Ohkay Owingeh (Place of the Strong People) !
by William H. Wroth
Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, named Pueblo de San Juan de los Caballeros by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, is a Tewa-speaking village twenty-five miles north of Santa Fe, on the Rio Grande just north of the confluence with the Chama River. In the traditional history of Ohkay Owingeh (“Place of the Strong People”) the ancestors are said to have emerged from a lake in the north, hence a sipapu or place of emergence from the under world. The lake is often said to have been in southern Colorado, near the great sand dunes of the San Luis valley. The Tewa people after emergence traveled south making settlements on both sides of the Rio Grande, and at the site of Ohkay Owingeh they built two villages one on each side of the river, probably about 1200 A.D. Directly across from Ohkay Owingeh was Yungé Owingeh (“Mockingbird Place”) on the west side of the Rio Grande.
In 1598 Juan de Oñate listed eleven Tewa-speaking villages. Today seven still survive; in addition to Ohkay Owingeh, are Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Tesuque. There is also a group of Tewa-speaking Tanos from the Galisteo Basin who were displaced by Diego de Vargas in the Reconquest and by 1701 had established themselves among the Hopis at First Mesa where they still live and are known today as the Hopi-Tewas.
The people of Ohkay Owingeh first encountered Europeans when the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition came to New Mexico in 1541, but no doubt hearing of the rapacious behavior of Coronado and his men, the people fled into the mountains when the expedition came and set up camp near their village. The exploring expedition of Gaspar Castaño de Sosa briefly visited Ohkay Owingeh in 1591, but it was the colonizing expedition of Juan de Oñate in 1598 which brought the full force of the Spanish presence to the village. After living at Ohkay Owingeh for a while, which he first named San Juan Bautista, then renamed San Juan de los Caballeros, Oñate chose to make Yungé Owingeh the capital of the new Spanish colony of New Mexico, naming it San Gabriel de Yungé. Oñate forced or convinced the inhabitants of Yungé to relocate to Okhay, and the settlers and soldiers from Mexico moved into their former homes, a Pueblo house block of some 400 apartments. They renovated Yungé according to European tastes, such as the addition of wooden doorways and window frames. Oñate’s main purpose in colonizing New Mexico was to discover gold and silver mines as rich as or richer than those of his home in Zacatecas. When he discovered nothing of value and the harsh reality of life in New Mexico became apparent, he resigned under fire for his poor leadership and in 1607 returned to Mexico. The capital of New Mexico was moved in 1608 from San Gabriel de Yungé to its present site at Santa Fe.
In the decades that followed, the people of Ohkay Owingeh, like other Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, suffered under an oppressive Spanish rule in which they were conscripted into forced labor, required to pay demanding taxes in goods, and their religious activities were suppressed. By the 1670s there was a great deal of discontent amongst the Pueblo peoples which came to a head in 1675 when 47 Pueblo religious leaders were jailed in Santa Fe and were subjected to whipping for practicing their religion, viewed by the Spaniards as idolatry. Four of the men were hanged. Among those who were released was a medicine man, as the Spanish documents characterize him, from Ohkay Owingeh named Popay (Popé) who soon became the leader of the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. Popay moved to Taos Pueblo and began plotting with confederates from other Pueblos to drive the Hispanic settlers out of New Mexico.
Soon a well-coordinated effort, which included the support of Ohkay Owingeh and other Tewa villages, was launched in August 1680. The intent was to kill the missionaries and destroy the churches at each Pueblo, and to kill any settlers who resisted and did not evacuate their settlements and leave New Mexico. As soon as the rebellion broke out, the Hispanic settlers in the Santa Cruz de la Cañada valley and other settlements close to Ohkay Owingeh abandoned their farms and assembled at the home of the Santa Cruz alcalde mayor. They then retreated en masse to Santa Fe, after which the Tewas from Ohkay Owingeh and other nearby Pueblos destroyed their houses and chapels. After the Spanish retreat to El Paso, Tewa-speaking Tano Indians from the Pueblos of San Cristóbal and San Lázaro in the Galisteo basin moved north to the Santa Cruz River valley to be close to their linguistic kin at Ohkay Owingeh and to re-establish themselves in a more fertile and safer area.
After several unsuccessful attempts by Spanish forces to re-conquer New Mexico, Diego de Vargas and his forces marched north in 1692, and most of the Pueblos submitted to Spanish rule. However, by 1696 dissatisfaction had again come to a head. In March 1696 Fray Gerónimo Prieto at Ohkay Owingeh wrote to Vargas asking for military protection. He said that Pueblo leaders, including those from Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma, were on their way to San Juan under the pretense of coming to trade; but actually were meeting to plot a rebellion. In June 1696 the second Pueblo Rebellion began with many of the Pueblo villages participating, including Taos, Picuris, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Ohkay Owingeh, and the other Tewa and Tano Pueblos. The rebels killed five missionaries and 21 soldiers and settlers and burned several of the mission churches before fleeing into the mountains. In 1697 Vargas succeeded in subduing the rebellion among the eastern Pueblos. Ohkay Owingeh again submitted to Spanish rule, but the Tanos of the Santa Cruz valley fled westward and by 1701 had established themselves among the Hopis at First Mesa where they still live and are known today as the Hopi-Tewas.
By 1706 if not earlier, a new church was under construction at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo with the Franciscan friar, Fray José Antonio de Torres, in residence. Through the eighteenth century it served as the religious center for the newly established and re-established Hispanic communities in the area. Little is known of this church, but in the 1740s Fray Juan José Pérez de Mirabel directed its renovation and enlargement or the construction of an entirely new church at Ohkay Owingeh. In the late 1800s this church was extensively renovated by the French priest Father Camilo Seux, and a new stone chapel in neo-gothic style dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes was completed in 1890. The old church was finally torn down and replaced in 1912 by a brick neo-gothic church still in use today.
In the eighteenth century the Spanish authorities, both religious and political, realized that the 1680 rebellion had been caused in great part by their harsh treatment of the Indians, and after the Re-conquest they adopted a much more lenient attitude. Forced labor and tribute were no longer permitted, and the large haciendas which demanded Indian workers were replaced by smaller family-operated farms. Indigenous religious rites were no longer suppressed by the missionaries. Ohkay Owingeh and the other Pueblos were able to practice both their traditional religion and Catholicism in an accommodated blending of the two. Many of the traditional religious ceremonial dances at Ohkay Owingeh, such as the Deer Dance and the Cloud Dance, were allowed and are still performed today.
Although conditions were better, Ohkay Owingeh in the 1700s was surrounded by growing Hispanic communities while its own population was in decline. In 1776 Father Francisco Atanasio Domínguez listed the Pueblo’s population as 201 individuals and 623 Hispanos living in neighboring communities. In 1781 a serious smallpox epidemic hit northern New Mexico and took the lives of about one-third of the population of Ohkay Owingeh. The census of 1810 showed the Pueblo’s population back up to 200, but the neighboring Hispano communities now totaled 1733. However, relations between the people of Ohkay Owingeh and their neighbors have generally been good. In the 1700s Hispanos and Pueblo members cooperated in facing attacks by the nomadic tribes, with the men of Ohkay Owingeh and other Pueblos providing large numbers of troops. Truces were made, usually in the late summer and fall, so that trading fairs could be held with all the tribes. San Juan became an important trading center, not only for Pueblos and Hispanos but also for nomadic tribes, such as the Utes and the Navajos, especially in the late 1700s when the threat of nomadic raiding had abated.
In 1820 during the last months of the Spanish government, the Pueblo Indians were given full citizenship and were allowed to install their own municipal governments in each Pueblo. This prerogative was honored in the period of Mexican rule, 1821 to 1846, and in the American period after 1846. However, in the Mexican period, Pueblo lands, including those of Ohkay Owingeh, were under threat. The philosophy of classical eighteenth-century liberalism enshrined in the Mexican constitution of 1824 held that communal lands impeded individual liberties, were often not well utilized, and should be distributed to individual owners. In at least one case Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo was successful in averting the sale of its lands. In 1825 Governor Antonio Narbona rejected a petition by Hispanic settlers for portions of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo lands. The land issue, as well as the threat of newly enforced tax laws, contributed to the short-lived Rebellion of 1837 launched by both Hispanos and Pueblo Indians, in which members of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo participated.
The American occupation brought a change in sovereignty but did little to ameliorate Pueblo land problems until the twentieth century. The American view of Indian land in the nineteenth century was similar to that of the Mexican government. The alienation of Pueblo lands was achieved through the courts with the premise that Spanish land grants to the Pueblo Indians were legally distinct from the reservation lands of other tribes, which were protected by treaties with the federal government. Pueblo lands were allowed to be sold by a U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1876 but in 1913, the Court reversed this ruling, stating that the Pueblo lands had to be protected in the same manner as other Indian lands. The result of this ruling was that Pueblo land could no longer be sold, and that squatters on Pueblo lands were subject to eviction.
To protect long established communities of non-Indians on these lands, New Mexico Senator Holm Bursum introduced the so-called “Bursum Bill” which would have given clear title to virtually all squatters on Pueblo lands, thus alienating the land from the Indians and opening it to development. Fortunately this bill was defeated in Congress, and the much more favorable United States Pueblo Lands Board Act was passed in 1924. The Pueblo Lands Board Act made it very difficult for outsiders to gain title to Pueblo lands and served to extinguish many of the land claims against the Pueblos. For land claims that were approved, the Pueblos were financially compensated. In effect it meant that many squatters could not gain title through adverse possession and could be legally removed from Pueblo lands. At Ohkay Owingeh squatters had at some point in the nineteenth century re-settled the long-abandoned San Gabriel de Yungé, an integral part of the lands belonging to the Pueblo. In the 1920s these squatters were finally removed by joint action of the San Juan Pueblo council and the United States Pueblo Lands Board.
With the settling of land issues, improvements in health and education, the people of Ohkay Owingeh gradually entered the economy and way of life of twentieth-century America. They were able to do this and still maintain their traditional culture and worldview. Their ability to live comfortably in both worlds continues to the present day. For example, a recently completed affordable housing project, Tsigo bugeh Village, at the Pueblo was developed in sharp contrast to the typical federal government project imposed on Ohkay Owingeh and many other Indian communities in the past. Traditional concerns such as sacred geography, spatial directions and orientation, and maintaining ceremonial pathways were taken into account in the planning that was based upon the expressed views and needs of community members. And finally in December 2005 the tribal council formally changed the name from San Juan Pueblo back to Ohkay Owingeh, the name by which the people themselves have always called their home from long before Europeans came to the Southwest.
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When people and lions collide, both suffer.Photograph by Brent Stirton
Lions are complicated creatures, magnificent at a distance yet fearsomely inconvenient to the rural peoples whose fate is to live among them. They are lords of the wild savanna but inimical to pastoralism and incompatible with farming. So it’s no wonder their fortunes have trended downward for as long as human civilization has been trending up.
There’s evidence across at least three continents of the lions’ glory days and their decline. Chauvet Cave, in southern France, filled with vivid Paleolithic paintings of wildlife, shows us that lions inhabited Europe along with humans 30 millennia ago; the Book of Daniel suggests that lions lurked at the outskirts of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.; and there are reports of lions surviving in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran until well into the 19th or 20th centuries. Africa alone, during this long ebb, remained the reliable heartland.
But that has changed too. New surveys and estimates suggest that the lion has disappeared from about 80 percent of its African range. No one knows how many lions survive today in Africa—as many as 35,000?—because wild lions are difficult to count. Experts agree, though, that just within recent decades the overall total has declined significantly. The causes are multiple—including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of lion prey for bush meat, poachers’ snares that catch lions instead, displacement of lion prey by livestock, disease, spearing or poisoning of lions in retaliation for livestock losses and attacks upon humans, ritual killing of lions (notably within the Maasai tradition), and unsustainable trophy hunting for lions, chiefly by affluent Americans.
The new assessments, compiled by scientists from Panthera (an international felid conservation group), Duke University, the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, and elsewhere, indicate that African lions now live in nearly 70 distinct areas (view map), the largest and most secure of which can be considered strongholds. But the smallest contain only tiny populations, isolated, genetically limited, and lacking viability for the long term. In other words, the African lion inhabits an archipelago of insular refuges, and more than a few of those marooned populations may soon go extinct.
What can be done to stanch the losses and reverse the trend? Some experts say we should focus efforts on the strongholds, such as the Serengeti ecosystem (spanning Tanzania to Kenya), the Selous ecosystem (southeastern Tanzania), the Ruaha-Rungwa (western Tanzania), the Okavango-Hwange (Botswana into Zimbabwe), and the Greater Limpopo (at the shared corners of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, including Kruger National Park). Those five ecosystems alone account for roughly half of Africa’s lions, and each contains a genetically viable population. Craig Packer has offered a drastic suggestion for further protecting some strongholds: Fence them, or at least some of their margins. Investing conservation dollars in chain-link and posts, combined with adequate levels of patrolling and repair, he argues, is the best way to limit illegal entry into protected areas by herders, their livestock, and poachers, as well as reckless exit from those areas by lions.
Other experts strongly disagree. In fact, this fencing idea goes against three decades of conservation theory, which stresses the importance of connectedness among habitat patches. Packer knows that, and even he wouldn’t put a fence across any valuable route of wildlife dispersal or migration. But consider, for instance, the western boundary of the Serengeti ecosystem, where the Maswa Game Reserve meets the Sukuma agricultural lands beyond. If you fly over that area at low elevation, you’ll see the boundary as a stark edge, delineated by the slash of a red clay road. East of it lies the rolling green terrain of Maswa, covered with acacia woodlands and lush savanna, a virtual extension of Serengeti National Park. West of the road, in the Sukuma zone, you’ll look down on mile after mile of cotton fields, cornfields, teams of oxen plowing bare dirt, paddies, and brown-and-white cows standing in pens. A fence along that boundary, as Packer asserts, could do no harm and possibly some good. It may be a special case, but it’s enough to open a heated discussion.
Trophy hunting is also controversial. Does it contribute to population declines because of irresponsible overharvesting? Or does it effectively monetize the lion, bringing cash into local and national economies and providing an incentive for habitat protection and sustainable long-term management? The answer depends—on particulars of place, on which lions are targeted (old males or young ones), and on the integrity of management, both by the hunting operator and by the national wildlife agency. Certainly there are abuses—countries in which hunting concessions are granted corruptly, situations in which little or no hunting income reaches the local people who pay the real costs of living amid lions, concessions on which too many lions are killed. But in places such as Maswa Game Reserve—where hunts are scrupulously managed in cooperation with the Friedkin Conservation Fund, an organization that cares more about habitat protection than about revenue—the effect of a ban on hunting would be perverse.
Hunting of captive-bred lions released into fenced areas on private ranches, as now widely practiced in South Africa, raises a whole different set of questions. In a recent year 174 such lion-breeding ranches operated in the country, with a combined stock of more than 3,500 lions. Proponents argue that this industry may contribute to lion conservation by diverting trophy-hunt pressure from wild populations and by maintaining genetic diversity that could be needed later. Others fear it may undercut the economics of lion management in, say, Tanzania, by offering cheaper and easier ways to put a lion head on your rec-room wall.
And then there’s the matter of what happens to the rest of the lion. The export of lion bones from South Africa to Asia, where they are sold as an alternative to tiger bones, constitutes a dangerous trend that surely increases demand.
Bottom line: Lion conservation is an intricate enterprise that must now reach across borders, across oceans, and across disciplines to confront a global market in dreams of the wild.
But conservation begins at home, among people for whom the sublime and terrifying wildness of a lion is no dream. One set of such people are the Maasai who inhabit group ranches bordering Amboseli National Park, on the thornbush plains of southern Kenya. Since 2007 a program there called Lion Guardians has recruited Maasai warriors—young men for whom lion killing has traditionally been part of a rite of passage known as olamayio—to serve instead as lion protectors. These men, paid salaries, trained in radiotelemetry and GPS use, track lions on a daily basis and prevent lion attacks on livestock. The program, small but astute, seems to be succeeding: Lion killings have decreased, and the role of Lion Guardian is now prestigious within those communities.
I spent a day recently with a Lion Guardian named Kamunu, roughly 30 years old, serious and steady, whose dark face tapered to a narrow chin and whose eyes seemed permanently squinted against sentiment and delusion. He wore a beaded necklace, beaded earrings, and a red shuka wrapped around him; a Maasai dagger was sheathed on his belt at one side, a cell phone at the other. Kamunu had personally killed five lions, he told me, all for olamayio, but he didn’t intend to kill any more. He had learned that lions could be more valuable alive—in money from tourism, wages from Lion Guardians, and the food and education such cash could buy for a man’s family.
We walked a long circuit that very hot day, winding through acacia bush, crossing a dry riverbed, Kamunu following lion spoor in the dust and me following him. Probably we traipsed about 16 miles. In the morning we tracked a lone adult, recognizable to Kamunu from its big pug as a certain problematic male. When we met a long line of cows headed for water, their bells clanking, attended by several Maasai boys, Kamunu warned the boys to stay clear of that lion.
Around midday he picked up a different trail, very fresh, left by a female with two cubs. We saw her flattened day bed in the herbage beneath a bush. We traced her sinuous route into a grove of scrubby myrrh trees that grew thicker as we went. Kamunu moved quietly. Finally we stopped. I saw nothing but vegetation and dirt.
They’re very close, he explained. This is a good spot. No livestock nearby. We don’t want to push any closer. We don’t want to disturb them. No, we don’t, I agreed.
“We think they are safe here,” he told me. It’s more than can be said for many African lions, but at that moment, in that place, it was enough.