nomadic (wandering) hunting and gathering lifestyle. In the Sonoran Desert of present-day south-central Arizona, the Hohokam culture emerged. Originally from Mexico, the Hohokam were hunters and gatherers who turned to agriculture around 300 ce . Over the next two hundred years they developed massive irrigation systems to water the rugged terrain surrounding the Gila and Salt rivers in present-day central Arizona. The Hohokam are said to be ancestors of the Pima and Tohono O’odham peoples.

The Mogollon

Around the year 200 ce in present-day southern New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and parts of Mexico, the Mogollon people developed small villages of semi-underground, earth-covered pithouses. The Anasazi would subsequently modify the Mogollon concept of the villages, creating what are now called pueblos (pronounced PWEB-lowz )—small towns made up of multistoried stone or adobe (earthen brick) buildings that often housed many families. The Mogollon people developed systems for farming in a dry climate and established themselves as the foremost potters of their time. Some people of the modern Western Pueblos are believed to be descended from the Mogollon.

The Patayan

The Patayan—contemporaries of the Mogollon (they lived at about the same time) and inhabitants of a vast stretch of land in what is now the state of Arizona—were among the first pottery producers in the Southwest. Their homes were small and made of wood or stone. The Patayan people hunted and farmed, growing squash and corn with the help of irrigation. Their culture is thought to have dominated the lower Colorado River region for some 1,500 years.

The Anasazi

An agricultural group called the Anasazi (pronounced on-uh-SAH-zee; sometimes referred to as “Ancient Ones”) emerged around 400 ce in the Four Corners region of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. They eventually designed their communities in large multi-roomed apartment-type buildings—some with more than 1,200 rooms. Though well known for their expertise in farming, the Anasazi were also skilled potters credited with refining the pottery-making techniques first developed by the Mogollon. (The works of both cultures were distinguished by their black-on-white geometric designs.) Modern Pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico are descended from the Anasazi.

By about 900 ce the Anasazi inhabited multistoried cliff dwellings on the Colorado Plateau. Over the next three hundred years large trading towns—possibly as many as two hundred of them—flourished in the Southwest, especially in a region of present-day northern New Mexico known as Chaco Canyon. Some pueblos had hundreds of rooms. Among the largest were Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. The pueblos of Chaco Canyon were connected by an extensive road system that stretched many miles across the desert. Archaeological finds from the area indicate that the Natives of Central America, the U.S. Southwest, and the Pacific Coast region engaged in trade with one another.


Around the year 900 ce , long before European contact, the area that is now the southwestern United States and northern Mexico was called Aztlán. Aztlán was named by the Aztecs, builders of a powerful empire that stretched throughout the central highlands of Mexico. In spite of the desertlike conditions that exist in the Southwest, many agricultural communities grew throughout Aztlán. Southwestern farmers developed a variety of innovative irrigation and drainage systems to conserve the scarce rainfall in the region. Agriculture served as an advanced and effective food source for this dry territory.

Aztlán communities consisted of multistory villages (later named pueblos ) and large ceremonial centers. The ceremonial centers resembled kivas, the round underground chambers found among the present-day Hopi in Arizona and the Pueblo in eastern New Mexico.

The Aztec empire expanded and prospered for several centuries until the Spanish arrived in the New World around the turn of the sixteenth century. Aztlán continued to exist under Spanish control until 182, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. The region was then subject to Mexican rule until the end of 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) when the U.S. government took over the northern part of Aztlán in 1848.

The tides turn

By the thirteenth century Athabaskan-speaking Navajo and Apache groups had migrated south (most likely from territory that is now part of Canada) and had begun trading with the Pueblo Indians. Their cultures and worldviews blended.

A severe drought then struck the region that is now the southwestern United States (probably between 1275 and 1300). As a result Southwestern peoples left their once-thriving towns in search of water. Many settled in villages along the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. Hunting and gathering became increasingly important throughout the Southwest during this time.

European contact

Native American societies in the United States were transformed radically by the arrival of Europeans between 1500 and 1700. Age-old Native cultures, customs, traditions, and political systems were disrupted and suppressed, but not entirely lost, under white dominance.

Spanish reach the New World

Southwest Indian contact with whites probably began with the arrival of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–c. 1557) in 1535. He entered present-day New Mexico and reported back to Spain on the land, the food resources, and, above all, the people he encountered. Five years later another Spanish explorer, Francisco Coronado (c. 1510–1554), traveled into territory that is now part of Arizona and New Mexico, possibly going as far east as present-day Oklahoma. Coronado was searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola, which were believed to contain great wealth.

There were 98 pueblo villages in present-day New Mexico when the Spanish arrived. The Pueblo people had similar cultures, but they spoke four distinct languages: Zuñi, Keres, Tiwa, and Tewa. Coronado came into contact with several Pueblo peoples, including the Hopi.

Colonizers and missionaries

Spanish colonization began in the Southwest in the late 1500s when Spanish expeditions entered what is now eastern New Mexico. Although they were driven back at first by Pueblo and Apache Indians, by 1598 a Spanish colony was established at San Juan Pueblo in northern New Mexico.

Spanish arrival in the Southwest had a major and lasting impact on the lives of the region’s Native populations. Showing no respect for Native American rights or customs, the Europeans simply took over, snatching ancestral lands away, forbidding the Native people to practice their traditional ceremonies and rituals, and making them slaves on the ranches and farms of the Spanish upper class. By 1628 Spanish missionaries had established a solid presence in the region. Their efforts to convert the Native Americans to Christianity further fractured the Native Americans’ ties to the past.

The effects of introduced diseases

The populations of the Hopi villages along the Colorado River dropped dramatically because many people died of the diseases brought by Spanish explorers. An estimated ten pueblos were abandoned between 1519 and 1650. Evidence indicates that illness decimated the population at various intervals between the late 1530s and 1598. Spiraling death rates seemed to correspond to uncontrolled outbreaksof smallpox, measles, and the plague that hit the region during these decades. (Experts speculate that between 1500 and 1700 European diseases reduced Native American populations in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest to less than one-tenth of their original numbers.) By the early 1600s most Hopi had retreated to their present villages in northern Arizona. There the Spanish tried to rule and spread Christianity, but the Hopi resisted.

An uprising staged by the Pueblo

In 1680 Popé (died 1692), a Pueblo spiritual leader, led his people in a successful rebellion against the Spanish. The Spanish and their Native American allies fled, moving on to present-day El Paso, Texas. Popé claimed that the spirits told him to drive away the Spanish and help the Pueblo return to their traditional life. But Spanish military forces eventually regained control, and by 1696 many Pueblo people had left their villages to join the Navajo bands that had moved farther north. The Pueblo who remained under Spanish rule were forced to convert to Catholicism, the dominant Christian religion in Spain.

The Comanche move south

During the early 1700s the Comanche moved south to New Mexico from present-day Wyoming. They soon acquired horses from the Spanish. By the mid-1700s the Comanche had gained control of the horse and gun trade on the southern Plains and had established themselves as the most powerful bison-hunting tribe in the area.

The Spanish wrangled trade deals with the Comanche, using bribes and threats of war to achieve their goals. Conflicts arose as a large number of Comanche and Pueblo allied themselves with the Spanish against the horse- and sheep-raiding Apache and Navajo bands. Pueblo villagers migrated to El Paso, following the Spanish retreat down the Rio Grande. Tensions continued throughout the early 1800s during the period of rule by the Mexican Republic.

Pressures increase in the 1800s

The U.S. settlers who streamed into the Southwest after the United States won the territory from Mexico in 1848, met strong opposition from the Native Americans. The American military tried to subdue Native American uprisings throughout the Southwest, destroying Native land, livestock—even whole communities—in the process. Outbreaks of violence crossed tribal lines as various Native peoples rebelled against U.S. policies.

Taos Pueblo revolt

The Taos Pueblo Indians, angered by the conduct of the United States during the Mexican-American War, attacked and killed the U.S. governor of New Mexico in 1847. American troops retaliated, attacking the Taos Pueblo and killing approximately 165 people.

Navajo resistance to U.S. influence

For more than two hundred years the Navajo spent considerable time and effort dealing with the Spanish. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, white Americans poured into California and New Mexico. The Navajo—the largest Native American nation in the United States at that time—were one of the first tribes in the American Southwest to confront the U.S. government in a prolonged struggle for their rights.

Cattle raids lead to trouble

Cattle, sheep, and horses had been introduced to the Native peoples of the Southwest during the period of European domination. By the 1800s the Navajo had built up large herds of these animals by raiding the Spanish and other tribes. Even after the American victory in the war with Mexico, the Navajo people continued their raids, storming U.S. settlements in present-day New Mexico. These actions led to conflict between the Navajo and the U.S. Army. Fighting ensued. Many Navajo cornfields were burned, fruit trees were destroyed, sheep were slaughtered, and communities were ruined. The Navajo managed to resist for 17 years, but, facing starvation in 1863 and 1864, they finally surrendered.

Long Walk of the Navajo

The Navajo people’s unsuccessful attack on Fort Defiance, an American base located in the middle of their territory, sealed their fate, resulting in their final defeat in 1864. The tribe was subsequently forced to march 800 miles (1,288 kilometers) to a 40-square-mile reserve at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Two thousand died along the way from starvation and exposure (lack of shelter). The nine thousand survivors found themselves on land that lacked water and had poor soil. The nearest available wood was 5 to 18 miles (8 to 29 kilometers) away. Hordes of grasshoppers swept the area. The Navajo called the reservation Hweedli, meaning “prison.”

The Navajo were expected to farm this drought-ravaged land. The U.S. government did little to help the tribe until a Santa Fe newspaper wrote about the terrible conditions on the reserve. As a result federal officials allowed the Navajo to return to a small portion (10 percent) of their original homeland. In later years more land was added as the Navajo population grew.

Reservations in New Mexico

In 1861 General James Carleton (1814–1873) of the U.S. Army formed Indian reservations in New Mexico. Carleton planned to gather the Apache and Navajo together “little by little onto a Reservation away from the haunts and hills and hiding places of their own county, and there be kind to them: there teach their children how to read and write; teach them the art of peace; teach them the truths of Christianity.” Carleton and others like him promoted the idea of assimilation, arguing that the education of Natives to the ways of white people was right, just, and necessary. He proposed a plan under which Native Americans would “acquire new habits, new ideas, new modes of life: the old Indians will die off … the young ones will take their places … and thus, little by little, they will become a happy and contented people.” Despite Carleton’s stated intentions of enforcing his assimilation policy gently, he killed many Indians while trying to force them onto reservations. Thousands more died in the harsh conditions they encountered on the reservations.

Cochise and the Apache Wars

Around the time of the ill-fated Navajo uprising, Cochise (c. 1815–1874), an Apache warrior, led his people in a series of conflicts known as the Apache Wars (1863-72). From his stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains (located in southern Arizona), Cochise led an effective campaign against U.S. and Mexican forces. In 1871 he opposed efforts to relocate his people to a reservation in New Mexico. A year later the Apache leader finally agreed to end the tribe’s attacks on the U.S. Army. This peace agreement hinged on the federal government’s promise of reservation land for the Apache in eastern Arizona.

The twentieth century

The 1920s was a key decade in Native American history. In response to pressure applied by reformers who wished to see conditions improved for Native Americans throughout the country, U.S. secretary of the interior Hubert Work (1860>em>1942) appointed the Committee of One Hundred to investigate American Indian policies. The committee, which met in 1923, recommended increasing funding for Native American health care, public education, scholarships, and legal action to rule on Native American land claims.

Pueblo Lands Act

When the United States took over the American Southwest from Mexico in 1848, the Pueblo were the only Southwest tribe who had citizenship in Mexico. As Mexican citizens, they were automatically granted U.S. citizenship. As citizens, however, the Pueblo peoples did not receive the same rights and protections granted to federally recognized Native American nations. As a result much Pueblo land—the finest farmland in the Southwest—was lost.

The Pueblo asked for—and then sued for—Native American status, which they gained in 1916. By that time, though, they had already been forced to surrender some of their best lands, including important religious sites. The All Indian Pueblo Council, a loose federation of Pueblo representatives, organized delegates from all the pueblos to rally for rights to their old lands. The resulting Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 restored Pueblo lands, but the battle was not over. In the mid-2000s the Pueblo continued the fight to obtain and keep their water rights.

Hopi-Navajo Joint Use Area

When the Navajo began settling on Hopi lands in the nineteenth century frequent disputes arose between the two tribes. It soon became clear that the conflict would not be settled without outside intervention, so U.S. courts created a Joint Use Area—1.8 million acres to be shared between the Hopi and the Navajo. Under the terms of the joint use agreement, only a portion of the Hopi reservation was held for the exclusive use of the Hopi, and by 1973 clashes again erupted between the Hopi and the Navajo over rights to the area. The next year U.S. Congress passed the Hopi and Navajo Relocation Act, which divided the Joint Use Area between the two nations and provided $16 million to compensate (repay) eight hundred Navajo families who were required to relocate. Even after the settlement, though, tensions between the Hopi and the Navajo continued to exist.

The dawn of the twenty-first century

In spite of the disruptive effects of European colonization, white advancement, and U.S. law on Native populations, the spirit of the Southwest Indians has not been broken. Their Native identities, though influenced by the ideas and practices of invading forces, remain whole and intact. Southwest Native efforts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have focused mainly on countering the negative impact of white influence and preserving traditional Native American language and culture.

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

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards

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