In 1650 the Governor of New Mexico, hoping to sooth the hostility of the Acoma Pueblo Indians, forbade the Franciscan Missionaries from punishing and forcing the Acoma to work without compensation and to allow the Indians to practice their traditional dances and religious ceremonies. The Franciscan Missionaries retaliated by turning the Governor over to the Spanish Inquisition; thus, the Franciscans had free reign over the province.
Between 1656 and 1665 the Missionaries forbade the traditional Pueblo Kachina dances and seized every mask, prayer stick and Kachina doll and burned them. To the Acoma, giving up their religion would have been tantamount to giving up their life. This attempt to destroy their religion became the most important cause of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
A drought swept through the region; famine among the Pueblos and the increased attacks by the Apache propelled the unrest of the Acoma to come to a head in 1675. Trying to suppress the discord, the Governor ordered the arrest of 47 Pueblo Shaman for practicing sorcery and idolatry. Four of them were sentenced to death; the remaining were publicly whipped and put into prison. Upon hearing of this atrocity, the Pueblo leaders descended upon Santa Fe, while most of the Spanish soldiers were absent off fighting the Apache. The Governor was forced to release the prisoners.
Popé, also pronounced Po’pay, was from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, aka San Juan, New Mexico; he was one of the released spiritual leaders. He retreated to the Taos Pueblo and began plotting the rebellion over a 5 year period against the Spanish settlers. He became known for being the leader of the Pueblo Rebellion. Popé began organizing 46 Pueblo villages that spoke 6 different languages, to kill or expel the Spaniards by attacking settlers in the proximity of their villages. The goal was to kill the missionaries, destroy the churches and kill the settlers who did not willingly leave the area. He prophesied that once the Spanish were gone, the gods would reward them with prosperity and health. Popé gave each Pueblo who joined his movement a cord with knots tied in it. One knot was to be untied each morning. When the last knot on the cord was unfastened, every Pueblo would carry out the attacks on each Spanish community on the same day. The rebellion was intended to occur on August 11, 1680.
Unfortunately, the Spanish discovered the plot and were preparing for the confrontations. Upon hearing the news, Popé quickly gave the order to attack, one day earlier than planned, on August 10th. The Spaniards’ horses were stolen, the roads leading to Santa Fe were blocked and the settlements were destroyed. 400 people were killed including 21 Franciscan missionaries. The Pueblo warriors surrounded Santa Fe, cutting off their water supply. By August 13, 1680, the Governor of Santa Fe was ready to abandon the town. He gathered the remaining able men, forced a retreat of the Pueblo warriors and headed south toward the Rio Grande to El Paso del Norte. The Indians did not attack them as they left, but only followed them to ensure that they would not turn back.
Popé tried to return his people to their culture as it was before the Spanish came. He wanted all the churches destroyed along with the Christian images, for the people to use their Pueblo names, destroy all the fruit trees and Spanish cattle. He also forbade them from planting wheat and barley. He wanted any native who married in the Church to dismiss their spouse and marry in the old tradition. He wasn’t as successful as he expected; the fruitful paradise he had envisioned did not materialize; the drought did not end; the Christian and Spanish culture was too engrained into the Pueblos’ way of life.
Popé is a truly significant symbol, a hero to the Acoma Pueblo Indians. He spoke the 6 different languages of the various Pueblo towns that spanned almost 400 miles. Popé was eventually deposed as their leader. It is believed he died before the re-conquest by the Spanish in 1692.
On March 21, 2005 at the rotunda of the U.S. Congress building in Washington, DC, a 7 foot statue of Popé was unveiled. It was sculpted by Cliff Fragua, the first Native American to have a tribute placed in the National Statuary Hall. It is carved from Tennessee pink marble. The statue depicts Popé holding a knotted cord in his left hand, his right hand holds a bear fetish and on his back are the scars from the whipping he was given by the Spanish while incarcerated.