The following is an excerpt from Jake Page’s new book, Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom.
Chapter 10: Preparing for Rebellion
The wholesale arrest and humiliation of forty-seven spiritual leaders of the pueblos in 1675 may well have been the tipping point leading to the Pueblo Revolt. We think of tipping points as those events that immediately lead to the major event, but the Pueblo rebels still had a lot to accomplish once the fatal decision was made.
The day after the mass humiliation of Pueblo religious leaders, a delegation of some seventy Tewa warriors showed up in Santa Fe, demanding an audience with Governor Juan Francisco Treviño, and this too could be considered the tipping point. The warriors had come to negotiate for the release of the medicine men. They crowded into the governor’s quarters in the wooden and adobe buildings called Casas Reales, the government headquarters.
It must have been an alarming moment for the governor, having his palace overrun with seventy men bearing weapons, streaks of paint, and a deep-seated anger. They brought with them eggs and chickens, beans, tobacco, and some small deerskins, as negotiating gifts. The angry warriors likely outnumbered the Spanish soldiers present in Santa Fe that day, and even more warriors stood in reserve in the surrounding hills.
Treviño handed out some blankets (traditional gifts) to his visitors and suggested that they put aside their grievances. The warriors said that if Treviño did not release the prisoners from captivity, they would simply kill him. Faced with this choice, Treviño perhaps wisely decided not to join any of the Franciscans in martyrdom. Instead, he told the Tewas, “Wait a while, children, I will give them to you and pardon them on condition that you forsake idolatry and iniquity.”
The warriors would have none of that. They continued to insist on the release of the medicine men, and in this war of threats Treviño blinked. The Spaniards, it was now clear, were not invincible.
The Pueblo leaders, many of them still burning with resentment over the most recent outrage, were soon released and returned to their pueblos. The Tewa warriors had achieved a remarkable victory and had uncovered a seam of weakness in the Spanish government. The governor himself had backed down and given in. To achieve this victory, the Tewa warriors had also acted in a pan-pueblo manner. Many of the men released from Spanish imprisonment were Tewas, but many spoke Keres, Towa, and other tongues.
At some point soon after the forty-three were released, the man called Po’pay left his home pueblo of San Juan to escape harassment from Francisco Xavier, the thuggish secretary of government and war. He went to Taos, farther from the center of Spanish influence and a place where sympathy for rebels was longstanding. He evidently persuaded the Taos leaders to turn over to him a kiva in which he could lay his plans. He was, it turned out, a remarkably persuasive man.
Po’pay was also, evidently, a person of shamanic skills. Shamans are reputed to enter the world of spirits—both evil and benign—in order to heal people by repelling or in other ways defeating the evil spirits doing the damage. Beyond the salves and teas and other potions used in native curing, shamans around the world are held in a kind of awe, for it stands to reason that someone who can repel the spirits and forces of evil by manipulating them in one way or another, can also put those same spirits to work doing harm to people.
To this day, on many American Indian reservations and in other tribal societies, shamanistic medicine men are both sought after for help and greatly feared for their knowledge of the dark arts of witchcraft. In any case, part of Po’pay’s persuasiveness must have resided in these powers.
Failure to Act
Meanwhile, it seems that the Spaniards were in a state of what today is called denial. Not much evidence survives that they understood the degree of heat Pueblo resentment had reached. For the moment, other matters impinged daily and more directly. The drought went on relentlessly. The farther-flung pueblos were being abandoned, unleashing a small horde of refugees into the other pueblos. The Spanish government, such as it was, could not have been more overextended. Indeed, the world was falling apart.
One man seemed capable of understanding the needs and possibilities of the colony. This was Fray Francisco de Ayeta. In 1674, he had been put in charge of supplying the colony and would later be put in charge of the entire missionary effort in New Mexico. A native of Pamplona, he was an energetic man in his thirties at the time. Among his first actions in the province was to agree with Governor Treviño and the rest of the ruling Spanish (in essence, the cabildo of Santa Fe) that more troops were needed along with their proper outfitting, in order to stem the tide of raiding by the Apaches. Fray Ayeta therefore hastened to New Spain with his petition to the Viceroy for the help for New Mexico that, as historian Kessell wrote, “neither she nor her downtrodden populace could provide.”
Ayeta succeeded, and set out with the triennial pack train for the north on February 27, 1677. With the usual supplies, the train brought a new governor, Antonio de Otermín, fifty soldiers (who had been convicts), a hundred harquebuses along with other weapons, saddles and horse tack, and a thousand horses. This promising pack train arrived in Santa Fe in December, 1677 (except for six of the felons who went AWOL along the way).
Not a great deal is known about Otermín, the new governor. He was a man of some military experience but he was a bit passive. He turned over many of his duties to subordinates, particularly Francisco Xavier, the field officer who had led the assault on the forty-seven medicine men in 1675 under the banner of Governor Treviño. The Pueblo people considered him “a man of bad faith, avaricious and crafty.”
Otermín also allowed Fray Ayeta to take an active hand in provisioning the troops as they were allocated to various pueblos such as Galisteo in the east and Senecú in the south for defense against the raiders. Hardly had he finished this task than Ayeta returned to New Spain with a request for fifty more soldiers. Just how pathetically deficient the situation was in New Mexico (not to mention New Spain) is illustrated by the thought that a hundred new soldiers, at least half of them the dregs from New Spain’s prisons, were all that could be summoned to protect a colony of thirty missions beset by an unknown number of raiding Apaches and with a resident population of some seventeen to twenty thousand Pueblo Indians who deeply resented their Spanish masters.
But, again, the Spanish authorities, led now by the new governor, Antonio de Otermín, seemed relatively oblivious to the conspiracy that was afoot among the northern pueblos, a conspiracy centered in the Taos kiva where Po’pay communed with spirit beings who were not at all pleased with the Spanish treatment of the Pueblo people.
Po’pay’s Spiritual Strategies
In Taos, Po’pay conversed with Poseyemu, an important member of the Tewa pantheon of deities. Poseyemu was the first of the Tewa people to climb a Douglas fir that grew in a sacred lake, arriving in the current world from an earlier one. As such, he was a supernatural Tewa cultural hero who taught the people the arts of living. Po’pay sought Poseyemu’s instruction about the tactics and strategy to return to the old pueblo ways, to the world before the Spaniards. Poseyemu was known by other similar names to the non-Tewa Pueblos and would have been a persuasive figure to invoke throughout the pueblo world. Po’pay’s intent was to rid all the pueblos and all the land around of Spaniards. They were all to be killed and all their works destroyed.
Po’pay explained to trusted lieutenants that the ancient gods would not return with their gifts of rain, good crops, and prosperity before all the Christians and their gods, notably Mary and Jesus, were dead. He promised that only then would the Pueblos “gather large crops of grain, maize with large thick ears, many bundles of cotton, many calabashes and watermelons.” Whoever among them “killed a Spaniard will get a woman for his wife, and he who kills four will get four women . . .” and so on. This was to be in retribution for those who had been whipped and had their hair cut for being polygamous.
Po’pay insisted the people had to respect the katsinas. He himself was regularly visited by three katsina spirits, he said—Caudi, Tilini, and Tleume— who lived in the kiva with Po’pay but never came out. Finally, after much prayer, the three did come out, emitting fire from ￼“all the extremities of their bodies.” Having emerged from the kiva, they announced that they were going underground, to disappear in the lake of Copal until all the Spaniards were gone and their works destroyed. (Copal was, in fact, a secret lake of Spanish mythology that had migrated from New Spain to somewhere in or near New Mexico. The purity Po’pay so ferociously sought was not totally without Spanish influences.)
Just who were these three “katsinas” who stayed in the kiva with Po’pay? Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa who trained as an anthropologist, pointed out that Tilini is the name of an important Tewa deity, and he supposed that the others may have been deities from two other non-Tewa pueblos. Po’pay was presumably calling on a widespread array of deities, representing all the linguistic groups to be involved, to legitimize what he would be asking the Pueblos to do.
But what about the fire emitted from their extremities? No explanation has been offered for this strange phenomenon until recently, when Peter Whitely, curator of Anthropology at The American Museum of Natural History in New York, wrote that this fits well with the typical results of using peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus that has been used in many Native American ceremonies around the continent throughout the centuries. So did Po’pay use peyote and relate his visions to others? Or did others as well use peyote and see the fires?
It could be that Po’pay (and others) were using peyote to increase the intensity of imagination that let them become such potent revolutionaries. But then again peyote does not grow in the Rio Grande valley, and there is no record or even suggestion of Pueblo people using it as an import from Mexico or Texas. But there is a similar hallucinogen common to the Rio Grande Valley and Arizona—the leafy, shrubby plant with white flowers called Jimson weed or datura. Why, however, wouldn’t Po’pay and the Pueblos in general want to be hallucinogen-independent? So the fiery “katsinas” remain a mystery to this day.
The story got around among the Spanish at least that one of the figures who appeared to Po’pay in his kiva was a huge black man with yellow eyes. This led to a theory proposed by Fray Angelico Chavez, a late twentieth- century Franciscan brother, that the revolt was led not by Po’pay but by a black member of one of the Tewa pueblos named Naranjo, whose descendants still inhabit a number of Tewa pueblos today. Chavez’s view was that the Pueblos were not sophisticated enough to have strategized and executed a revolt by themselves. The implication here that their ancestors were childlike does not sit well with contemporary Pueblo people. Very few people take Chavez’s notion very seriously, the main explanation being that among the Pueblo people in those times there was no way a non-Indian could rise to such a position of authority.
Po’pay was a persuasive and, in many ways, scary leader. He let it be known that in addition to Poseyemu and the three katsinas now gone to the secret lake, he was often visited by demons and other dangerous spirit figures, all of whom he was commandeering for the work ahead.
Po’pay also surrounded himself with many of the leading war chiefs of the pueblos, swearing them to absolute secrecy. This was paramount, so much so that Po’pay, finding that his son-in-law, Nicolás Bua, had been appointed the Indian governor of San Juan and was friendly with the Spanish, saw to it that he was murdered. It is not clear if Po’pay had some subalterns stone Bua to death in his fields or if Po’pay himself murdered him. But no person of such holy stature as to be the religious and ultimate leader of a pueblo ever kills anyone or anything. So people have wondered exactly what position in the panoply of priesthoods Po’pay may have held. Possibly he was a war chief like most of the other conspirators, but more likely he was a leading member of a medicine society, though one given to shamanistic practices.
He was a superb organizer. He sought and gained the loyal alliance of a number of important war chiefs from around the pueblo world. Over the years before the revolt, they met often, usually at the feast days of the various pueblos. Feast days were great celebrations where people from other pueblos would come to celebrate, eat, and visit friends or relatives in the host pueblo. From time to time, bands of Apaches would show up as well, and some probably plotted with the Pueblo conspirators. In the crowds, the conspirators’ presence would hardly be noticed as they perfected their plans. Part of their job was to explain to all the pueblos that the uprising would occur, and that any pueblo that decided not to join in would be sacked and destroyed along with any remnants there of Spanish occupation. The destruction, Po’pay said, would be accomplished with the help of the Apache warriors who were anxious to assist.
Preference for Peace
Plenty of reasons existed for not joining up, even though the thought of being liberated was probably attractive to everyone in the pueblos. Many Pueblos simply preferred peace. While few of them were truly devoted Christians, some probably admired the friars, and many had blood ties to the Spanish. Some of the encomenderos had been helpful in times of drought and famine, and had helped protect Pueblos against the raids of the barbarian Apaches. Many simply did not want to give up the various benefits of the Spanish economy. And some wondered how the Pueblos were to defend themselves against the Apaches without Spanish soldiers and weapons. It is altogether possible that some were suspicious or downright afraid of Po’pay himself, who was hardly the avatar of the peaceful religious chief who sought harmony for his people. Some were simply scared of going along with so odd and fanatical a leader. In some pueblos, the populations were divided.
Most of the pueblos from Sandia north to Taos and the western pueblos were committed, but a few Pueblo leaders were sufficiently nervous about Po’pay and his plan that they tried to sabotage it in early August, 1680.
Why that August was chosen as the time to ignite the rebellion is not known for certain. It was near the end of a three-year cycle when the pack train from New Spain would soon arrive, so the Spaniards were at their most distressed in terms of supplies of food and weaponry. Early August also was the time of year when the Rio Grande floodwaters made crossing the river down south near El Paso del Norte difficult or impossible. The new group of fifty soldiers Fray Francisco Ayeta had rounded up in New Spain would be blocked.
In early August, Po’pay and his lieutenants sent out messengers carrying knotted strings to each of the participating pueblos, with the instruction to untie one knot a day. When the last knot was untied, it was the time to strike. In each case, the last knot would be untied August 11. On August 9, however, leaders of five of the Tano pueblos—Galisteo, San Cristobal, San Lázaro, San Marcos, and La Cienega—rode to Santa Fe to alert the Spanish authorities of Po’pay’s plan, and that same day two priests and the Indian alcalde mayor of Taos sent messages about the forthcoming uprising.
It is surprising that Governor Antonio de Otermín did not immediately undertake the kinds of precautions one might expect in the face of an onslaught of angry Pueblos—for example, sending small groups of soldiers out to protect as many missions as possible, or calling in the colonists to Santa Fe where they would be protected at least by large numbers rather than trying to resist attacks all by themselves. Perhaps the governor thought two days gave him plenty of time for all that. He did send word that in the event of hostilities, everyone north of Santa Fe should assemble there, while those to the south should assemble at Isleta where the lieutenant governor Alonso García was presently stationed.
On August 9, as part of the general alert to the rebellious pueblos, two young runners, Omtua and Catua, were carrying knotted strings to pueblo leaders and were captured and taken to Otermín, who had them tortured, interrogated, and subsequently executed. But before their deaths, they had convinced Otermín that the revolt would start on August 13. Learning of this, Po’pay sent other runners out to alert the Pueblo leaders that the revolt would begin on the morning of August 10, 1680, not the eleventh. And that is when old Fray Pío, seeking to calm his flock in Tesuque, became the first known casualty of the Pueblo–Spanish war of liberation.