August 2017

We Too Have a History!

Reflections on Kaafedeh (Blowing Leaf) – Herman Agoyo


Matthew J. Martínez


To the Pueblo people here, Po’pay is our hero. Tribes were on the verge of losing their cultural identity when the Pueblo Revolt brought everything back on track for our people. – Herman Agoyo


This past April, our respected elder, educator and councilman, Herman Agoyo, walked on with all those who came before. At Ohkay Owingeh, he was known as a former governor, religious leader, farmer, father and friend. He built a lifelong legacy of bringing the stories and experiences of Native people to the forefront. I’m honored to be one of many who have been influenced by Herman’s knowledge and wisdom.


Herman loved history. He was passionate about sharing personal stories of his childhood and connecting them to our pueblo’s experiences. He often conveyed mixed emotions about education while growing up: “As a child I was very fortunate to have a grandpa who, during the winter months, shared with me many fireside stories… I was being taught Indian history, but because Indian history was not written down and presented in school, I grew up thinking that we did not have a history.” (Archaeologies of the Pueblo Revolt, 2007)


Herman had a meticulous sense of understanding the varied ways of reading and experiencing history. This was, in his belief and Tewa practices, pursued through oral traditions, working with the land, in ceremonies, as well as by the scholarly pursuit of documenting stories. In one of his last published articles, in 2010 Herman recalled, “In many ways my love of history and the search for Yungeh’s past has greatly influenced my life. As a child ‘helping’ my Grandpa plant his fields—an incident that I still vividly remember—during one of the corn planting times was the revelation of the plow splitting a black pot in half. This occurred during my rest period, but Grandpa stopped the horse and waved me over to the spot where he stood. I was witness to see the broken pot, which also contained white corn meal. Although I was young, I realized that this was an important connection to our past. I also remember later, as a young man, attending a tribal council meeting with my mother where the subject of excavating the site and building a museum was discussed. It was decided that the ancient Yungeh past was important not only for its archaeological value but also as a reconnection to our ancestors. It was further decided, with the full cooperation of the residents that lived on the site, to have it excavated. It seemed that much of my life’s path was determined.” (White Shell Water Place, 2010)


His life pathway—p’ôe—was one he clearly carved out as a governor, cultural warrior and advocate for education. As a freshman at the University of New Mexico in 1993, I vividly recall attending a public forum at the Salt of the Earth Bookstore titled We Are Still Here: A Response to When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away. The place was standing-room-only and filled with community leaders, academics and students in response to a recent controversial publication by Ramón Gutiérrez. In my personal archives, I was able to locate a series of articles that included Herman’s passionate responses.


“Frankly, I’m not too happy to be here,” Agoyo said. “I didn’t expect so many people—although this is the year of the Indigenous people.” Herman’s objections to the book were based on the notion that the Pueblo Indians were misrepresented in the Spanish accounts on which the book was based.  “I look at a book to benefit all of mankind,” he said.  “The subject at hand does not benefit the Indian people. It benefits the author. When these kinds of books and articles appear, it only drives a wedge between Pueblos and others. I thought the Indian Wars were over, but they still continue.” (New Mexico Daily Lobo, 1993)


Perhaps Herman’s most prominent contribution was successfully leading the charge to honor the legacy of Po’pay (Ripe Pumpkin) as one of our state’s leaders in the National Statutory Hall in Washington, D.C.  Prior to the statue’s installation in 2005, Herman organized a collective effort to raise awareness about the legacy of Po’pay—leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. From the onset, this was a contentious undertaking. A sector of New Mexicans felt that acknowledging Po’pay would be an embarrassment to the state and that honoring such a figure would be condoning violence and would put the Catholic Church and traditions that represent New Mexico in an unfavorable light.


Herman’s efforts brought public light to the Spanish suppressions of indigenous practices, hangings and lashings in the 1600s. According to Herman, “Po’pay organized a ‘Holy War’ against the Spanish with support of most of the Pueblos. Much like the war between England and the American colonies in 1776, the Pueblo Holy War was fought to regain our independence from Spanish rule and to end religious oppression. I have no doubt that Po’ Pay, or El Pope, as the Spanish called him, was a religious leader. It makes sense to me that a holy war would be planned and executed by such a man, and from my point of view, such a spiritual man would indeed draw on our ancient deities such as Poseyemo, Caudi, Tilimipovi and Tleume for guidance and instruction.” (Po’Pay Leader of the First American Revolution, 2015)


Because of Herman’s steadfast dedication to highlight Pueblo history, the state of New Mexico is better situated to appreciate the experiences of all of its people. Herman co-published Po’Pay Leader of the First American Revolution with noted Jémez Pueblo historian Joe S. Sando. This is now a standard textbook for many high schools and colleges teaching New Mexico history. August 2017 marks 337 years since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The legacy of leaders like Po’pay is ever present in the continuance of Pueblo people, traditions and languages. Herman taught us that we are all here because of the work of our ancestors.


At Ohkay Owingeh, Herman was actively engaged in farming and sharing what he grew among neighbors. With striking colors of bright yellows and deep greens, he was extremely proud of his heirloom melons and squash. These practices of land-based traditions are what sustain the histories and experiences of a people. Through his Tewa sensibilities, working with his hands was practiced in the same manner as writing the histories of Pueblo people. Herman’s life passion confirmed, in his words, that “we too have a history!”


Matthew J. Martínez, Ph.D., is currently serving as 1st lieutenant governor at Ohkay Owingeh.





The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Beacon Press


Today in the United States, there are more than 500 federally recognized indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the 15 million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the U.S. settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Now, for the first time, acclaimed historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the U.S. empire.


With growing support for movements such as the campaign to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protest led by the Standing Rock Sioux, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is an essential resource providing historical threads that are crucial for understanding the present. With rigorous scholarship, Dunbar-Ortiz adroitly challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against the indigenous peoples was designed to seize the territories of the original inhabitants, displacing or eliminating them. She reveals that this policy was praised in popular culture, through writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and in the highest offices of government and the military. Dunbar-Ortiz also discusses the ways that plants and animals and the land itself have been targeted and have suffered through colonization.


Spanning more than 400 years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes U.S. history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative. Dunbar-Ortiz argues for a distinctly indigenist approach that integrates tribal knowledge, indigenous practices and ongoing and potential future efforts to create social change as necessary for developing robust and accurate histories.


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States won the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature.




Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Articles