A religious leader from San Juan Pueblo in present-day New Mexico, Popé organized and led the most successful Indian uprising in the history of the American West.
Very little is known of Popé's life. He was apparently a native of San Juan Pueblo, but moved to the nearby pueblo of Taos in the 1670's. Provoked by a Spanish crackdown on native religious practices in 1675, Popé soon began conferring with other disaffected Pueblo leaders, some Apache with ties to the Pueblos, and nearby villages, about the possibility of large-scale revolt against the Spanish. He offered a millenarian vision to the Pueblos, stressing the complete expulsion of Spanish military and religious authority, the elimination of Christian and Spanish cultural practices, and the return of Pueblo deities. Despite his cultural militance, Popé seems to have been deeply influenced by Christian cosmology, for his emphasis on the return of three Pueblo deities bears a striking resemblance to the Christian trinity.
Popé launched his revolt early in August 1680. He achieved stunning success, due to the Pueblos' vastly superior numbers -- more than 8,000 warriors against fewer than 200 arms-bearing colonists -- and to the high degree of coordination he had achieved. Despite language differences and distance, the Pueblos attacked everywhere at once, killing 21 Franciscan friars and more than 400 Spanish colonists. Those Spanish who survived this initial onslaught fled to the Governor's Palace in Santa Fe, where Popé's warriors surrounded them. In late August, they made a desperate attempt to break the Indians' siege and were lucky to escape to El Paso.
Having driven the Spanish from New Mexico, Popé tried to eradicate every possible vestige of their culture. He ordered the destruction of Christian objects and churches, punished the speaking of Spanish and the use of Spanish surnames, and argued against using Spanish tools such as the plow. In his style of leadership and exercise of personal power, however, Popé seems to have retained an element of Spanish authoritarianism which alienated many and contributed to the breakup of the Pueblo alliance.
Less than a year after Popé's death in 1692, troops under Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico for Spain. But reconquest did not mean a return to the days before the uprising. Popé's revolt had permanently weakened the political power of the Franciscans, whose missionary efforts had been the focus of Spanish interest in the region. Now Spain was more interested in New Mexico as a barrier between the French and Mexico's northern provinces. Accordingly, the Pueblos were now given greater latitude for their own religious practices, and fewer demands for food and labor were placed upon them. The Spanish even armed the Pueblos to defend their own villages and acknowledged their rightful ownership of village lands. In short, the post-rebellion political system in New Mexico can be seen as a Pueblo-Spanish alliance, particularly in respect to their common enemies, the Apache, Navajo, Ute and Comanche raiders.
Given his nativistic radicalism, Popé could never have welcomed such an alliance between the Pueblos and the Spanish, yet by making this alliance possible, he created the conditions for a new culture to emerge in the American Southwest, a blend of Indian and European influences which retains its distinctive character even today.
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