When Pagans Fought Back and Won (Sort of)

Lithograph by well-known Indian artist Parker Boyiddle created in 1980 for the 300th anniversary of the Great Pueblo Revolt. My copy hangs over my desk, wherever I live.

Today’s Pagans, particularly those who inspired by an ancient polytheistic tradition, often wonder why their Pagan ancestors gave up their beliefs.

It’s a complicated story. Some, like the Saxons conquered by Charlemagne, were in a convert-or-die situation, and thousands died.

Sometimes, as in the Roman West, you get the feeling that the upper classes, at least, just followed a fashion set by the emperor: “If you’re going to get ahead, it helps to be a Christian.”  The lower classes were slowly brought around by a mixture of preaching, examples, and punishments.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, whose best-known work, Things Fall Apart, is set in a late-19th-century Igbo community, describes government-backed missionaries’ influence on the community, and some of the people’s response (or rather, non-response) might surprise you.

In one instance, however, indigenous people fought a war against the missionaries and won. It was Pagans 1, Catholics 0, at least until the rematch.

To summarize a lot of history: During the 16th century, several Spanish expeditions crossed or probed the upper Rio Grande Valley of what is now New Mexico, as well as entering settlements to the west, such as Zuni (New Mexico) and the Hopi towns (Arizona).

Serious colonization began in 1598 under the leadership of Don Juan de Oñate. About fifty Franciscan monks and priests were part of his expedition, bringing not just their gospel but Mexican chiles, tomatoes, and melons, as well as Eurasian peach tree seedlings and more, thus changing foodways of the American Southwest forever. More colonists, soldiers, and missionaries continued to arrive subsequently, although never in large numbers.

It was the usual story:

The Franciscans not only wanted to replace the idolatrous religious practice of the Pueblos, which were clearly the work of the omnipresent Devil, but also all aspects of their non-European, barbarian way of life The Indians needed to learn to wear proper clothes and shoes, to be modest, and to never engage in adultery.((Jake Page, Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom (Tucson: Rio Nuevo, 2013), 57.))

Over the next eighty years there were sporadic acts of resistance but nothing major. The leaders of rebellions were usually questioned, tortured, and executed. In one 1675 round-up of rebels, 47 religious leaders (medicine men) from nearby Pueblo towns were brought to Santa Fe, where a few were hanged and the rest flogged and imprisoned. One man, a shaman named Po’pay (also spelt Popé), from San Juan Pueblo (now using its old name of Okeh Owingeh again), upon his release announced to the people back home that the gods had given him a plan.

He and his group carried out an astonishing strategy: they organized warriors who spoke multiple languages (all unwritten), over distances of hundreds of miles, to all rise up on the same day, 11 August 1680. Inevitably, there were some security leaks — the Spanish governor in Santa Fe found out what was planned, and so Po’pay told people in his area to strike a day early.

The priests died first. Churches — even huge adobe edifices like the first church at Pecos — were burned internally and then torn down brick by brick. Other warriors attacked Spanish farms and ranches, killing and looting. In the north, survivors fled to the governor’s palace, the casas reales, in Santa Fe, while others further south gathered at Isleta, south of today’s Albuquerque. Twenty-one Franciscan friars “achieved martyrdom” that first day.

At Hopi, after they torched the churches, “the two-hundred-pound bells, so piously hauled the thousand miles from New Spain [Mexico] over the years, were destroyed, except at Oraibi where they were hidden, and remain so to this day.”((Ibid., 115.))

The survivors, less than half of the colonial population, prepared to break out of their siege in Santa Fe, even though most were not fighting men. But the Indians, who outnumbered them, let them go, and they straggled south, eventually stopping where Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, now stands.

Good bureaucrats, the Spanish censused the survivors:

Catalina de Zamora passed muster with four grown nieces, Spaniards, all on foot and extremely poor, and five servants [presumably Indians]. The enemy killed two of her nephews and more than thirty relatives. She does not sign because of not knowing how.((Ibid. 136.))

When you read that the natives of western North America “got horses from the Spanish,” 1680 is when that happened.

No Golden Age emerged in the former colony. Some communities mounted a “de-Hispanization” campaign. At Okeh Owingeh, Po’pay ordered un-baptism ceremonies and forbade his people to ever mention Jesus, Mary, or other saints again.  Other communities relocated to more defensible locations, expecting that the Spanish would return — which they did, twelve years later, in 1692.

Meanwhile, inter-tribal wars flared up again, Apache raids were a constant problem, and drought was always lurking.

The Reconquista is sometimes described as “bloodless,” but it was not. Many Pueblo towns looked at their odds and decided to surrender. Without the grand coalition of 1680, the 50 veteran Spanish soldiers who accompanied the new (or returning) colonists could defeat the warriors of any single town.

Yet in some places, there were bitter fights. Archaeologists found evidence of them only relatively recently — David Roberts’ The Pueblo Revolt (linked at the image) tells that story. Jake Page’s Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom, which I have quoted here, is stronger on the cultural background issues and the long-term effects of the Great Pueblo Revolt and the Reconquest. I would recommend it as a good first book on the revolt.

With the Reconquest, the Franciscans and other Catholic missionaries came back too, but they never ruled the Pueblo towns as before. Many tribal members took a “dual faith” approach, attending Mass but also celebrating their own festivals or blended festivals, while keeping much of their various Old Religions a private matter. It was, Page notes, “a mutual accommodation.”

3 thoughts on “When Pagans Fought Back and Won (Sort of)

  1. Robert Mathiesen

    I have wondered for a long time whether news of King Philip’s War (1675-1678), with its lethal aftermath for the Native Americans in New England, might have reached the Pueblos by way of Native American messangers, and strengthened their resolve to do or die. The close timing is suggestive. And the Pueblos avoided the strategic mistakes made by the Tribes in New England that contributed to their defeat and near annihilation.

  2. I tend to doubt that scenario, as the Pueblos were more oriented north-south (toward the Valley of Mexico, ultimately) than east-west.

    After the drought and wars of the 13th-14th centuries, the peoples abandoned SW Colorado and southern Utah, withdrawing to the south, including the north-south Rio Grande drainage. (While Europeans enjoyed the Medieval Warm Period, it was not such a good time around here, apparently.)

    The northern Pueblos (Taos, Picuris, and especially Pecos) had trade ties that reached into the Great Plains, and some of the Picuris people even moved for a time into western Kansas. But I have never read of Trans-Mississippi contacts clear to New England in the 17th century by the Pueblo peoples.

  3. Pitch313

    All in all, my sense is that the immigrant Spanish and later Mexican missionaries were implacable in their aim to convert/subdue/subjugate/extirpate Pagan Native American peoples and populations.

    My home state of California has a series of landmark missions memorializing this endeavor. My home county of Solano is named after the Christianized Suisunes leader (Sem Yeto) who brought his people and others to populate Mission Solano in Sonoma, CA. My home town of Vallejo is named after the Spanish and later Mexican general who administered the area, including its missionization.

    Even though the landscape emanated (to my young perceptions) a powerful Pagan energy, indigenous Pagan peoples and cultures and tales of their resistance were pretty much absent and ignored when I grew up. My own Pagan sensibility thus derives from the land and from what immigrants carried with them and created there in California.

    Spiritually speaking, I have really never been able to sort out the furball of California’s peoples, cultures, settlement, history, and energies. Whatever continuity of indigenous Paganism exists, I–descendant of Gold Rush era Irish/English immigrants–am not part of it. But I am certainly Pagan and not a participant in or adherent of California’s Christian(ization) tradition.

    In addition, I am certainly not a bearer of any European culture, no matter where my ancestors came from. No matter what more or less Romantic affiliations or curiosities I might feel. I am, for good or ill, a San Francisco Bay Area in California Pagan through and through, from the dialect I learned to speak to the Paganism that has energized my entire life and being.

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