Invasion of Native Lands and the Pueblo Revolt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Surviving Columbus is a documentary made by Pueblo people to mark the Quincentenary of Europe’s so-called discovery of the Americas. A segment on the Spanish invasion of Pueblo homelands in the Southwest asks the audience to contemplate what names Pueblo people might give to those who set out to victimize and conquer them. Discoverer is not one of them.

The Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park.
A number of towns or pueblos, concentrated in regions along the Rio Grande. (Image: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock)

Pueblo Land and People

In the 1500s, the Pueblo world included a number of towns or pueblos, concentrated in regions along the Rio Grande. There were also the Zuni to the west; and, even further out, the Hopi.

The Pueblo had built a rich life rooted in sedentary villages supported by agriculture, but they were connected to a wider world.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Early Pueblo-Spanish Clashes

As early as 1539, Zunis at the pueblo of Hawikuh clashed with Spaniards who were in search of great riches. Even before their arrival, the Zuni had already heard reports about the Spanish and the slave raiders who had attacked Indigenous communities in northern Mexico, laying waste to the elderly and taking the young into captivity.

So, they rightly approached these newcomers with caution, suspicion, and hostility.

Francisco Váquez de Coronado’s Treatment of Natives

In 1540, Francisco Váquez de Coronado returned to Hawikuh, this time with an army of Spanish and Indigenous warriors.

A portrait of Francisco Váquez de Coronado.
From 1540, Francisco Váquez de Coronado’s men moved across pueblos wreaking havoc. (Image: Billy Hathorn/CC BY-SA/ 3.0 /Public domain)

Coronado’s expedition was met by 200 Zuni warriors—and a cornmeal line. The line was literally made of yellow cornmeal that the Zuni sprinkled across the road leading into Hawikuh. The cornmeal line symbolically closed the road and was meant to convey that Zuni ceremonies were in progress—in this case a summer solstice ritual.

Coronado didn’t respect the cornmeal line. He crossed it and proceeded to attack the Zuni, take their food, and insist upon their conversion to Christianity.

Coronado’s rampage started what Alfonso Ortiz, San Juan Pueblo anthropologist, refers to as a three-year traveling show of horrors. The Spaniards moved from pueblo to pueblo, then onto the plains and back again, wreaking havoc.

Learn more about the ancestral Pueblo.

Zuni Customs and Coronado Crossing the Line

Ortiz explains that when Pueblo pilgrims were away to conduct ceremonies, until they returned, no visitors were to come into Hawikuh. To cross a cornmeal line, according to Ortiz, would have been considered a great offense, or what he called inhospitable— presumptuous in the extreme.

This is another example of how Native people attempted to engage newcomers in their own accustomed ways, how they attempted to incorporate them into Indigenous worlds on Indigenous terms.

First Attempt at Colonizing the Pueblo World

The first attempt to colonize the Pueblo world began over 50 years later, when Juan de Oñate arrived with 560 people, thousands of sheep and goats, and hundreds of horses and cattle to establish a region the Spanish called New Mexico.

Once again, the Pueblos were met with violence. In late December 1598, for instance, a member of Oñate’s expedition named Juan de Zaldívar sparked conflict at Acoma, the Sky City.

Zaldívar was killed, and the Spanish responded with a campaign that resulted in the deaths of 800 Pueblo men, women, and children. Another 500 were taken captive, punished, and sold into slavery or sent to convents in Mexico City.

Impact of Encomienda and Repartimiento Systems on the Natives

Once they had established a foothold, Spanish colonial authorities began generating wealth by exploiting Pueblo land and labor.

Through the encomienda system, the holders of Spanish land grants were given authority to demand labor and tribute from the Indians who lived on or near their plantations.

In 1542, the Spanish began replacing encomienda with repartimiento. It imposed forced—albeit paid—labor on Indigenous populations. Indians were required to supply labor pools for the Spaniards’ mines, agricultural fields, and even the construction of churches and roads.

Disease and Structural Disempowerment of the Natives

Through the early 17th century, the systems became ever more oppressive. Pueblo women were increasingly subjected to abuse. Colonial authorities imposed a governance structure that disempowered traditional Pueblo leaders, and Franciscan missionaries grew ever more hostile toward Pueblo religious practices.

By the mid-1600s, the Rio Grande Valley was also struggling with disease and drought. The Pueblo people suffered massive losses relative to their small population, declining from 40,000 to 17,000 between 1638 and 1670.

The Pueblos Respond

So how did the Pueblo interpret why their world was being turned upside down?

They thought the Pueblo social order had fallen apart and needed to be restored. To restore harmony and balance, Pueblo caciques or chiefs led public performances of prayers, dances, and ceremonies.

The Spanish retaliated with whipping, castration, rape, and sodomy. Matters reached the breaking point in 1675, when 47 Tewa medicine men were punished by Spanish authorities for performing traditional dances and ceremonies in public. Three were executed; another committed suicide. The rest were imprisoned in Santa Fe and sentenced to be sold into slavery for their supposed witchcraft.

Learn more about the commonly held views of Native Americans

The Pueblo Revolt

Known commonly as the Pueblo Revolt, it might better be thought of as the Pueblo war for independence. The Pueblo launched coordinated attacks on 10 August, 1680. The violence resulted in the deaths of about 400 colonists and 20 friars.

To restore an indigenous sacred landscape, Pueblos destroyed missions and wiped excrement on crucifixes. Some sought to reverse their baptisms through second ablutions.

An illustration showing Native Americans killing a priest during the Pueblo revolt.
The Pueblo revolt resulted in the deaths of about 400 colonists and 20 friars. (Image: MarkThree/CC BY-SA 4.0//Public domain)

Ultimately, Santa Fe became the site of a final siege. After nine days, the Spaniards escaped and withdrew entirely from New Mexico.

Order Restored in Pueblo World?

Many of the Pueblos were able to reestablish themselves in the mountains, contributing to the geographic reorganization of Pueblo life.

But, on the whole, harmony and balance proved elusive, and the succeeding years saw continued drought, pestilence, hunger, and political turmoil.

And, between 1692 and 1698, the Spanish returned—with a vengeance. At Santa Fe in December 1693, they executed 70 Pueblo men, and distributed some 400 Indian women and children as slaves to colonists. This Pueblo struggle for independence resulted in reconquest, but it was far from over.

So, how does one remember history? If some people celebrate the so-called discovery of 1492, others see reasons to mourn the physical and spiritual suffering—the pain and the loss that this discovery unleashed.

And yet, the Native peoples endured. They named the conqueror, but they did not accept the name conquered. Instead, they would continue to search for common ground.

Common Questions about the Invasion of Native Lands and the Pueblo Revolt

Q: What was the first attempt at colonizing the Pueblo world?

The first attempt to colonize the Pueblo world began when Juan de Oñate arrived to establish a region the Spanish called New Mexico.

Q: What was the Pueblo revolt?

On 10 August, 1680, the Pueblo people launched coordinated attacks that resulted in the deaths of about 400 colonists and 20 friars.

Q: What were the Encomienda and Repartimiento systems imposed by the Spanish colonial authorities?

Through encomienda, the holders of Spanish land grants were given  authority to demand labor and tribute from the Pueblo Indians who lived on or near their plantations. The repartimiento system imposed forced—albeit paid—labor on Indigenous populations.

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