The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest: An Indigenous Archaeology of Contact by Michael V. Wilcox, University of California Press, 316 pages
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in New Mexico, one of the earliest recognized revolts on what is today U.S. soil, has been a subject of considerable historical and anthropological scrutiny. Publications about the era leading up to the event, and about the event itself, remain popular and divisive. Readers might remember the heated exchanges of words, letters, and editorials that surrounded the 2005 introduction of revolt organizer Po’pay into the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., as New Mexico’s second representation (in case you’re wondering, Dennis Chavez became the first figure to represent the state there in 1966).
Now anthropologist Michael V. Wilcox provides a new interpretation of the Spanish colonial period during the Pueblo Revolt era. The author argues that the understanding of the Puebloans during the Spanish conquest as being isolated and passive is false; rather, they played an active part in their own histories. The brutality of tactics and the “concept of intimidation through violence” as one of the Spanish approaches to social control, as the author points out, often led Puebloans to choose abandonment of their settlements as their counter strategy to guarantee continued existence. Previous historical and anthropological theories and conclusions of Pueblo decimation through diseases, he argues, were derived from faulty population estimates and misinterpretation of historical sources. It is part of Wilcox’s thesis that “mobility, abandonment, and relocation are characteristic responses of colonized populations” to Spanish violence.
Wilcox’s research is influenced by a recently developed approach of what he terms “Indigenous archaeology” — the concept of reintegrating Indigenous materials, remains, history, and research with contemporary peoples and thus making archaeology more relevant for existing Indigenous communities. Taking the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the events leading up to it as a case study and a model, Wilcox frequently points out that Pueblo people did not disappear during the Spanish contact period but are alive and thriving today — which makes arguments by other historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists about conflicts, disease, and cultural extinction perhaps not incorrect but at least less significant. The author’s findings instead support the notion of active retreat of Pueblo peoples from their traditional homelands into the remote areas of New Mexico “in an effort to maintain social distances between themselves and the colonists.” He refutes inflated population statistics, the number of disappearances attributed to disease, and social and cultural losses supposedly experienced by the Puebloans and points to the fact that very little research has been done on Pueblo remains outside of the mission-controlled pueblos. It is the lesser researched or simply neglected settlements that need greater attention, he argues, and he says studies of such places would support his thesis that Puebloans often retreated when faced with threats from Spanish conquistadors.
Trying to closely interpret issues of power and politics between conquerors and those conquered, Wilcox extensively covers the political and religious structures of Spanish colonialism and the relationships and interactions between colonists and the Pueblos during the Spanish colonial period. The Pueblo
Revolt is a deeply analytical work which gives a well-researched view of the various Spanish entradas, interactions between the Spanish and Pueblo people, and Pueblo activities.
Unfortunately, the book is not an easy read, and reading it entails quite a few irritations. For one, the Pueblo Revolt per se — advertised in the title and on the dust jacket as Wilcox’s case study — takes up little space in the book. Also, the habit of citing books’ (or their reprinted editions’) publishing dates in parentheses in the text is very misleading and confusing to non-specialist readers. For instance, referring to Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis as “published” in 1996 makes it difficult to understand the context, considering that his thesis is from the end of the 19th century. And to compare early-20thcentury words by Charles F. Lummis, for whom the Spanish could do no wrong, with a late-20th-century quote by San Juan Pueblo anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz, while supporting the author’s argument, is not necessarily the most objective way of making a point.
Much of what makes this book a good work, along with all its quality theories and findings, is entangled in anthropological theories; buried in (at times outdated and needless) criticisms of previous generations of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians; and mired in sometimes patronizing textbook-like introductions. In short, it is a dissertation — a good one — to which a rather limited editorial hand has been applied. It is not quite understandable why editors of the University of California Press couldn’t assist Wilcox in making this a more readily comprehensible work for a general academic audience (they would have also detected quite a few typos had they done so). Still, Wilcox’s research is solid, and his points are well taken — “change and population movements do not always signal the end or the death of Indian cultures,” and settlement patterns and population movement during the Pueblo Revolt period demand further research.
— Tomas Jaehn