On January 22, 1599, the Spanish and the Acoma Indians had a conflict that resulted in over 800 Indians dying, but only 12 Spanish men were killed. The Spanish leader, Oñate, also ordered that any Pueblo males over the age of 25 have one foot cut off in order to keep the Indians from attacking the Spaniards anymore. Those who were at least 12 years old, but under 25, were forced to work for 20 years as slave laborers to the Spaniards.
Eventually, Oñate was punished by the Spanish government. However, the Native Americans who lived along the Rio Grande had good reason to dislike the Spanish colonists after approximately 80 years of such harsh treatment. So, about 80 years later, in 1680, they started the Pueblo Rebellion, forcing the Spaniards to flee to the south.
The Pueblo Indians had a thriving culture, when the Spanish people first encountered them. They had learned how to raise crops from the Mexican people over the previous centuries. The Mogollon tribe had also taught them to use bows and arrows to hunt. So, they were not simple gatherers and hunters, like other tribes. They were much more advanced.
In fact, the Pueblos had learned how to use mud to build elaborate homes. Many of them were two stories tall. They also enjoyed the freedom of individuality, along with the feeling of family that comes from living in a small community. They shared languages, stories, and other bits of culture. In fact, the Spanish saw them so much as a tight community that they called them the “Town” Indians. That’s where the name “Pueblo” comes from. They were also a deeply religious tribe, believing that their gods were everywhere and that their daily lives honored those gods.
Coronado and other Spanish explorers had been proven to be hostile to the Indians. However, the Pueblos gave Oñate and his men the benefit of the doubt and tried to be friendly towards them. Nevertheless, Oñate wanted to rule the region, proving himself to be hostile towards the Pueblos as well.
One of the first things that Oñate and his men did was try to destroy any evidence of the Pueblo religious belief system. They destroyed the ritualistic underground rooms, or kivas, that the Pueblos had built. They also killed any of the Pueblo leaders who tried to promote the Pueblo religion. The Indians were forced to become Christians or go into hiding. At the same time, they were also forced to provide supplies and sustenance for the Spanish people.
The Christian faith was taught to the Indians by friars, who forced them to “thank” their Spanish oppressors by constructing Christian missions. The Pueblos were then forced to go to “services” at those missions, where they were enslaved, whipped, and sometimes hanged for failing to adhere to the Christian religion completely.
Indians who were enslaved were often sold to people in Spain, while Pueblo orphans were kept as servants to the Spaniards who were living in the Pueblo territory at the time. The Spaniards used the excuse of trying to save their souls from being eternally damned. Between forced labor, executions, epidemics, and famine, the Pueblo population in the area became greatly reduced.
In 1675, 47 medicine men were arrested and whipped by the Spaniards, who proceeded to hang 4 of the medicine men in the plaza of Santa Fe in full public view. One of those medicine men was Popé (pronounced Po-PAY). He became so enraged, as did many of his people, that it kicked off the Pueblo Rebellion. He would later become one of the biggest adversaries to the Spaniards in that rebellion.
Popé was born across the Rio Grande from San Gabriel, which was the capital of New Mexico at the time. The village in which he was born was called Grinding Stone. It was a Tewa Indian village located in the San Juan Pueblo. His name, Popé, in that language meant “Ripe Squash.” He learned to be a Tewa healer, or medicine man, from a young age. He then underwent the three Tewa rituals in order to become a full-fledged adult within the tribe, eventually gaining his own status as a medicine man.
It wasn’t easy to become a Tewa medicine man. He had to learn incredible amounts of information about the customs, dances, and rituals of his people, as well as other knowledge about their way of life. The medicine men were not just healers. They spent years becoming the keepers of the knowledge of the Tewa tribe. Popé quickly became well-known in the tribe for being extremely intelligent and mystical. It was he who decided that the Pueblos had to take extreme action to get out from under Spanish oppression.
It took several years for Popé to put his plan into action. In the meantime, he told a story to his tribe members about a dream that had come to him one night. That dream, or vision, featured fire shooting from the bodies of three Indians. It’s that dream that gave him the framework for the revolt. He then enlisted many of the Pueblo leaders to help him put his plan into action.
Unfortunately, there were communication problems because the different Pueblo leaders spoke different dialects and languages. However, Popé didn’t let that stop him. Somehow, he explained the attack method to all of them. Historians assume that he used deer skins and drew diagrams on them. Then he sent each village knotted cords. Each knot represented a day. The number of knots showed how many days until Popé planned to revolt against the Spaniards. That date was originally August 11, 1680. However, the Indians later conspired to attack the Spaniards a day early, in order to be sure of the element of surprise. Many Spaniards were killed immediately in the attack. The rest were driven to either the east or the south, where more Pueblo tribe members waited to attack them.
Nevertheless, there were some problems with Popé’s plan. For example, the messenger who was supposed to notify the Isleta Tigua Pueblo of the surprise attack didn’t show up. So, the Spaniards were able to take control there. However, they soon found themselves boxed in. The road to the south was cut off by the Pueblos, and so was their water supply. As a result, Governor Otermín was forced to bargain with the Pueblos and he and 100 of his soldiers were allowed to flee to the south.
There are certain historians who think that the Isleta Tiguas were not misinformed, but instead just chose to stay out of the conflict. Another opinion is that some of them were taken prisoner by the Spaniards and brought to the south with them after the conflict. In either case, the Isleta Tiguas eventually established a new settlement called Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in the south.
Otermín may have seemed satisfied with receiving safe passage to the south, but he wasn’t. He returned with his men a year later, set many of the pueblos on fire, and destroyed crops. He and his men also killed many of the Pueblo Indians. In the process, they also took several Isleta Tigua Indians hostage, bringing them to Ysleta.
The 1680 Pueblo Revolt was successful for the Native Americans, but that success didn’t last for long. Popé soon took control of them and proved to be a dictator. That led to dissension between the villages. A drought that was occurring at the same time also caused a lot of tension. Many people starved because food was in such short supply. Popé passed away in 1688, leaving the Pueblo Indians quite weak. That suffering continued for 12 years. Then, in 1692, the Spaniards again came to Santa Fe. Led by Diego de Vargas, they quickly conquered it. However, not all of the Native Americans were upset by the Spaniards conquering them. In fact, Tapatu, who had been a lieutenant of Popé, thought that the change might be a good thing.
Unfortunately, the Pueblo Rebellion caused so much dissension between the tribes that many of those rifts have not healed to this day.