Revolt In The Pueblos


With the passage of time, reinforcements from Mexico increased the size of the Spanish colony, and the conquerors’ hold over the Indians, aided by the supervisory offices of the friars in the pueblos, gave the conquerors an illusion of security. The entire economy of the valley rested on the exploitation of the natives, who were not allowed to ride horses or use firearms, and the uncomplaining fashion in which the gentle Pueblos responded to demands for labor and tribute made it seem that they, like the Indians of the Caribbean and Mexico, were thoroughly subjugated. From a number of directions, however, disaster was looming for the Spaniards. Many Indians were still unconverted, and even among those who were called Christians, the white man’s religion had often not penetrated far below the surface. The friars banned the kachina dances wherever they felt strong enough to do so, but it was another thing to drive a centuries-old faith out of people’s minds and hearts. In the recesses of the pueblos, the cult leaders kept alive old ways, telling the people that the kachinas were still in the kivas, and even the converted Indians still called on their medicine men, who smouldered with deep resentments over the presence of the friars.

The white men, too, did not help their own cause. An increasing drive for profits led to greater pressures on the Indians, and conflict broke out over policies that would have rushed the natives into total slavery and doomed them to extinction. Many of the Spaniards seriously believed that Indians were animals rather than rational humans, for unlike civilized men, they seemed indifferent to the ambitions and desires of thinking persons, had no greed for such things as jewels and gold, and appeared content simply to eat and sleep. Despite the fact that, in their own way, the friars too were instruments of native suppression, demanding faith and obedience from the Pueblos and undermining their powers to resist the lay conquerors, they could not, at least, agree that Indians did not possess souls, and their protection of their charges against excessive exploitation brought them into conflict with the lay officials.


Though other factors broadened the struggle, the question of whether the governor or the Franciscans had ultimate authority over the Indians divided the colony into two camps and rocked it with turmoil that grew worse under each succeeding governor. From the adobe palace in Santa Fe, the governors issued orders to the Indians, which the priests in the pueblos promptly countermanded. The governors flew into rages of jealousy and pettiness, sometimes spitefully urging the Indians to put on public kachina dances to defy their friars and at other times sending troops to invade the sanctity of churches and arrest the priests. The latter retaliated with fury of their own, condemning the governors as corrupt heretics and sending frightened squads of soldiers to seize the rulers for crimes against the Church.


Still the Spaniards continued to fight among themselves, and as the confusion worsened, their authority over the Indians was undermined. Many of the converted Pueblos were appalled by the hostility with which the white rulers treated their own priests, and their respect for the brown-robed friars waned sharply. During the second half of the seventeenth century, new difficulties suddenly struck the people of the villages, and for the first time in many years they began to wonder if they had offended their ancient gods. Beginning in 1660, serious droughts settled over the Southwest, bringing famine and disease with them. In one year, it was recorded, starvation was so bad that people were forced to eat hides and cart straps.

As the Pueblos suffered, their troubles were increased by bands of hungry Apaches, who could find no food on the plains and launched desperate raids against the agricultural settlements for supplies. Fighting hunger and sickness themselves and forced to defend their towns against the fierce attacks, the Pueblos became certain that they had displeased their gods, and in the dark kivas and mud-walled rooms the cult leaders and medicine doctors raised their voices with mounting boldness against the friars, urging their people to return to the ways of their ancestors before it was too late.

At this juncture, the fierce and mysterious figure of Popé suddenly appears in the reports of Spanish authorities. Popé was an old but vigorous Tewa medicine doctor in the San Juan pueblo. There is no record of his exact age, but it is apparent that all his life he had resisted the Christian religion and had struggled bitterly to keep alive the traditional Indian beliefs among his people. Again and again the Spaniards had denied him the right to conduct his rituals and finally, as punishment for his stubbornness, had seized and enslaved his older brother. The act had only enraged Popé further, and gradually he had become a symbol of uncompromising hostility to the conquerors.

With the coming of the drought, his religious activities began to take on political coloring. He held secret meetings in the pueblo and told the people that the gods were speaking against the friars, that the Spaniards must leave the land of the Indians. In time his audiences grew larger, and his influence spread, and soon word of his new activities reached the mayor of Santa Fe, who twice had him arrested and flogged.