Revolt In The Pueblos


Prior to the revolt, the Spanish authorities had hardly known Popé. He had been only one of many obscure medicine men who, despite the friars’ stern proscriptions of native beliefs, had continued to defy the white men with secret religious practices in the pueblos. After the uprising had occurred, the gulf between the Spaniards and the Indians kept them from learning much more, and when they were finally able to reconquer the New Mexican province Popé was dead, and other Indian leaders had taken his place. Under the new Spanish regime, the officials were anxious to eradicate the memory of the revolt and the idolator who had led it, and in time even the little that was known about Popé became hazy and uncertain in the white men’s chronicles of the province. Today, from the documents of the governors and priests, from contemporary declarations of settlers, soldiers, and witnesses of the events, and from a few frightened narratives of Indians who gave the Spanish leaders accounts of what had transpired on the native side, history can piece together more about him.

The roots of what ultimately occurred in 1680 reached far back in antiquity to the original forming of the Pueblo people’s beliefs and civilization. Their history began in the very dawn of the habitation of the New World by men. In days the Spaniards knew nothing about, thousands of years before, the earliest ancestors of the Pueblos had come down from the North, hunting mastodons, camels, and outsized bison with long spear-throwers called atlatls that hurled points of flaked stone into the animals. As the ancient beasts had become extinct, the people had gradually learned to gather fruit and roots; to plant corn, beans, and cotton; to weave cloth from fibers; and to settle down in pit houses and grass shelters. In time, other migrants and traders from more developed areas in Mexico and elsewhere settled among them and brought them new skills, and by approximately 700 A.D. , they had become accomplished potters and basketmakers. After 800 A.D. , they developed the beginnings of their modern pueblo buildings, fashioning one-storied mud structures of many rooms joined together, and turning their round, cistern-like pit houses into secret ceremonial chambers called kivas.

The first great Pueblo culture reached its peak between 1050 and 1300 A.D., when large numbers of people took to living together in many-tiered communal dwellings built in the open or in arched recesses part way up the steep walls of cliffs. In the valleys near the pueblos, the Indians tended their fields, practicing both dry-land and irrigation farming, and storing thensurplus crops in special rooms against times of drought and famine. All across the high plateauland, the people prospered.

In one of the great mysteries of prehistoric America, this first Pueblo era came to a sudden and unexplained end late in the thirteenth century. A devastating drought occurred in part of their country from 12761299 A.D., but neither it nor any other reason yet known fully accounts for a wholesale trek by all the Pueblo people, who abruptly abandoned the high plateau sites they had inhabited for centuries. Leaving their towns and buildings standing empty and silent, they moved south and eastward to mesa tops on the desert and to the Rio Grande Valley, where they established brand-new settlements in which the Spaniards later found them. There, in a new homeland, they continued their cultural rise, weaving legends and sacred beliefs around fast-receding memories of olden days, and endowing their civilization with endless cycles of colorful and mysterious rituals.

The philosophic base on which they constructed their society was a conviction, permeating all phases of their life, that everything they could possibly comprehend—the rocks and natural forces around them, the ideas in their heads, distances across the land, animals, birds, reptiles, every action, thought, and being in their consciousness—was part of a great living force and contained a spirit that existed everywhere; this spirit behaved alike in everything in which it dwelled. In their view of their own position in the world, moreover, whatever existed on earth came from an underworld to which it even tually returned in death. Passage between the two regions was through the waters of a lake; the first men had originally emerged in the world, bringing spirits with them from below, at a mysterious place in the north called Sipapu. Once on the earth, men thought of everything as radiating from central points of awareness—themselves, a family group, or an entire pueblo; and all beliefs were bound to Sipapu, where man had first entered the world, and which all communities constructed symbolically within their kivas. Such stone-lined pits in the center of their round ceremonial chambers were regarded as the actual passages between the lower world and the earth above, and the kiva, as a powerful and awesome symbol, was looked upon by the town as the place where the two worlds joined.