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Themes – Compartmentalization


Compartmentalization is an interesting and ironic characteristic of the Southwest because one would expect it less here than elsewhere. Throughout its long history, the Southwest has been an extremely diverse cultural area. From the middle of the first millennium, Ancestral Puebloans, Hohokan and Mogollon peoples coexisted here. The Hopi, Cibola, Casas Grandes, and Salado cultures shared the area for the next 400 years after which, the Keresan, Tanoan and Zuni peoples established themselves. Each of these groups borrowed pottery-making techniques from one another and traded over long distances, interacting with other cultures from as far away as Central America to the south and the Canadian border in the north. No better example of cross-cultural exchange exists than the arrival of corn production from Mesoamerica in the last millennium before the Common Era. These early cultures, in fact, set the example for all who followed.

During the migratory period of 1250 – 1500, pueblo communities broke down into smaller units when either land or water failed them. These clans joined others from different, nearby pueblos and began again in new villages. Exchange and incorporation were vitally important in the survival of each of these new ventures.


When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they brought a Mediterranean culture with them that included a blending of Iberian, Carthaginian, Phoenician, Roman and North African influences. Conquistadores, men alone and far from home, took Indian wives and concubines. They incorporated maize, sweet potatoes and other foods from the Western Hemisphere into their diets. Puebloans adopted metal knives and tools to replace their stone implements, and they learned to raise sheep and cattle.


The nomadic plains tribes adopted the horse and, according to one Civil War general, became the finest light cavalry in the world. Apaches, Navajos, Utes, and Comanches utilized the summer trade fairs to obtain the pottery, blankets and foodstuffs that made the difference between survival and starvation on the harsh plains. Further, the captives they sold at the fairs came from all of the inhabitants in the Southwest. A Hispanic rancher could have been married to a mestizo wife, employed captive Indian labor, had a mulatto cook and hired Mexican vacqueros, to manage his cattle.


Cross-cultural adaptations in religion have already been discussed. In addition, the Spanish implanted the same system of local autonomous government in the Southwest that had emerged on the Iberian Peninsula in the 17th century. Written laws, a Roman invention, governed all the territories of the Spanish Empire. In the latter years of Mexican rule (1821-1848), French and Anglo-European influences arrived in the form of trade and intermarriage. For example, Charles Bent, the first Territorial Governor of New Mexico, was married to Ignacia Jaramillo, a New Mexican native. His partner, Ceran St. Vrain, the son of a French aristocrat, married Maria de la Luz from Taos. Charles Bent’s brother, William, married Owl Woman, the daughter of a Cheyenne chief. From its earliest beginnings the American Southwest has been a vital, multi-cultural area in which the cross-pollination of cultures has been the rule rather than the exception. Religious iconography, rituals and public ceremonies are the most obvious examples of cross-pollination. However, this borrowing and adaptation occurs throughout all facets of society, from gender roles and agricultural practices, through the decoration of clothing and systems of trade and exchange. What makes this cross-pollination special is that it has occurred over tremendous distances, in the harshest of environmental conditions, and among peoples who, while sharing some elements of their culture today, still live separately from one another.