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People & Ideas: The Pueblos

desert landscape

Following Christopher Columbus' voyage, Spain moved swiftly to claim and expand her territories in the New World, embarking on a moral crusade to spread Spanish culture and Catholicism to the non-Christian "heathens" in present-day Mexico and the American Southwest. Here in the brooding desert and high mesas, two sacred worlds collided: the Catholicism of the Spanish friars and the spirit-filled religion of the indigenous peoples known as the Pueblos.

The Pueblos were a sedentary people who lived in towns and sustained themselves by planting corn and hunting small game. Scattered across hundreds of square miles, they spoke different languages and observed distinct customs. Their religious rituals, beliefs and practices were deeply embedded in their culture and way of life. In elaborate ceremonies, they honored the kachinas, the spirits of ancestors, in underground chambers known as kivas. These religious ceremonies were essential to sustaining the Pueblo way of life. As Porter Swentzell of the Santa Clara Pueblo observes, "Our whole world around us is our religion -- our way of life is our religion. ... The very moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to bed, even when we are asleep, that's our religion."

The Pueblos first encountered Franciscan friars in the 15th century, but in 1630 the friars began a period of intense mission building and conversion. Thousands of Pueblos converted, but most did not abandon their old religion; they simply added new elements to it. Jesus and the saints were grafted onto the Native pantheon. The Virgin Mary morphed into the Corn Mother. The kachina cult merged with the cults of the saints. Prayer sticks became conflated with the cross. As Porter Swentzell explains, "The Pueblos were not closed, saying, 'Our way is not the only right way.' When the Church came they said, 'Hey, we'll go to your Mass and listen to what you have to say.' And so the Spanish thought that was a willing acceptance of Catholicism."

But for the friars, there was only one true religion: the Catholic faith. When persuasion failed to get the Pueblo people to abandon their old rituals, the friars reverted to coercion and force. Pueblos who did not attend Mass were punished. Kivas, places of Pueblo worship,were violated and sacred objects smashed. In the friars' view, their all-consuming goal of saving souls justified these extremely harsh means.

By the 1670s, Pueblos began to stage sporadic revolts. The Spanish cracked down, rounding up Native shamans, whipping them and choosing several for execution. Following the arrest and hanging of spiritual leaders, one of those leaders, a man named Po'pay, organized an uprising. Not all Pueblo communities chose to participate, but those that did killed 400 Spanish and 21 friars. The Spanish fled, and the Pueblos could once again honor their kachinas, revere the Corn Mother, restore their faith in Native shamans and honor the religious practices that their ancestors had sustained for generations.

Twelve years later, the Spanish friars returned; this time, they were more willing to accommodate Native religious rituals and practices.

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Published October 11, 2010

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