Revolt In The Pueblos

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It did the Spaniards little good. Popé’s warnings were already being repeated in pueblos throughout New Mexico, and the flames of the fight for religious liberty that he had started were setting fires in Indian towns everywhere. In alarm, the Spanish governor ordered his troops to visit all the settlements, halt the renewal of Indian dances and rituals, and arrest as many of the medicine doctors as possible. Forty-seven native leaders, including the furious Popé, were seized in the drive, and dragged into Santa Fe, where they were charged with witchcraft and sorcery. Three of the doctors were hanged as examples, and Popé and the rest were whipped and jailed.

The Governor’s action made matters worse for the Spaniards. Without their doctors, the people in the pueblos believed that they were defenseless against the invisible powers of evil that brought sickness and death to them, and from town to town native runners carried appeals for united action. At length, a determined delegation of seventy Christianized Indians from the Tewa pueblos on the Rio Grande marched on the Governor in Santa Fe and announced that unless the prisoners were turned over to them by sundown, the Indians would rise in revolt throughout the provinces and kill every Spaniard in New Mexico. The Governor consulted his advisers, and after anxious deliberation, decided that the natives were in dead earnest and that the colonists in New Mexico, who numbered about 2,800, could not hope to defend themselves for long against some 16,000 Indians. Reluctantly, he freed the doctors.

Hate and anger had spread everywhere now, and the fact that the Governor had shown weakness when threatened with revolt was not lost on the Indians. But Spanish authority was still strong, and most of the people were mortally afraid of the friars and their spies and soldiers, who still demanded obedience and inflicted stern punishments on offenders. In Santa Fe, the natives had won an opening skirmish, and the momentum of events was on their side, but if a revolt were to come, it would require more than hate in men’s hearts. To Popé, the bruised and smouldering medicine man, the time had come for Indian organization, leadership, and a magical spark with which to set the country aflame; and he moved quickly to provide his people with all three.

Traveling to the different pueblos, he held secret meetings with other medicine doctors and chiefs and soon won their loyalty to his plans. Their first duty, he impressed upon them, was to strengthen the courage of the Indians by cleansing their ranks of informers. As an example, he dramatically announced at one meeting in San Juan that he suspected his own son-inlaw, Nicolas Bua, the Spanish-supported Indian governor of the pueblo, of being a spy for the white men. The accusation had its desired result. The next day, the Indians stoned Bua to death in a cornfield, and though Popé had to flee from San Juan and hide in the kiva at the Taos pueblo to evade Spanish questioners, news of the incident spread rapidly among the towns and frightened the natives who had been acting as informers for the priests.

In the Taos kiva, Popé continued to meet with other chiefs and prepare plans for a general revolt. In the midsummer of 1680, he decided that the time for action had come and summoned his principal followers to him. To battle the Christians, he called upon the mystic powers that he possessed through his close relationship with the spirit world and before the eyes of his entranced audience, conjured up in the gloomy ceremonial chamber the wrathful spirits of native gods.

In feathers and shining paint, the gods breathed fire from every extremity of their bodies and announced that they were working for a revolt of the Pueblos. They had been sent to warn the Indians, they said, that the time was ripe for killing all the Spaniards and ridding the land of the oppressors, and as the chiefs listened to them in dread silence, they commanded Popé to set the date of the uprising and to send to each pueblo a cord of maguey fibers with a number of knots tied to it to signify the days left before the revolt.

The news of what had transpired in the secret chamber spread wildly among the people, and Popé dispatched his knotted maguey cords to the excited villages, calling for a concerted uprising on August 11, 1680, but slyly sending a later date, August 13, to several Christian chiefs whose loyalty he questioned. As he suspected, informers soon revealed the wrong date to the Spanish friars and notified them that old men in pueblos in the north were plotting a revolt after having received a letter from a lieutenant of their war god. The lieutenant, they told the priests, “was very tall, black, and had very large yellow eyes, and everyone feared him greatly.” This might have been a description of Popé himself: at any rate, on August 9, priests from three towns sent hurried word to Governor Antonio de Otermin in Santa Fe that “the Christian Indians of this kingdom are convoked, allied and confederated for the purpose of rebelling, abandoning obedience to the Crown and apostatizing from the Holy Faith. They plan to kill the priests, and all the Spaniards—even women and children—thus to destroy the total population of this kingdom. They are to execute this treason and uprising on the igth of the current month.”