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COMMENTARY ON THANKSGIVING DAY: Another Perspective: The Legacy of Oñate and the Continuity of Colonialism: The People of Acoma Still Fight to be Free

Posted by kinchendavid on November 23, 2006

By Petuuche Gilbert
Councilman, Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo, NM, USA, Indigenous Nation  – How does a tribe survive an attempted annihilation? How does a nation of people survive a holocaust? Oñate burned and destroyed the village of Acoma.

The place where the colonizer’s church, San Estevan del Rey, stands today is the site of the original village. It must have been a horrible massacre, with our people burned in their houses. It is written that mothers and fathers were killing their own children to prevent capture. How many of our people jumped off the mesa to avoid being killed by Spanish soldiers? It is written then that our people were taken as prisoners of war and marched up to Santo Domingo for punishment.

As punishment and as a further act of premeditated terrorism the feet of our men were cut off, the survivors, men, women and children were enslaved. How many died soon afterwards is unknown and forgotten. So, how did Acoma survive? It is again written in Spanish records that ten years later there was another battle at Acoma. In spite of the atrocities committed upon us we endured and we are still a nation of Acoma people.

Spiritual and Physical Strength and Endurance

Today my people do not remember the massacre and punishment. Very few people know of the battle. My mother talked of how people described the use of cannons and how the rock walls were scarred black from explosions. No one knows about how two Acoma warriors hung themselves from a tree on the mesa top rather then submit to Spanish rule. It is written this is occurred and only the tree still remembers. No one at Acoma talks of the enslavement of our people as we were forced to build a huge, massive church.

All the materials of sand, rock and wood, were carried on the backs of my people to the mesa top. Who knows how many Acomas died in the construction of their church. Today the people proudly say this is our church. We built it with our blood, sweat and tears. It is true what one of our guides said to tourists. “They made slaves out of us to build this church I guess that is why we are Catholics today”.

Such is the power of the crown and the cross. Today the priest holds mass when tribal leaders allow him to do so. The Catholic Church should be so proud they have brainwashed so well that we are devout practitioners. We became Catholics so that we could survive another day. All the while we are still here, believing and practicing our language, culture and religion.

The Legacies of Colonial Institutions

At Acoma and in the homeland of indigenous peoples we carry on our backs the heavy chains of colonial institutions. The impacts of colonialism and terrorism are powerful. All of the remaining indigenous tribes call themselves pueblos and some even use Spanish names to identify themselves. Some resistors, like Acoma, identify themselves in their own names. All of the pueblos are Catholics and all have saints as their protectors. Most of them have feast days in honor of their patron saints. We have never really questioned ourselves why we do this. I know it is the impacts of fear and brainwashing. We became Catholics so that we could continue to live and practice our ways. Such is the power of the people to endure in spite of the brutality of the crown and the cross.

Another powerful institution intended to dispossess indigenous peoples of their homeland is the merced or mercedes. In English it is the Spanish land grant. On the Oñate statue being built in El Paso the conqueror conquistador is seen proudly waving La Toma in his hand. In April, 1598, Conquistador, Juan de Oñate, crossed the Rio Grande, near present day El Paso, Texas. He declared and claimed, “All lands, people, and resources north of the Rio Grande, possessions of the Royal Spanish Crown.”

La Toma was the imperialistic method proclaimed by the conquerors to take indigenous land and intended to subject the indigenous people to a foreign rule. Essentially this action set the basis for pre-emptive war. If indigenous people did not submit to the rulers then just war could be declare upon them. The famous square league, about 17,000 acres, was recognized as the land set-aside by the Spanish for the indigenous tribes.

The rest was, of course, was kept by the conquerors. The people of today have never understood how the conquerors could give out land that was not theirs in the first place. It was not free land for the taking. This continuation of imperialism was declared to be manifest destiny by the United States and the theft of land and subjection of people continued. Upon the implementation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in 1848, the United States felt, as is duty to respect the land rights of indigenous peoples.

Articles 8 and 9 talk of the indigenous people. In the treaty it stipulated that if pueblo Indian people did not want to be citizens of the United States they could just leave. I guess we could have just left our homelands and moved to Mexico. I think this imposition of citizenship has never really being understood by the ancient inhabitants of this land. In this way we were made political prisoners and we remain so to this day.

The third pervasive institution affecting us here as indigenous people is the form of Spanish civil government. Most of the pueblo governments have leaders named as governors and their attendant staff named after Spanish names. When the Spanish arrived they saw community leaders led us and they made us choose our own leaders. Today in the selection of our own tribal leaders we call this tradition. Too, it is a profound influence that the Pueblo Indian Governors carry the Spanish canes as the recognition of their authority to rule. Why? I once asked one of the former pueblo governors why do they carry the Spanish canes if we threw off Spanish implements during the Pueblo Indian Revolt. His reply was that we had already imbued them spiritually and, thus, they became sacred. This is maintained even today.

The Indigenous Peoples Of Today

The conquerors should be so proud of themselves. We are profoundly brainwashed that we behave as conquered people. This is the legacy of Oñate and the conquerors. Colonialism remains alive and well. We have Spanish forms of civil governments and we select our own leaders to rule ourselves. We rely on the land grant system to have our land rights respected. We are devout Catholics. We are proud American citizens and we proudly put our hands on our chests as we say the Pledge of Allegiance. We are proud to be called Native Americans. How tragic and what a travesty this is. As indigenous peoples we never ask ourselves why. Why do we have blind patriotism to a nation that stole our land, committed genocide and instituted creative law intended to keep us as political prisoners.

Today we, the indigenous people, fight for our human right to be free, sovereign and self-determining people. To become this is the challenge is upon all of us here.

The United States of America is the most ardent enemy of indigenous people. This nation refuses to respect and recognize us as PEOPLES because peoples in international law have the right to self-determination. During the Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples we aggressively pursued for the right of self-determination to be enshrined in the draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This did not happen as the decade ended in 2004. Prior to this indigenous people at the last World Conference on Racism, indigenous people accused the world’s nation-states of being racist by refusing to recognize indigenous people to be as peoples. This struggle for self-determination continues at the Organization of American States as they work to adopt an Inter-American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In it we are not considered to be indigenous peoples with the full right of self-determination.

So, what is our future today? There are difficult questions to ask of ourselves, as the conquerors and the conquered. Do we accept the legacies of the conquerors and remain treated as the conquered? I think not. In order for me to be here speaking today, someone, somewhere in the past, stood up and died for me to be here.

Now it is my turn and our responsibility to carry on that struggle to be free as indigenous people. It is no easy task and the challenge is before us all. Especially now that we, as warriors fighting against the domination of the United States, are considered as terrorist. Well, we as indigenous peoples have been fighting terrorism for over 500 years and we will continue on. So, did God bless Oñate and does God bless America? Does God bless conquerors, murderers and thieves? Does God bless a nation built upon the twin pillars of discovery and conquest? The conquerors think God does and that is what is wrong with people. Thus, we are still at war with the conquerors. It must change. We must learn to live in peace and respect.

What Form of Justice is Due Indigenous People?

Apologies are easy to proclaim and they are easily forgotten. One such proclamation is in the works in Congress. In 2004 it is was called the HISTORIC RESOLUTION OF APOLOGY TO NATIVE PEOPLES INTRODUCED IN U.S. CONGRESS and it is now referred to as the NATIVE AMERICAN APOLOGY RESOLUTION.

Both are quite meaningless. Some church groups have already apologized and it is now forgotten who did. Do indigenous peoples want all of America back? I think not. Indigenous people are realistic and they know this is impossible. The foreigners are here today and we must now survive together. Albeit, we want to keep our homelands in our possession without the fear of loss through the laws and policies of the conquerors. Are we seeking some form of reparation for genocide and theft of land? Perhaps.

Some indigenous people are demanding it and dollars are appropriated by congress to rid itself of the Indian problem. It is done and can be done in order to alleviate the fears and embarrassment of genocide and land theft. Pay the Indians off and forget them. Let them be American citizens like everybody else. Life goes on. A more appropriate form of reparation is allowing our human right to be as peoples. As peoples to peoples we can be both sovereign and self-determining. We must respect and understand all this. That is our challenge today for us all.

Petuuche Gilbert can be reached at petuuche@aol.com

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by human rights activist Rebecca Sommer in behalf of Gilbert, a Tribal Councilman of Acoma. It was written as a way of mourning the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

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