Isleta Pueblo: An elusive history

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The history of Isleta Pueblo is as ancient as the land itself, and as elusive as the great river that runs through the heart of the pueblo.

Isleta Pueblo First Lt. Gov. Paul Torres, left, Gov. Frank Lujan, center, and Second Lt. Gov. Antonio Chewiwi, right, stand for a picture at the governor’s office. Lujan says revenue from gaming has helped support improvements to infrastructure in the pueblo.

When asked what some of the key events have been during this immense history, the pueblo’s governor and his two lieutenants seem at a loss for words.

“Where do you begin with history?” asks Isleta Pueblo Gov. Frank Lujan. “The state of New Mexico celebrated its 100th birthday. We can’t say that for the pueblo because we don’t know when we were born. Start with time immemorial…”

“I know how to answer that question in Indian,” says First Lt. Gov. Paul Torres, “but I can’t answer it in English, because there’s no dates and times.”

After more discussion and pondering, Torres makes the point that things in the pueblo don’t change that much, at least not the way they might in other communities.

“Isleta Pueblo is a community that has been a farming (community), rich in tradition and culture, that we’ve had for hundreds of years, and it goes at a steady pace,” he says. “Things do not change very much over here. Things go as normal — we have our traditional dances, our feast days, our religious customs. Things go like that on a year around basis.”

They give the example of the pueblo’s Feast Day, held in honor for the pueblo’s patron, San Augustine, every year on Aug. 28.

“It’s honoring our Saint Augustine,” says Lujan. “We give him thanks.”

The day is started with a Mass, followed by a precession of the saint around the Plaza and then traditional dances are held.

“The Feast Days are sponsored by various (families) on a yearly basis,” Lujan says. “They take turns.”

Everyone is encouraged to participate, tribal members and non-members alike, adds Second Lt. Gov. Antonio Chewiwi.

“The host prepare the feast for visitors to participate in,” Chewiwi says. “It’s a time to socialize with other neighboring tribes that come to our feast, to include not only Native Americans, but everyone is invited.

“It’s a time to celebrate not only traditionally, but in the Catholic faith.”

When participating in a Feast Day, the leaders say that guests are expected to observe the traditions with respect and not do anything that’s considered “exploitative,” such as taking pictures or video taping.

“These days, we have carnivals for the kids,” says Lujan. “We’ve got vendors that come in from everywhere.”

From here, the tribal leaders slip easily into reminiscing about how pueblo life was when they were boys, and there is a slight melancholy at the realization that times, after all, have changed.

“You know, years ago, in the early days, when we were kids,” said Torres, “the Feast Day used to be celebrated by all the surround communities, like people from Los Lentes, our neighbors from Los Lunas, Peralta, Belen. They all used to come to the feast because they knew it was time to celebrate.”

He said the neighboring communities would even bring their own goods and produce to trade.

“It was like one big community is what it was,” he said. “And a lot of the Spanish people, even some of the white people, they knew how to talk Isleta and most of the Isleta people knew how to talk Spanish, and that’s how they communicated with each other, and they just had a good relationship.

“And now it’s different,” Torres said. “And the reason it’s different is because our neighbors have all either moved away … all the Spanish people that used to live (here) are gone.”

He said he remembers how when he was a youth and it was getting close to feast time, families would be waiting for some of their friends to come and stay with them from other communities, pueblos or tribes.

“It’s not the way it used to be,” he admits, adding, “All the people who lived against the reservation were like family.”

The governor remembers large vegetable gardens and huge chile fields in the pueblo and that every house had a ristra hanging from it. He says people used to harvest their crops and take them to the various Feast Days in Isleta and neighboring pueblos to trade and sell.

“We used to have these people from Alamo come certain times of the year,” said Lujan. “They’d bring all kinds of mutton with them and then we’d give them corn and chile and oven bread, and they’d stay at the house for a couple of days, you know,” adding with a laugh that there would be “truck loads” of them.

“Mom used to make a stack of tortillas this high at the morning breakfast table. Man, what happened to those days?” he wonders.

In the Tiwa-speaking community of Isleta, or Shiewipag, history, it seems, can be a slippery concept. In Tiwa, the community’s history can be told in a way not possible in English, just as the pueblo’s history can either be told from the perspective of the colonized or the colonizer.

Because Tiwa was not a written language, much of the outside world’s knowledge of the pueblo’s history has come from written records that began during contact with European explorers, or conquistadors, an account often devoid of the Isleta peoples’ perspective.

Today, both groups’ historical accounts have a place at the table, coming together to produce a more well-rounded body of literature.

One such example is as a booklet the pueblo created to accompany an exhibit, which ran from December 2009 to April 2010, of 300 historic photographs and artifacts, titled “Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century,” which begins by stating that its purpose is for the people of Isleta to “tell our own story” of this historical period.

According to the booklet, the Pueblo of Isleta, as it is known today, was established in the 1300s along what later became El Camino Real. It served as an important central gathering place for the smaller surrounding Tiwa communities and the Piro and Tompiro-speaking villages to the south and east, most of which resettled in Isleta during the early Spanish Colonial period.

“Over 3,000 years,” it states, “the Pueblo people developed agricultural practices suitable to the harsh environment of the American Southwest.”

The pueblo developed an intricate irrigation system that allowed them to grow maize, beans, squash and cotton, a practice that continued through 250 years of Spanish rule, which began in 1598, and “survived through the beginning of the American acquisition of New Mexico.”

The latter part of the 19th century saw rapid change for the pueblo that began “its greatest transition with traditional ways of life being dramatically affected” with the railroad arriving in 1881, which “forcibly took land and built rail lines through the center of the pueblo.”

A double edged sword, the railroad disrupted Pueblo life, but also brought in railroad passengers eager to buy Isletan pottery and crafts, a trend that has survived into the present day.

During a recent drive to San. Augustine Church, Gov. Lujan pointed out landmarks from his youth and reminisced about selling his own little handmade items to tourists as a child. Today, art continues to play an important role in the lives of many Isleta people, both culturally and economically.

The pueblo is perhaps best known for its pottery and storyteller dolls, but is also home to a wealth of jewelers, painters, leather workers, textile artists, drum and rattle makers, wood workers and beyond.

In the pueblo, art is more than a hobby, it is an integral part of life, and many crafts that are today prized for their art value originated hundreds of years ago as tools for everyday life.

Where the governor and his lieutenants seemed uncertain where to begin with the pueblo’s history, they make no hesitation when it comes to the future of Isleta. Lujan says the tribe’s casino has been vital in supporting economic development in the pueblo.

“The tribal budgets are about 80 percent funded from revenues generated (by the casino),” the governor said. “That supplements the very little money we get from state and federal government.”

He cites the pueblo’s recreation center, upgrades to infrastructures, the elementary school and library as programs that have been funded in part by casino revenue.

“Education: it’s helped send kids to college, help them prepare,” he said. “We have programs here that help everybody in one way or another and it’s from revenue generated from gaming.”

The governor says that with Albuquerque to the north and the “fastest growing” county to the south, he’s heard it said that one day the pueblo might resemble Central Park, an oasis of green surrounded by urbanization, continuing as it has done for more than 700 years.


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.