When the Colonizer is Gone
In New Mexico the wounds of colonialism run deep, despite the delicate balance of the three cultures – Anglo, Hispano and Native American – so often touted as an attraction for tourists.
At a conference held in Northern New Mexico last weekend, the pain of these old grievances was never far below the skin.
Called Historias de Nuevo Mexico and held at the El Rito campusof the Northern New Mexico State College, the purpose of the conference was to present complementary perspectives of the state’s unique history to correct the picture cultivated by mainstream historians celebrating the state’s centennial.
What did it mean to the tribes, for example, when New Mexico was finally admitted to the Union? Precious little, said Glenabah Martinez; “we were already sovereign nations.” Martinez, who grew up in the Taos Pueblo, is Assistant Professor at UNM and author of the book, Native Pride. She spoke about the new curriculum she has recently completed, incorporating and celebrating the pueblo experience for the K-12 educational system.
One example discussed by Martinez was the response of the Pueblo people to repeated demands by one Charles Burke, Commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs, that the Indians limit their dancing so that they might give up “evil” behavior and get more work done. The response of the Council of All the New Mexico Pueblos, May 5, 1924, was eloquent: “This is the time of the great question. Shall we peacefully but strongly and deathlessly hold to the religion of our fathers, to our own religion, which binds us together and makes us the brothers and children of God? There is no future for the Race of the Indians if its religion is killed.”
The right of the pueblos to uphold their native identity had been under siege since the arrival of the Spaniards in 1598, led by the brutal Juan Onate, most infamous for ordering that captives from Acoma Pueblo be punished for an attack on Onate’s cousin with the loss of one foot. Whether this horror was actually carried out has been disputed, historian Thomas Chavez stated in his talk, but Onate’s ruthless domination of the Pueblos was followed by other conquistadores and the church that accompanied them.
It’s not as if the atrocities ended there. New to me was the practice of capturing and enslaving the children and women, and sometimes the men, from the more aggressive outlying tribes – the Navajos, Pawnees, Apaches, Kiowa Apaches, Utes, and Paiutes – and selling them as slaves.
These children, known as genizaros, grew up without any sense of their original identity. They seldom became members of the Master’s family; they were doomed to be always “other”. Today, many people throughout the southwest may be genizaros without even knowing their origin. Cynthia Gomez spoke about her own discovery of her personal history, and what she has learned about her grandmother’s experience as a genizaro. She showed the trailer of a film she is making called “Without a Tribe.”
Few women came here with the Spanish soldiers who settled here, so it is unsurprising that the men became involved with the beautiful Pueblo women, and some of these couples married. Sadly, native women’s subjective experience of patriarchal marriage was not addressed here; perhaps it would have stirred up too much controversy in this setting. One can surmise that the women became subservient to their Spanish husbands and soon gave up their native ways as Christianity became the family religion; and after some time, the whole family claimed to be Hispanic.
The two cultures became so inter-mingled that it’s often difficult for an outsider to be sure who is Indian and who is not; a person from either group is likely to have a Spanish surname even if living at the pueblo. Thus former enemies who might have fought and killed one other during the two Pueblo Revolts have gradually come to share a new indigenous culture. People of the land, Estevan Arellano pointed out, they share the native diet we know as “New Mexican food” – tortillas, chili, beans, posole, enchiladas, atole, calabacitas. For both peoples, the querencia, the landscape, is as precious as the tie to family. Perhaps the two cultures have become more alike than different, especially after the Santa Fe Trail and the Mexican American war delivered to the shores of the Rio Grande a new colonizer: the Anglo.
With the arrival of white Americans during the 19th century, America’s triumph in the Mexican American War (slyly instigated by President Polk), and the subsequent failure of the United States government to respect the land grants that had been given to the settlers by Spain, both communities became blended into a single underclass in an increasingly white society that both had reason to distrust and resist.
The tenuous balance that remains today is what gives New Mexico its unique flavor, but the underlying grief, and the anger, can still be felt here. If Native Americans and Hispanos have become vecinos, it’s not clear that anglos have been accepted into that mix. The presence of the vast military edifice on this beloved landscape, especially the nuclear laboratory, remains a reminder of where power is held here.
Myrriah Gomez talked about the Lab’s impact during the second day of the conference. Unfortunately I was unable to stay, but I remember an essay she wrote as an undergraduate that was published in the Pojuaque News, “Before the Bomb, There Were Bean Fields.”
This colonial master represents elite and special knowledge, great power, and significant wealth. With the collaboration of local political elites, the nuclear behemoth is a source of money to state agencies; it creates jobs, but by employing Hispano and Native men and women, it effectively silences them. The unions will not support any disarmament efforts that call for closing the lab; their interest is to protect the jobs the lab provides. The nuclear establishment also provides the tribes with an annual stipend that effectively holds tribal governments in check.
This colonization by the lab is nonviolent and subtle; the people’s resistance is stopped with dollars. The lab’s presence here challenges us to relate to one another as human beings, rather than as institutions or races.
Bridging the gap created by color was the intent of the talk by Adrian Bustamente, Professor Emeritus from Ft. Lewis College. Tracing the DNA pathway through the cell mitochondria has revealed that we have all evolved from seven African mothers. Difference of skin color has only to do with climate and exposure to the sun, Bustamente pointed out; so we might as well get over our surface differences.
But it’s a challenge to retain cultural identity and cope with the hatred sown of historic suffering while sharing space with the descendants of the conqueror.
It will take more than the mitochondria, but if our conversations with one another come from a place of heart, instead of from a place of intellectual formality, we may yet find a way to become a free people dressed in many colors that are only skin deep.