by Matthew Martinez, Ohkay Owingeh
Popé is revered as the leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Pueblo scholars refer to him as the one who carried out the first successful American revolution against a foreign colonial power, Spain. Popé (Ripe Pumpkin) was from Ohkay Owingeh (known today as San Juan Pueblo) and, as best can be determined, was born around 1630. Little is known about the upbringing of Popé. Though, there is no reason to believe he did not grow up like any other Pueblo Indian boy of his time who strictly followed the customs of his community. Religion was inextricably woven into the pattern of pueblo life. Young Pueblo boys were taught the ways of being and becoming a young man both in a secular sense and through a religious understanding.
Popé’s presence was first recorded in 1675 when he and 47 other Pueblo men were prosecuted and indicted in Santa Fe for the alleged practice of sorcery. As a result of the trial, four men were sentenced to hanging. The remaining men were rounded up and publicly condemned to lashings and imprisonment. The Pueblo villages sent a delegation to Santa Fe to protest this treatment and threaten war. Fearful for his life, Governor Juan Francisco de Treviño released the prisoners and allowed them to return home. Upon being released, the Pueblo captives were told to give up their idolatry and iniquitous ways. This was a time of intense hardship for Pueblo people under the Spanish regime. Popé grew up seeing his people forced into the Spanish repartimiento system. Under this system Pueblo people served as slave labor and were required to provide food and supplies to the Spaniards.
Pueblo scholar Joe Sando writes that the Spaniards constantly harassed religious leaders and that a Tewa kiva was filled with sand so the people could not hold their nightly dances. In Pueblo thought and culture, when religion is suppressed, the natural order of life is disrupted. Suppression of religion, according to Pueblo worldview, means a threat to the livelihood of the people.
It was against this background that Popé and other Tewa war captains began discussing what might be done to rid the country side of the invaders. Several Pueblo leaders gathered in Taos Pueblo to plan the Revolt. Popé emerged as a key organizer. It is suggested that he was an important individual because he had access to the inner religious circles of Taos Pueblo. 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. Pueblo people were prohibited from using horses. Moreover, during Spanish rule they were not allowed to use guns of any kind.
Pueblo people come from a running culture. It is no surprise that Popé and his followers agreed that runners would be sent to each of the pueblos. The runners carried a deerskin strip tied with knots. Each knot represented the number of days remaining before the campaign against the Spanish would begin. Each morning at every pueblo a knot would be untied. When all the knots were untied, the uprising was to begin in all of the pueblos. This plan almost failed because several sympathizers notified the Spanish of the plan. Thus, the revolt began two days early and, on August 10, 1680, the Spanish were caught by surprise. They retreated to Santa Fe and were eventually overpowered by a large number of Pueblo warriors.
On May 21, 2005, after a long struggle, the unveiling of the Popé statue for the National Statutory Hall took place at Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). This unveiling was in remembrance of the event that took place in 1680. Popé was the earliest individual to be honored in the collection of the U.S. Capitol. Cliff Fragua (Jemez Pueblo) was the first American Indian artist to sculpt a statue for the Statutory Hall. Popé joins the figure of the late Senator Dennis Chavez as New Mexico’s two contributions to the U.S. Capitol. The addition of Popé to the National Statutory Hall completes the group of 50 individuals chosen to represent the United States.
In the seven and a half foot marble rendition, Popé holds a knotted cord in his left hand, which was used to determine when the Pueblo revolt would begin. He holds a bear fetish in his right hand which symbolizes the center of the Pueblo world and religion. There is a pot behind Popé, which signifies Pueblo culture. The deerskin he is wearing is a symbol of his status. The shell necklace that he is wearing is a reminder of where life begins. Popé wears Pueblo moccasins and his hair is bound in a traditional Pueblo style. On his back are the scars that remain from the whipping he received for his participation and faith in Pueblo ceremonies and religion. Herman Agoyo, San Juan Pueblo, succinctly states the following about the importance of Popé:
“To the Pueblo people here, Popé is our hero. Tribes were on the verge of losing their cultural identity when the Pueblo Revolt brought everything back on track for our people.”
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