Recovering First Peoples’ Humanity

Please purchase the course before starting the lesson.

How do we know what we know about New Mexico’s earliest inhabitants? The above narrative provides a general outline of archaeological knowledge of the Pleistocene (or “Old Stone” Age), and the changes that shaped the transition to the Holocene, also described as the Archaic Period, which lasted between 9,500 BCE and about 500 BCE. We have learned much about the lifeways of the First Peoples of the Americas based on artifacts and fossil evidence.

Indigenous Americans have also kept the stories of their earliest ancestors and passed them down from generation to generation. Although Western academic tradition has long been critical of their limitations, native oral histories often correspond with archaeological evidence in interesting ways. They also depart from archaeological evidence and reflect more recent cultural thinking about the ways in which various indigenous groups relate to their own histories and the world around them. Oral histories, perhaps, are one of the clearest manifestations of the ways in which “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The oral traditions of Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples (the three main indigenous groups that continue to inhabit New Mexico) add a human dimension to the types of information that can be gleaned from cold artifacts and ancient toolkits. Their entry into academic history is also evidence of the ways in which voices that have long been silenced by colonialism are now being recovered.

As with any historical source, we should keep in mind the limitations of oral histories. Historians traditionally shied away from oral traditions because of their fluid nature. Details of stories change each time they are told, and the events may be reworked to conform to present issues or conditions. Similar concerns exist relative to some methodologies used by archaeologists to make sense of artifacts. In the mid- to late-twentieth century, archaeologists utilized direct-historical or upstreaming methods by which they drew parallels between current cultural practices of indigenous peoples and the presumed cultural practices of their ancestors. In other words, upstreaming was a process of overlaying present social and cultural details onto the ancient past. Some archaeologists and historians have been critical of both upstreaming and oral histories because they ignore change over time. Still, the strengths of these sources and methods add greatly to the realm of possible understandings of New Mexico’s earliest people, so long as they are used carefully and critically. Additionally, we should note that indigenous peoples’ conceptions of history differ from those of the academic world. The elements of oral histories that academics take as weaknesses are perceived as strengths by many natives. The living nature of their stories is precisely what makes them most powerful.

Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples base their history on the tales of their peoples’ points of origin. All other traditions build on and extend out from their origin myths. The term myth carries different meanings, depending upon the context in which it is used. In everyday usage, it often refers to something that is a falsehood. Scholars tend to apply the term to stories or traditions that cannot be factually verified but that provide groups of people with unified identity and culture. Such stories reveal important truths about how people view themselves and their relationship to others, as well as to their physical and supernatural worlds. The recent work of Native American scholars critiques this interpretation by emphasizing the reality that academic studies of indigenous peoples tend to frame their history in ways that belittle tribal intellectual traditions. In other words, academic work tends not to understand native oral traditions on their own terms. By dubbing them “myths,” native understandings of their own history are diminished.

As a corrective, some indigenous scholars suggest starting with the notion that most native peoples understand history not as events that are long past, but as occurrences and ideas that are constantly in dialogue with the present. From that perspective, the significance of oral tradition is its ability to transmit values and cultural identity. Oral histories have been a means through which marginalized groups of people have maintained their own stories, cultural and religious identities, and voices despite centuries of colonialism. The prevalence of Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache oral traditions speaks volumes to their cultural resilience. Also, the stories’ continued centrality to indigenous societies illustrates their conception of time. Western societies think of time in a linear fashion. Different events can be plotted as a chronological progression on a time line. Many native groups, on the other hand, consider time as cyclical. For Pueblo peoples, for example, time “eternally returned. . . . Like the life contained within a seed that sprouts, bears fruit, and dies, only to be reborn again as a seed.”1

Our study of New Mexico’s earliest peoples must draw from the stories of the region’s native peoples. Pueblo peoples recount their history “from the beginning,” through combinations of stories, songs, and dances. Their oral traditions are reverenced performances held sacred by each separate Pueblo. Although Pueblo origin stories contain different details and ideas, they follow a similar pattern. Most of the traditions explain that the people emerged from beneath the earth at a place of origin called Shipapu. Either by way of trees or a lake, they ascended to the surface after years of guidance and counsel from their first mothers who were either themselves supernatural, or who had direct contact with supernatural forces. From among the earliest people, the mothers appointed war chiefs and others to lead the people. They also mediated between the people and the Great Spirit who guided the First Peoples through the sometimes arduous tasks of daily life.

All of the various origin stories speak of periods of migration between Shipapu and several other points before the people were led to their permanent homelands. This portion of the tale seems to correspond with archaeological evidence of migrations to Mogollon or Ancestral Puebloan sites (such as the SU (or “Shoe”) site, Chaco Canyon, and Mesa Verde) and then the migrations that came between 1150 and 1250 CE when those sites were abruptly abandoned. Along the way, the people built towns and weathered dangers and tribulations, including floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, droughts, and famines. The Great Spirit taught the people harmony with plants and animals in their environment. As they learned, they were able to construct great dwellings and they prospered. From time to time, crises occurred and the Great Spirit led them in smaller groups in different directions. In that way, different dialects and cultural traditions came to be.


Over the long course of time, each Pueblo group received its homeland. This development likely came over the two centuries following the abandonment of Ancestral Puebloan sites. The Great Spirit taught them first to harvest plants that grew spontaneously, and then to plant various crops. They also learned prayers and dances associated with bringing rainfall, fertile soil, and plentiful harvests. Such rituals were aligned with astronomical occurrences, such as the movement of the sun and the moon. Pueblos’ focus on raising corn, in particular, shaped their religious observances. Before leaving them, the Great Spirit organized Pueblo life and society. He appointed inside chiefs and medicine men to aid the war chief, and he admonished the people to obey the laws of nature and the decisions of their leaders. Through mothers and daughters, clan association and inheritance practices were traced. Men and women were to play complementary roles in Pueblo societies.  

When understood on their own terms, these origin stories present not only an account of the peoples’ own histories, but also the guiding values and ideals that have allowed the Pueblos to adapt and survive over time since the ancient past.

Back to: The History of New Mexico > Chapter 2: New Mexico's First Peoples