The Pueblo Revolt: Individuals in Context

Written January 31, 2016

The early Spanish period in the Southwest is often characterized as a struggle between the Pueblo people and the Spanish people, as though the Spaniards were of one mind in the colonization of New Mexico. Also, it is popular to blame the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 – and the rebellious acts preceding it – on the religious oppression of the Pueblo people by the Catholic Spanish missionaries.[1] Pointing to religious oppression as the single cause ignores the secular lives of both the Pueblos and the Spanish colonists, and thereby ignores too the pervasive and persistent tension between the colony’s government and their missionaries. The interplay between the indigenous Puebloan and Spanish cultures was punctuated by the struggle between the evangelist goals of the Franciscans and the financial and political goals of the colonial government. It would be more accurate to say that oppression of Puebloan people by the Spaniards led to the Pueblo Indians’ revolutionary actions and finally to the 1680 Revolt, and that religion was one of several means of oppression.

One cannot, however, dismiss the importance of religion in the Spanish occupation the subsequent revolt. Conversion of the Puebloans to Catholicism was the primary – and perhaps entire – goal of the Franciscan missionaries that accompanied the Spanish colonists into Pueblo lands. As such, religion played a central role in the history of the colony of New Mexico, but the colony’s governors cared little for converting the Puebloan people. Where conversion of the indigenous population competed with the financial or political success of the individuals governing the colony, there rose tension between government and missionaries. One friar complained that “the governor acts as if [the Indians] were his slaves, that do not belong to the religious, but are his.”[2] In either case, the Puebloan people were seen as property of the Spaniards and not as autonomous beings. The question for the Spanish colonists and the missionaries was which Spanish institution had proprietorship of the Puebloan people.

By some accounts, the Puebloans were treated less harshly by the Franciscans than they were by the colonial government.[3] Such a subjective assertion functions best in pointing out that the Puebloans were, at least, treated differently by the two groups of Spaniards. The political misalignment of the colonists and the missionaries, evidenced in the variable treatment of Puebloan people, resulted in a repercussive power struggle that carried on over the course of the colony’s pre-Revolt history. On an interpersonal level, Puebloans and colonists alike found they could not be aligned with both the colony’s government and the missionaries; to be aligned with one was to be an enemy of the other. Individuals must have found themselves pushed and pulled in the series of events that led inevitably to revolution.

Yet the Puebloan culture and the Spanish culture were not opposed in all ways. The two religious systems – the kachina-worship of the Puebloans and the Catholicism of the Spaniards – were more similar in structure and function than they were different.[4] Both cultures were tremendously superstitious. That is, they demonstrated a tendency to credit supernatural causes for natural and human phenomena. For the Puebloans, kachinas ruled the natural world, determining weather, crop productivity and other ecological events. The sphere of divine power was greater for the Spaniards, who believed the natural world and human behavior were ruled by God and his adversary, Satan. Both cultures regulated their perception of divinity through careful rituals, though the Puebloans may have placed more emphasis on the importance of those rituals than the Spaniards did: when drought and famine struck the colony of New Mexico, the Puebloans blamed the suppression of kachina rituals, while the Spaniards blamed Satan.

Famine wasn’t new to the Puebloans. Their land had never been easily farmed, and their economy[5] and their bodies[6] had evolved to allow for the years of poor agricultural returns. The poverty of the New Mexican land made sharing resources a vital cultural artefact for the Pueblo Indians’ survival; they would have been long enculturated to an assumption of shared resources.[7] The Spanish culture did not have the same evolutionary circumstances of a resource-poor land. Rather, their culture evolved in a more readily arable land, and was constantly required to defend itself against invaders (with varying success). The Spaniards’ cultural history of military competition and relatively bountiful agriculture shows in their treatment of the Southwest’s resources and people. The colonizers expected the Indigenous peoples to be able to consistently produce tributes, even beyond the capacity of the land to yield the crops demanded. The 1598 uprising in Acoma Pueblo that sparked the Jumano War was triggered by exactly that, when Juan de Zaldívar Oñate demanded food from the starving Pueblo.[8] The Jumano War set a precedent for the way the colony and the colonized would interact over the next eighty years.

Revolt was a consistent concern for the colony’s administrators, secular and religious. When revolution finally came, it faltered before succeeding. The way it did so highlighted the several directions individuals were pulled by the social and political tensions in the colony.
Esteban Clemente, a Puebloan, led a failed attempt at revolt in the 1660s. He wasn’t the first to do so, but he was notable as a counterpoint to the Puebloan who succeeded in leading a revolution: Popay. Their names might tell readers the most important difference in these two men. Both men were Puebloan; Clemente is known only by his Spanish name while Popay is known only by his Tewa name. This is hardly an insignificant detail. Rather, the etymology of their names is indicative of their relative integration in the Spanish colonial administration.

Clemente was raised by the Franciscans and was employed by the colony’s administration to govern his pueblo. His doings were visible to both groups of Spaniards and, because of his ties to both groups and the tension between them, each group had an interest in Clemente’s activities. The friars watching were upset by Clemente’s involvement with an administrative official they disagreed with,[9] involvement that was necessitated by Clemente’s position. The colonial governors watched Clemente because of the official position he held as the Native governor of his pueblo. Historian John Kessell said that “Among Pueblo Indians who adopted Spanish ways, none stood taller than the man they called Esteban Clemente.”[10] The problem with standing taller than others is that it’s much harder to hide. Clemente’s plan to stir revolt was discovered, and he was executed.[11] Popay, on the other hand, wasn’t known to the Spaniards at all. He was relatively free from the influential pulls of both secular and religious Spanish mechanisms. His lack of entanglement in Spanish politics was undoubtedly an advantage that supported the success of his revolt.

Clemente’s and Popay’s revolts shared a common motivation: the oppression of the Puebloan peoples by the Spaniards. Neither religious nor secular forms of subjugation can be given full responsibility for the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The two were surely symbiotically entwined. Most Spanish subsequent investigations into the cause of the Revolt blamed Satan for fomenting unrest among the Pueblos. Today, it is still common to simply describe the religious persecution the Puebloans endured in the Spanish colony as the cause of the uprising. When this is done at the expense of describing, too, the barbaric treatment of the Puebloans by the Spaniards in secular contexts, we continue the legacy of negating Puebloans’ value as human beings. The Puebloan Revolt was not just about religion; its story is one of individuals, pulled into circumstances that forced them to choose between multiple but equally exploitative sides.



Galgano, Robert C. Feast of Souls: Indians and Spaniards in the Seventeenth-Century Missions of Florida and New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Kanter, John. Ancient Puebloan Southwest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Kessell, John L. Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Matsumoto, David, and Linda Juang. Culture & Psychology. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.
Ortiz, Alfonso. “Popay’s Leadership: A Pueblo Perspective.” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 18-22.
Simmons, Marc. “The Pueblo Revolt: Why Did It Happen?” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 11-15.



[1] Marc Simmons, “The Pueblo Revolt: Why Did It Happen?” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 11.

[2] Robert Galgano, Feast of Souls: Indians and Spaniards in the Seventeenth-Century Missions of Florida and New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 89.

[3] Alfonso Ortiz, “Popay’s Leadership: A Pueblo Perspective,” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 18.

[4] John L. Kessell, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 16.

[5] John Kanter, Ancient Puebloan Southwest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 69.

[6] Kessell, Pueblos, 45.

[7] David Matsumoto and Linda Juang, Culture & Psychology, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013), 8-9.

[8] Kessell, Pueblos, 35.

[9] Ibid, 101.

[10] Ibid, 97.

[11] Ibid, 106.


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