The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: An American ‘Braveheart’

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was a rebellion more than a hundred years in the making. The persecution of the Puebloan Indians is traceable to 1541 and the misguided expedition of Francisco Coronado. En route to the fabled golden city of Cibola and ill-equipped for the stark New Mexico deserts, Coronado and his army promptly began requisitioning food and supplies from the native people – brutalizing all those that resisted.

Oñate

Fifty-seven years later Don Juan de Oñate and 200-some Spanish soldiers marched northward into New Mexico with orders to colonize the territory and Catholicize its inhabitants. A half-legal form of Spain’s barbarous encomienda system was introduced that forced natives to pay tributes from the crops they yielded and in some cases subjected them to slavery. During his tenure as New Mexico’s first governor Oñate would oversee numerous atrocities against the Puebloans, including the infamous 1599 massacre, dismemberment, and enslavement of the Acoma tribe as extreme retribution for their insurrection.

While the violence persisted, so too did Spain’s war on the native religion. Puebloans were imprisoned and oftentimes executed for their resistance to Catholic beliefs and for clinging to their own. In 1675, New Mexico Governor Juan Trevino arrested 47 such Puebloan “hold-outs,” and deemed them witches. Three of these prisoners were hanged and the others severely whipped before Trevino, under intense pressure by the natives, finally released them. Unfortunately for Trevino and the other Spanish settlers living in the territory, one of those recently-freed was the fearsome leader Popé.

Most of what is known of Popé (pronounced Po’pay) and his personality come from oral tradition or reports made by the Spaniards who encountered him. He has been described as “fierce,” “charismatic,” “scheming,” and “intelligent,” all of which must have been true for Popé to unite so many different tribes that spoke so many different languages and then lead them to a decisive victory over the militarily-superior Spaniards. It is also safe to say Popé held a well-rounded hatred for the Spanish and all their customs. This hatred was undoubtedly honed while Popé and his 46 fellow Puebloans endured the torment of their Spanish captors.

Prohibited by the Spanish from using guns or horses, in early August of 1680, Popé sent runners carrying deerskin strips tied with knots to the distant pueblos. At every sunrise each pueblo was to untie one knot until, with the untying of the last knot, the revolt could begin. The Spaniards learned of the plot, but the tribes preserved their element of surprise by attacking two days early. The Puebloans swarmed Santa Fe and, with their occupiers huddled inside the Palace of the Governors, Popé banished the Spanish back into Mexico.

Popé exhibited a staunch opposition to Christianity and European custom. After expelling the Spaniards to El Paso, he declared, “The God of the Christians is dead. He was made of rotten wood.” Unfortunately for him however, not all of his people had remained devout to the old ways, and after more than a century of interaction with the Franciscans many had converted to Christianity. It was Christian Puebloans such as these that, in the twelve years following the 1680 Revolt, came to yearn for the return of the Spanish and the Church.

Following their successful revolt of 1680, the Puebloan people of New Mexico found themselves suddenly in power of a vast and changed territory. Normally separated by language, religion, ideology, and geographic distance, never before had these tribes been so united as they were while fighting their mutual enemy the Spanish. More than that, never before had they known a more unifying and charismatic leader than that of Popé.

But with the Spanish vacated, abruptly the Puebloans lost their source of unity. Fierce infighting promptly ensued amongst the tribes as to who would remain in Santa Fe and rule New Mexico. On top of this, there occurred a surge in raids by nomadic bands like the Navajo. Then there were the frequent attempts made by those fuming Spaniards huddled in El Paso to exact revenge over their insurgents and regain the northern territory. On the nine-year anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt, Spaniards stalked up the Rio Grande and attacked the Zia Pueblo, killing some 600 Zias before retreating back to El Paso. Finally,                                                                              a severe drought fell over the southwest, and                                                                               did not leave for seven years.

The details of Popé’s life during this time vary. Some accounts claim he attempted to assert himself as something of a dictatorial leader of all the Puebloan people, striving to eradicate all Spanish influence from Pueblo society through sometimes severe punishment until finally the Puebloans rejected their former leader. Conversely, other oral traditions describe Popé retreating from politics and leading a quiet life incognito in Taos before dying anonymous. Whichever the case, without a common enemy and devoid of their once-leader, the Puebloan people soon enough divided, and despite thwarting a couple prior campaigns the Puebloans eventually relented to Spanish reclamation in 1692.

In 2005, a statue of Popé was placed inside the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. as one of two profiles picked to represent New Mexico (the other being the late senator Dennis Chavez). Sculpted by Cliff Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo, the seven and a half foot marble rendition depicts the Puebloan leader gripping the knotted strip of deerskin in one hand and a bear fetish in the other to symbolize Puebloan religion. Popé is the earliest American figure to be featured in the collection, and also the 100th and final one to be submitted.

New Mexico Massacre: The Taos Rebellion

It was a gray and bitter morning on February 4, 1847. Colonel Sterling Price and more than 300 American soldiers and vengeful mountain men had the St. Jerome church surrounded. Set in the northwestern corner of the Taos Pueblo, the church was a formidable building of clay walls packed six-feet thick with twin belltowers looming thirty feet high. Inside, the only light being the few candles flickering along the wall and the slits of silty dawn streaming in through freshly-punched rifle holes, huddled 200-some Mexican and Indian rebels.

Price let loose the batteries and all through the morning the Americans bombarded the walls with artillery shells to little effect. Men with hatchets stormed the heavy front door, some of them falling to sniper shots, and managed to hack a small breach in the wood. They lit cannon shells and tossing them inside the cramped quarters. The results were devastating. The breach was widened and the Americans pushed their giant howitzer within ten yards of the hole and blasted the corralled  insurgents with wave after wave of six-pound grapeshot. Men set up ladders and set the church’s roof ablaze and the Americans rushed through the broken door and engaged the remaining survivors in intense hand-to-hand combat — the air thick with smoke and flaming timbers raining from above — until more than 150 Mexican and Indian rebels lay mutilated. Those that surrendered were arrested and led away to meet their own bleak fates.

The attack had been retaliation for one of the most bloody insurrections ever conducted by native inhabitants against their American conquerors, and it had effectively squashed the only major resistance against the United States’ occupation of New Mexico.

General Stephen Watts Kearny

It began in August of 1846, shortly after the start of the Mexican-American War, as General Stephen Watts Kerny marched unchallenged into the northernmost Mexican province and declared it for the United States. Kearny inserted a new system of government, dubbed the “Kearny Code,” and appointed a number of territorial officials that included Charles Bent as Governor and Charles Beuabien as one of three federal judges. With that, Kearny departed New Mexico, leaving Colonel Sterling Price in charge of its military.

In the months that followed, tensions quickly rose between the territory’s Mexican and Indian population, and the new American regime. Under Price’s watch the soldiers digressed sometimes into cruel occupiers — requisitioning food and items from merchants without paying, abusing the women, and littering the villages. More than that, Mexican landowners grew justifiably concerned for their titles to plots previously granted by the Mexican government. And finally, due in large part to the efforts of a few paranoid and anti-American priests, Mexicans came to fear for the future of their Catholic church.

With the majority of American forces currently waging war further south in Mexico or else pressing further westward through California to the Pacific Coast under the dream of Manifest Destiny, the environment was ripe for rebellion. And as the year came to a close, Taos was to be the starting place.

Governor Charles Bent

On the morning of January 14, 1847, a roaring mob of Mexican and Pueblo Indians — some of them drunk on whisky — descended upon Taos. They were led respectively by a Mexican man named Pablo Montoya, and Puebloan known simply as Tomás, and their first stop was the home of Governor Charles Bent. Knocking rather civilly, the mob met Bent at his door and shot him three times in the face with arrows. Bent fell back, managed to bolt the door behind him, and with his wife and children, as well as Kit Carson’s wife Josefa and another woman staying with the family at the time, the group cowered in the corner of the small home as above them the mob ripped away the roof. The insurgents broke through, and with the arrows still sticking out of his face grabbed Bent by the hair and scalped him in front of his horrified family.

The massacre did not stop for two days. The mob destroyed American homes and slaughtered their inhabitants. They shot down Taos Sheriff Stephen Lee as he hid atop his roof. They discovered 13 year-old Narcisso Beaubien, son of Judge Charles Beaubien, who was absent at the time, huddled beneath a water trough with another young friend. When one of the Indian women spotted them, she yelled, “Kill the young ones, and they will never be men to trouble us,” the mob dragged the two boys out of their hiding place and lanced them to death. They broke into Kit Carson’s house, who was away with Kearny in California, and pillaged everything. A few miles north of town the mob surrounded Turley’s Mill, a distilling place of Taos Lightening, and burnt it to the ground. All but two died inside the fire; one of them Tom Tobin, who would go on to join the retaliation attack against St. Jerome, and John Albert, who fled nearly two hundred miles through the snow to Pueblo.

From there, the rebellion spread across northern New Mexico, and dispersed bands of Mexicans and Indians attacked American wagons, camps, and ranches. But as they raided their way toward Santa Fe and the big prize, they were met outside the city by Colonel Price and his command. The Americans quickly overcame the rebels and chased the survivors back northward until the majority of them had barricaded themselves inside Taos Pueblo’s missionary church. After that, Price and his men — all of them thirsting for vengeance — required only patience. That, and a few tons of cannon shells.

Judge Charles Beaubien

In the weeks that followed the siege of Taos Pueblo, the Indian leader Tomás was murdered in his prison cell. A few days later his counterpart Montoya faced a drumhead court-martial and became the star of Taos’ first public hanging. The remaining captured rebels stepped before a court presided over by none other than Judge Charles Beaubien — father of the slain Narciso and, coincidentally, father-in-law of Sheriff Stephen Lee. The jury box consisted entirely of vengeful Americans and their deliberations took only minutes. Sixteen men faced charges of murder while five more stood for treason. Sixteen times Judge Beaubien declared this same, irrefutable sentence: “Muerto, muerto, muerto.”

The Remains of old St. Jerome, Taos Pueblo

Skinwalkers

 

They are accounts of nighttime drives on the lonely road between Farmington, NM and The Four Corners when, in the distance ahead, a coyote appears on the roadway, its eyes glowing in the headlights. Except that they are not coyote eyes, they are something else, something almost human, and when the car speeds past the waiting coyote the coyote bolts and begins speeding along with it, running at 60 miles per hour, its eyes still aglow in the headlights. The driver looks away and presses pedal to metal, and when he looks back suddenly it is no longer a coyote running at pace next to the vehicle, but a man. A man with the yellow eyes of a coyote fixed on the driver, one hand banging on the hood.

Or another story from the desert town of Tuba City, Arizona near Monument Valley, where a building contractor is doing repairs on an old ranch home. Thinking himself alone, the man is surprised to hear laughter coming from somewhere off in the sheep pens. Following the noise, the man turns a corner to the edge of the sheep pen where before him the entire flock is huddled shivering into one end of the pen while on the other a lone ram stands separated. He is standing upright, his two front hooves across his chest and his horned head thrown back in gleeful, maniacal laughter that is unmistakably human. Watching this, the man jumps and suddenly the ram spots him. For a fleeting moment the two lock eyes and, just like the laughter, the ram’s eyes are familiar and anything but animal. The ram falls back down to all fours and mills along as if nothing had ever happened.

They are stories of shape-shifting creatures acrosss Navajo Nation, the 24k-plus reservation land encompassing most of northeastern Arizona and the adjacent corner sections of New Mexico and Utah. A taboo subject amongst natives, Skinwalkers are seldom discussed with members outside the tribe, and rarely even inside it. The Navajo Skinwalker legend is not unlike that of the European werewolf: A once-ordinary human discovers the ability to shift into animal form at night where his doings then become almost exclusively evil. Unlike the werewolf, however, the Skinwalker curse is desired and acquired, that is, Skinwalkers do not have the bad luck to be “bitten” and forced into the curse. Rather, they want it and are willing to perform extraordinary rites of evil in order to achieve it.

There are multiple legends behind the origin of the Navajo Skinwalker. One claims the Navajos mastered shapeshifting in order to escape persecution and relocation — the Kit Carson-led cornering of the tribe deep in Canyon de Chelly and later their forced and disastrous relocation to Bosque de Redondo. Another version relates to the Navajo belief in the Anasazi curse — that the Anasazi were responsible for the prevailing witchcraft in the Navajo tribes — and that Navajo Skinwalkers used the off-limit Anasazi ruins and grave sites to gain certain powers.

The most prominent history of the Skinwalker tells of a particular form of Navajo witch, or an ’ánt’įįhnii, called ayee naaldlooshii, translated to mean “with it, he goes on all fours.” The yee naaldlooshii is usually a medicine man or high-ranking priest who has obtained supernatural powers through breaking a cultural taboo, including murder, seduction, or the corrupting of a family member.

Upon accepting this deep and consuming level of witchcraft, Skinwalkers are banished forever from a tribe (but considering the foreknowledge of this as well the despicable acts required for the transformation, the aspiring Skinwalker surely possessed an early, pre-seated hate for the tribe). Prowling alone in the desert, a Skinwalker (and also unlike the werewolf) has the ability to shape-shift into any animal they wish, although most commonly the animal is a coyote, wolf, cougar, fox, owl, or crow — a reason why pelts of these animals are widely restricted among the Navajo.

In animal form the eyes of a Skinwalker are distinctly human, while in human form this is reversed. Varying versions of the legend attribute Skinwalkers the ability to “body-snatch”, to take possession of another person’s body if that person locks eyes long enough with the Skinwalker. It is also said Skinwalkers, through this same eye-locking method, have the power to read human thoughts or even mimic perfectly the voice of that person, a ploy used to lure relatives. Skinwalkers are also said to use voodoo-like tactics to manipulate their victims, such as collecting a target’s hair, wrapping it around a pottery shard, then burying it in a tarantula hole.

Outcasts and pariahs, Skinwalkers assume begrudged and hate-driven existences, their spirits in constant search of revenge or else mindless harm. The more modest accounts of Skinwalker encounters portray them as mischievous, almost poltergeist-like. They will climb the roofs of sleeping families, bang on the walls and knock on the windows. More commonly though, Skinwalkers stories are far more malicious. In these accounts Skinwalkers climb roofs in order to seek ways into the house and attack the family, or else they assault cars driving through reservation land, causing wrecks.

They are described as fast and agile, ugly mutations that are not quite human and not fully animal. Usually they are naked but some sightings report a creature wearing tattered shirts or jeans. In some stories the Skinwalker is actually tracked down only to lead to the home of a relative of the tracker. Or, like the werewolf, the Skinwalker will be shot and the next day a Navajo will be found with the same exact wound, revealing him as the ánt’įįhnii. Certain Navajo myths insist that the only way to fully kill a Skinwalker is with a bullet dipped in white ash.