Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 4 – Hispanic Social and Economic Development

Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 4 – Hispanic Social and Economic Development

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![


1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoJune 7, 2015

In 1598, before English settlers arrived in Jamestown on the east coast of the United, Spanish settlers from Mexico and Spain colonized northern New Mexico.

The story of the settlers, led by Juan de Oñate, the soldier and silver-baron from Zacatecas in Mexico who financed the colonization, is a fascinating and complex one. Oñate was a hero to many of the descendants of the settlers, but a brutal conqueror to many others:

Native Americans had their own very personal memories concerning Oñate. They recalled massacres, slavery and terror. They remembered that Oñate’s foray into New Mexico in 1598 led to the deaths of two out of every three Indians there and nearly caused the extermination of Native culture across the region. (from The Last Conquistador, the film)

Juan de OnateBy 1680, the Pueblos of northern New Mexico were united against the colonists and successfully expelled them in what has become known as the Pueblo Revolt. The Spanish and their indigenous Mexican allies returned, but not until 1693. Even then, it took years of warfare before an accord was established under new auspices – defense of northern reaches of the Viceroyalty of New Spain against France, England, and Russia, tolerance towards Pueblo religion and culture, and cooperation against Comanche, Ute, Apache, and Navajo raiders. (The quotes below are from A Cuarto Centennial History of New Mexico by Robert Torrez.)

A Social and Economic Development Perspective on New Mexico History: The Spanish Period

In my three blogs on New Mexico, I have been reviewing New Mexico history in light of Baha’i social and economic development principles. The blogs are here, here, and here. Social and economic development, according to Baha’i perspectives, requires unity, science and religion working together, capacity building, and learning in action. It is not something “that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.”

taos puebloObviously, a 16th century conquest by a profit-hungry European colonial power is not going to be an ideal fit to Baha’i ideals of social and economic development. Yet asking the question – and exploring the historical experience in northern New Mexico – is relevant for the modern era, not only in New Mexico but wherever 16th, 17th, and 18th century European colonialism leaves dominant traces. I.e., in Arizona, in California, in Mexico and all of central America, and in much of South America.

Wikipedia – in its history of New Mexico – paints a grim picture:

The current viewpoint by experts today is that the objective of Spanish rule of New Mexico (and all other northern lands) was the full exploitation of the native population and resources. “Governors were a greedy and rapacious lot whose single-minded interest was to wring as much personal wealth from the province as their terms allowed. They exploited Indian labor for transport, sold Indian slaves in New Spain, and sold Indian products…and other goods manufactured by Indian slave labor.”

Spanish colonialism also focused on converting the indigenous people to Spanish Christianity. Oñate was accompanied by missionaries. Many native Americans converted – or appeared to convert. And while the clergy were often humane and idealistic, they were also often intolerant and dogmatic. And they could be a very disruptive:

Franciscan missionaries came to New Mexico with Oñate and a struggle ensued between secular and religious authorities. Both colonists and the Franciscans depended upon Indian labor, mostly Pueblos, and competed with each other to control an Indian population decreasing because of European diseases and exploitation. …  Pueblo dissatisfaction with the rule of the clerics was the main cause of the Pueblo revolt.

But there was another aspect to the Spanish presence in New Mexico – people who were willing to reach out and befriend their native American neighbors, even intermarry with them.  And although Spanish culture was authoritarian, it was not racist, or at least not in the modern northern European sense. Oñate even had Jewish blood – he was a descendant of a great converso family through his mother – and married to a great granddaughter of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. Partly because of this, and partly because of the isolation of the colony in Northern New Mexico (and also due the need for a common defense against external threats):

… the Spanish in New Mexico were never able to achieve dominance over the Indian peoples who lived among and surrounded them. The isolated colony of New Mexico was characterized by “elaborate webs of ethnic tension, friendship, conflict,and kinship” between Indian groups and Spanish colonists. Because of the weakness of New Mexico “rank-and-file settlers in outlying areas had to learn to coexist with Indian neighbors without being able to keep them subordinate.”

Catlin_--_Comanche_warrior_and_tipiAfter being thrown out by the Pueblo Indians in the Pueblo revolt, the reconquista in 1692 and 1693 was followed by changes in the relationship of the Church to native religions as well as the settlements purpose:

Following the Pueblo Revolt and reconquest, the authority of the Catholic Church was reduced substantially, and because of the expanding influence of the French, English, and Russians in North America, the Spanish government held on to New Mexico principally as a defensive buffer against these enemies of the Spanish Crown.

While the revolt succeeded in only temporarily expelling the Spanish from New Mexico, it did force changes in Spanish attitudes which enabled the Pueblos to maintain their language end ancient religious practices. After the reconquest, it became apparent that the Spanish would have to demonstrate tolerance towards Pueblo religious and cultural ceremonies and cooperate with their neighbors in order to defend the colony against the various tribes which besieged New Mexico from all directions

And New Mexico grew, slowly expanding into new territory. But always, there was fighting – and oftentimes trading and joint raiding – with neighboring nomadic Comanches, Apaches, Utes, and Navajos. Partly as a result, the northern New Mexican Spanish communities incorporated increasing numbers of people of mixed blood and even pure indigenous blood:

Prominent among those who shouldered the burden of frontier settlement and defense were the growing mestízo, or mixed blood, population of the province. Among the least recognized of these groups are the genízaro. The genízaro were Indians from various tribes, who had, for a variety of reasons, lost their tribal identity. Many of them were captive children, who had been raised in Spanish households and been baptized, had assumed Spanish surnames, and had eventually become Hispanicized.

ristraGenízaro settlements such as those established at Abiquiu and Tomé, bore a significant portion of New Mexico’s frontier defense well into the 19th century. Despite many struggles, the growth of these communities made possible the subsequent development and expansion of New Mexico.

(Note: When I was growing up in New Mexico, friends told me of experiences of mutual raiding in their families. Apparently, stealing children and then raising them as family members was common on both sides.)

My Baha’i Social and Economic Development Analysis

What is my social and economic development analysis?

First, let me fill in some missing details. The Spanish brought with them new technologies, new agricultural tools, new animals, and new trade opportunities and needs. New animals – horses, cattle, and sheep – spread through the American west, leading to a much greater mobility for nomadic tribes (and the rise of the powerful and long-lived Comanche empire.)  Sheep were widely adapted by into the native American economy, becoming a means to both economic growth and settlement.  Agricultural methodologies – for example, the acequias of Spain adapted from the Islamic world for distribution of water to fields, or the use of plows (and horses and oxen to pull the plows) – increased the productivity of agriculture, as did the availability of iron and steel for axes, saws, and other materials.  And the Pueblos also shared their foods, and knowledge of the desert and mountain geographies of Northern New Mexico.

corndanceMy rough analysis inspired by a Baha’i social and economic development framework shows intermediate – not high, not low – marks. Unity, at first, was almost non-existent – the two sides were often in violent conflict. And internal struggles – Pueblo against Pueblo – soldiers vs. friars – were common.

It was only after the Pueblo revolt and the following Spanish reconquista that a live-and-let-live attitude came into play. Clearly, the Spanish were not going to dominate the Pueblos and they also no longer felt compelled to deny indigenous religion. And clearly, against a common enemy, both sides realized they needed each other. So in time, helped by tolerant Spanish attitudes toward racial mixing, a working relationship developed.  It led to an emergence of a new Hispanic northern New Mexico culture – a culture no longer Spanish or Mexican.

Science? It was almost non-existent. Education was poor. In these arena of endeavors, New Mexico fell behind. Governance traditions among the native Americans seemed to have remained relatively strong, but not among the Spanish where traditional autocratic traditions too often held sway. The Pueblos and the Spanish did often work together through personal ties, but there doesn’t seem to have been very much in terms of formal relationships.Wisdom acquired through experience was highly valued – and necessary for survival (the environment was tough and very demanding). Religion evolved toward accommodation and cross fertilization. And overall, New Mexico emerged from the time of Spanish domination with both a strong native American culture and a uniquely northern New Mexico culture. There were, although, severe problems (drugs, poverty, lack of education) that are the heritage of issues left unresolved.

Speculating about the Future

What do these lessons mean for the future?  First of all, New Mexico was unique in having relatively equal players in the Pueblo and Spanish populations. Accommodation and cooperation was often reached, providing an example of cooperation between indigenous American and European immigrant cultures that is sadly lacking throughout the Americas (it’s hard to think of other places where this has taken place). But, it requires a surrender of traditional and autocratic governance methods and domination by narrowly European religious orthodoxy.

Second, it highlights both the importance and possibilities of unity. Because of the unity that did develop – and the natural tendency of people to form relationships with each other – both sides were able to survive and even help each other.

Third, it shows the importance of tradition and religion for survival, provided it is not forced. Both sides maintained strong religious traditions – and were able to respect each others.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we apply the Baha’i principles of science and religion and Baha’i experience in social and economic development to an evaluation of the American territorial period of New Mexico history..


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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6 thoughts on “Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 4 – Hispanic Social and Economic Development

  1. Dr. Friberg, concerning the approximate period of your account, I wish to relate a story I once heard from one of the pueblo people in southern New Mexico. It was told me with great relish and much laughter.

    When the Spanish first came, they demanded to know of the pueblo people where the gold was kept. Seeing that they were well armed and disciplined troops, the pueblo citizens said they had no gold. But, as if by sudden inspiration, they would with wide eyes point to the north and east and confide, ‘Apache, Apache!’ so that, gradually, the invader was drawn from pueblo nation to pueblo nation, ever nearer the difficult and treacherous terrain of the Mescalero Mountains.

    There, of course, they suffered terrible losses at the hands of the Mescalero Apache. The decimated remnant, as they trudged back to the south through the pueblos, complained that they had found no gold, only death and suffering. At last, an old woman explained to them the meaning of the word ‘apache’. It means “enemy”, she said without the least trace of a smile.

    1. Dennis, thanks.

      I’ve become very intrigued by the constant negative characterizations of people like the Apache as raiders. Any ideas on this account? Is it fair?

      Reading the history of Geronimo by Utley – a fine book – he draws a careful distinction between raiding and war among the Apache. Raiding is taking things – horses, cattle, food, etc – as needed with minimal loss of life. War was revenging insults and violent actions, and often the Apache and Navajo felt forced to war by the massive assaults by the Spanish and later the Americans. Basically, what I’m learning – or suspecting – is that nomadic tribal life the world around has often been of this kind.

      My anecdote is from Socorro where I was friends with a fine, humble gentleman from a northern New Mexico family who had been dispossessed of his ranch by “Anglo” tax dodges. But the anecdote is from an earlier time. His family, he said, had Apache brothers and sisters. The Apaches would raid, taking horses,cattle, foodstuffs, and children and people, often raising the stolen children as their own. The New Mexicans would raid right back, taking exactly the same things. Thus, Apache children would be brought in the family and raised as Hispanics and brothers.

      There is not an extensive literature on this that I know about, but I suspect that a large percentage of the New Mexico Hispanic population is Mestizo and that places like Tome and other Rio Abajo communities had strong mixed elements.


      1. I too have read that some Apache tribes got their food and other stuff mainly by raiding. I have wondered why they thought this is OK, not evil. I guess they must have been very nationalistic, viewing other tribes and non-tribal humans as inferior, totally alien, not quite human like the Apaches were, therefore being OK to steal from them. Maybe kind of like many people view animals, as food and other stuff not deserving any compassion. Kind of like the Nazis viewed the non-Germans, especially non-Aryan people. Or one could see it as similar like the English and white Americans viewed American Indians and blacks, before the twentieth century, and especially before slavery was abolished. An even closer behavioral similarity to the Apaches could be surely seen in the behavior of the Vikings, who similarly thought it not evil to raid non-Viking settlements. I guess similar ideas could have been quite common among some tribes in ancient times. One could even see it in a way in the Bible, where the Israelites basically dehumanized the previous inhabitants of Palestine, tribes like Canaanites, Amorites, Ammonites etc., the Israelites were taking their land and trying to exterminate them by genocides. So sad.

        1. Hi Tom:

          I share your fascination with the issues you mention. And it is not only about the Apaches and their near kin like the Navajos, both people who retain their culture and are thriving – although not without substantive issues – in the American Southwest today.

          It is also true that the North American Plains peoples – most famously the Comanche – but also others as well, were raiders. And more generally and across the world, there are numerous and even ongoing aspects of raider cultures.

          Undoubtedly, raiding was, until very recently, part of modern European culture, albeit on a much more massive and deadly scale. It is hard not to read European colonization from the 15th century to the middle of the 20th century as massive raiding endeavors. For example, the British and French colonized much of the Islamic world – North Africa, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, India, Afghanistan (arguably), with the latest dates within the last 100 years. Africa, all of North and South America, and most of southeast Asia were colonized as well. Often, if not always, inhabitants were sold as slaves.

          Russia, both in its Imperial and Communist phases, colonized massive parts of Euro-Asia, with its grip only relaxed in the last quarter of century or so. The Germans carried out massively destructive colonization and raiding endeavors, enslaving millions, and killing millions of others, as they attempted to emulate the Spanish and Anglo-American subjugation of the North American continent to create “living-room” for “eastern expansion”. And its hard not to see American adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as raiding adventures, albeit as unsuccessful but enormously destructive ones carried out with firepower vastly enhanced by modern mechanized warfare capabilities.

          So there is a larger context to discussions of raiding.

          From what I can tell, and from reading books about the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche, raiding was only one part of a way of life, with the magnitude of that part varying from time to time and from culture to culture.The Comanche – the most famous and perhaps most successful of the North American raiding peoples – were also seasoned hunters of buffalo, essentially maintaining and culling from huge herds. They were also accomplished traders, buying and reselling large amounts of guns, dry-goods, and ammunition from Anglo-Americans, the French, the Spanish, and especially indigenous peoples. They sold to customers throughout the plains and even down into Mexico. They also raided widely, taking horses, cattle, sheep, and slaves for resale. All the people they traded with – Anglo-American, Spanish, Mexican, French, and especially other indigenous peoples – did likewise, albeit less successfully.

          The Apache and Navajo were, to a large extent, hunter gatherers who lived off the land and its flora and fauna with seasonal raiding to stock up on other necessities, according to books like “Geronimo”, by Robert M. Utley and other southwestern histories. And the Spanish colonials and their native allies in the pre-territiorial periods – from first contact in the 1500s to the US invasion in 1846 – raided constantly, and often viciously – with aims that even included efforts at extermination. The Anglo-Americans and the Mexicans in Mexico continued the raiding after 1846, often when mining and expansion spread into treaty-designated tribal lands that their indigenous owners were lawfully protecting.

          So the issues are interesting and complex and provide a different lens for looking at recent history around the world.


          1. Hi Stephen,
            I would say that the confusion was in the fact that I was using a too narrow a definition of the verb ‘raid’, which I basically defined as coming in violently, stealing stuff and then leaving. I guess one could blame the fact that English is not my native language. So I have looked up the verb in dictionaries, and saw that it has a much broader meaning, so that coming violently and holding the territory is raiding too.
            So in this case this includes not only the thieving raids typical of Apache tribes, or sometimes Vikings, but likewise the imperialist invasions that you have described. And certainly also the Comanche had quite a big empire at one time. And the same is true of other empires, like the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, America etc. And such actions were usually motivated by feelings of superiority. Even in Soviet Union. I was born in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, which was basically controlled by Soviet Union. Officially they taught internationalism and the equality of all ethnic groups, but at the same time, with quite a contradiction, they taught Pan-Slavism, the brotherhood of all Slavic people, as the chief builders of socialism, led by the Russian people. Soviet Union was considered our example, a wonderful country that was the one most successful in building socialism. We had to study Russian in school, as the main language of socialism. From May 1st to May 9th (the Liberation Day) we had to fly both the Czechoslovak flag and the Soviet flag from our windows. Soviet Union was considered the ideal country. Officially, Soviet Union had 15 official languages, but in reality, Russian was the main language, plenty of Russians had moved into the other 14 Soviet republics, like Estonia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan etc., and usually these Russians did not bother learning the local language, while the local people had to learn Russian. So no wonder that Russians often considered themselves to be superior to all others. Terrible.

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