Nearly 100 years before the American Revolution, another war of independence took place on American soil—against Spanish colonizers. Coordinated by Tewa leader Po'Pay, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 saved Indigenous cultures from destruction under a feudal system that enslaved inhabitants of the region and forced them to convert to Christianity.
The rebellion, fought in what is now New Mexico, resulted in a rare victory for tribal nations against European colonizers. Although it succeeded in repelling the Spanish for only 12 years, that was long enough to secure the ancient traditions, languages and homelands of Pueblo people to this day.
“If they had lost, we would not be here. That is what was at stake in 1680. I would not be here, and the languages of our ancestors would not be here,” says Jon Ghahate, cultural educator at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a member of the Laguna and Zuni Pueblos. Ghahate uses historical records compiled by the Spanish, as well as his peoples’ own oral narratives, to tell the story of the revolt.
Conquistadors: ‘We Will Do to You All the Harm and Evil We Can’
Ever since the arrival of conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1540, Indigenous agrarian peoples of the desert Southwest had resisted incursions by the Spanish. The most famous resister, Po’pay (whose name means “Ripe Squash”), was born around 1630 into the Ohkay Owingeh, or San Juan Pueblo community near present-day Española. He became a prominent leader and member of a medicine society, but lived under the harsh Requerimiento (or “requirements”) brought by the Spanish to the region.
This quasi-religious doctrine, established in 1513, authorized the Spanish to subjugate Native Americans and force them to abandon their own faiths. According to the document, meant to be read by conquistadors to the local Indian people, failing to submit would have dire consequences: “We will take you and your wives and children and make them slaves, and as such we will sell them, and will dispose of you...and will do to you all the harm and evil we can.”
“It was their traditions, their cultures, the spirituality, their languages—thus their very existence—which were now under assault,” Ghahate said. Unlike the Spaniards’ dogmatic scriptural tenets and doctrines, Pueblo peoples believed that “all things living and inanimate are connected, are part of a big cosmic cyclical construct that has no beginning nor end. We as human beings are merely just a part of it.”
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The Revolt Took Extraordinary Coordination—and Knotted Ropes
In 1675, Po’pay and his followers met at Jemez Pueblo to discuss the Spanish encroachments on their lands, raids by their Apache and Navajo enemies and a drought, which the people thought could be ended by a return to traditional ceremonies and practices.
“In Pueblo thought and culture, when religion is suppressed, the natural order of life is disrupted,” wrote Ohkay Owingeh member Matthew Martinez, meaning “a threat to the livelihood of the people.”
Yet the Spanish outlawed traditional practices. Po’pay and 46 other Pueblo leaders were convicted of sorcery for continuing them; three were hung in public, one leader hanged himself in jail rather than face the same fate. Po’Pay was among those publicly flogged.
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On his release, Po’pay went into hiding at Taos Pueblo, far to the north. From there, he spent four years organizing a rebellion that would involve almost all of the dozens of Pueblo communities scattered around the region. Secrecy was paramount. By some accounts, Po'Pay was said to have killed his own son in-law, who he suspected of treachery, to keep the plan secret.
“It took a unique individual to orchestrate the revolt across two dozen communities who spoke six different languages and were sprawled over a distance of nearly 400 miles—from Taos at one end to Hopi villages at the other,” wrote Dr. Joe Sando, a pioneering Pueblo scholar who taught his people’s history at the University of New Mexico.. And Po’Pay, he added, overcame other strategic disadvantages: “Pueblo people were prohibited from using horses. Moreover, during Spanish rule they were not allowed to use guns of any kind.”
To coordinate the timing of the uprising, Po’pay dispatched runners to deliver knotted ropes to local leaders who, despite speaking divergent languages and dialects, could “read” the scheduled date by undoing one knot a day until they were all undone. But because two young messengers were caught by spies, tortured and killed, the revolt was moved up at the last minute from its original date of August 13 to August 10, when the Pueblos rose up in unison against their overlords.
Po'Pay had ordered his followers to take the Spanish horses to keep them from fleeing. They sacked haciendas, blocked roads and cut off the water supply to Santa Fe. In retribution for their religious oppression, they vandalized and set fire to Catholic churches. During the revolt, close to 400 Spanish were killed, including several dozen priests, as well as some settlers and some Pueblo people.
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Under Siege, the Spanish Retreat
After about a week, the Spanish departed Santa Fe, some 2,000 people in all, including many Pueblo people who were either hostages or had converted to Catholicism and chosen to stay with the Spanish. The refugees were allowed to march south unmolested by the Pueblo revolutionaries. Many settled in El Paso.
Po’pay had promised that if the Spanish were driven out, the Pueblo communities would return to peace and prosperity. Although his vision of a united Pueblo culture didn’t materialize as he hoped, for 12 years the Spanish were kept out of the region. During that time, relations between the Pueblos and the Spanish changed. The colonists' dreaded encomienda system of forced labor was abandoned and the Pueblo revolutionaries fighting under Po’pay were pardoned.
According to Ghahate, Po’Pay had been one of the “true traditionalists” who rejected everything the Spanish had brought—even horses, ranching practices and tools that made life easier. But not all Puebloans agreed. Over time, Po'Pay lost popular support.
After the Spanish returned to Santa Fe, Ghahate says, they began to show more tolerance for a mix of Indigenous and Catholic traditions; such a mix is practiced at many Pueblos today.
In 2005, a statue of Po’Pay’s likeness was unveiled in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. He was the earliest individual to be so honored, and one of a small handful of Indigenous people enshrined.
“To the Pueblo people here, Po’pay is our hero,” said Ohkay Owingeh member Herman Agoyo. “Tribes were on the verge of losing their cultural identity when the Pueblo Revolt brought everything back on track for our people.”