By Charles S. King
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 is a historic event that hovers somewhere between unknown, insignificant, or ignored by most Americans unless they live in certain areas of the Southwest. Virgil Ortiz grew up hearing tales of the revolt in his home in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. He was astonished that as he traveled around the United States, hardly anyone seemed to have heard of the Pueblo Revolt. Yet, when he would travel overseas, it was a part of his cultural history about which he was frequently questioned. How could such a major event about the Pueblo people disappear from the American historical consciousness yet find recognition elsewhere in the world?
For over a decade, Ortiz has sought a way to tell this story in his artworks and simultaneously to make it more relevant and interesting to the next generation. The revelations, impact, and importance of this piece of Pueblo history whisper through the background of the various mediums he utilizes and jut forward into an imagined future.
The seeds for the Pueblo Revolt were sown when the Spanish began to colonize the Rio Grande region in 1598. For the next eighty years, the Spanish were increasingly aggressive in their attempts to Christianize the Pueblo people and suppress or even exterminate indigenous religions. Around 1670 a period of prolonged drought began and devastated this already dry area. The resulting famine and accompanying social and economic crises further exacerbated the strained relations between the Spanish and the Pueblo people. In 1675 Spanish authorities arrested forty-seven Pueblo men, including medicine men and tribal elders, as diversionary scapegoats for the drought and put them on trial for “sorcery.” The Pueblo people rebelled against these unjust accusations. After three of the men were hanged, the Puebloans converged on Santa Fe, the Spanish provincial capital, and demanded the release of the remaining prisoners. The authorities finally relented. Among those released was a man named Po’pay, from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.
Over the next five years, Po’pay organized support among forty-six Pueblo villages to expel the Spanish. Under his plan, each pueblo would rise up, kill the Spaniards in the area, and advance en masse on Santa Fe. The date set for the uprising was August 11, 1680. Po’pay had dispatched runners carrying knotted cords to all the pueblos. Each morning the Pueblo leaders were to untie one knot. When the last knot was untied it would signal the commencement of the rebellion. On August 9, however, the Spaniards discovered the significance of the knotted cord and the impending revolt by capturing and torturing two Tesuque Pueblo runners. Po’pay then ordered the revolt to begin immediately. On August 10, the Pueblos began stealing Spanish horses, sealing off the roads leading to Santa Fe, and pillaging surrounding settlements. By August 13, all the Spanish settlements in New Mexico had been destroyed and Santa Fe was besieged. The Pueblo people surrounded the city and cut off its water supply. Finally, on August 21, the Spanish governor led his people out of the city and retreated southward along the Rio Grande River. Although the victory over the Spanish only lasted for a brief twelve years until their reconquest of the area, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 has remained a source of native pride and cultural significance.
Ortiz began to identify and give form to characters who would populate his fictionalized version of the Pueblo Revolt: Tahu, a girl blinded by the Spanish conquistadors; Mopez, the leader of the Pueblo Runners; and the Castilians to represent the Spanish invaders. The characters who make up the Pueblo Revolt series are inspired by names and words in Keres and other Puebloan languages. “Tahu” is a word used as a sign of respect for older Pueblo women. “Mopez” means “cardinal” and was the Keres name of Ortiz’s brother. “I wanted to use native language words and names to identify the characters. Part of the Revolt story had to be the actual events, but I also wanted it to tie into our language. If I could get the kids interested in history, I might also be able to get them interested in our language and keep it alive.”
In 2010, Santa Fe was preparing to celebrate its four hundredth anniversary. Ortiz saw this as the perfect time to debut his Pueblo Revolt story in figurative form. The anniversary became a controversial event, as there were opposing views and interpretations of Spanish colonial history from the Pueblos and those of Spanish ancestry still in the New Mexico area. “I knew it had to be during Indian Market that year in Santa Fe, when the pieces I would make about the Revolt would be seen by the most people and have the biggest impact.” Ortiz undertook to create twelve pieces for the Revolt 1680 exhibition and have them displayed in a room with six figures placed on opposite sides. They were arranged on a checkered base to create the idea of a chessboard. The Puebloans stood on one side and the Spanish on the other. A Castilian and the Virgin of Guadalupe were the Spanish king and queen, squaring off against their Pueblo counterparts Po’pay and Tahu. The figures on the Spanish side told the story of their conquest and the brutality of their occupation. Ortiz depicted the “bishops” holding the severed feet of Acoma men, bringing to life the story of a massacre at Acoma in which hundreds were killed and the feet of twenty-four men were cut off after a revolt against the Spanish at the pueblo. The Pueblo side of the installation included additional figurative forms of Mopez, another Runner, a futuristic-faced Translator in traditional Pueblo dress, and other characters he had been visualizing in his mind.
“I was worried about how people would react to the Revolt figures, especially in Santa Fe. Would the old antagonisms still hold? Would people be offended by portraying Spanish atrocities in such a strong manner? It was the impact of the show on people and their interest in the story I was telling that let me know I was on the right track. It was time to unleash the rest of my vision.”
Ortiz realized after the Revolt 1680 show that with the historic part of his story in motion, he needed to find a way to project and incorporate his vision of a futuristic revolt and yet maintain the same level of comprehension by viewers. He was also entering untested waters for his clay work, as the pieces he wanted to create were more elaborate and multidimensional. He was about to wrap a traditional art form in the imagery of a futuristic science fiction story.
Ortiz realized that the answer had been formulating itself just below the surface for years. He recalled the influence in his younger years of movies such as Star Wars, and how a love of fantasy and science fiction had become an integral part of his life. “If I could take the Pueblo Revolt and figure out how to make it futuristic, it would make the story more personal and relatable to the younger generation. Not only would people outside the pueblos understand the significance of the Revolt, they would want to know more about it.” The 1680 Pueblo Revolt had become a consistent and overriding theme in his work. It would take several years for him to figure out how to effectively incorporate this futuristic vision into the storyline.
The futuristic version of the Pueblo Revolt in 2180 came to life in the years following the Revolt 1680 show. In creating these futuristic characters, the figures were no longer static but built to portray a sense of movement. He painted the designs to accentuate this newfound motion. Each figure would be a futuristic version of the historic figures of Revolt 1680. The connection between the two series would be Translator. This apparently female character was initially a two-dimensionally drawn concept, which Ortiz had been using in fashion designs and on some of his pottery for several years. “I didn’t identify who she was for a long time, as I wanted to keep her to be used as the conduit between the past and the future of the Revolt story. Her appearance is androgynous, as I believe that gives her more power. She can subtly appear to be whatever form you want, male or female. In the end, I think of her as a “grandmother,” or elder, leading the Translator army.”
It is through Translator that Ortiz tells the story of the Pueblo Revolt 1680/2180. The future version contains the same events as in the past, but now with lasers, time travel, wormholes, and flying runners. He also gave the characters an increasingly larger voice to tell the story in clay. “Every character is created in my mind. I envision what they look like as I write and read my character scripts over and over. It is rare that I sketch. I love to see instant results with my body painting and theatrical makeup on my models.” He derived inspiration from his photo shoots for the fashion models and clothing lines. The body paint and live action shots helped give him a new perspective on how to form his clay for these futuristic figures. Each character began to grow in complexity, including Tahu, leader of the Blind Archers; Kootz, her twin brother and one of the Runners; and Mopez, head of the Gliders/Runners, Aeronauts and the Venutian Soldiers. Translator’s ability to travel in time would intertwine the past and present versions of Pueblo Revolt as she would function as a narrator. She was now a futuristic clay figure and not just a painted face on a vessel.
The next stage of Ortiz’s story about the Pueblo Revolt surely will build on the dynamism he has created so far. Multimedia will continue to play a major role in his work. “A screenplay, a movie, a graphic novel. I want to see the Pueblo Revolt 1680/2180 in every visual medium possible, to be seen by the most people possible. It’s a social media world and that’s how the next generation is going to respond. It won’t be enough to just see the movie, it has to go viral in every format available.” Ortiz certainly sees a limitless horizon for the expansion of his art and for keeping it modern, moving, and relevant. He is imagining a series of life-size warrior figures, called VObots (again invoking his initials). “I want to make larger, life-size figures and give them actual motion through a video art component. I want to combine it all and make the story come alive!”