When I used to teach history courses at Diné College, one of my favorite topics was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The conflict stands as a central episode in the history of the Southwest and remains the most sweeping American Indian victory over non-Native colonizers. But the event has much greater significance than that. The Pueblo peoples’ success hinged on their ability to think globally, to look beyond tribal, ethnic, and linguistic lines, and to recognize that united they could achieve what many contemporaries thought impossible.
The standard narrative goes something like this: Following a series of botched and failed expeditions to discover the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, the Spanish gave up their search and settled the upper Rio Grande valley and its environs in an effort to convert the Indigenous inhabitants to Christianity. Of course there were other more Machiavellian reasons for colonization, including fears that rival European powers would move in and claim the territory. But on paper, saving souls was their stated ambition. So, under the military protection of Don Juan de Oñate, a troupe of Franciscan missionaries moved in and set up shop at Pueblo villages throughout the region. They instituted the encomienda system whereby Native peoples gave a portion of their crops in return for Spanish military protection and religious education.
The Franciscans, in all their zealotry, often went to exorbitant lengths to destroy Pueblo culture and convert people. They built churches over kivas, the Pueblos’ traditional sacred space. They outlawed ceremonies and dances. And they imprisoned and flogged medicine men. Today, the tactics they employed would be classified as human rights abuses—and probably would bring international sanctions. This mistreatment, coupled with a drought that withered crops and brought about widespread famine, led the Pueblos to revolt against Spanish rule. At Taos Pueblo, they carefully planned and launched their campaign. Pueblo forces struck the missions and Spanish settlements like a hurricane and within weeks expelled the colonists. There have been many other great American Indian military victories. Chief Pontiac’s campaign proved so successful the British sought peace and eventually brokered the Proclamation of 1763 that theoretically halted settlement west of the Appalachians. Chiefs Little Turtle and Blue Jacket’s defeat of General Arthur St. Clair and his 3,000-man army thwarted Washington’s plans to settle the Ohio River Valley. And of course the battle at Greasy Grass shocked the Western world, as headlines announced the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne’s complete annihilation of Custer and his cavalry.
But the Pueblo Revolt stands as the most far-reaching and enduring victory in American Indian history. When the dust cleared in late September of 1680, there wasn’t a Spanish soul to be found for hundreds of miles. The event is even more remarkable given its historical context. For the Pueblos of the 17th century, what we call New Mexico today was the world. It took days, if not weeks, to travel from one village to another. The peoples of the Pueblo world spoke myriad languages from completely different linguistic families. Geographically and linguistically, they were effectively as far apart as the Indigenous peoples of Peru and Bangladesh are today.
Despite such obstacles, the Pueblos recognized the need to take decisive action to assert their sovereignty, safeguard their culture, and create a better future for their children. Out of many, they overcame seemingly insurmountable barriers to work together as one, to network, collaborate, plan, coordinate, and execute with unparalleled results.
Today, the colonial military campaigns waged against Indigenous peoples have tapered off significantly. But their legacies, as well as continued colonial policies, remain and reverberate and adversely affect Indigenous communities worldwide. As illuminated in the feature article, “On a Dream and a Prayer,” Indigenous peoples have recognized they share many of the same challenges, including access to and self determination in higher education. Educators from Australia, Aotearoa, the United States, Canada, Saamiland, and Taiwan have come together to form the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC) in an effort to learn from one another and pursue their common interests collectively.
The tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) of North America have much to offer WINHEC and the world’s Indigenous peoples. In his feature article, Little Big Horn College president David Yarlott Jr. recounts his visit to Brazil where he sat on an advisory council that approved a declaration to establish the World Indigenous Peoples Games. During his visit, he and Chief Dull Knife College president Richard Littlebear took note of the great interest in TCUs. The state of Indigenous education in Brazil, Yarlott observes, resembles that which American Indians faced during the 19th century when the only opportunities existed far from peoples’ tribal communities. Happily, Yarlott and Littlebear made lasting connections with their Brazilian friends, who plan to visit their tribal colleges this year.
As much as TCUs stateside have to offer Indigenous peoples worldwide, sharing and learning is a two-way process. Dr. Littlebear recommends in this issue’s Voices column that TCU students need to leave their comfort zones, travel, and learn from the world. International borders may present a barrier, but the extra effort it takes to connect with other Indigenous peoples is well worth it. Read this issue’s On Campus news and discover how students, faculty, and administrators are doing just that. Some are taking advantage of programs such as those offered by the National Partnership for Environmental Technology Education to share knowledge with people from the Pacific Rim. Others from Red Crow Community College in Alberta, Canada, have travelled to Peru to help people build greenhouses. And the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in Keshena, Wisconsin, has sent science faulty to northern Bangladesh to study the effects of climate change with the Garo tribe. When worldwide travel to visit other Indigenous peoples is not possible, even writing letters can be an immensely rewarding learning experience—just ask the children at Aaniiih Nakoda College’s immersion school as they excitedly connect with African children at Namibia’s Clever Cubs School.
To quote CMN president Verna Fowler, “The educational enrichment and world perspective gained from meeting Indigenous people from elsewhere is incalculable.” And like the Pueblo peoples of 17th century New Mexico discovered, by thinking globally and acting in unison, Indigenous peoples can achieve impossible things.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
Carter, W.B. (2009). Indian Alliances and the Spanish in the Southwest, 750-1750. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Weber, D.J. (1999). What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.