(A statue of Popé at Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. Courtesy of Google images.)
Today, on Columbus Day, I would like to tell you about Popé, a Tewan chieftain and medicine man. He was a fierce defender of his people against Spanish colonization. His legacy is convoluted-- swathed in legend and mystery--just as is Cristobol Colon's.
Popé hailed from the San Juan pueblo in the land that is now New Mexico and made his first historical appearance in 1675. It is said that he was the leader of some native shamans who were accused by Catholic missionaries of witchcraft. The legend goes that he and his men either murdered the missionaries who had imprisoned them or perhaps he went to Santa Fe alone and demanded the release of the prisoners from the Spanish governor. No one really knows.
He gained fame for his resistance and from Taos, Popé preached the doctrine of independence from the Spaniards and marshalled other chiefs from nearby pueblos to join him in a rebellion: Catiti of Santo Domingo, Tupatú of Picuris (my own pueblo ancestors), and Jaca of Taos. Using a system of knotted ropes to mark the days leading to the uprising, Popé led his men in a revolt on August 10, 1680. They killed every single priest, soldier, and missionary among the colonists driving the other Spaniards all the way south to El Paso. Popé and his men burned the churches and destroyed all evidence of the Spanish presence in their territory.
The native people returned to their traditional way of life. Popé is said to have "unbaptized" his people by bathing them in yucca suds. Before long, though, the tribes began fighting with each other. Navajo, Ute, and Apaches mounted attacks against the pueblos and the Spaniards were no longer there to protect them.
The pueblo wars prevented the people from noticing that the Spaniards had not forgotten them and soldiers were an increasing presence in the area. Don Diego de Vargas was selected as the governor of the territory and he learned from spies that Popé's army had fallen apart. In 1692, DeVargas and his men caught the pueblos off guard and reconquered Santa Fe. In the following four years, the soldiers took over the pueblos one by one. Popé died before the Spaniards were in complete control and were there to stay.
That is the sad story of a man who tried and failed to protect his people from the march of European expansion into the new world. I could not find any direct quotes from Popé to end this post. However, here is a verse by Donehogawa (Ely Parker), a Seneca, and the first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the U. S. government. It describes the loss of a whole civilization:
Our dust and bones.
Ashes cold and white.
I see no longer the curling smoke rising.
I hear no longer the songs of women.
Only the wail of the coyote is heard.