Reviewed by Luc Nettleton
By David Roberts
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004
The frontier fear, often exaggerated, of different Indian groups combining forces to drive away the white settlers actually came true way back in the explosive summer of 1680. The many different Pueblo villages of New Mexico were separate entities that had never acted together before. But that summer, under the direction of the leader Popé, they secretly joined forces and drove the Spaniards from the Pueblo homeland. Some 400 settlers and Spanish soldiers were killed during the lightning strike. As is often the case with people everywhere, the unity did not last. For a dozen years, the Puebloans operated without being overseen by Spanish rulers in Santa Fe. Then came the reconquest, but it is the Pueblo Revolt itself that attracts the most interest to this day.
“From the Indian point of view, the Revolt, in its complete eradication of the European oppressor from the people’s homeland for more than a decade, far outmatches in terms of lasting impact the famous massacre of Custer’s army by the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Big Horn in 1876,” writes David Roberts in the prologue to his clearly written 279-page book. Doing the research was no easy task, considering how many Spanish records were burned during the revolt, how “fundamentally unreliable” the existing record is, and how little information could be obtained from the Pueblo point of view. Roberts states that it was not his intention to write another quasi-objective history of the revolt. What he did was travel over these old grounds, contemplating ruins and getting a feel for the land. The result is a book that is more sympathetic to the Puebloans than the Spanish religious overlords. But knowing that up front, this reader had few complaints, though one wishes there was more information about Popé, a 45-year-old shaman from San Juan Pueblo, and how he secretly hatched the plan with other shamans and war captains to free all the Pueblo villages.
Trying to explain how the Puebloans fared between 1680 and 1692 without the Spanish was perhaps a more difficult task, and despite Roberts’ best efforts, plenty of mystery still remains about the Pueblo ruling years. Even harder to gage is how many Puebloans took off to continue to live free during the Spanish reconquest, completed in 1696. Apparently the Hopis, living on the mesas of what is now Arizona, had a hand in what Roberts calls “the Puebloan diaspora.” In the end, a reader might suspect that a lot more can be learned from oral history and an insider’s view (Pueblo and Hopi) on these 17th-century happenings, but apparently secrecy still reigns in Pueblo country.