Death in Pueblo and Athabascan Cultures

Funerary practices and beliefs about death are more about the living than the dead. They provide some insights into the cultures of the people. The several Pueblo cultures and the Athabascan cultures (Navajo and Apache) live in close proximity to one another in New Mexico and Arizona. These cultures, in spite of their geographic proximity, have very different beliefs about death and how to deal with dead bodies. Some of their funerary customs and beliefs are discussed below.  

Athabascan Culture:

The Athabascan-speaking people – the Navajo and the Apache – migrated from the area north of Edmonton, Alberta.

In the late 1300’s and early 1400’s groups of hunting and gathering Athabascans began arriving in the Southwest from the far north in Canada. These were the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache peoples. While there are some scholars who feel that the Navajo and Apache could have begun arriving in the Southwest as early as 800 CE and some who feel that it was as late at 1500 CE, most tend to place their arrival between 1200 and 1400.

When the Spanish entered New Mexico, they recorded that the Tewa referred to one of the neighboring tribes as Navahú, in reference to large areas of cultivated lands. This is in reference to the Navajo practice of dry-farming in arroyos, and cañadas (canyons). The Tewa also referred to these newcomers as Apachü which means strangers and enemies. The Spanish would later refer to these people as Apache de Navajó meaning the Apaches with the great planted fields.

Among the southwestern Athabascan groups there is a fear of death and of dealing with both the bodies and the possessions of dead people. Among the Jicarilla Apache, for example, there is a great effort to keep children from seeing a dead person. In addition, children do not associate with other children who have family members who have recently died until the family has been cleansed by the proper ceremonies. There is a concern that children may be marked by the aura of death.

With regard to the Chiricahua Apache, at death the spirits begin a four-day journey to the spirit world. For the Chiricahua,  open burial sites are very dangerous between the moment of death and the time when the grave is covered. During this time the spirit of the deceased is loose and free. It is thus able to cause mischief or harm.  Funeral rites are expected to expedite the spirit’s journey.

Traditionally among the Navajo, the body of a dead person was left on the ground in the hogan (home) which was then abandoned or the body was immediately buried. The body was allowed to decompose because the memory, thoughts, and descendents are the part which lives on. The idea of putting someone in a coffin or putting chemicals in the body to preserve the corpse is viewed with disgust by traditional Navajo.

At death, the personal property of a Navajo is buried with the corpse or it is destroyed. Traditionally, the name of the deceased is not mentioned for one year following death. After this year, the name of the deceased is rarely mentioned.

When a Navajo who has lived a full and long life dies, there is no period of mourning as it is felt that the spirit is ready to travel to another world. There is no dread of touching or handling the corpse of an old person.

With regard to life after death, this is an issue of little concern for most Navajo. They feel that they will find out when they die and in the meantime this is something they have no way of knowing anything about and therefore they should not waste time thinking about it. The Navajo cultural orientation is towards life, toward making this life happier, more harmonious, and more beautiful.

For the Navajo, birth and death are seen as opposites: one cannot exist without the other. Life is a cycle. It reaches its natural conclusion in death at old age. It is renewed in each birth. Death before old age is considered to be both unnatural and tragic. Death before old age prevents the natural completion of the life cycle.

Pueblo Culture:

In northern Arizona and New Mexico there are several Indian nations who traditionally lived in compact villages. The Spanish used the word pueblo which means “town” in referring to these people. The Pueblo people are not a single cultural tradition, but are in fact several distinct cultures. They share some features – farming, housing – and are very different in others.

Among many of the Pueblos, food is placed with the body of the deceased. If the deceased had lived a good life, then little food was left with them as they would need little sustenance in traveling straight to the afterworld. On the other hand, if the deceased had not been particularly virtuous then they would need more food for their difficult journey.

Among the Keresian-speaking Pueblos of the Rio Grande area, death is viewed as a natural and necessary event: if there were no death, then soon there would be no room left in the world. After death, both the soul and the guardian spirit leave the body, but remain in the home of the deceased for four days. Then they journey to Shipap, the entrance to the underworld. The virtue of the deceased then determines the assignment to one of the four underworlds. Those who enter the innermost world become Shiwana (rainmakers) and return to the villages in the form of clouds.

Among the Zuni, the spirit of the dead lingers in the village for four days. During this time the door to the deceased’s home is left open to permit the entry of the spirit. On the morning of the fifth day the spirit goes to Kothluwalawa beneath the water of the Listening Spring. Here the spirit becomes a member of the Uwannami (rainmakers). Members of the Bow Priesthood become lightning makers who bring water from the six great waters of the world. The water is poured through the clouds in the form of rain. The clouds are the masks worn by the Uwannami.

Among the Hopi, a mask of cotton is placed over the face of the dead to represent the cloud mask which the spirit will wear when it returns with the cloud people to bring rain to the village. Four days after burial the spirit leaves the body and begins a journey to the Land of the Dead. They enter the underworld through the sipapu (sacred hole) in the Grand Canyon where they meet the One Horned God who can read a person’s thoughts by looking into the heart. Those who are virtuous follow the Sun Trail to the village of the Cloud People.

In the Hopi burials, clothing, water, and piki (a special bread) is often placed with the corpse. In many cases the Hopi will use a quilt as a burial shroud. The grave is then sealed with rocks.

When a kikmongwi (chief) dies, the staff which has symbolized his authority during his life is buried with him. In addition, his body is painted with symbols for important ritual occasions.

Among the Hopi, the spirits of children who die before they are initiated into a kiva return to their mother’s house to be reborn.

For the Hopi, the ancestors are important to their culture and they strongly feel that the physical remains of the ancestors should be treated with respect. Ancestors maintain a spiritual guardianship over the places where they are buried and they are not to be disturbed by archaeologists.

The Hopi see the clouds which bring water to their villages as ancestors and thus they petition their departed ancestors to return and to bring with them the life-giving rain. In this way, the Hopi view death as a return to the spiritual realm and from this comes more life in the form of rain.

Among most of the Pueblos, life after death is the same as before death: the deceased journey to a town where they join a group with which they were associated in life. Only the Hopi express the idea of punishment after death.

At Cochití, when a person dies, an ear of blue corn with barbs at the point is placed in the corner of the room where the death occurred. This ear of corn represents the soul of the deceased which will linger in the area for a while.

The Pueblos: 1700 to 1725

In 1680, the Pueblos of New Mexico revolted against the Spanish and drove them from the region. A decade later, however, the Spanish returned and began their re-conquest of New Mexico. In 1696, eleven Pueblo villages along the Rio Grande revolted again against the Spanish, but the revolt was quickly crushed. By 1700 the Spanish were again firmly entrenched in the region and for the next generation the Pueblo people had to adjust to the Spanish, their strange religion, and their insistence that the Pueblos totally submit to Spanish rule.  

Conflicts with the Spanish:

Adjustment to the return of the Spanish and their priests was not always peaceful. In northern Arizona, the Hopi attacked and destroyed the Spanish occupied village of Awatovi in 1700. The Spanish priests and their male converts were sealed in a kiva and then suffocated by having hot ground chilies poured in through the roof opening. The women and children were taken to other Hopi villages. Some of the Hopi survivors from Awatovi were taken in by the Navajo where they founded the Tobacco Clan.  

In 1703, three of the Spanish soldiers sent to protect the priest at Zuni were killed by the Zuni. The soldiers had been living with Zuni women.

In 1706, the Spanish re-established Galisteo Pueblo and re-named it Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. They forced 90 Indians to live in the pueblo.

Also in 1706, the Franciscan friar noted that the mission at Cochití Pueblo had a bell without a clapper. He wrote:

“The Indians took all the clappers away, to make lances and knives.”

In 1719, Spanish authorities tried a Taos man for having drunk a beverage made with peyote. The Spanish felt that peyote was associated with black magic and that it gave visions to witches.


During this re-adjustment period, some Pueblo villages were abandoned; some were relocated; some older village sites were re-occupied; and some new villages were established.

In 1700, the Zuni re-occupied the village of Halona (present-day Zuni Pueblo). At this same time, the pueblo of San Felipe on top of Black Mesa was abandoned and a new pueblo was constructed at the foot of the mesa.

In 1702, a group of Tewa from New Mexico sought refuge among the Hopi in Arizona. The Hopi chief did not fulfill the promise of land until they demonstrated their prowess. The Tewa defeated a Ute attack and were given a site on First Mesa where they built the village of Hano.

That same year, the Jemez returned to their valley and resettled on an earlier village site.

In 1706, the people of Picuris pueblo, decimated by disease and warfare, returned to their pueblo from their exile in Kansas. They had fled their homeland during the Pueblo Revolt of 1696.

In 1709, the Spanish government approved the purchase of land at the mouth of the Río Jémez by nine Indians from Santa Ana Pueblo. The seller was Spanish colonist Manuel Baca. In order to regain their farm lands which had been lost through the Spanish land grants, Santa Ana Pueblo had started to buy these lands back from the Spanish settlers. First, they had to wait until the settler was ready to sell the land, and then they had to petition the Spanish government for permission to buy it. Then all parties had to agree on the price, the land’s boundaries, and the terms of the sale.

In 1716, some of the people who had fled from Jemez following the Pueblo Revolt of 1696 returned to the village from Walpi in Hopi country.


In 1700, Pueblo pottery began to change in shape and decoration. Previously, the Pueblo potters had used a lead glaze, but this process was abandoned and the potters began to substitute pigments made from ores which were rich in iron or manganese. This produced a dark brown to black look.

The potters at Acoma Pueblo began making a type of pottery known as Ako Polychrome. The Ako Polychrome jars have a top-heavy, mushroom-shaped upper body with a wide bulge at about the middle of the jug. There is a very short neck and a tapered underbody. A range of small motifs, including feather clusters, was used for decoration.

An example of an Ako Polychrome jar can be found

at Fenimore Art Museum.


The potters at Santa Ana and Zia developed a new style of pottery which archaeologists call Purname Polychrome. Many of the jars have a motif consisting of a cluster of bird feathers. Many of the jars from Zia have a band of red or black arcs around the circumference below the main design area.

At Zuni, Potters began using concave bases for jars, a style which may have been borrowed from the southern Tewa. The new style of pottery, which is decorated with red and black matte mineral paints, is known as Ashiwi Polychrome.

Help Defeat Cannon AFB’s War on Northern NM

Fifty years after Eisenhower’s famous warning to beware the growing power of the military-industrial complex, speaker after speaker at a public hearing in Santa Fe, NM, suggested that Cannon Air Force Base has committed acts of war against rural tribes and counties in New Mexico and should be shut down.

PhotobucketAt issue was Cannon’s plan to expand its Low Altitude Tactical Navigation (LATN) site to include 21 southern and eastern Colorado counties and 17 eastern and northern New Mexico counties. Affected tribes include the Jicarilla Apache, the Southern Ute and the Navajo. Several Pueblos are near the training zone as well including Ohkay Owinge, Taos, Santa Clara and San Idefonso.

And of course, my own county, Rio Arriba, which is home to several tribes and many Hispanic ranching families that predate the United States of America.

In order to train pilots for low-altitude night flight in Afghanistan, Cannon AFB will begin to conduct three five-hour missions per night (688 a year) in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

Planes to be flown include the MC-130J and CV-22 (the infamous Osprey). After receiving a great deal of public criticism, Cannon altered its original plan, excluding populated areas and commercial airspace in this draft. The wealthy and politically connected communities of Los Alamos and Santa Fe were exempted as was the town of Espanola, and the minimum flight requirement was raised from 200 feet above ground level to 300 feet. According to Cannon’s dubious Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI):

Approximately 10 percent of the training missions would be flown between 300 and 500 feet (ft) Above Ground Level (AGL), 40 percent between 500 and 999 ft AGL, and 50 percent between 1,000 and 3,000 ft AGL.

Amazingly, without offering any evidence, the FONSI states that wildlife, the local economy, structures, ranching, hunting/camping and culture will not be effected.

Look for the Draft FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) and alleged Environmental Assessment from which these quotes are taken at this site.

Most of the County of Rio Arriba, home to Hispanic ranching families pre-dating the United States, as well as the Jicarilla Apache reservation and the pueblos of Ohkay Owinge, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso, will be subjected to low level fights.

Many serious flaws have been pointed out in the Environmental Assessment at poorly publicized “community forums” (which should, in fact, be called “public hearings”). For example, the FONSI finds that wildlife will be unaffected by the flyovers even though the EA does not identify which wildlife inhabit the area or where they can be located in the fly-over zone.

The FONSI determines that the requirement to uphold environmental justice has been met:

Scoping comments expressed concerns about disproportionate effects on environmental justice populations. Twenty-one counties in Colorado are entirely or partially under the

proposed training area. Four of those counties have a higher percentage of minorities than the state as a whole and 17 of those counties have a lower percentage of minorities than the state. In New Mexico, 17 counties are entirely or partially under the proposed training area. Five of those counties have a higher percentage of minorities than the state as a whole and 12 counties have a lower percentage of minorities than the state. Similar conditions exist for low-income and youth populations. The Proposed Action would not have disproportionate effects to minorities, low income, or youth populations under the proposed training area.

Since the purpose of the exercises is to train pilots to fly extremely close to the ground over mountainous terrain, it is unlikely that all areas of the proposed training ground will be equally affected by very low flights. More low flights are likely to occur over mountain passes and in rugged terrain than in flat areas. Native American Tribes such as the Ute, the Jicarilla Apache, Navajos and the Pueblos live in these areas as do many indigenous Hispanic ranchers. Rugged remote counties are also poorer and more heavily Hispanic, especially in New Mexico and southern Colorado. Moreover, elk, deer and other wildlife are also concentrated in these areas. It is unlikely that a large airplane flying 300 feet above a herd of any kind will not affect it. And the centuries-old adobe dwellings ubiquitous in northern New Mexico are unlikely to withstand damage from noise and vibrations in the same manner as the modern steel, brick and cement architecture tested for overflight in the “Environmental Assessment.”

I made remarks at the hearing in Santa Fe because the one in Espanola (in Rio Arriba County), which is closest to Hispanic ranchers and Native American tribes, was so poorly advertised that few people knew about it. I heard about it at the last minute thanks to a NAN blogger, Los Anjales. Carol Miller of the Peaceful Skies Coalition had alerted almost all of the people in attendance in Espanola. The only Air Force notification was a teeny advertisement buried deep within the B section of the local paper in four point font.

PhotobucketOne of the changes proposed in this draft as a result of public criticism is that Native American Tribes will now be able to prevent flyovers of important ceremonies by calling up the Air Force to tell them where and when the ceremony will be held. This proposal strikes me as preposterously insulting. Most of the tribes in our area do not tell one another where their ceremonies will be held, and would certainly not have an interest in informing the military that confined them to reservations in the first place.

Ranchers will also be allowed to call the Air Force to report where and when important activities such as branding, calving and shearing will occur. This fanciful suggestion is equally preposterous. It assumes that ranchers can predict without disruption caused by weather and other exigencies, where and when the event will occur. It also assumes they will have phone service and time to place the call.

Two county representatives (a commissioner from Santa Fe County and I) pointed out that Ospreys are prone to crashes, and that remote rural counties do not have HAZMAT capacity to respond to a crash. Moreover, some of you may remember my blog posts this summer about the Las Conchas fire, which spread to over 400,000 acres in a few days. That fire was caused by a downed power line, and required three Type 1 Emergency Response teams to contain its spread.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the process, in my opinion, is that all comments on the sham Environmental Assessment and FONSI are to be sent to Cannon Air Force Base which will make the final decision. Since the Environmental Assessment is a joke, the FONSI is completely unsubstantiated and the public notification process has been non-existent, I don’t see why we should believe administrators at Cannon Air Force Base will listen to comments by politically unconnected minorities.

Unless of course, those minorities dream up a great strategy for making themselves heard. Here is my suggestion for just such a strategy.

How You Can Help

Soon, the twelve members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will be meeting to identify deep cuts to the military. In May of 2005, Canon AFB was recommended for closure by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The decision was reversed after people in Northern New Mexico circulated petitions on behalf of the base. Many individuals now regret their activism.

I am recommending that NAN members (and their relatives and friends) submit letters to members of the Super Committee requesting the closure of Cannon Air Force Base. Each training flight costs $11,000 which could be used to fund schools, fire departments, police, health care and other services. The letter should be copied and submitted as a comment to Cannon Air Force Base. I will provide you with all the relevant contact info and a letter template below.

Senator Patty Murray D-WA, Committee Co-Chair Phone: (202) 224-2621 Fax: (202) 224-0238

Senator Max Baucus D-MT Phone: (202) 224-2651 Fax: (202) 224-9412  

Senator John Kerry, D-MA Phone: (202) 224-2742 Fax: (202) 224-8525

Senator Jon Kyl, R-AZ Phone: (202) 224-4521 Fax: (202) 224-2207

Senator Rob Portman, R-OH Phone: 202-224-3353 Fax: 202-224-9075

Senator Pat Toomey, R-PA Phone:(202) 224-4254 Fax: (202) 228-0284

Representative Jeb Hensarling R-TX, Committee Co-Chair (You must include a zip code in his district. Here are a few you can use: 75030, 75032, 75041, 75043, 75047, 75049, 75088, 75103, 75114) Phone: Phone: (202) 225-3484 Fax: (202) 226-4888

Representative Xavier Becerra, D-CA Phone: (202) 225-6235 Fax: 202-225-2202

Representative Fred Upton, R-MI Phone: (202) 225-3761 Fax: (202) 225-4986

Representative Dave Camp, R-MI (You will need a zipcode in his district to email him. Try this one: 49654.) Phone: (202) 225-3561 Fax: (202) 225-9679

Representative James Clyburn, D-NC (You will need a zipcode in his district to email him. Try one of these: 29403, 29590, 29052.) Phone: (202)225-3315 Fax: (202)225-2313

Representative Chris Van Hollen, D-MD (You will need a zipcode in his district to email him. Try one of these: 20837, 20841.) Phone: (202) 225-5341 Fax: (202) 225-0375

Here is some sample text you can use:

In 2005, the people of New Mexico including many Native Americans and rural Hispanics petitioned to keep Cannon Air Force Base open. In return, Cannon AFB has singled out poor and minority communities for ongoing night low altitude training flights, threatening homes, wildlife, and the local economy.

The Founding Fathers fought the revolution because they believed Britain’s standing army was a form of tyranny. Requiring Native Americans to report their ceremonies to the USAF to avoid flyovers is an act of war against Native Americans. Low level flyovers of peoples’ communities is also an act of war. Only our Congressional Representatives may declare war.

Many of the people in the flight path have already experienced high intensity wildfires that have rapidly burned hundreds of thousands of acres. County governments in the impacted area do not have HAZMAT capability to respond to a plane crash or in-flight fueling disaster; and the dryness of the forest poses a severe fire hazard. Cannon AFB’s proposed activity presents a serious threat to the lives and livelihood of its neighbors.

Moreover, the alleged environmental assessment conducted by Cannon AFB was incompetent, with huge gaps in data and unscientific “findings;” nor were communities in the flight path adequately informed public hearings.

Each flyover costs the federal government $11,000 per hour, almost the amount of a full-time annual salary in rural Rio Arriba County. This is money that could be used to improve the schools, emergency response, roads and fire fighting capabilities of the threatened communities. I strongly urge you to close Cannon AFB and redirect this funding to basic human services.

Thank you for your attention.

Submit copies of all your letters as public comment before November 5 to the Cannon AFB Public Comment site.

For more information, contact The Peaceful Skies Coalition.

Keresan Pueblo Migrations

When the Spanish first began to explore the area which would later be known as New Mexico, they encountered well-established Indian agricultural villages. Collectively, the Spanish referred to these people as Pueblos (Spanish for village). While the Pueblos share some common features of material culture, such as the architecture of their permanent villages, they are culturally distinct from one another. In New Mexico, the various Pueblo languages belong to three different language families: Keresan, Tanoan, and Zunian.

Linguistically, the Keresan language family is divided into two groups: Eastern, which includes Cochiti, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, and Zia; and Western, which includes Laguna and Acoma. Some researchers, such as Alfonso Ortiz, feel that there is a linguistic connection between Keresan and the languages of the Caribbean.  

Santa Ana:

Often ignoring the cultural distinctions of the different Pueblos, the Spanish often renamed the Indian villages in honor of Catholic saints. Thus the Keresan-speaking Tamaya were given the name Santa Ana (St. Ann) by the Spanish in 1598.

According to the oral tradition of the people of Santa Ana (Tamaya), the people first emerged from the underworld at a place north and west of their present location. When they came into this world, they would travel over the earth to find the place that would suit them the best. Here they would make their homes. The people traveled for a long time and passed through many fine lands. They paused when they were hungry to gather the nourishment which the earth provided for them. Then they would continue their journey.

The Tamaya first settled at a place called Kashe K’atreti (White House). It was here that they set up a larger system of government. Here they established the foundations of their way of life in the upper world. This was not, however, their final destination, and so they moved, traveling south and east. They reached the eastern slope of the Sandía Mountains and established the village of Paak’u in a high valley west of the San Pedro Arroyo. They lived in Paak’u for more than a century.

When the people reached Paak’u, they divided into two groups. One of these groups traveled through the Río Grande Valley where they established a small village near the present-day San Felipe Pueblo. They were there only a short time before they journeyed north and west where they settled near the present-day pueblo of Zia. They left this village and traveled west and built another village near the present-day pueblo of Jemez. After the Navajo arrived in the region, the people were forced to flee this village and moved to the top of a mesa. Eventually they journeyed again, settling for a while near Acoma Pueblo. Then they built a village near the modern town of Socorro.

They eventually returned to rejoin the people of Paak’u and then established a series of small farming villages along the Río Grande River. Their journey, however, was not over. From here they traveled north, and, after centuries of travel, their journey ended. Beside the river and beneath a broad mesa, the people found the land which was just right for them, in accordance with the instructions given to their ancestors. Here was their home.


Acoma Pueblo takes its name from the Keresan term Akome which means “people of the white rock.”

Acoma Ansel Adams

Shown above is an Ansel Adams photograph of Acoma.

Acoma 1846

Shown above is an 1846 drawing of Acoma.

The oral tradition of Acoma tells that the people came out from the underworld at a place to the north. At this place there was a lake with an island and on this island there was a house. It was here that the katsinas came and brought many gifts to the people. They taught the people how to use these gifts. The katsinas danced in the plaza and the people were happy. After a time, the people decided that it was time for them to leave this place: the place was so precious that they feared they might defile it. They travelled south to a place called Kacikatcuria (White House). Here they called the katsinas to dance for them and they prepared the prayersticks and made the proper offerings.

One evening, after the katsinas had danced for them and then left, one man did a comic imitation of the katsina dances. He exaggerated the movements and this comic imitation caused great merriment among the people. However, one katsina had remained behind and witnessed the parody. As a result, the katsinas made war against the village. After the battle, only a few people were left alive and they were told that they would never see the katsinas again. They were told that if they wanted the katsinas to come to their village, then they must dress like the katsinas and pray was they had been taught. There was, however, conflict over whether or not it was appropriate to impersonate the katsinas and this caused some groups to migrate to new locations and to speak different languages.

One group of people decided to go to the south where they will be able to raise parrots. They were looking for a place called Aako. They would know this place because there would be a good echo. Just to the east of present-day Acoma, they found Aako. Here the people once again divided, with some continuing south and others staying to establish the pueblo of Acoma. Here they impersonated the katsinas and danced in the plaza. Their prayers for rain were answered and the people knew that the ceremony was powerful.


Cochiti oral tradition tells that the origin of the people on the earth began with their emergence from the underground through the sipapu. They began their life on earth living at White House, located far to the north. Here they lived with all of the people of the world. They then began a series of journeys or travels during which time they encountered a number of spiritual beings, animal helpers, and culture heroes. At one time, in the more recent past, they lived at Fijoles Cañon along with some other Pueblo groups.


Shown above is a photo of a Cochiti woman by Edward Curtis.

Pueblo Migrations:

The various culturally distinct Pueblos have lived and farmed in New Mexico and Arizona for thousands of years. Their villages made of stone and adobe brick amazed the first Europeans who visited them and continue to impress today’s tourists. Still, the oral histories of the Pueblos and the archaeological record show that the people made many migrations prior to settling in their current locations.  This essay has looked at only three of the Keresan-speaking Pueblos. The oral traditions of the other Pueblos, including the Uto-Aztecan-speaking Hopi and the Tanoan-speaking Pueblos, also tell of migrations.

Some archaeologists and tribal oral historians feel that the references to “White House” in the Kersesan stories may refer to the great houses (large multi-story complexes) of Chaco Canyon.

Pueblo Clowns

( – promoted by navajo)

One of the important features of Pueblo Indian cultures is the existence of clowns and clowning societies. The clowns often play a crucial role in ceremonies: they may mimic strangers and members of other tribes; they may reverse the normal order of things to provoke laughter, but in doing this they also reinforce, by their perversity, norms of behavior. While clowning is important to the Pueblo cultures, outsiders are sometimes offended by it. In 1920, the non-Indian principal of the Oraibi (Arizona) School interrupted a Hopi ceremony when he saw a clown dancer with a huge artificial penis. In the words of the principal, he stopped the ceremony and told the dancer “that if he ever did a thing like that again, I would put him in jail. He told me that he did not know it was wrong, that it was a Hopi custom.”

Clown 1

Generally, Pueblo clowning may include acts of gluttony, including eating the inedible; simulating sexual activities; begging; joking; burlesquing ritual and ceremony; performing skits which satirize individuals or elements of their own society; performing skits which satirize other societies (other pueblos, Navajos, and especially European-Americans); acting and speaking in opposites; inverse or backwards behavior; and doing virtually anything to make people laugh.

While clowning can be viewed as a form of comic relief from serious ritual activities, clowning is also a way of reinforcing social norms by openly breaking taboos and by reversing the normal. Clowning can be use to publicly shame potentially troublesome citizens into accepting community standards. The clowns thus serve as a kind of police force, dealing with social deviance to insure the smooth operation of village life.

The power invoked by clowns is the power of creation. That is, it serves as a reminder of the power that orders the world and gives value to its many parts. The clowns represent mankind in a pre-moral state. Among the Hopi, this is a state where the basic Hopi values-self-control in eating, decorous and respectful interpersonal relations, nonaggression, non-acquisitiveness, non-inquisitiveness, sexual modesty, etc.-are overturned, reversed, and burlesqued in the typical fashion of inversionary ritual. This serves to remind people of the importance of these values.

The Hopi view all human beings as clowns: the Hopi emerged in the beginning as clowns, and thus clowning symbolizes the sacredness of humanity and remind the people of the problems which are inherent in all people. The clowns stand the world on its head in order to reveal its rules and their necessity to abate chaos. While the clowns arouse laughter through their mockery, their actions have a serious purpose.  

Hano clown

At Cochití pueblo, the clowns-members of the Ku-sha’lí Society-wear distinctive outfits at the ceremonies. For the men, this means that the body is completely painted with alternating black and white stripes. Black rings are painted around the eyes and mouth. Cornhusks which form two horns are worn in the hair and owl feathers are attached to the head. The women paint their faces white and wear the traditional manta.

The Cochití clowns often exhibit obscenities. One non-Indian observer in 1880 described one incident this way:

“Sodomy, coitus, masturbation, etc., was performed to greatest perfection, men accoupling with each other on the ground or standing, and to the great delight of the spectators (certainly over one hundred), men, women, girls and boys, Mexicans and Indians looking on with the greatest ingenuity and innocence, not the slightest indecent look on the part of the women, and applauding the vilest motions.”

While outsiders have often misunderstood the meaning of the Pueblo clowns, and been offended by them, clowning was, and still is, an important part of Pueblo life.  

16th Century Spanish Religious Views of American Indians

( – promoted by navajo)

The major European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took very different approaches to American Indians. For the French, the Indians were potential trading partners. The English were interested in Indian land and therefore the Indians were simply in the way. For the Spanish, the situation was more complex. On one level the Spanish viewed Indians as a form of labor which could be exploited and the success of the Spanish colonies in the Americas was based on this exploitation. On another level, they viewed the Indians as having souls which could be brought to their God.  

One part of the Spanish conquest of the Americas focused on religion: on their need to convert Native Americans to the one true religion. The Spanish viewed Indians as heathen savages who worshipped devils. Therefore, Indians would spend eternity suffering the tortures of hell unless they were saved. The Spanish viewed baptizing someone in the true faith, even forcibly, as an incomparable act of love; an act which could save that soul from an eternity of excruciating torment; an act which would provide an opportunity for everlasting ecstasy. From the Spanish perspective, any Native resistance to conversion was seen as the work of Satan.

In 1512, Spain established the encomienda system in the Americas. Under this system, conquistadores and Spanish settlers were given land grants in which the Indians who lived on these lands were considered a part of the lands. The Indians were required to work for the new “owners” and in return, the “owners” were to Christianize and “civilize” the Indians. Under the econcomienda, villages of Indians were ‘commended’ to the care and protection of an encomendero, who could exact their labor. While legally the Indians were free, they were technically slaves and the encomenderos spoke of owning their Indians. Under the encomienda system Indian women murdered their own children rather than have them live under the conquistadors.

Under encomienda, each Spanish hacienda had its corps of Indian serfs to till the fields, maintain the livestock, tend the house, and make whatever the master wanted to eat, to wear, or to sell. There were some problems with the encomienda system from an Indian viewpoint. First, the Spanish required that the Indians tend to the Spanish needs and then, if there was any time left in the day, they could tend to their own fields and houses. Consequently, the Indians were reduced to a state of destitution. Working for the Spanish and trying to maintain their own fields depleted their energies, injured their health, and destroyed their independence.

In addition to encomienda, the Spanish also instituted the policy of repartimiento which gave the Spanish colonists the right to use native labor for religious education. Repartimiento functioned as a part of the Spanish mission system in both the Southwest and in the Southeast. Under this system, labor quotas and the conscription of people to serve on labor gangs were organized through the villages served by the missions (or, from an Indian viewpoint, the villages which served the missions).

At the same time that Spain instituted the policies of encomienda and repartimiento, the Spanish King Ferdinand promulgated the Laws of Burgos which spelled out how Indians are to be treated. Those were the first laws which spelled out measures regarding the freedom of the Indians, the regulation of their work and their conversion to Christianity. In general, the new Spanish land owners in the Americas ignored the Laws.

In 1513, King Ferdinand told the Native Americans that God had declared that the Pope rules all people, regardless of their law, sect, or belief. This included Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles, or any other sect. He asked that the Native Americans come forward of their own free will to convert to Catholicism or

“with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives, and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals.”

Furthermore, the Natives who resisted were to be held guilty of all resulting deaths and injuries.

Upon contacting an Indian village, the Spanish conquistadores or the priests who accompanied them would read a document known as the ‘Requirement,’ which recited the history of the world from the Christian viewpoint. They would then demand that the natives accept the Christian myth as true and submit themselves to the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. It did not make any difference that the natives might not understand Spanish or Latin, or that they might have their own history of the world. Once the word of the Spanish god was revealed, a just war could be waged on those who rejected it.

The instructions given to the first 12 Spanish missionaries to New Spain (what is today Mexico and the American Southwest) in 1523 told them that the Indians were under the control of Satan, captive to the vanity of idols, and had to be redeemed for Christianity. According to the instructions, the souls of New Spain were being unlawfully reaped by the devil and the flesh. Christ does not enjoy the souls that he bought with his blood.

In 1525, the Dominican official Tomas Ortiz reported that Indians ate human flesh, engaged in sodomy, went naked, and had no respect for love, virginity, or the truth. He reported:

“It may therefore affirm that God has never created a race more full of vice and composed without the least mixture of kindness or culture.”

In 1526, Spanish King Charles V issued orders concerning the fair treatment of Indians. He ordered that Indians be treated so that

“it may be accomplished with no offence to God, without death nor robbery of said Indians and without enslaving them, so that the desire to spread our faith among them be achieved without grieving our consciences.”

However, there was also a royal levy of one-half of all looted grave-goods.

In 1529, Pope Clement VI wrote to King Charles of Spain:

“We trust that, as long as you are on earth, you will compel and with all zeal cause the barbarian nations to come to the knowledge of God, the maker and founder of all things, not only by edicts of admonitions, but also by force and arms, if needful, in order that their souls may partake of the heavenly kingdom.”

In a papal bull, Sublimis Deus, issued in 1537 Pope Paul III declared that Indians were not to be enslaved nor are they

“to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside of the faith of Jesus Christ.”

The Spanish King, however, disagreed with the bull and confiscated all copies of the bull before it could reach the Americas. He then prevailed upon the Pope to revoke the bull.

In Valladolid, Spain, leading theologians and scholars were called together by King Charles in 1550 to determine the criteria by which a just war could be waged against Native Americans. Bartolomé de Las Casas presented the idea that Christianity should be spread by kindness and example rather than by the sword. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that Indians were brutes who could become the servants of civilized peoples. Spanish authorities suppressed the detailed defense of the humanity of Native Americans prepared by Las Casas. Sepúlveda’s ideas were widely circulated and used as justification for enslaving Indians.

Four years later, Francisco López de Gómara, one of the greatest enemies of Bartolomé de Las Casas, published his Historia general de las Indias (General History of the Indians.) In this book he described Indians as the worst people God ever made and felt that they should be enslaved because they did not deserve liberty. López de Gómara had never been to America.

The Spanish theologians, firm in their belief that all people descended from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, attempted to explain the presence of Indians in a land far away from where the Garden of Eden was supposed to have existed. In Historia natural y moral de las Indias, published in 1590, Spanish Friar José de Acosta postulated that American Indians arrived in the New World by walking across a land bridge from Asia. This reason was not based on Indian oral tradition or on any “hard” evidence. Faced with the task of explaining how the descendents of Noah had become the idolatrous barbarians of the New World, de Acosta provided a theory of their degeneration to a state of savagery and a posterior reinvention of culture under the tutelage of Satan.

Pueblo Indian Pottery

( – promoted by oke)

Polished PotIn the world of Native American art today, there are four extremely well-known traditions: the wood-carving traditions of the Northwest Coast tribes, Navajo blankets, Tohono O’odham baskets, and Pueblo pottery. Of these, Pueblo pottery is probably the best known.

With regard to art, in traditional Native American societies art was not divorced from function. In fact, in none of the 500 American Indian languages is there a word which can be translated as “art” as it is understood in English. Art was simply a part of everyday life, not something to be separated from it, or to be hung in special buildings. Goods were decorated to enhance their aesthetic qualities and/or their spiritual power.  

Pot 6

Polished Pot 2

For many centuries, Pueblo people have made and used a wide variety of pottery containers, including bowls, jars, cups, ladles, and canteens. Pueblo potters also produced figurines, effigy vessels to be used for religious purposes, pipes, and prayer meal bowls.  The pottery was, and still is, often highly decorated and was traditionally traded throughout the region.


Traditionally, women are responsible for forming and firing the pottery vessels. Mothers and grandmothers usually teach their descendants the techniques of the craft. While women traditionally did most of the decorating, it is not uncommon for men to paint vessels made by women.

painted pot

Pueblo pottery-making is not complicated with regard to materials or construction. It involves three basic materials: earth, water, and fire. In making pottery, the potter must cooperate completely with the materials. Attempts to push beyond the limits of the materials will result in failure.

Pueblo pottery is traditionally formed with a coil technique in which coils of clay are circled around the base of the pot to form the walls of the vessel. To form the pot, the vessel walls are constructed of bands or ropes of clay laid one on top of another. These clay ropes are then pinched together to build the pot in the desired size and form. The walls of the pot are then smoothed and shaped with pieces of gourd called kajepes. Once the basic form is completed, the pot is left to dry. In a semi-dry state, the pot is then scraped with a gourd scraper which removes any irregularities and further refines its shape. A red slip is then applied with a piece of soft buckskin. The pot is burnished with a stone before the slip has dried. This step gives the pot a glossy finish.

In order to promote even drying and to minimize warping, temper is added to the clay. Temper may include sand, pulverized rocks, and ground potsherds. Temper varies according to region-and the type of clay and other materials available in the region-as well as to the personal preferences of the potter. In some areas, such as the Hopi mesas, sand naturally occurs in the mined clay and therefore the potters rarely need to add additional temper. At Taos and Picuris, the clay is naturally tempered with inclusive mica and the result is a very durable ware suited for cooking. At Zuni, the potters generally use ground potsherds: this means that pottery which might be hundreds of years old is incorporated into the new pottery. At Santo Domingo and Cochiti, volcanic tuff, usually called “sand,” is used for temper, while at Zia and Santa Ana, potters use a water-worn sand.

Pottery is generally made during the warm months as the clay does not dry as well during the cold months and firing is not as successful. In order to survive the initial heating in the fire, a piece has to be absolutely dry. If there is any moisture, the potter will hear the disappointing sounds of steam mounting and popping out a portion of the vessel to make its escape.

The fuels used for the firing vary from pueblo to pueblo and potter to potter. Among the Hopi, for example, coal was often used for firing the pots. In the other areas where coal was not available, the potters would use a combination of wood and animal manure. At San Ildefonso, for example, the fire is smothered at its peak with powdered horse manure which gives the pottery an even, lustrous black surface.  

The process of firing the pottery is a relatively short process. It usually takes only a few hours. During this time, the fire must be carefully monitored. The ware is stacked on grating, made from old pottery sherds and specially made pottery baffles, to allow for even air circulation and heating. The methods of firing vary among the pueblos.

The firing is done outdoors and thus is dependent on weather. If the ground is wet, or if it is snowing or raining, or if it is windy, then the pottery cannot be fired. While there are some Pueblo potters today who may use an electric kiln to provide greater control, the pots fired this way are considered to be dead.

For several centuries-from about 1300 to about 1700-Pueblo potters used a lead-oxide glaze in decorating their pots. This glaze gave the dark designs a lustrous finish. The impurities in the lead glaze render the pottery surface dark brown or black or occasionally slightly green.

Each of the Pueblos has its own distinctive decorative styles. In addition, within a Pueblo the work of a particular potter, or the potter’s family, can sometimes be recognized. Zia pottery, for example, often uses bird motifs and the undulating ‘rainbow’ band. Zia designs are sometimes similar to those used in Acoma and Laguna.

Cochití pottery has traditionally been black-on-cream. Cochiti designs often include free-floating elements and ceremonial motifs such as clouds and lightning. The designs at Tesuque are similar to those used at Cochiti.

Among the Hopi, the surface of the pots is floated. This is a process in which the surface is moistened and then rubbed with a worn stone. This gives the finished surface a dense and satiny sheen.

Zuni designs often include a semi-realistic deer motif with a line leading from the heart to the mouth. This is most often called the ‘heart-line’ deer.

The designs used by Santo Domingo potters tend to be geometric, but include some bird and floral elements. At San Ildefonso, the potters use a combination of geometric and curvilinear design elements, as well as bird and floral motifs.

The most famous San Ildefonso designs are the black-on-black designs pioneered by María and Julian Martinez. This technique involves an initial overall polishing of the vessel with red slip. Then   designs are painted over the polished surface using a thinned mixture of slip. Before the firing the jar is a matte red-brown on polished red, and after the firing the more recognizable matte and polished black.

At times some pottery designs are borrowed by potters from different Pueblos. For example, in the late 1870s, Acoma potters used a parrot design. This design was then copied by the potters at Zia who refer to these birds as “Acoma parrots.”

Pueblo pottery since the late 1800s has become well known as collectable art work. This has created some conflicts with traditional Pueblo culture. The collectors who buy Pueblo pottery, almost all of whom are non-Hopi, want to know who made the piece and therefore a signature on the pot is important to them. However, traditional Pueblo culture views the individual as a vital part of the whole. Thus personal recognition has largely been shunned. This attitude changed slowly in the twentieth century and recognition of the work of individual potters has now become commonplace.

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