Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Statues and the Pueblo Revolt

Statue of Popé in the US Capitol, gift of the State of New Mexico

Among the many protests and other symbolic gestures that have rocked the US this year, my eye is caught by graffiti scrawled on the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe: 

1680 Land Back

The date refers to the Pueblo Revolt, a rising of native people across New Mexico and beyond against Spanish rule and especially against imposed Catholicism. The revolt was a remarkable event, in which more than forty different communities speaking several unrelated languages came together to drive out the Spanish and kill all the priests they could get their hands on. The organizer was a man we know as Popé. He solved the problem of how to coordinate the rising by giving messengers cords tied into a long series of knots; they and then the recipients were to untie one knot each day until there were no more; this would be the agreed day of the rising, August 11. There were complications and the rising actually began in many places on the 10th, but it worked; more than 400 Spanish and converted Indians were killed and the rest were besieged at Santa Fe, then allowed to escape back to Mexico.

The native towns kept their independence until 1692, and they agreed to Spanish overlordship only under certain conditions, the most important of which was being allowed to maintain their own religions. And they did; there are still more than 20 formally independent native communities in New Mexico, most of which still practice their traditional religions. 

Some activists have lately been demanding that statues of Spanish governors and Franciscan priests – "conquistadors", activists call them –be torn down and replaced with statues of native leaders, especially Popé. They seem to intend this as a radical act, but I would point out that there is already a statue of Popé in the US Capitol, placed there by the state of New Mexico, by way of acknowledging the diverse heritage of its people. (see photo at top)

This gets us back to the vexed question of statues, because the people of New Mexico do not universally support statues of Popé. After all New Mexico has many more Catholic citizens than followers of traditional Native American religions, and Popé tried to slaughter all the priests. On a deeper level, some Hispanic activists point with pride to the origin of their culture in a fusion of Native American and Spanish traditions. They recognize that the process of creating Hispanic identities was sometimes violent and otherwise awful, but they like the result and do not like to see its creation portrayed as merely conquest and oppression.

Although, of course, we don't know all that much about Popé, from what we do know he seems to have utterly rejected everything Spanish. He even wanted his followers to slaughter all their European livestock and throw away their iron tools. If they did this, he is supposed to have said, then their gods would return to earth to live among them, ushering in a new golden age.

Maybe he taught those things, maybe he did not; from this distance it is hard to say.  But he certainly rejected Spanish culture, and therefore the fusion of Spanish and native traditions that led to the modern Hispanic identity. He certainly advocated the killing of Catholic priests.

Me, I have no objection to statues of Popé. I see them as representing Native resistance to Spanish conquest, and the determination of some native communities to maintain their own ways and their own beliefs. As I said, they had a lot of success in this, and I see nothing wrong with their being proud of that heritage. If Popé was a violent man who believed some very weird stuff, I don't much care; as a statue he is not a person, but a symbol of Native resistance and survival.

I feel the same way about statues of Franciscan missionaries and Spanish generals. Many Hispanic activists see those statues as representing their own identity, as distinct from that of the Anglo majority, and they see calls to take them down as attacks on their own tradition. They want those statues to be understood as I understand statues of Popé, not as particular men guilty of particular crimes but as symbols of the Spanish colonial experience and all that emerged from it.

And (you knew where this was headed), that is how I feel about statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There is much about both men I do not admire; you will not find me among those praising Washington as a great general or Jefferson as a great thinker and statesmen. But statues, to me, do not just represent people. They are symbols. Statues of our Founding Fathers represent the work they did in establishing the United States, the first, large, diverse Republic in the history of the world, a fantastically bold experiment in human self-government. I am perfectly comfortable setting aside whatever else they said and did to honor those acts.

What I ask about a statue is this: what does it represent? I have trouble seeing statues of John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis or Roger Tawney as anything other than symbols of white supremacy, so, hey, tear them down. But the careers of most famous people are a lot more complicated than that.

Every heroic statue in the world represents a flawed person. Which is why, I think, we should have a lot of them, in diverse profusion. We should have statues of everybody's heroes. Beside Washington and Lincoln we should have Popé, Red Cloud, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Richard Feynman, whoever. If we're going to tolerate each other, we're going to have to tolerate statues of each other's heroes, whenever we can find a plausible excuse to do so.


David said...

I've never heard that the rebellion ended when the Spanish agreed to let the pueblos keep their native religions. What's your source? The journals of Diego de Vargas, the main source I know of, tell a story of complex negotiations with each separate pueblo, accompanied by plenty of armed demonstrations by the Spanish. Each pueblo seems to have been divided into a faction that wanted to ally with the Spanish against the Navajo and other raiding nomads, and another faction that wanted the opposite. Generally, the Spanish would manage to make a deal with the first kind of faction, and then, sooner or later, the other faction would take over, and the Spanish would have to come back and, often, reconquer the place by force. The process began in 1692, a major re-rebellion took place in 1696, and fighting was still going on, mainly against an alliance of pueblo refugees and Navajos, in 1705 (on which we have another journal by a Captain Roque Madrid). The eighteenth-century colony features Catholic priests in every pueblo, with plenty of evidence about Catholicized marriage patterns, for example. The Hopi did keep their native religion intact, but so far as I know that was because the Spanish simply ignored them as too far away and not worth reconquering.

G. Verloren said...

"Statues of our Founding Fathers represent the work they did in establishing the United States, the first, large, diverse Republic in the history of the world, a fantastically bold experiment in human self-government"

The Dutch and The Venetians would contest this claim, and rightly I feel.

The Dutch in particular - they were a global superpower while we were still squabbling like children over our doomed Articles of Confederation.

I'd also argue that the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, despite not being a true republic, was in many ways very similar to one under their highly unique elective monarchy, and they were certainly a major power that was both large and diverse.

The myth of American Exceptionalism is an arrogant lie that needs to die. It has caused us so much senseless grief, and led us to the mess we're in today, because it fools us into complacency and thinking "that could never happen here"!

We weren't the first large diverse republic.

We weren't even all that large originally - even when we ostensibly bought a lot of land in the Louisiana Purchase, most of it was uncontrolled wilderness with no real owner, and the rest was held by the rightful indigenous occupants, for whom our claim and "purchase" had no meaning - hence why we later forcibly stole their land.

And we certainly weren't very diverse! It was only once major and sustained waves of foreign immigration started happening closing on halfway into our existence that we started to become actually diverse, and even then, the apparatuses of power didn't actually represent our minorities. Heck, our largest minority were slaves!

We aren't somehow special, we're just like everyone else, and we need to respect reality and accept the truth - for our own sake, as much as anything else.

John said...

@David - that was a brief summary of my understanding of a long process in which the Indians and Spanish quarreled for years, with more outbreaks of violence, until they settled into a more stable regime in which, in practice, the Spanish did not press hard on Native religion. The Spanish did not want to send more men and money to a poor borderland, and the Indians made it plain that forcibly converting them would be a major endeavor, so the Spanish mostly stopped pressing. Not entirely, and as I understand it there were outbreaks of persecution through the period of Spanish rule, but this was not systematic to destroy the native religions.

@G- in the technical meaning of the word Venice was a Republic, since it had no king, but it was much more of an oligarchy in our terms, with only 500 voting citizens. The Netherlands had a king and a hereditary aristocracy. Holland was a Republic, but it, like Geneva, was just the sort of small state that theorists of the time thought might be a Republic. Poland always had a king.

David said...


My understanding of the 18th century situation is that the priests in the pueblos were no longer Franciscans, but seculars, and they no longer had the authority or the will to press too hard on the native religions, not like the more aggressive and millenarian Franciscans of the 17th century. Gutierrez describes the native religions as driven underground, but I'm sure this is a question of degree, about which scholars would argue.

That said, agreeing to tolerate the local religions was not, so far as I know, part of the negotiations between Vargas and the locals in the 1690s.

David said...

Poland did always have a king, but I think Verloren's description of the situation there actually mirrors the reality pretty well. Poland did have kings, so it was not formally a republic in the sense of a government without a king. But it was an elective monarchy, and from about 1600 onwards their powers were gradually circumscribed by the aristocracy, until by the mid-18th century royal power was virtually nil. Poland in this period has been described as aristocratic republic, and I think that description is realistic.

The Netherlands had a stadtholder, not a king, until 1795, whose powers were circumscribed and who was not much like a king at all. Its hereditary aristocracy was small and weak, particularly in the central lands of Holland and Zeeland--the burghers of which were the real rulers of the United Provinces.

I think the problem is that, in the interest of combating the rather ridiculous claims about the American Revolution made by the 1619 project and its ilk, John is making extreme claims of originality for the Revolution that simply don't hold water.

David said...

I'll add that the technical meaning of "republic" is, in one sense, a government without a king. But from the high middle ages onward, Europeans were accustomed to refer to virtually all polities of whatever form as "republics." It was the go-to term for political entities as a general category. R. W. Southern quotes a churchman urging a pious count to retain his post because he has a duty to "the republic." Kings of Aragon talk about the cosa publica in thousands of letters. Examples could be multiplied at pleasure.

John said...

I'm thought this over and I am sticking to my guns. Venice and Holland were not large or diverse. Venice is a single city that had about 500 voters; in 1796 more than 5,000 men voted for the US Congress just in the town of Boston. Holland is about the size of Delaware. Even in the 1790s the US was vastly bigger and more diverse than either. Voters in the US included everyone from frontiersmen in rude cabins to millionaires in New York and Philadelphia, and all their votes counted the same. It was nothing like the way Parliamentary votes were held in England, and nothing at all like the way members of the ruling councils were chosen in Holland or Venice. The American Republic certainly drew on the experience of representative government in Europe and in the American colonies, but I hold that it was still an absolutely unprecedented experiment.

David said...

Of course I appreciate that you're sticking to your guns, and I wouldn't want you to abandon them. I think it helps that you're now presenting your view as, well, your point of view and your interpretation, rather than as the absolute truth. There was something just a bit messianic in your original tone.

IMHO, tone is actually quite important. I've worked with a fair number of style books and composition instruction books, since my freshman courses are paired with intro composition classes. They all tell students to express themselves with absolute certainty, to write everything in (over)confident declarative sentences, and avoid doubt phrases like "I think" and "in my judgment" and hedging words like "seems," "apparently," etc. FWIW, I esteem doubt and hedging. These things acknowledge our human limitations and contain within them a gracious reaching out to the audience. Of course there are limits to doubt and hedging too.

Obviously you have a point about the revolution. Trying to form a republic (in the sense of a non-monarchy) on that scale was new in Euro-American culture, and considered daring and even hopeless at the time, as is well known. So it was a bold and risky move, and it deserves praise. I for one am glad they did it. But it wasn't, I'll use the word again, messianic. The world wasn't all darkness and misery until the Founding Fathers came to light it up. Almost all European polities had kings, but almost all also had countervailing institutions and rules that limited monarchs' power. Their inhabitants were human, and those people were often quite forthright about taking care of themselves. British people definitely thought of themselves as free, and many Americans at the start considered that they were only defending their rights as Englishmen. I'm not trying to rag on the American Revolution. But it's worthwhile, I think, to keep a sense of perspective and proportion.

David said...

Thinking about this stuff this morning, it seems to me that the word "messianic" may be my own overblown rhetoric when it comes to John's argument. Some American exceptionalism--think of Paul Wolfowitz's--does march very strongly toward the messianic; and of course, with Paul Wolfowitz, "march" is the operative word. (If you want an explanation for a lot of those recent interventions, don't look to the mad theories of the conspiracists; the neocons' messianic rhetoric was out there in plain sight.)

I think the key is these are matters of faith, not quite of historical fact. And admitting one is talking about one's faith has its own strength, no? As I was contemplating these issues, Barbara Jordan's words to the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 came to mind: "My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." To me, the most powerful words there are "my faith." They're what give the old thing she has faith in a fresh, vigorous power. They command respect.