General view of (Tewa) San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico. Photo taken in 1906 by H.S. Poley.
Shows adobe structures, wood platforms, beehive ovens, ladders and plaza. Courtesy of the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Ohkay Owingeh

by William H. Wroth

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, named Pueblo de San Juan de los Caballeros by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, is a Tewa-speaking village twenty-five miles north of Santa Fe, on the Rio Grande just north of the confluence with the Chama River. In the traditional history of Ohkay Owingeh (“Place of the Strong People”) the ancestors are said to have emerged from a lake in the north, hence a sipapu or place of emergence from the under world. The lake is often said to have been in southern Colorado, near the great sand dunes of the San Luis valley. The Tewa people after emergence traveled south making settlements on both sides of the Rio Grande, and at the site of Ohkay Owingeh they built two villages one on each side of the river, probably about 1200 A.D. Directly across from Ohkay Owingeh was Yungé Owingeh (“Mockingbird Place”) on the west side of the Rio Grande.

In 1598 Juan de Oñate listed eleven Tewa-speaking villages. Today seven still survive; in addition to Ohkay Owingeh, are Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Tesuque. There is also a group of Tewa-speaking Tanos from the Galisteo Basin who were displaced by Diego de Vargas in the Reconquest and by 1701 had established themselves among the Hopis at First Mesa where they still live and are known today as the Hopi-Tewas.

The people of Ohkay Owingeh first encountered Europeans when the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition came to New Mexico in 1541, but no doubt hearing of the rapacious behavior of Coronado and his men, the people fled into the mountains when the expedition came and set up camp near their village. The exploring expedition of Gaspar Castaño de Sosa briefly visited Ohkay Owingeh in 1591, but it was the colonizing expedition of Juan de Oñate in 1598 which brought the full force of the Spanish presence to the village. After living at Ohkay Owingeh for a while, which he first named San Juan Bautista, then renamed San Juan de los Caballeros, Oñate chose to make Yungé Owingeh the capital of the new Spanish colony of New Mexico, naming it San Gabriel de Yungé. Oñate forced or convinced the inhabitants of Yungé to relocate to Okhay, and the settlers and soldiers from Mexico moved into their former homes, a Pueblo house block of some 400 apartments. They renovated Yungé according to European tastes, such as the addition of wooden doorways and window frames. Oñate’s main purpose in colonizing New Mexico was to discover gold and silver mines as rich as or richer than those of his home in Zacatecas. When he discovered nothing of value and the harsh reality of life in New Mexico became apparent, he resigned under fire for his poor leadership and in 1607 returned to Mexico. The capital of New Mexico was moved in 1608 from San Gabriel de Yungé to its present site at Santa Fe.

In the decades that followed, the people of Ohkay Owingeh, like other Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, suffered under an oppressive Spanish rule in which they were conscripted into forced labor, required to pay demanding taxes in goods, and their religious activities were suppressed. By the 1670s there was a great deal of discontent amongst the Pueblo peoples which came to a head in 1675 when 47 Pueblo religious leaders were jailed in Santa Fe and were subjected to whipping for practicing their religion, viewed by the Spaniards as idolatry. Four of the men were hanged. Among those who were released was a medicine man, as the Spanish documents characterize him, from Ohkay Owingeh named Popay (Popé) who soon became the leader of the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. Popay moved to Taos Pueblo and began plotting with confederates from other Pueblos to drive the Hispanic settlers out of New Mexico.

Soon a well-coordinated effort, which included the support of Ohkay Owingeh and other Tewa villages, was launched in August 1680. The intent was to kill the missionaries and destroy the churches at each Pueblo, and to kill any settlers who resisted and did not evacuate their settlements and leave New Mexico. As soon as the rebellion broke out, the Hispanic settlers in the Santa Cruz de la Cañada valley and other settlements close to Ohkay Owingeh abandoned their farms and assembled at the home of the Santa Cruz alcalde mayor. They then retreated en masse to Santa Fe, after which the Tewas from Ohkay Owingeh and other nearby Pueblos destroyed their houses and chapels. After the Spanish retreat to El Paso, Tewa-speaking Tano Indians from the Pueblos of San Cristóbal and San Lázaro in the Galisteo basin moved north to the Santa Cruz River valley to be close to their linguistic kin at Ohkay Owingeh and to re-establish themselves in a more fertile and safer area.

After several unsuccessful attempts by Spanish forces to re-conquer New Mexico, Diego de Vargas and his forces marched north in 1692, and most of the Pueblos submitted to Spanish rule. However, by 1696 dissatisfaction had again come to a head. In March 1696 Fray Gerónimo Prieto at Ohkay Owingeh wrote to Vargas asking for military protection. He said that Pueblo leaders, including those from Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma, were on their way to San Juan under the pretense of coming to trade; but actually were meeting to plot a rebellion. In June 1696 the second Pueblo Rebellion began with many of the Pueblo villages participating, including Taos, Picuris, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Ohkay Owingeh, and the other Tewa and Tano Pueblos. The rebels killed five missionaries and 21 soldiers and settlers and burned several of the mission churches before fleeing into the mountains. In 1697 Vargas succeeded in subduing the rebellion among the eastern Pueblos. Ohkay Owingeh again submitted to Spanish rule, but the Tanos of the Santa Cruz valley fled westward and by 1701 had established themselves among the Hopis at First Mesa where they still live and are known today as the Hopi-Tewas.

By 1706 if not earlier, a new church was under construction at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo with the Franciscan friar, Fray José Antonio de Torres, in residence. Through the eighteenth century it served as the religious center for the newly established and re-established Hispanic communities in the area. Little is known of this church, but in the 1740s Fray Juan José Pérez de Mirabel directed its renovation and enlargement or the construction of an entirely new church at Ohkay Owingeh. In the late 1800s this church was extensively renovated by the French priest Father Camilo Seux, and a new stone chapel in neo-gothic style dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes was completed in 1890. The old church was finally torn down and replaced in 1912 by a brick neo-gothic church still in use today.

In the eighteenth century the Spanish authorities, both religious and political, realized that the 1680 rebellion had been caused in great part by their harsh treatment of the Indians, and after the Re-conquest they adopted a much more lenient attitude. Forced labor and tribute were no longer permitted, and the large haciendas which demanded Indian workers were replaced by smaller family-operated farms. Indigenous religious rites were no longer suppressed by the missionaries. Ohkay Owingeh and the other Pueblos were able to practice both their traditional religion and Catholicism in an accommodated blending of the two. Many of the traditional religious ceremonial dances at Ohkay Owingeh, such as the Deer Dance and the Cloud Dance, were allowed and are still performed today.

Although conditions were better, Ohkay Owingeh in the 1700s was surrounded by growing Hispanic communities while its own population was in decline. In 1776 Father Francisco Atanasio Domínguez listed the Pueblo’s population as 201 individuals and 623 Hispanos living in neighboring communities. In 1781 a serious smallpox epidemic hit northern New Mexico and took the lives of about one-third of the population of Ohkay Owingeh. The census of 1810 showed the Pueblo’s population back up to 200, but the neighboring Hispano communities now totaled 1733. However, relations between the people of Ohkay Owingeh and their neighbors have generally been good. In the 1700s Hispanos and Pueblo members cooperated in facing attacks by the nomadic tribes, with the men of Ohkay Owingeh and other Pueblos providing large numbers of troops. Truces were made, usually in the late summer and fall, so that trading fairs could be held with all the tribes. San Juan became an important trading center, not only for Pueblos and Hispanos but also for nomadic tribes, such as the Utes and the Navajos, especially in the late 1700s when the threat of nomadic raiding had abated.

In 1820 during the last months of the Spanish government, the Pueblo Indians were given full citizenship and were allowed to install their own municipal governments in each Pueblo. This prerogative was honored in the period of Mexican rule, 1821 to 1846, and in the American period after 1846. However, in the Mexican period, Pueblo lands, including those of Ohkay Owingeh, were under threat. The philosophy of classical eighteenth-century liberalism enshrined in the Mexican constitution of 1824 held that communal lands impeded individual liberties, were often not well utilized, and should be distributed to individual owners. In at least one case Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo was successful in averting the sale of its lands. In 1825 Governor Antonio Narbona rejected a petition by Hispanic settlers for portions of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo lands. The land issue, as well as the threat of newly enforced tax laws, contributed to the short-lived Rebellion of 1837 launched by both Hispanos and Pueblo Indians, in which members of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo participated.

The American occupation brought a change in sovereignty but did little to ameliorate Pueblo land problems until the twentieth century. The American view of Indian land in the nineteenth century was similar to that of the Mexican government. The alienation of Pueblo lands was achieved through the courts with the premise that Spanish land grants to the Pueblo Indians were legally distinct from the reservation lands of other tribes, which were protected by treaties with the federal government. Pueblo lands were allowed to be sold by a U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1876 but in 1913, the Court reversed this ruling, stating that the Pueblo lands had to be protected in the same manner as other Indian lands. The result of this ruling was that Pueblo land could no longer be sold, and that squatters on Pueblo lands were subject to eviction.

To protect long established communities of non-Indians on these lands, New Mexico Senator Holm Bursum introduced the so-called “Bursum Bill” which would have given clear title to virtually all squatters on Pueblo lands, thus alienating the land from the Indians and opening it to development. Fortunately this bill was defeated in Congress, and the much more favorable United States Pueblo Lands Board Act was passed in 1924. The Pueblo Lands Board Act made it very difficult for outsiders to gain title to Pueblo lands and served to extinguish many of the land claims against the Pueblos. For land claims that were approved, the Pueblos were financially compensated. In effect it meant that many squatters could not gain title through adverse possession and could be legally removed from Pueblo lands. At Ohkay Owingeh squatters had at some point in the nineteenth century re-settled the long-abandoned San Gabriel de Yungé, an integral part of the lands belonging to the Pueblo. In the 1920s these squatters were finally removed by joint action of the San Juan Pueblo council and the United States Pueblo Lands Board.

With the settling of land issues, improvements in health and education, the people of Ohkay Owingeh gradually entered the economy and way of life of twentieth-century America. They were able to do this and still maintain their traditional culture and worldview. Their ability to live comfortably in both worlds continues to the present day. For example, a recently completed affordable housing project, Tsigo bugeh Village, at the Pueblo was developed in sharp contrast to the typical federal government project imposed on Ohkay Owingeh and many other Indian communities in the past. Traditional concerns such as sacred geography, spatial directions and orientation, and maintaining ceremonial pathways were taken into account in the planning that was based upon the expressed views and needs of community members. And finally in December 2005 the tribal council formally changed the name from San Juan Pueblo back to Ohkay Owingeh, the name by which the people themselves have always called their home from long before Europeans came to the Southwest.

Sources Used:

Adams, Eleanor B. and Fray Angelico Chavez, eds. The Missions of New Mexico, 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1956.

Agoyo, Herman, et al. When Cultures Meet: Remembering San Gabriel del Yunge Oweenge. Santa Fe; Sunstone Press, 1987.

Blosser, Jamie. “Built Form as a Community Value: An Ethics of Architecture.” In: Forward: The Quarterly Journal of the National Associates Committee, American Institute of Architects, January, 2006.

Hall, G. Emlen and David J. Weber. “Mexican Liberals and the Pueblo Indians, 1821-1829.” In: New Mexico Historical Review, vol. 59, no. 1 (January 1984).

Kessell, John L. The Missions of New Mexico since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.

Ortiz, Alfonso. “San Juan Pueblo.” In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9: Southwest. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Ortiz, Alfonso. The Tewa World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Simmons, Marc. “History of Pueblo-Spanish Relations to 1821.” In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9: Southwest. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Simmons, Marc. “History of the Pueblos Since1821.” In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9: Southwest. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Related Materials:

Alfonso Ortiz

Smithsonian film on Pueblo Resistance

Ohkay Owingeh Literary Map

Esther Martinez


Ohkay Owingeh: Village of the Strong People

Matachines at Ohkay Owingeh

San Juan Pueblo Land Grant

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