A Haven in the Clouds from Religious Aridity: Acoma and Zuni Pueblo Mesa Warfare

After several years of vacillation, King Philip II of Spain in 1598 granted to Juan de Oñate the charter to colonize New Mexico. Accompanied by settlers and soldiers, Oñate set out to colonize the land, convert souls, and search for the fabled South Sea, which would provide his colony with important shipping routes back to New Spain. In October of that year, Oñate set up headquarters among the western Zuni Pueblo and awaited the arrival of his two nephews from the east. En route to meeting his uncle at Zuni, Juan de Zaldivar reached the Acoma Pueblo on December 1. This highly-fortified pueblo, also known as Sky City, sat atop a 357-foot mesa of sandstone.

Aerial View_Acoma Sky City

View of “Sky City” Acoma Pueblo today

Juan, with fifteen soldiers of his company, ascended the steep path up the mesa side to demand food and blankets from the Indians. Instead, they received slaughter. Juan and eleven of his men were slain, while the remaining four were forced off the cliff side. When Oñate learned of this incident, he ordered his second nephew, Vincente de Zaldivar, to embark on a punitive expedition to the sky pueblo. Even by Spanish colonial standards, what transpired next defied expectations and would see Oñate banished from the colony by Philip II for the act’s unusually excessive cruelty.

On January 21, 1599, a 70-man expedition armed with two cannon arrived at the foot of Sky City. Oñate had ordered that “war by blood and fire be proclaimed against the Indians of Acoma.” Skilled in European siege warfare, Vincente ordered the main bulk of his force to attack the mesas main approach, while a twelve-man unit secretly scaled the mesa’s far side. Using grappling hooks and ropes, the secret unit not only succeeded in reaching the mesa-top but managed to get one of the two artillery pieces up to an advantageous position.

Vincente ordered the cannons be fired at point-blank range into dense crowds. This technological superiority gave the Spaniards the upper hand, despite bloody resistance that lasted three days. Indian casualties exceeded 600 dead, with more wounded. Many of those who were not killed in the midst of battle chose to jump from the mesa-top, hang themselves from tree limbs, or perish in the burning houses rather than surrender to the Spanish. After the butchery had subsided, Governor Oñate ordered all men over twenty-five to have one foot cut off and be subject to twenty-five years of servitude. Young men between twelve and twenty-five were spared the amputation, but were still condemned to slavery. Women over twelve faced twenty years, some of whom were sent to Mexico City for entrance into the various convents of women’s religious orders. Two Hopis present at Acoma had their right hands cut off and were set free to spread word of the consequences of revolt.

It is not difficult to imagine why there was little Pueblo resistance in the ensuing decades. The memory of the Acoma Massacre did not fade, and still has not even today. Nevertheless, western pueblos—far removed from the pueblo-dense Rio Grande and matrilineal in society organization—periodically resisted patrilineal Catholic dogma. The distance between these western pueblos (Zuni and Hopi) and the Spanish center of power played no small part in there being more visible resistance to colonial rule in the west than with the patrilineal, more centralized eastern pueblos along the Rio Grande.


In 1632, Hawikuh Zunis (from one of six Zuni villages) rebelled against the newly introduced mission and encomienda system, burning the church and killing the priest, Fray Francisco de Letrado. While celebrating mass, several warriors fired a volley of arrows at him. As he drew his last breaths, the Indians scalped him. Ninety-two years earlier, in 1540, famed conquistador-explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado first conquered these same Hawikuh Zunis, hoping their village was one of the legendary “Seven Cities of Gold.” In both 1540 and in 1632, fearful of retaliation, the Hawikuh Zunis reaction was the same: they took refuge on their nearby mesa named Dowa Yalanne.

sandstone dowa yalanne

Dowa Yalanne

Comprised of sandstone known for its red and white cross banding of Triassic and Jurassic sedimentary rocks, Dowa Yalanne stands approximately one thousand feet above the desert floor and covers 320 acres. Despite what happened at Acoma in 1598, the logical reason as to why the Hawikuh Zunis repeatedly retreated to the mesa-top was simple: it offered a highly-fortified area of protection from the Spanish, known (at least in 1632) for their excessive punitive reactions to religious insolence.

Taking refuge amongst the clouds was not unique to any one pueblo. Mesas (Portuguese and Spanish for table) are prominent throughout the present-day New Mexico and Arizona landscape still inhabited by Pueblo Indians today. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680—a wholly unified resistance movement that enabled Pueblo Indians to live free of colonial domination for twelve years—brought with it mass mesa relocation efforts. Any Pueblo community close in proximity to a mesa sought refuge on it, in anticipation of Spanish retaliation. As such, the Zuni once again relocated to Dowa Yalanne.

One could assume the reasoning behind the 1680 Zuni relocation effort was similar to past efforts, such as in 1540 and 1632. However, this would be too simplistic an interpretation. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was markedly different. While in the two previous efforts it was the single village of Hawikuh Zunis that populated the mesa, in 1680, all six Zuni villages joined together for the very first time in their history while relocating to the natural fortress. This was an unprecedented act of centralization for the western Zuni Pueblo. Part of the reasoning behind this centralized move certainly can be attributed to the military defense the mesa offered. The mountain also offered protection from Apache, Navajo, and Ute raids, which had increased in recent years. However, the Zuni decision to wholly relocate to Dowa Yalanne had just as much to do with the central factor in the 1680 conflict: their religion.

Pueblo religion expressed itself through communitarian needs, and none more so than the perennial need of rainfall. Long before 1492, crops grown by irrigation were the backbone of the sedentary Pueblo lifestyle. Residing in an ecologically arid environment, rainfall was the greatest necessity of life. Naturally, almost every ceremony and prayer referred to the securing of rainfall in some way. Western pueblos at Zuni and Hopi in particular, without the benefit of the Rio Grande’s torrents, faced a repeatedly limited water supply. The core religious supplication for all Pueblos was to their ancestors. For the Zuni, this meant Dowa Yalanne.

Dowa Yalanne, meaning Corn Mountain in Zuni, was so named after a mythological great flood. During the inundation, Indians carried great quantities of corn to the mesa-top, where the water nearly reached them. Religious activities transferred to the mesa, and several shrines still exist atop it today. Reaching to the clouds, Dowa Yalanne is also associated with the “house of the Gods and the making of rain, lightning, and thunder.” From this description came an alternative name, Thunder Mountain. The Zuni identified their dead with the clouds. A Zuni mother, as clouds began to gather before a rainstorm, would tell her child, “The grandmothers are coming.” It is to this sacred mesa-top that all six Zuni villages collectively gathered in the midst of ensuing Spanish wrath.


Dowa Yalanne

Revolt leaders in 1680 called for a cultural revitalization—a return to pre-colonial norms. It is reported that Popé, the charismatic Tewa leader, told his followers to “live in accordance with the law of their ancestors.” This called for abandoning their mission pueblos and erecting traditional pre-Hispanic pueblos. By eliminating all Spanish-Catholic influences, Popé assured his followers that they would “harvest a great deal of maize, many beans, a great abundance of cotton, calabashes, and very large watermelons and cantaloupes.”

Why in 1680 did this come to a head? Apart from increased religious suppression and weakening Spanish control, the southwest had been afflicted by severe drought as early as the 1660s. Apache, Navajo, and Ute raids had increased because these nomadic tribes too had been afflicted. Quite simply, Catholicism was not bringing the rainfall the Pueblos so desperately needed. Indeed, it seemed to be the root cause of a great deal of suffering. A return to tried-and-true Pueblo religiosity offered the best solution. In this light, the Zuni collective relocation to Dowa Yalanne should not be seen as a retreat, as in past instances, but rather a religious quest to reclaim their ancestors’ good graces. Their most sacred shrine—the mesa—offered not only religious revival and a haven from Spanish persecution, but their best opportunity for survival.

Pueblo society operates as a community. The six Zuni villages must have been well aware that by uniting as one on the mesa, traditional religious practices would flourish, and flourish they did. Archaeological evidence suggests that the mesa-top is covered with religious shrines, mysterious unroofed structures, and at least three kivas, or subterranean rooms used for worship.

Most mesa-top villages formed during the revolt were short-lived. The Spanish reconquest of the colony from 1692 to 1696 brought with it a wary return from the mountains. Nevertheless, the Zuni community that descended Dowa Yalanne was not the same as that which had ascended over a decade ago. Previously taciturn villages intermingled and merged into one close-knit community on the mesa-top, bound together by their traditional religion. When they descended from the mesa, they relocated as one community to Halona:wa, where the Zuni Pueblo still resides to this day. The Spanish rarely regarded Pueblo religion as legitimate, unlike that of the larger and more centralized Aztec Empire further south. This contributed to a certain esoteric element of Pueblo religion. onate statue alcaldeThough it has its public façade, much still goes on beyond the public eye. Dowa Yalanne today remains closed to outside visitors.

Nor has the Pueblo community forgotten the atrocities committed by the Spanish colonials. In January 1998, a bronze statue of Juan de Oñate in Alcalde, New Mexico had its right foot cut off by vandals to counterbalance the upcoming 400th anniversary of his settlement. The fact that Oñate is regarded as New Mexico’s founder does more than enough to rub salt in the wound. Acoma artisan Darrell Chino put it this way: “It was funny when it happened to the statue, but it wasn’t funny when it happened to the real people.”


What do Popé, Pontiac, and Little Crow all have in common? Each led a confederated Native American uprising in North America. Click here to learn more about Pontiac’s War or here to read about the Dakota War of 1862.

In August 1857, Lt. Edward F. Beale’s “Camel Corps” first passed through Zuni, where they secured supplies from the tribe.



Andrea Grugel, “Culture, religion, and economy in the American southwest: Zuni Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo,” in GeoJournal, vol. 77, no. 6 (2012): 791-803.

David J. Weber, “Pueblos, Spaniards, and History,” in What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999, pp. 3-18.

Edward P. Dozier, “Spanish-Catholic Influences on Rio Grande Pueblo Religion,” in American Anthropologist, vol. 60, no. 3 (Jun., 1958): 441-448.

Edward P. Dozier, “Spanish-Indian Acculturation in the Southwest: Comments,” in American Anthropologist, vol. 56, no. 4 (Aug. 1954): 680-684.

Florence Hawley, “The Role of Pueblo Social Organization in the Dissemination of Catholicism,” in American Anthropologist, vol. 48, no. 3 (Jul.-Sep., 1946): 407-415.

Henry Warner Bowden, “Spanish Missions, Cultural Conflict, and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680,” in What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999, pp. 21-37.

Karl A. Wittfogel and Esther S. Goldfrank, “Some Aspects of Pueblo Mythology and Society,” in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 56, no. 219 (Jan.-Mar., 1943): 17-30.

Karl Waldman and Molly Braun, Atlas of the North American Indian, New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1985.

Matthew Liebmann, T.J. Ferguson, & Robert W. Preucel, “Pueblo Settlement, Architecture, and Social Change in the Pueblo Revolt Era, A.D. 1680 to 1696,” in Journal of Field Archeology, vol. 30, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 45-60.


O. Pi-Sunyer, “Religion and Witchcraft: Spanish Attitudes and Pueblo Reactions,” in Anthropologica, vol. 2, no. 1 (1960): 66-75.

Robert McGeagh, Juan de Oñate’s Colony in the Wilderness: An Early American History of the Southwest, Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 1990.

William J. Robbins, “Some Aspects of Pueblo Indian Religion,” in The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 34, no. 1 (Jan. 1941): 25-47.

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Dowa Yalanne during a rare thunderstorm


2 thoughts on “A Haven in the Clouds from Religious Aridity: Acoma and Zuni Pueblo Mesa Warfare

  1. Pingback: A Precedent of Exploitation: Nineteenth-century Mormons and Laman’s Wayward Children | The History Bandits

  2. Pingback: “One Feeble Leper” – Imperialism and Public Health in Territorial Hawaii | The History Bandits

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