Contested Homelands and the Broken Legacy of Pecos Pueblo

Long before the Spanish colonists and, later, the Santa Fe Trail riders, the Pecos people made a home in a valley of buttes ringed by mountains about 17 miles east of present-day Santa Fe. What happened to them over centuries of encounters with other people, combined with cycles of drought, periods of epidemics, and changes in economies typifies two of the most important points learned by teachers participating in a program at the New Mexico History Museum this month.

The first is that the disruptions experienced by people across this desert land created wounds that still bear visible scars.

The second is that the resilience of those people’s desire to connect their hearts to a physical, geographical place cannot be broken.

Contested Homelands,” a week-long program led by University of New Mexico Professor Rebecca Sanchez and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, held two sessions at the museum, reaching a total of 80 teachers. Besides helping teachers from throughout the nation learn how to reorient their notion of how North America was settled, the sessions aimed to put a definition on querencia, a Spanish term that means “home,” but so much more. A place of identity, of heart, and of memory. A place where our stories are told, understood, and embraced.

They heard lecturers and panelists, they tried their hands at traditional crafts, they took walking tours of downtown Santa Fe. And to wind up their week, they took Friday evening tours of Pecos National Historical Park, guided by History Museum Director Frances Levine, who has conducted extensive research on the pueblo’s ethnohistory and who wrote Our Prayers Are in This Place: Pecos Pueblo Identity over the Centuries (University of New Mexico Press, 1999).

Originally called Cicuye Pueblo and renamed “Pecos” by the Spanish, the pueblo was a gateway to the great plains, serving as an important trade post for Native peoples, then Spanish colonists, eventually seeing the Santa Fe Trail come within hand-waving distance of its boundaries. At its height, 2,000 people lived in a sprawl of multi-storied buildings, marked in the Spanish colonial era by one of the largest mission churches in the region. (Some interesting architectural renderings of what the pueblo might have looked like at its height are here.)

The mission was destroyed in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, then rebuilt various times over the coming centuries, sometimes with cobblestones, sometimes with adobe bricks. The pueblo’s population fell victim to a variety of stresses — raids by other tribes, smallpox and cholera, drought and starvation. By 1838, fewer than 20 Pecos people lived and were forced to make a difficult choice: Stay in a fragile and lonely land or join forces with the only other pueblo that still spoke their Towa language. They chose the latter and that year walked the 80 miles west to Jemez Pueblo.

Bloodlines have long since mixed, but even today at Jemez, Levine told the teachers, you can find puebloans who nurture a dream of returning to this querencia. Ceremonies are still held at the site, including an annual event with Saint Anthony, patron saint of the mission. In 1999, the skeletal remains of thousands of their ancestors, disinterred by archaeologists and stored for decades at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, were returned to the valley in a ceremony fraught with emotions.

After a picnic dinner in a shady grove near the ruins of the mission, the teachers gathered under a ramada to hear Ranger Eric Valencia talk about the resistance, accommodation, and inevitable change that happens whenever people of different cultures encounter one another. What they also heard, though, was Valencia’s version of querencia.

He grew up in the Pecos Valley, he told the teachers, and first descended into one of the park’s reconstructed ceremonial kivas as a four-year-old Head Start student. Besides falling into the thrall of the kiva’s mysticism, he said, he was taken by the flat-brimmed hat of the park ranger and knew, even then, that one day he would work there, too.

“As you leave here from here today or tomorrow,” he said, “I hope you return to your homes changed. I hope you return with an appreciation of what it is to live in such a harsh land as New Mexico. And I hope you encourage your students to visit their national parks. Tell them that when they see one of these arrowheads (the logo of the National Park Service), they are in one of the most special places not only in that area but in the whole wide world.”


NEH Teachers Take Up NM Crafts

NEH teachers - retablos 2The Palace Courtyard was cool, with a reasonable amount of shade this morning — a far cry from the lightning storm predicted for later today. A perfect time, in short, to try out a little plein air painting, New Mexico-style. The teachers participating in this week’s NEH-UNM program, “Contested Homelands: Knowledge, History and Culture of Historic Santa Fe,” ditched the lecture tables in favor of some hands-on activities: creating retablos and punched-tin frames, under the guidance of two notable New Mexico artists.

Santero Gabriel J. Vigil is a Raton native who gave up dreams of professional boxing to build an artist’s career in Santa Fe. Winner of multiple awards for his retablos and bultos at Spanish Market, he hasn’t forgotten his roots and regularly works with children, passing along his art skills to them. Thanks to that experience, he likely had a few tricks up his sleeve when he set out to teach our teachers. He gave them a few hints, provided some drawings for them to work off of, then set them loose.

The results? Soulful and stirring.

A group of teachers in the NEH-UNM workshop enjoy painting retablos on a cool Santa Fe morning.

A group of teachers in the NEH-UNM workshop enjoy painting retablos on a cool Santa Fe morning.

A sacred heart design takes wing.

A sacred heart design takes wing.

Inside the Palace, another group of teachers created a din usually reserved for construction sites. Cleo Romero, a Nambe-based artist, showed them a selection of her punched-tin work — which, in 2006, won top honors in Santa Fe’s Spanish Market. With the assistance of some patterns, nails and hammers, she let the participants work off any potential aggressions by pounding out their own creations.

NEH teachers - tinwork 2

Using a paper pattern, one of the teachers lines up her punched-tin design.

With Romero's works for inspiration (hanging, at right), teachers get to pounding.

With Romero's works for inspiration (hanging, at right), teachers get to pounding.

If any of that got you inspired,take note: Cleo will teach a free tinwork class next Wednesday from 10 am to 2 pm at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts. (Call 982-2226 for details.) For further inspiration, check out the online version of Treasures of Devotion; Tesoros de Devocion, the exquisite exhibit in the Palace of the Governors celebrating the work of New Mexico’s legendary santeros.

Whose Homeland Is It Anyway?

“Place is more than a museum. Place is more than stuff in a case. Place is an experience that is shared through connections with people over time.

With that, Erica Garcia, chief educator at the New Mexico History Museum, today began one of what will become many lessons for 40 kindergarten-through-high-school teachers. Gathered from across the nation at the museum this week (like a similar group last week), the teachers are studying the history and interactions between Native Americans and European settlers in a city where those peoples’ descendants still make history.

Erica Garcia (left) introduces teachers to the NM History Museum.

Erica Garcia (left) introduces teachers to the NM History Museum.

It’s also an education in how the settlement of America is not a story focused on familiar names like Jamestown and the Mayflower.

Contested Homelands: Knowledge, History, and Culture of Historic Santa Fe is a special program offered at the museum by the University of New Mexico’s College of Education. Funded by a $160,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Contested Homelands consists of two weeklong workshops held at the museum, with field trips around Santa Fe and Taos.

“Getting a chance to learn about New Mexico’s history in a place that saw so much of it makes this workshop unique,” Garcia said. “The Palace of the Governors is a living testament to the resiliency of New Mexico’s people and cultures. You can tell people about the history, but something special happens when they stand in its footprint.”

Contested Homelands aims to strengthen the teachers’ knowledge of pre-colonial America and stretch their understanding about the scope of European Colonial America – a topic that too often is taught as an east-to-west migration, overlooking the contemporaneous movements of Spanish colonists from south to north. Besides hearing distinguished scholars discuss topics ranging from historic sites to El Camino Real, participants get to try their hands at cultural creation, hammering out tinwork and designing their own retablos.

Garcia talks about the design of the Palace of the Governors during a walk around the Santa Fe Plaza.

Garcia talks about the design of the Palace of the Governors during a walk around the Santa Fe Plaza.

As this week’s session began, Garcia led the teachers on a tour of the Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors. Standing at the corners of Lincoln Avenue and San Francisco Street, she noted that the corner, once the terminus of El Camino Real, is now “a great place to get ice cream.” Moving down the sidewalk to the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and San Francisco Street, she told the teachers they had just reached the end of the Santa Fe Trail.

The Plaza that connects the trails, she said, has been the heart of Santa Fe life for four centures, with  wedding, executions, protest rallies, military enlistments and, just this weekend, a few nude cyclists.

Sprinkled in were stories of the Spanish colonization and its harsh encomienda system that led to the Pueblo Revolt; the technology of building with mud; and a nod to the Palace’s uniquely colonial security system: Anyone intending to storm the place was forced to simultaneously stoop through a low door while stepping up, thereby making themselves a slower and better target of inhabitants.

This week’s teachers hail from places as far from one another as Maine and Oregon, with Iowa, Chicago, the Carolinas, New Jersey, New York and San Antonio thrown in.

Among the questions participants will ponder: What are homelands? How do homelands stretch, shrink and shift over time? What happens when homelands overlap with one another? How does (perpetual) colonization, conquering, and resistance transform homelands and create new ones? What is the spiritual story of a homeland? How do the artistic products and structures of a homeland tell a story? What connections do people have to a homeland and how are these connections manifested in history and in present-day? And importantly, for the purpose of this workshop, how do the Camino Real and the Palace of the Governors exemplify the unfolding of homeland in an area that already had a vibrant system of Pueblo communities prior to European Settlement?

Using what they learn, the teachers will leave the workshop with something they can use in their classrooms – a lesson, a Power Point Presentation, an informational booklet to share with their students, a lecture.

Besides UNM and the museum, the program received support from the Office of the State Historian, Spanish Colonial Arts Society, Wells Fargo Bank, Albuquerque Historical Society, New Mexico Humanities Council, New Mexico Council for the Social Studies, National Geographic, La Montañita Coop, Dr. Thomas Keyes, Dr. Quincy Spuirlin, Dr. Rebecca Sánchez and Albert and Christine Sánchez.

While the workshops coincide with Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary, they make the point that the area’s history stretches centuries before that.

“Vibrant communities flourished in this place long before European exploration and later settlement,” Assistant Professor Rebecca Sánchez told UNM Today. “ As this region moved toward statehood, the United States inherited the memory and material creations of the region. When it became part of the U.S., the country had to incorporate this history into the national narrative of American history. The place is itself a homeland with a larger story.”

The NEH’s “Edsitement” arm has also selected Santa Fe for this month’s virtual excursion, an online opportunity for teachers and, really, anyone to learn more about this place where so many trails converged.