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Native Sons : PUEBLO NATIONS By Joe S. Sando , (Clear Light Publishers: $22.95 cloth; $14.95 paper; 282 pp.)

August 09, 1992|Evan S. Connell | Connell's many books include "Mr. Bridge," "Mrs. Bridge" and "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn."

Americans who do not live in the Southwest may be dimly aware that a big adobe apartment house somewhere between Hollywood and Detroit is full of Taos Indians. Although this happens to be true, there is more to be said. Nineteen pueblos are scattered across a considerable expanse of Southwestern landscape, from Taos in northern New Mexico to Isleta south of Albuquerque and as far west as Zuni near the Arizona border. In times past there were quite a few others that now lie in ruins.

The existence of these villages was first reported by four survivors of the Narvaez expedition that fell apart in Florida in 1528. Three Spaniards and a Moorish slave turned up in Mexico City eight years later. They had sailed out of Tampa Bay on a makeshift barge, were shipwrecked near Galveston, and walked the rest of the way. Their precise route is not known, and it is unlikely that they came within sight of the New Mexican pueblos, but they heard rumors from other Indians and when they reached Mexico City these rumors interested the viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza. Europeans had been trying since the Middle Ages to find the legendary Seven Cities, and Mendoza thought these tales of golden cities to the north should be investigated. He therefore dispatched a priest to see what he could see, with the Moorish slave as a guide.

At the pueblo of Hawikuh, now a heap of rubble near Zuni, the Moor was killed. The priest then returned to Mexico and told more stories. Thus, in 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado rode into view, changing the life of Southwestern natives forever.

Joe Sando, who was born into the Sun Clan at Jemez, writes that even today most Pueblo festivals commemorate this 16th-Century event. Coronado is represented as a figure on a dancing horse, with a sword in his right hand, dancing to the beat of a drum. "Thus do the Pueblo people work their history into living ceremonies. In this way, they gain a wry revenge upon their persecutors. One waits to see what the role of the Anglo in Pueblo historic observances will be."

That statement throbs like a drumbeat throughout Sando's readable and authoritative book. His animus toward Spanish conquistadors seems little softened by the fact that Coronado, De Vargas, Caravajal and the others are long gone. During the 17th Century, 29 men of Jemez Pueblo were hanged by Governor Caravajal, and one is not apt to forget or forgive such a thing, no matter how long ago it happened. Nor does he care much for Anglo conquistadors who passed a variety of grotesque decrees, some of which might have been drawn up by Cotton Mather and Joseph McCarthy.

In 1924 the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles H. Burke, "circulated documents to churchmen, members of Congress, and newspaper editors, asserting that Indian religious observances were sadistic and obscene." Burke subsequently informed members of the Taos Pueblo Council that they were "half-animals" practicing a pagan religion. Because of such brilliant administration, traditional ceremonies went underground and the Pueblos felt more unified than ever.

The hand of American jurisdiction lay heavily on all aspects of Indian life. John Collier, a white man who headed the Indian Defense Assn., wrote in 1927 that officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs would invent regulations enabling them to sell or lease property as they pleased, revising or suspending such quasi-laws at their own discretion. Indians were arrested, fined and imprisoned without trial. "The Bureau may at will institute passport requirements for Indians and prohibit the contact of tribe with tribe . . ." and so on. In other words, the concept of Manifest Destiny, or might makes right, functioned as the guiding star of American policy very much as it functioned for the Spaniards.

Although there now seems to be a faint realization among Washington bureaucrats that federal policies may not always have been enlightened, changes are a long time coming. Pueblo Indians served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard during the Second World War, but not until 1948 were they allowed to vote.

Pueblo life for various reasons confronts the U.S. Government with a complex, unique and difficult situation. Sando points out that the 19 villages are in effect 19 nations within a nation. He compares this relationship to that of colonial countries subject to a foreign power.

The diversity of these small nations can be seen in their languages. Four villages speak Tiwa, a dialect of the Tanoan language. Six others speak a second dialect, Tewa. Jemez natives speak yet a third dialect, Towa. Keresan is spoken almost identically at seven villages. Zuni is spoken only at Zuni. What can a Washington apparatchik make of it? And these citizens all live in the semi-sovereign state of New Mexico, a land so foreign to many Americans that Albuquerque and Santa Fe tourist bureaus often receive calls from people wanting to know if a visa is required.

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