Isleta Pueblo (Native Americans of the Southwest)

Isletatmp6C-27_thumbfrom the Spanish missions San Antonio de la Isleta and San Augustin de la Isleta (isleta means "little island"). The word "pueblo" comes from the Spanish for "village." It refers both to a certain style of Southwest Indian architecture, characterized by multistory, apartmentlike buildings made of adobe, and to the people themselves. The pueblos along the Rio Grande are known as eastern Pueblos; Zuni, Hopi, and sometimes Acoma and Laguna are known as western Pueblos. The Tiwa name for Isleta Pueblo is Shiewhibak, meaning "flint kick-stick place."

Location Since at least the eighteenth century, Isleta Pueblo has been located on the Rio Grande several miles south of Albuquerque. The pueblo consists of a main village (San Agustfn) and two farm villages (Chikal and "town chief") 3 miles to the south.

Population In 1990, 2,700 Isletas lived on the pueblo, out of a total population of 2,900. Perhaps 410 lived there in 1790.

Language Isletas spoke Southern Tiwa, a Kiowa-Tanoan language.


Historical Information

History All Pueblo people are thought to be descended from Anasazi and perhaps Mogollon and several other ancient peoples, although the precise origin of the Keresan peoples is unknown. From their ancestors they learned architecture, farming, pottery, and basketry. Larger population groups became possible with effective agriculture and ways to store food surpluses. Within the context of a relatively stable existence, the people devoted increasing amounts of time and attention to religion, arts, and crafts.

In the 1200s, the Anasazi abandoned their traditional canyon homelands in response to climatic and social upheavals. A century or two of migrations ensued, followed in general by the slow reemergence of their culture in the historic pueblos. The Tiwas were probably the first of the Tanoan Pueblo people to enter the northern Rio Grande region. Isleta itself grew from several prehistoric villages in the area, including Pure Tuay. The Spanish made contact with Isleta in the late sixteenth century, establishing a mission in 1613. Modern Isleta is perhaps an eighteenth-century settlement; many disruptions occurred as a result of constant conquistador attacks.

In 1598, Juan de Onate arrived in the area with settlers, founding the colony of New Mexico. Onate carried on the process, already underway in nearby areas, of subjugating the local Indians; forcing them to pay taxes in crops, cotton, and work; and opening the door for Catholic missionaries to attack their religion. The Spanish renamed the Pueblos with saints’ names and began a program of church construction. At the same time, the Spanish introduced such new crops as peaches, wheat, and peppers into the region. In 1620, a royal decree created civil offices at each pueblo; silver-headed canes, many of which remain in use today, symbolized the governor’s authority.

Isleta did not participate in the general Pueblo revolt against the Spanish in 1680, either out of fear of the Spanish or perhaps a reluctance to take the unusual step of joining an all-Pueblo alliance. They, the Spanish refugees, and people from some pueblos south of Albuquerque went to El Paso. Some Isletas reoccupied the pueblo in 1681; at that time, Spanish troops attacked and burned it and took hundreds of prisoners back to El Paso. Their descendants live today at Tigua Pueblo (Ysleta del Sur), south of El Paso. Some Southern Tiwas who did not go to El Paso went instead to Hopi and established a village (Payupki) on Second Mesa. Two Spanish friars escorted over 400 Tiwa back from Hopi in 1742; the permanent occupation of Isleta Pueblo may date from that time.

The Pueblos experienced many changes during the following decades: Refugees established communities at Hopi, guerrilla fighting continued against the Spanish, and certain areas were abandoned. By the 1700s, excluding Hopi and Zuni, only Taos, Picuris, Isleta and Acoma Pueblos had not changed locations since the arrival of the Spanish. Although Pueblo unity did not last, and Santa Fe was officially reconquered in 1692, Spanish rule was notably less severe from then on. Harsh forced labor all but ceased, and the Indians reached an understanding with the Church that enabled them to continue practicing their traditional religion.

In general, the Pueblo eighteenth century was marked by smallpox epidemics and increased raiding by the Apache, Comanche, and Ute. Occasionally Pueblo Indians fought with the Spanish against the nomadic tribes. The people practiced their religion but more or less in secret. During this time, intermarriage and regular exchange between Hispanic villages and Pueblo Indians created a new New Mexican culture, neither strictly Spanish nor Indian, but rather somewhat of a blend between the two.

Mexican "rule" in 1821 brought little immediate change to the Pueblos. The Mexicans stepped up what had been a gradual process of appropriating Indian land and water, and they allowed the nomadic tribes even greater latitude to raid. As the presence of the United States in the area grew, it attempted to enable the Pueblo Indians to continue their generally peaceful and self-sufficient ways, in part by recognizing Spanish land grants to the Pueblos.

During the nineteenth century the process of acculturation among Pueblo Indians quickened markedly. In an attempt to retain their identity, Pueblo Indians clung even more tenaciously to their heritage, which by now included elements of the once-hated Spanish culture and religion. By the 1880s, railroads had largely put an end to the traditional geographical isolation of the pueblos. Paradoxically, the U.S. decision to recognize Spanish land grants to the Pueblos denied Pueblo Indians certain rights granted under official treaties and left them particularly open to exploitation by squatters and thieves.

Since the 1700s, Isleta had been without katsina masks owing to the presence and active interference of the Spanish. Shortly after Laguna Pueblo divided around 1880 over factional differences, Isleta accepted a number of Lagunas into their village. Isleta traded homes and land for ceremonial invigoration. Within a few years, most of the Lagunas had returned to a village near their pueblo, but the katsina chief remained, as did his descendants, the masks, and the rituals.

After a gap of more than 300 years, the All Indian Pueblo Council began to meet again in the 1920s, specifically in response to a congressional threat to appropriate Pueblo lands. Partly as a result of the Council’s activities, Congress confirmed Pueblo title to their lands in 1924 by passing the Pueblo Lands Act. The United States also acknowledged its trust responsibilities in a series of legal decisions and other acts of Congress. Still, especially after 1900, Pueblo culture was increasingly threatened by highly intolerant Protestant evangelical missions and schools. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also weighed in on the subject of acculturation, forcing Indian children to leave their homes and attend culture-killing boarding schools. Pablo Abeita, a member of the reorganized All Indian Pueblo Council, fought to defeat the Bursum Bill, a plan to appropriate the best Pueblo lands.

The dynamic tension between Catholicism and traditional beliefs remains in flux at Isleta: As recently as 1965 the Indians evicted a priest regarded as insufficiently sensitive to their traditions. Since the late nineteenth century, but especially after the 1960s, Pueblos have had to cope with onslaughts by (mostly white) anthropologists and seekers of Indian spirituality. The region is also known for its major art colonies at Taos and Santa Fe.

Religion In traditional Pueblo culture, religion and life are inseparable. To be in harmony with all of nature is the Pueblo ideal and way of life. The sun is seen as the representative of the Creator. Sacred mountains in each direction, plus the sun above and the earth below, define and balance the Pueblo world. Many Pueblo religious ceremonies revolve around the weather and are devoted to ensuring adequate rainfall. To this end, Pueblo Indians evoke the power of katsinas, sacred beings who live in mountains and other holy places, in ritual and masked dance. The Isleta katsina cult was reestablished at Isleta around 1880 by refugees from Laguna Pueblo, when Laguna religious society heads banded together at Isleta to form a single curing organization, the Laguna Fathers.

In addition to the natural boundaries, Pueblo Indians have created a society that defines their world by providing balanced, reciprocal relationships within which people connect and harmonize with each other, the natural world, and time itself. At Isleta, each tribal division (Red Eyes/summer and Black Eyes/winter) is in charge of the pueblo’s ceremonies for half a year. Each is responsible for one major dance a year. According to tradition, the head of each pueblo is the religious leader, or cacique, whose primary responsibility it is to watch the sun and thereby determine the dates of ceremonies. Much ceremonialism is also based on medicine societies, and shamans who derive powers from animal spirits use their supernatural powers for curing, weather control, and ensuring the general welfare. Isleta has one round prayer chamber, or kiva. Ceremonies are held either in there or in the central plaza. Especially in the eastern pueblos, most ceremonies are kept secret.

Government Pueblo governments derived from two traditions. Offices that are probably indigenous include the cacique, or head of the Pueblo, and the war captains. These officials are intimately related to the religious structures of the pueblo and reflected the essentially theocratic nature of Pueblo government. At Isleta, the corn group leaders appointed the town chief (cacique), who was never permitted to leave the pueblo. Because of his many ritual obligations he was publicly supported. The cacique appointed the war or bow priest. A bow rather than a cane symbolized his office. He was of roughly equal importance with the cacique and was primarily responsible for security. Isleta also had a hunt chief, who led rituals for assuring health of animals and directed communal hunts, as well as an advisory group called the council of principales, composed of all religious officers and their first assistants.

A parallel but in most cases distinctly less powerful group of officials was imposed by the Spanish authorities. Appointed by the traditional leadership, they generally dealt with external and church matters and included the governor, two lieutenant governors, and two sheriffs. The authority of their offices was symbolized by canes. Nontraditional positions also included a ditch boss, who was in charge of the irrigation ditches, as well as a town crier and sacristan. In addition, the All Indian Pueblo Council, dating from 1598, began meeting again in the twentieth century.

The last correctly installed cacique at Isleta died in 1896. After that date, disruptions of installation rituals caused the war chiefs to serve for decades as acting caciques. This situation came to a head in the 1940s, when a political revolution split the pueblo into several factions and postponed elections. With the help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a constitution was drawn up; elections were held and the proper officers installed in 1950.

Customs One mechanism that works to keep Pueblo societies coherent is a pervasive aversion to individualistic behavior. Children were traditionally raised with gentle guidance and a minimum of discipline. Pueblo Indians were generally monogamous, and divorce was relatively rare. The dead were prepared ceremonially and quickly buried with clothes, beads, food, and other items, their heads facing south. A vigil of four days and nights was generally observed.

Isleta Pueblo was organized into seven corn groups. Men led the groups, although there were women’s auxiliaries. The groups were ritual units more similar to kiva groups, functioning for personal crises and societal ceremonies. The tribe was also divided into Red Eyes/summer and Black Eyes/winter groups. Each had a war captain and two or three assistants. Four men from each group served for life as grandfathers or disciplinarians. Each group had ceremonial, irrigation, clowning, hunting, ballplaying, and other group responsibilities.

Two medicine societies (for illness due to misbehavior or witchcraft) were the Town Fathers and the Laguna Fathers. A warrior’s society consisted of people who had taken a scalp and had been ritually purified. Closely associated with the kiva, this group also had a women’s component, with special duties. The economy was basically a socialistic one, whereby labor was shared and produce was distributed equally. In modern times photography by outsiders is discouraged.

Dwellings Isleta Pueblo featured apartment-style dwellings as high as five stories, as well as individual houses, facing south. The buildings were constructed of adobe (earth and straw) bricks, with beams across the roof that were covered with poles, brush, and plaster. Floors were of wood plank or packed earth. The roof of one level served as the floor of another. The levels were interconnected by ladders. As an aid to defense, the traditional design included no doors or windows; entry was through the roof. Pit houses, or kivas, served as ceremonial chambers and clubhouses. The village plaza, around which all dwellings were clustered, is the spiritual center of the village where all the balanced forces of the world come together. A track for ceremonial foot races was also part of the village.

Diet Isletas were farmers. Before the Spanish arrived, they ate primarily corn, beans, and squash. They also grew cotton and tobacco. They hunted deer, mountain lion, bear, antelope, and rabbits. Occasionally, men from Isleta would travel east to hunt buffalo. Isletas also gathered a variety of wild seeds, nuts, berries, and other foods and fished in rivers and mountain streams. The Spanish introduced wheat, alfalfa, chilies, fruit trees, grapes (often made into wine for sale to Laguna Pueblo or nearby Spanish-American villages), sheep, cattle, and garden vegetables, which soon became part of the regular diet.

Key Technology Precontact farming implements were wooden. Traditional irrigation systems used ditches to ferry water from the Rio Grande as well as floodwater collection at arroyo mouths (ak chin). Tanning tools were made of bone and wood. The Spanish introduced metal tools and equipment. Men hunted with bows and arrows.


Trade All Pueblos were part of extensive Native American trading networks. With the arrival of other cultures, Pueblo Indians also traded with the Hispanic American villages and then U.S. traders. At fixed times during summer or fall, enemies declared truces so that trading fairs might be held. The largest and best known was at Taos with the Comanche. Nomads exchanged slaves, buffalo hides, buckskins, jerked meat, and horses for agricultural and manufactured pueblo products. Pueblo Indians traded for shell and copper ornaments, turquoise, and macaw feathers. Isleta in particular traded for Jicarilla baskets; decorated pottery from other pueblos, especially Acoma, Zia, and Santo Domingo; and religious pictures from the Spanish, with whom they were in frequent contact. Trade along the Santa Fe Trail began in 1821. By the 1880s and the arrival of railroads, the Pueblos were dependent on many American-made goods, and the native manufacture of weaving and pottery declined and nearly died out.

Notable Arts In the Pueblo way, art and life are inseparable. Isleta arts included pottery and woven cotton items. Songs, dances, and dramas also qualify as traditional arts. Isleta pottery became strongly influenced by Laguna immigrants in the 1880s. Many Pueblos experienced a renaissance of traditional arts in the twentieth century, beginning in 1919 with San Ildefonso pottery.

Transportation Spanish horses, mules, and cattle arrived at Isleta Pueblo in the seventeenth century.

Dress Men wore shirts, leggings, and moccasins made of deer hides tanned and colored red-brown with plant dye. Women’s wrapped leggings and moccasins were of white buckskin. Clothing was also made of spun cotton. Rabbit skin was also used for clothing and robes.

An Isleta woman dries peaches (1889). The Spanish introduced new crops such as peaches, wheat, and peppers into the region in the early seventeenth century.

An Isleta woman dries peaches (1889). The Spanish introduced new crops such as peaches, wheat, and peppers into the region in the early seventeenth century.

War and Weapons Though often depicted as passive and docile, most Pueblo groups regularly engaged in warfare. The great revolt of 1680 stands out as the major military action, but they skirmished at other times with the Spanish and defended themselves against attackers such as Apaches, Comanches, and Utes. They also contributed auxiliary soldiers to provincial forces under Spain and Mexico, which were used mainly against raiding Indians and to protect merchant caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. After the raiding tribes began to pose less of a threat in the late nineteenth century, Pueblo military societies began to wither away, with the office of war captain changing to civil and religious functions.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Isleta Pueblo contains roughly 211,000 acres. Its constitution was last revised in 1970. Under it, men vote for the governor and an appointed council.

Economy Many people work for wages at the local air force base, for the tribe, or in Albuquerque. Some arts and crafts are produced, especially silver work and textiles; the pottery is produced with commercial methods and materials and is strictly for the tourist trade. There is some cattle ranching and some farming. Most Pueblo land is leased for oil testing.

Legal Status The Pueblo of Isleta is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Although the project of retaining a strong Indian identity is a difficult one in the late twentieth century, Pueblo people have strong roots, and in many ways the ancient rhythms and patterns continue. Some people still speak Isleta, and traditional ceremonies are still performed. Children are born into ritual corn groups as well as one of the winter/summer ceremonial divisions. Many Pueblo Indians, though nominally Catholic, have fused pieces of Catholicism onto a core of traditional beliefs.

Since the 1970s control of schools has been a key in maintaining their culture. Health problems, including alcoholism and drug use, continue to plague the Pueblos. Furthermore, Isleta is the first community downstream from several highly polluting industries, including a huge landfill. Some nearby lakes have been seriously polluted.

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