Visit Homepage
Skip to content →

Themes – Franciscan


In the Southwest, the 17th century was the “Century of the Franciscans.” Having found no precious minerals and faced with few agricultural prospects, the Spanish government in New Spain wanted to abandon the lands north of El Paso. The church argued that “Nuevo Mexico” was rife with an opportunity for conversions to the true faith. In addition, they argued, the recent introduction of Churra sheep into the region would form the basis of an agriculturally based trading economy that could support their efforts. Their arguments won favor in Madrid and the friars set out not only to convert the Pueblo people, but also the Pueblo society in which they lived.

The Franciscans implemented a program to assimilate the pueblos into Spanish colonial society. To do so, they superimposed paternalistic practices and structures on the existing maternalistic Pueblo society. They began by changing the roles of men and women. Men now built the homes and owned the fields. Women were tasked with weaving, child rearing and housekeeping. Women lost their rights to land, to child labor and to seeds. Next, the friars worked to breakdown the centuries’ old system of Pueblo government. Men’s authority to govern was undermined in two ways: the friars assumed the roles of the pueblo leaders unto themselves, and they reinforced the impotence of native men and native religion through thinly disguised public demonstrations of the Spanish conquest. Breaking long-standing pueblo administrative authority also meant reorganizing and reconsolidating the pueblos near established missions.

The Franciscans condensed the 134 existing pueblos into 43, burning and destroying kivas and religious objects along the way. As they did so, the friars assumed the duties previously performed by five separate leaders in each pueblo. They cured villagers (medicine men), provided a year-round meat supply by maintaining large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle (hunting leader), controlled the sacred spaces and sacred objects related to the gods (shaman), and either timed their arrival for the rainy season or concentrated their teaching on Holy Week which occurred during the spring rains and run-off (rain leader). They co-opted the gift-giving practices and senior-junior relationships on which Pueblo life was based by distributing seeds, livestock and manufactured goods in return for the simple ritual of baptism. They also moved to assimilate Pueblo religious symbols into their religious practices. Of these, none was more important than the cross. For Catholics, the cross was a powerful talisman versus evil. The cross had led the Spanish into battle throughout the “Reconquista,” and had brought them success. For the pueblos, the cross equated to the prayer sticks through which the shaman made contact with the gods. Assuming traditional roles and adapting traditional symbols into an imposed patriarchal society, the Franciscans concentrated on outer behavior and appearances in order to gain access to and save the inner soul.

Through repeated public performances of the conquest, the friars hoped to undermine traditional native authority. The Franciscans employed the dance, Los Moros y Cristianos, a dramatic presentation of mock combat between the Moors and the Christians in which the Christians always won, to demonstrate the weakness of the pueblos against the power of the Spanish and the Catholic Church. To drive the point home, the friars often dressed the dancers who portrayed the Moors in traditional Indian costume, so that every performance reinforced the powerlessness of Pueblo male authority and Pueblo religious practices upon which it was based. The Franciscans borrowed what they needed from Pueblo tradition and employed it to their own ends.

For the first decade of the 17th century, progress remained slow, but conversions accelerated rapidly between 1610 and 1630. In 1620, the mission population numbered 17,000. By 1630, the friars counted 60,000 converts. However, the numbers are deceiving. The vast majority of Indian converts accepted only the forms, not the fundamentals, of Roman Catholicism.

Most Indian conversions occurred among the young. Catholicism appealed to this group as it offered equality and status that required little sacrifice. Further, those who adopted Catholic practices did so because they reinforced Pueblo concepts. It mattered little whether the “Puebloans offered feathers and corn meal to the cross, as they had to their prayer sticks, honored the Christ Child on Christmas as they had the Twin War gods during the winter solstice, or flogged themselves on Good Friday as they had when they called the rain gods.” (When Jesus Came…p. 93) The true test of religious conversion comes during times of crisis. Does the convert stay with the new ways or revert to the old? Crisis arrived in the Southwest after 1640.

Drought struck the Southwest in 1640. Smallpox and measles plagued the pueblos for the next decade. During these crises, the friars and their god failed to rectify the problems. The Franciscans could not bring the rain. They could not cure the sick. When the Apaches, desperate for food, increased their raids, the friars could neither end the depredations nor maintain the peace. Christianized youths challenged their elders. Harmony disappeared. Nothing the friars did seemed to work. With the failure of the new ways, the pueblos began to return their ancient rituals. The Spanish retaliated with swift and harsh punishment. This, in turn, increased discontent. When the drought intensified between 1670 and 1680, famine increased Apache raids and death followed. The population plummeted dramatically. The friars’ magic had disappeared. The shaman and the kiva returned. The Franciscans had offered material gain in return for conversion. When the missions could no longer provide material advantages, the pueblos abandoned the church and returned to the kiva. True syncretism, the combination of Catholicism and the kiva, had never been truly achieved. In the face of drought, plague and depredation, the pueblos threw off the “new ways” and returned to the “old.” They revolted against their colonizers in 1680.

In the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, pueblos throughout the Rio Grande Valley united against the Spanish and their colonial practices. Violence was directed primarily against the Franciscans, their missions, and their churches. Twenty-one priests were tortured and killed. The missions and the churches were demolished, the sacred images defiled, and the Spanish expelled from Nuevo Mexico for over a decade. The “Century of the Franciscans” came to an abrupt and violent end. Spanish settlements and pueblos had existed side-by-side for nearly a century. Missions and friars had tried to assimilate the pueblos and syncretize their religious practices in order to save their souls. The Revolt of 1680 demonstrates that the two societies had adopted elements, each from the other, when it was expedient to do so, but abandoned those adoptions when they no longer served short, or long-term survival. The Spanish and the Pueblos had lived together, separately.

Unification of the pueblos against a common enemy brought victory in the Revolt of 1680. Once the Spanish antagonist was gone, the Pueblo confederation began to break down. The villages that had revolted returned to their pre-colonial religious and administrative practices. Defeat at the hands of the pueblos had the opposite effect on the Spanish.