Courtesy of Michael Wilcox Michael Wilcox at cliff dwelling

Professor Michael Wilcox examines a burned room at a cliff dwelling known as Keet Seel at Navajo Nation National Monument (in Northern Arizona).

Retelling the history of New Mexico's Native Americans

The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest by Michael Wilcox corrects the story of New Mexican Native populations while retelling the saga of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and promoting an indigenous approach to archaeology.

Historical, archaeological and anthropological portrayals of Native American experiences, especially during colonial periods, have focused on the decimation of indigenous populations through rampant disease, cultural extinction and military conquest.

But a new book by anthropologist and archaeologist Michael Wilcox argues that we've got the story all wrong. 

In The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest, Wilcox, an assistant professor of anthropology, argues that the real story of Native peoples in the Americas as reflected in New Mexico has a lot more to do with cultural brutality than disease. And it is infinitely more compelling than the lessons we're taught in school.

In the book, published by the University of California Press, he calls on fellow scholars to embrace a new approach – "indigenous archaeology" – to understand Native American history by seeing the connections between artifacts and other scientific evidence and the narratives of living indigenous peoples. In doing so, he argues, archaeologists could better explain why indigenous populations persist.

"I always joke that Indians have been disappearing longer than almost any group in history," said Wilcox. "The presence of four and a half million Native Americans in the United States is a complete mystery to most people. There is no story that explains what they are still doing here."

He said, "What if archaeologists were asked to explain the continued presence of descendent communities 500 years after Columbus instead of their disappearance or marginality? That's a much more interesting story."

Advent of indigenous archaeology

Wilcox says archaeologists historically have earned the mistrust of Native Americans by excavating historical sites without consulting the indigenous populations for whom the sites have meaning. That all began to change, however, with the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA, which passed while Wilcox was pursuing graduate studies at Harvard, shifted control of human remains and other burial artifacts from archaeologists or museums to local Indian communities. Archaeologists who wanted to study sites had to talk to living Native Americans, explain why the research was important and collaborate on historical interpretation.

"NAGPRA was the crack that opened the door for indigenous interpretations of the past," said Wilcox. "By extension, that means we have to look at who tells the story. For the most part, Native Americans have been left out."

NAGPRA, Wilcox says, gave rise to such new approaches as indigenous archaeology, which combines archaeology, anthropology and ethnohistory. It also opened doors for archaeologists who are Native American, including Wilcox, a descendent of the Yumans of Arizona. But some within the archaeological community continue to resist efforts to integrate understandings of present-day populations. In fact, Wilcox says that he and many of his contemporaries are sometimes suspected of having political agendas.

Wilcox counters that archaeologists and anthropologists have been far from politically objective in their telling of Native Americans and their interactions with early colonialists.

"Archaeologists and anthropologists have imposed disease, demographic collapse and acculturation as explanations of discontinuity and cultural extinction," he writes. "Almost universally written from a European perspective, the mythologies of conquest have helped render Native Americans invisible."

Story within a story

Courtesy of Michael Wilcox Students from Professor Michael Wilcox's archaeological field school begin the 1,000-foot ascent to the remote Pueblo stronghold known as Astialakwa, the site of intense battles between Spanish colonists and the Pueblo People.

Students from Professor Michael Wilcox's archaeological field school begin the 1,000-foot ascent to the remote Pueblo stronghold known as Astialakwa, the site of intense battles between Spanish colonists and the Pueblo People.

Wilcox's new book is a story within a story. The first story recounts the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 – the only successful expulsion of colonialists in the Americas at the hands of Native Americans. His retelling is based on a reexamination of primary documents and his own archaeological excavations at Old Cochiti, south of Santa Fe in New Mexico. In the second story, he shows how the conquest history favored by historians, anthropologists and archaeologists fails to explain why the Puebloan people succeeded in their revolt and persist today.

In 1680, the area around Pueblo was part of New Spain. The Puebloan people, he said, were hardly reflective of what he calls the "ooga-booga syndrome" popularized in Hollywood films.

He explains the syndrome this way: "Indians are depicted as horrified and fascinated by the presence of unfamiliar clothing and light skin and run in horror from their sight shouting, 'Ooga-booga!' It's ridiculous. Native Americans were surrounded by people who were different from themselves. Europeans may have understood Indians as a single entity, but that is not how Native peoples defined themselves."

In fact, the Puebloan people were far from awed by the Spaniards. They had heard of the Aztec conquests decades earlier. Spanish missionaries and colonists tried to convert the Puebloan people and abolish their religious practices. The Spaniards enslaved people, exploited their labor to mine minerals and forced them to serve the needs of their colonies. They were strategically brutal, using violence as a method of social control.

After several years of drought and famine, the Puebloans turned to their religious leaders for help. As a result, the Spanish increased religious persecution of the Puebloans. In turn, the Puebloans revolted in 1680 in a well-planned attack among 19 tribes that had rarely coordinated efforts. They temporarily forced the Spaniards from the region and fled to settlements in the mountains as part of a strategy of resistance. Wilcox's excavations prove that abandoned villages don't always indicate decimation by disease. In the case of the Puebloans, they reflect strategic relocation. Modern-day metal detection and ballistics – techniques that often have been eschewed by archaeologists – also helped Wilcox reconstruct the battle sites.

"Archaeologists have traditionally stopped looking at Native people after contact with Europeans. That's because of disease. If disease is used as an explanation for why a population disappears, then there is no reason to look for the next place that people move to. I found that there was a lot more violence in the early interactions than anyone has ever talked about," he said.

Michael Wilcox

Michael Wilcox

"But this wasn't an isolated thing," Wilcox added. "The entire northern and southern frontier of the Spanish empire was out of control for centuries. When you use violence to make people do what you want them to do, the exact opposite usually happens. People don't immediately surrender and become versions of you. Sometimes people migrate away from colonists or they shift identities."

Renegotiating history

"Popular mythology suggests that the Pueblo Revolt is the bloodthirsty last gasp of a culture that is dying," Wilcox said. "The revolt is attributed to the Puebloan character, rather than the fact they were traumatized."

In fact, in what Wilcox calls "an ironic, yet predictable, feat of colonial revisionism, the Pueblos have been largely characterized as aggressors" in history texts and on public monuments. He describes a Santa Fe monument dedicated "To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico." In the 1970s, a member of the Pueblo community chiseled out the word "savage." Oddly enough, Wilcox said, many in the Pueblo community still know little about the real history of the revolt because it isn't taught in schools.

"I think the monument is an interesting way to illustrate that history is always being renegotiated," Wilcox said. "The mythology we have created is that Native Americans can never be truly modern, that they are locked in the past and that cultural authenticity is locked in the past, too."

Despite his criticism of his discipline, Wilcox believes in the value of archaeology and the field's ability to change. Much of the archaeology currently being done, he said, is more responsive to indigenous populations. He credits colleagues at the Stanford Archeology Center, who pioneered a multidisciplinary scholarly approach that recognizes that stories of the past affect the way people perceive themselves and others. The Stanford approach essentially holds that archaeology is not an objective science and that the past is not removed from the present.

"I may be critical of archaeology, but what I am saying is that it makes sense to do work that is responsive and includes the opinions of indigenous populations. The more that archeologists and Native communities work together, the better things get. I really want this field to do well, and I believe it can be much better. It has to because stories of the past matter."