A pueblo perspective on the leader of the first American revolution
By Herman Agoyo (Ohkay Owingeh)
Santa Fe New Mexican
We have no physical description of Po'pay (“Po pay”— Ripe Pumpkin), no photograph, no rendering in ink — not even some murky, handwritten remarks as to the man's height, weight, dimensions or the amount of space he may have occupied in a room. Yet, to anyone who has lived in the Southwest, his face is as familiar as is the face of any recognizable hero. It is the face that has lived in remarkable continuity throughout the history of my Pueblo people. To the outside world, however, Po'pay and the Pueblo Revolt remain pretty much unknown. I was born at Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo), the same village that gave birth to Po'pay. Ohkay Owingeh is the largest of the six Tewa-speaking villages, with over 2,000 tribal members. The village is located in the Rio Grande Valley just 30 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Known to many as the “mother home” of the Tewa people, Ohkay Owingeh has always played a central political and economic role in the Southwest. In 1598, Ohkay Owingeh's characteristics as a political and economic center were recognized by the Spaniards, who proclaimed it the first capital of Northern Mexico. This village was given another name, San Juan de los Caballeros (caballeros is Spanish for “gentlemen”), by Juan de Oñate to symbolize the generosity and hospitality provided by our tribal members. Today, as the headquarters of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Northern Pueblos Agency, Ohkay Owingeh remains a political center of Pueblo life in modern New Mexico. I received my first years of education in Ohkay Owingeh. Later I attended the Santa Fe Indian School, and it was there that a priest friend of mine encouraged me to seek a four-year college degree. This was a radical idea in the mid-1950s, as so much fine government work had gone into preparing us Indians for vocational careers. I was the only one of my class to go immediately to a four-year college. As I stand and look back years away from that time, I have come to the conclusion that it was not the lack of substantial educational opportunities that was most detrimental; rather, it was the fact that all that schooling taught me many things of the world but nothing of myself or my people and our history. I learned about the causes of the American Revolutionary War and all the wars between then and now. I learned about Plato, ancient Greece, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but not one word was ever spoken of the great leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Po'pay. In fact, even the Pueblo Revolt itself has been merely a footnote in most history books, if it's mentioned at all. In 1976 my wife, Rachele, and I took a delegation of 40 from San Juan Pueblo to Washington, D.C., to help commemorate the Bicentennial. However, we traveled to the capital not so much to celebrate the Bicentennial but in dedication to our great leader, Po'pay. It was during this time that Rachele and I visited Statuary Hall. Here each state is allowed to place two statues of prominent figures from its history. At that time New Mexico had only placed the bronze figure of the Honorable Senator Dennis Chavez, leaving one remaining space. Beneath the watchful eyes of those giants of the past, Rachele asked, “Why not Po'pay?” I thought about it. So, why not Po'pay? After almost 30 years, that empty spot — the last vacant space in the great Statuary Hall of the United States of America — [is now occupied]. Over these 30 years we have celebrated the Tricentennial of the Pueblo Revolt, promoted and garnered Po'pay's acceptance as our state's second and final representative and raised funds on a local level and through the state government to finance this endeavor. … A local sculptor, Cliff Fragua, from Jemez Pueblo, is the only Native American artist to be represented in Statuary Hall, and we have transported a ten-ton block of Tennessee marble to Jemez Pueblo for his use in creating the statue. We have promoted educational programs in our schools so that our children will learn why New Mexico celebrates its status as a true multicultural state. All of this is to honor a man that most of America knows little or nothing about. The history of the Revolt is fairly straightforward. Where the story becomes unclear is with the contradictory legends of Po'pay himself. Was he a war captain or a medicine man? Was he involved in the battles or did he view them from a nearby hilltop — or was he locked away in prayer and supplication as some have suggested? Did he have a Spanish name that was later discarded or was he always Po'pay? To the Spaniards he became known as “El Popé.” They characterized him as mad and evil — a sorcerer, a rabblerouser, a man of no distinction and an opportunist who later abused his authority. It is likely, however, that in reality he was a religious leader, because this would have given him access to the inner sanctuary of Taos Pueblo, from where he and other leaders planned the revolt. The Spanish historical records clearly connect him with the Revolt. On December 18, 1681, a Tesuque Pueblo Indian named Juan testified under oath, before “Señor Governor” Antonio De Otermín and “Secretary of Governmental War” Francisco Xavier, that the chief mover and organizer of the Revolt was a “native of the Pueblo of San Juan, named El Popé.” On December 19 and 20, this testimony was corroborated by Joseph, a Spanish-speaking Indian; Lucas, a Piro; Pedro Naranjo; and the brothers Juan and Francisco Lorenzo of San Felipe Pueblo, who also, under oath, identified Po'pay as the leader of the Revolt. In 1980, San Juan Pueblo elders revealed his Tewa name, family lineage, moiety (two-party system for dual organization) and the approximate location of his residence in the Pueblo. Po'pay's name was of the summer moiety. His role after the Revolt is unclear, but the event that he led in 1680 was vital to the survival of the New Mexico Indian Pueblos and historically significant as the first American Revolution. Here, then, is our offer of respect and honor for the man, Po'pay. This history and these contemplations are put forth so that there may be knowledge and acceptance of the man who surrendered himself to the immorality of war and all of its heartaches in order that his people would survive, that they would continue to live and pray in the manner of their ancestors, and that the sun would continue to shine and the rain would continue to fall. Herman Agoyo, a lifetime member of the San Juan Pueblo Tribal Council, served as both governor and lieutenant governor of Ohkay Owingeh. He is a recipient of SWAIA’s Povika award in recognition for his service, leadership and support of the Santa Fe Indian Market. In 2005, a statue of Po’ay, a medicine man and leader of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, was erected at Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.