In 1492, Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) miscalculated his voyage to Asia and landed in what is now the island of modern day Haiti and Dominica Republic. He thought he was in the Indies of the East; hence he named the natives “Indians.”
Throughout history, groups of people have been named by their conquerors. It is for this reason I will use the term “Native peoples.”
A thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Hopi, Zuni and other natives of the southwest were building large multilevel structures with thousands of rooms. They went through an agricultural revolution of mastering irrigation canals that allowed them to grow maize (corn), which cannot grow on its own and has to be planted.
They developed many other vegetables and fruits, as well as, ceramics, blanket and basket weaving.
There was no private ownership of land, any rich or poor, and women did not have a second-class standing to men. There were no judges, juries, or prisons. Children were taught to be independent and free thinkers. These Native communities truly subscribed to the notion: it takes a village to raise a child.
These societies were not without conflict. During drought or scarcity, the plains natives raided the pueblos. These raids were done out of a need to survive and not out of conquest. There was an unwritten peace treaty between these two groups of natives. Once a year they would rendezvous, near Pecos, in order to trade with one another. They traded items such as hides, tools, and meat for pottery, baskets, and agricultural products.
Though the Natives of the Southwest did experience some conflicts, these societies did not know “war.” This was a stark contrast to European society, where 2 percent of the population owned 95 percent of the land. The vast majority were poor peasants who worked tirelessly for the nobility. Women certainly had a second-class standing in a male-dominated society, and children were taught to surrender to authority.
At the end of the movie Apocalypticto by Mel Gibson, a native stands on the beach watching the Spanish come ashore. In my opinion, this is the most powerful scene in the movie. Unknown to the natives, life as they knew it was never going to be the same. A similar scene must have taken place when the Spanish first arrived into the Southwest.
It was not a Spaniard or even a European who led the first expedition into what is now New Mexico. It was an African. Estavanico, a black Moor accompanied by Frey Marcos de Niza in 1539. They came in search of the Seven Cities of Cíbola.
Estavanico met his demise at Zuni pueblo, hacked to pieces by the natives of Zuni, it has been reported that he was too demanding of their hospitality. After Estavanico’s arrival, there were four more expeditions into what we now refer to as “El Norte.”
Chamucado Rodriguez in 1581-82, followed by Antonio de Espejo in 1582-83, then Contano de Sosa in 1590, ending the expedition period and the beginning of occupation with Juan de Oñate in 1598-1604.
As a history teacher, I cannot conclude this column without a lesson, or at the least, something for my readers to ponder. It’s been almost 500 years since Estavanico first set foot in New Mexico. The Native societies of yesteryear have all but been destroyed. These pre-European native societies of the Southwest had everything we claim to strive for today such as equality, sustainability, environmental balance and a true sense of community.
Today, in the United States, 2 percent of the population control 90 percent of the wealth. We have a higher prison population than any country in the world. There is a large gap between the rich and poor, our schools at the national level are a systematic failure, and we have been at war with some other country almost every generation.
The solutions to the many problems plaguing our society will not be found by looking forward but by looking back on our history.
An American scholar, named John Collier, lived with the Native Americans of the Southwest during the 1920s and 1930s. He said of their spirit, “Could we make it our own; there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and forever lasting peace.”
Rock Ulibarri is a local resident and educator. He may be reached at 505-440-9776.