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Located historically at the intersection of different cultures, Isleta Pueblo challenges conventional notions of what a typical pueblo is supposed to look like.
A Southern Tiwa pueblo, Isleta belongs to one of three tribal groups in the Kiowa-Tanoan family based in the Rio Grande Valley. The Pueblo’s origins date to the fourteenth century and are traced both to the southern Mogollon and to the Ancient Pueblo Peoples of the northern Colorado Plateau.
Isleta is situated in the fertile floodplain of the Rio Grande, which lies immediately to the east. The village has a long history as a successful agricultural community, and as a trading center along routes to the north, south, and west. It initially looked west to the Salinas Pueblos in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, then shifted north to Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande in the seventeenth century. The establishment of the Villa de Albuquerque in 1706 consolidated economic ties that persist to this day; the pre-modern trade routes were successively mechanized by the railroad in the nineteenth century and by highways in the twentieth century, including the interstate that now borders Isleta to its north and west. A resort casino recently joined agriculture as another source of revenue for the pueblo.
Francisco Vasquéz de Coronado visited Isleta on his exploratory expedition of 1540–1541. The pueblo was then absorbed into the Spanish Empire in 1598, when Santa Fe de Nuevo México was established as a province of New Spain and the pueblos were forced to relinquish their sovereignty and accede in an “Act of Obedience and Vassalage” to the Spanish crown. What the Tiwa knew as Shiahwibak (or Shiewhibak) was renamed Isleta; as Fray Dominguez explained in 1776, the pueblo on its rise of land became a “little island” when the Rio Grande flooded.
A Franciscan missionary, Fray Juan de Salas, built the first church and friary of San Antonio de Padua while he was assigned to the Mission of Isleta between 1612 and 1629. As was typically the case for seventeenth-century missions, the church was sited on available land outside—in this case, south of—the village proper, where it faced back toward the village across a large, and quintessentially Spanish, plaza.
Isleta grew to some 2,000 inhabitants, in part by absorbing refugees from the Salinas Pueblos, as those collapsed and were abandoned in the 1670s. It did not join the Pueblo Revolt of 1680; some of its members fled to Hopi villages in Arizona, while others joined the Spanish colonizers as they escaped south to El Paso del Norte. The Spanish returned briefly in 1681, to find Isleta reinhabited but its church and friary destroyed. Before retreating once again, they burned the village and took with them up to 1,000 Christianized Indians, who founded Isleta del Sur in Texas. Isleta was reoccupied in 1710 and Fray Juan de la Peña directed the construction of a new church and friary, on the site of the earlier church but dedicated to San Agustín. The pueblo has been occupied continuously ever since.
Isleta’s original form is not known but probably had multistory housing blocks clustered around one of more plazas with kivas. When Fray Dominguez visited Isleta in the eighteenth century, he found a pueblo in transition. Housing blocks framed the east, south, and west sides of great plaza in front of the church, while the rest of the village was “very prettily designed…in the Spanish manner” with individual houses along winding streets. By the late nineteenth century, the pueblo had completed its apparent transformation into a Spanish village of adobe houses spreading outward from the church. The housing blocks noted by Dominguez were new structures dating to the pueblo’s reconstruction after 1710, and they served to reinforce the formality of Isleta’s Spanish plaza with its rebuilt church. Paradoxically, the monumental effect of this space was diminished after single-story houses replaced the blocks.
Farther south, and farther into the village, two rectangular kivas incorporated into housing blocks adjoin another plaza that holds the pueblo’s great kiva, a detached and above-ground circular structure known as the “outside house.” If, like the church, this kiva is entered from the south, it is for reasons grounded in beliefs that predate the Spanish by centuries. Isleta is a living community, not a museum artifact, which means that it continues to grow and change as it has since it was settled, accommodating forces and influences from the outside even as it maintains its indigenous traditions and beliefs. Charles Lummis, the journalist and advocate for Native Americans, lived in Isleta from 1888 until 1892, where he was gradually accepted despite being an outsider.
The pueblo can be visited but photography is currently not permitted.
Adams, Eleanor and Fray Angelico Chavez. The Missions of New Mexico, 1776: A Description by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez with Other Contemporary Documents. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1956.
Dutton, Bertha P. American Indians of the Southwest. Revised and enlarged edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1983.
Kessel, John L. The Missions of New Mexico since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1980.
Kubler, George. The Religious Architecture of New Mexico in the Colonial Period and Since the American Occupation. 1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972.
Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.
Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico.Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1993.
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