Summary of the Pueblo Peoples of the Southwest

Copyright 1998 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College

When thinking about the Southwestern US, it is important to remember that the Pueblo peoples are only one of several groups of indigenous people that live in this region. The Navajo and Apaches, for instance, came to the Southwest in late historic time (roughly only 500 years ago) and pursued an entirely different pattern of life from the one we find in the pueblos. On the other hand, the Papago and other descendants of the Hohokam and their predecessors continued a long line of development out of Central America through Mexico into the American Southwest, with extremely old roots. The Pueblo people represent a specific, unusual adaptation of Mexican agricultural economies to the mesa and canyon lands of northern New Mexico and Arizona. They certainly trace their ancestors to the so-called Anasazi and their immediate ancestors, the Basketmakers, going back at least 2500 years.

While we have studied mainly the pueblos of Zuni and Hopi, the main modern day concentration of pueblos is north-and-south along the Rio Grande watershed. Only two other large pueblos are west of the Rio Grande and situated in desert terrain; these are Laguna and Acoma. Even Casas Grande, in Mexico, is a continuation of the Rio Grande pueblos. While these can be divided into different language groups, indicating long-term differences in the origins of these people, they all pursue cultural patterns that are very closely related to each other.

Like their ancestors, the Anasazi and people of the Fremont Culture further north, the Pueblo peoples pursued an economy that was agricultural. Indian corn, maize, was a multi-varied collection of hybrid species, ultimately derived from a grass, teosinte, in Central America. Unlike the corn we know today, maize was a dry species and the kernels were dry and hard. The primary use of corn was as a ground meal which could then be cooked or baked into various soups and breads. Second to corn, they raised a variety of beans. The combination of corn and beans was a completely nutritious vegetarian diet. Nevertheless, they also raised gourds and squash; and they supplemented an otherwise vegetarian diet with meat, when they could hunt for deer and other animals. Pueblo people of the extreme northeast even hunted buffalo out in the plains. The nuts of piñon pines provided a natural, somewhat sweet addition to corn meal; they could be harvested in the fall.

Dependence on agriculture required people to live in a locality and promoted an annual cycle of activities centering around that locality. Determining various points on the annual calendar was important; thus, there are significant archaeological discoveries that point to sophisticated understanding of astronomy. Agriculture also meant dependence on weather and this was especially important since the Southwestern patterns of weather brought only very small amounts of rain which had to be utilized to their maximum potential. Some people developed sophisticated irrigation systems; others, the desert farmers in particular, developed subtle methods of using underground water. A tremendous amount of Pueblo spiritual and ritual culture is based on preserving natural balance and bringing rain when it was needed.

Spiritual and material life are very closely integrated among the Pueblo peoples. Corn agriculture is strongly represented in their creation stories so that productivity and survival are significantly interwoven with the maintenance of ritual. The katsinas come to live in their communities each year, starting with the Winter Solstice, and guiding them through the crucial periods of planting and initial growth, until mid-summer. It is as though their agricultural origins are reinforced and protected by the katsinas in their annual cycle of habitation and celebration. Of course, it is the men who are responsible for making this happen; just as they are the actual farmers.

Almost all of the Pueblo societies are matrilineal, meaning that the women own the property and pass it to their daughters. The birth home remains the most significant home for everyone so that even the men (the uncles) continue to carry significant spiritual and practical burdens in their mother's homes, even though they may have married and may have responsibilities elsewhere. While one might assume that the women have all of the power, given this, there is really a natural balance of power among the Pueblo people, since the men are the agriculturalists and feed the people. It is also the men who maintain the spiritual life of the society by forming the katsina societies and conducting the annual ritual celebrations.

Pueblo peoples understand that survival of the peoples as a whole is the preeminent issue. Working against the harsh environment to achieve survival requires constant attention of everyone. Conformity to proper principles of behavior is important in order to remain in favorable balance with nature and spiritual powers. Thus, life is low key and lacks exceptional expressions of individuality. Happiness is discovered in doing what is needed and appropriate and in contributing to the health of the whole. Neither marriage nor divorce is taken as an important moment for celebration. In an individual's life only birth and death are truly important. The naming, at birth, is of fundamental importance to the individual but precisely in that sense that the ceremony welcomes the baby into membership in the society.

The arts tend to reflect all of this. Stone carvings are made of various animals to serve as fetishes; wooden kachinas are carved to represent individual figures in katsina celebrations; and clay pots are designed with animal figures and symbols for thunderheads and rain. Only in contemporary time have artists emerged with truly individual designs and techniques, carrying traditional arts into the modern sphere of "art for art's sake."