Pueblo Women Endure, A Closer Look for Women’s History Month

Steve Russell

The Europeans had ideas about Indians that were difficult to displace with facts. The Pueblo peoples of what is now called the Four Corners after the intersection of four states (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona) and extending all the way down the Rio Grande to Texas were particularly challenging to the dominant narrative.

Indians were supposed to be hunter-gatherers, which was important because hunter-gatherers lacked fixed boundaries on their land and so could be easily dispossessed. In addition, farming was considered a superior use of the land.

When they discovered the Spanish intruders, the Pueblo peoples had already been sedentary farmers for hundreds of years, having long before produced the agricultural surplus that enables permanent settlements and the specialization of everyday tasks that makes space for art and science.

Indians were supposed to be fierce and warlike and therefore ruled by masculine values. Women were expected to be even more second-class citizens than they already were in Europe.

The first Pueblo people to discover the Spanish intruders were the Zuni, who killed the guides who had brought Fray Marcos’s gold seeking expedition from Mexico, where the Spanish assaults on indigenous cultures has been going on since Hernán Cortés decapitated the Aztec Empire and conquered what was left by playing off tribes against each other. The Zuni, like many other Pueblo peoples, are matrilineal. The women owned the houses and the gardens and therefore wielded more power than Europeans could comprehend.

Pueblo resistance to the Spanish began immediately and continued though the claims of Mexico and then the United States to hold sway over the peoples whose collective memory told them they belonged to the lands they were farming. The Pueblos united to eject the Spanish entirely for 12 years in the 17th century and the last armed revolt came in the Taos Pueblo in 1847, when the Indians sided with the Mexicans against the invading United States. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

Since 1976, the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico have operated a cultural center in downtown Albuquerque, a place where their story can be told as their ancestors lived it and their story can continue with the concerns of Pueblo leaders today.  The story continues with an event at the Pueblo Cultural Center on Saturday, March 14.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, there will be a discussion of contemporary Pueblo women in leadership with U.S. Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham and two of the four women who have served as Pueblo governors, Verna Teller (Isleta) and Lela Kaskalla (Nambé). Laura Harris (Comanche), Executive Director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, will moderate the program, which is free and open to the public.

Teller was the first woman governor of Isleta Pueblo, serving from 1987-1990. During her career as a political and community leader, she has worked to democratize tribal government, involve women in the political process, protect Isleta’s environmental rights, and strengthen the health of Pueblo communities through alcohol and substance abuse programs.

Kaskalla served as governor of Nambé Pueblo from 1996-1997. During her term she fought against anti-tribal legislation, successfully defeating a proposed tax on tribal gasoline distribution. Kaskalla has also held positions with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the New Mexico State Fair Commission and served on IPCC’s Board of Directors for nearly a decade. Kaskalla was recently featured in A Thousand Voices, a documentary about Native American women that aired on New Mexico PBS in February 2015.

The Pueblos of what is now the Southwestern U.S. were here before the Spanish, before the Mexicans, and before the U.S. The women of those Pueblos had a status that was formed within individual cultures and not in reference to Europeans, a status that has evolved with the times and continues to evolve. With that evolution, the indigenous women, like their Pueblos, will endure on the land that has shaped them.

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