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Isleta Pueblo

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Pueblo of Isleta
Pueblo of Isleta

On arriving in Isleta one immediately marks numerous points of difference between this community and the more northern pueblos in matters of dress, building, and customs. The town is composed entirely of 1 story dwellings, for the most part detached, though not isolated from neighboring habitations. These are always commodious and built frequently after the Spanish custom, about a court, or plaza.. Tables are generally found within, though not always dined upon, and chairs of Americain manufacture are usually to be had to offer a stranger; but the ease of a roll of blankets on the floor is not forgotten by the Indian, Couches on the hard cement have not been superseded by beds, though sonic have introduced this comfort into their dwellings. Trousers and overalls are common, but the white zouave breeches, with the red trimmed leather leggings, are still more generally worn. The leggings are not tied by garters, as in all other pueblos, but fastened by silver buttons, buttons being used wherever available upon their costume. This is a hat wearing community. Broad brimmed, light felt hats have taken the place of the red handkerchief tied in a band about the head. The hair is cropped at the junction of the neck with the shoulders, and its frequent cutting has been productive of most luxuriant shocks. It is often parted on the side. The women, however, still cling to their picturesque costume; sensible in all respects save the binding of the legs below the knee with heavy bandages of doeskin, intended as a protection against snake bites. The superstitious regard of these Indians for snakes, inasmuch, as they hold a prominent place in religious rites, protects them and renders them abundant among the villages. A snake on being found in the pueblo is merely disabled, and is then carried off upon sticks and laid outside of man’s immediate range.

On the north of the plaza, 100 by 130 yards in extent, is the Catholic Church, a commodious and well kept structure, and to the right of it the padre’s garden and house and the Catholic school. At the southeast corner of the plaza is the Presbyterial mission school. Along the center of the east side is the trader’s store, opposite which are dwellings. All buildings in Isleta are of adobe. Occasionally houses have small front yard attachments reaching into the streets. The thoroughfares are crooked and wind their way without system through the town. A second store, kept by an enterprising Indian, does a good business. The town lies upon the right bank of the Rio Grande. North of it the river clings to the left side of the valley, leaving the entire space west of it open to cultivation through the whole breadth of the valley, 1.5 miles. This, for 2.5 miles toward the town, is solidly cultivated, bearing a luxuriant crop of wheat and corn. As the valley approaches the town a slight rise in its level renders further irrigation below its site impossible with the exception of a narrow strip on the right bank. Below the town, on the left side, other tracts are cultivated, although, owing to high floods 4 years ago, much of this has been abandoned. With proper engineering ability 500 acres could be saved here. The Mexicans have a scant footing on the southeast line. Isleta has about 60 acres of fruit trees, bearing peaches, plums, and apricots of a high order. Its vineyards are well kept and highly productive, though not extensive. The inhabitants consume nearly all the wine made, and it lasts rarely more than 4 months. The women send fruit to Albuquerque and along the line of the railroad. The men make long journeys with burro trains and wagons, carrying peaches and grapes as far as Gallup and to intermediate points. This pueblo has a mill 20 years ago, at which most of its grain was ground. Afterward a larger one was built, but both have been abandoned, and their flour and meal are now either ground at Los Lunas from their grain or obtained in trade for raw material at Albuquerque. Their practice of medicine is still crude, Indian remedies, some of which indeed are potent, being used. A bottle of wizard oil was brought from Albuquerque 10 years ago, and having worked wonders in a few eases it is now regarded as a cure all. The Isleta Indian seldom works for Mexicans, though some seek employment on the railroad in winter.

They frequently work for each other, whole families have continued for many years in the bondage of debt as serfs to proprietors. The cacique has the power of nominating the governor and council in all pueblos, and although the community has the right to set this aside it is rarely done.

Isleta farms perhaps 2,600 acres, and uses all the available land. The farms absorb their attention; herding interests are secondary. On the west of this lies the Rio Puerco, unavailable for irrigation. The remainder of the grant, 107,480 acres, offers meager pasture. The grant, extending on either side of the river, is estimated at 110,080 acres.

Of the pueblo of Isleta, Mr. Charles F. Lummis, In A Tramp Across the Continent, 1802, pages 140-153, writes:

“There was little dream in me, as we rambled through the, strange city of adobe and interviewed its swarthy people, that this was some time to by my home; that the quiet, kindly, dark fames were to shine with neighborliness, and to look sad when the tiny blood vessel in my brain had broken anew and left me speechless and helpless for months, or when I fell bored with buckshot by the midnight assassin, nor of all the other strange happenings 6 few years were to bring. But though there was no seeing ahead to that which would have given a deeper interest, the historic old town, which was the asylum of the surviving Spaniards in that bloody summer of 1680, had already a strong attraction for me. There were more fine looking Indians and more spacious and admirable houses then I had yet seen and, indeed, Isleta which is the next largest of the 19 pueblos, numbering over 1,100 people, has the largest, and best rooms, the largest and best farms, and most extensive Orchards and herds, and other wealth, though it is one of the least picturesque, since its buildings are nearly all of but 1 story, while in some pueblos the houses are 6 stories high.

“The pueblo of Isleta is one of the strange little city republics of that strange Indian race which had achieved thin quaint civilization of their own before Columbus was born. Its people own over 115,000 acres of land under United States patent, and their little kingdom along the Rio Grande is one of the prettiest places in New Mexico. They have well tended farms, orchards and vineyards, herds of cattle, sheep, and horses, and are indeed very different in every way from tho average eastern conception of an Indian. It is a perennial wonder to me that American travelers care so little to see the wonders of their own land. They find abroad nothing more picturesque, nothing more marvelous, in scenery or in man, than they could easier see within the wonderland of the southwest, with its strange landscapes, its noble ruins of a prehistoric past, and the astounding customs of its present aborigines. A pueblo ceremonial dance is one of the most remarkable sights to be witnessed anywhere, and there are many other customs no less worth seeing.

I have lived now in Isleta for 4 years, with its Indian for my only neighbors, and better neighbors I never had and never want. They are unmeddlesome but kindly, thoughtful, and loyal, and wonderfully interesting. Their endless and beautiful folklore, their quaint and often astonishing customs, and their startling ceremonies have made a fascinating study. To relate even the small part of these things which I have learned would take volumes; but one of the first and least secret customs I witnessed may be described here. The Chinese feed their dead, beginning with a grand banquet, which precedes the hearse, and is spread upon the newly covered grave. The Pueblos do not thus. The funeral is decked forth with no baked meats, and the banquet for all the dead together is given once a year in a ceremonial by itself. The burials take place from their Christian church, and the only remarkable ceremonies are those performed in the room where the soul left its clay tenement. All that is a secret ceremony, however, and may to seen by no stranger, but all are free to witness the strange rites of the Day of the Dead.”

Mr. Lummis then, in the same work, writes of the Fiesta do las Muertos as follows.

“Today the aborigines who sleep 9 feet deep in the bosom of the bare gravel graveyard in front of the quaint church of the pueblo of Isleta have the first square mat they have enjoyed in a twelve month, for today the Day of the Dead. In celebrated with considerable pomp and ceremony. It is to be hoped that deaths somewhat, dulls the edge of an Indian’s naturally robust appetite, else so protracted a fast would surely cause him inconvenience but the rations me generous when they do come.

“The bustle of preparation for the Fiesta de los Muertos has been upon the pueblo for several days. In a sort of domestic crescendo. While the men have been, an usual in the fall, looking rather devotedly upon the new wine when it is a sallow red, and loading themselves by day to go off in vocal pyrotechnics at night, when they meander arm in arm about the village singing an Aboriginal ‘won’t go home until morning’, the women have been industriously employed at home,. They never seem to yearn for the flowing bowl, and keep steadfastly sober throughout the temptation of wine making, always ready to go out mid collar a too obstreperous spouse and persuade him home, It is well for the family purse that this is so. We have it governor this year who in muy bravo, and woo to the convivialist who lifts his ululation, where Don Vicente can bear him, or who starts in to smash things where the old man’s eagle eye will light upon him, In a brief space of time two stalwart alguazils will up on the scene, armed with a peculiar adjustable wooden yoke, It mammoth handcuff in design, which is fitted around the culprit’s neck, and off he is dragged by the handles to the little adobe jail, there to repent of his fully until he has added n dollar or two to Don Vicente’s treasury.

“For tho last 3 days the dark little store of the trader has been besieged by to crowd of wanton, bearing fat brown balms in the shawls upon their backs and upon their erect heads sacks of corn or wheat, or under their arms the commonest fractional currency of tho pueblo, the sheepskin, worth 10 or 15 cents, according to weight. Some bring coin of the realm, for this is one of the wealthiest pueblos as well as the largest. Their purchases were sugar, floor, lard, candles, calicoes, and occasionally chocolate, all with festal intent.

“For 3 days, too, the queer mud beehives of ovens outside the homes have been running to the fullest capacity all over town. Retimes in the morning the prudent housewife would be seen instigating a generous and persistent fire in her horao. Then, when the thick adobe walls were hot enough, she would rake out the coals and ashes and swab the interior with a wet rag tied to a pole. Next, a brief disappearance into the house, and it prompt emergence with a broad, clean hearth, covered with the most astounding freaks of ingenuity in dough. Inmost things the pueblo appears unimaginative enough, thought this is a deceptive appearance, but when it comes to sculpturing feast day brand and rakes the, inventive talent displayed outdoes the wildest delirium of a French pastry cook. Those culinary monstrosities could be safely worshiped without infringing the Decalogue, for they ‘are like unto nothing that is in the earth, nor in the heavens above the earth, nor in the waters under earth’. Their shapes always remind me of ex-Treasurer Spinner’s signature, and they are quite as un approachable. Having been placed in the oven, the door of which was then closed with a big, fiat stone and sealed with mud, the baking remained there its allotted time, and then crisp and delicious (for there are few better bread makers thee these Pueblos), it was stowed away in the inner room to await Its ceremonial use.

Yesterday began more personal preparations for the important event. Go into whatever dooryard you would you found anywhere from one to half a dozen dusky but comely matrons said maids bending over brightly painted tinajas, and giving careful ablution to their soft, black hair.

“Inside the house, mayhap, gay red calicoes were being deftly stitched into simple garments, and soft, white buckskins were being cut into long strips to be wound into the characteristic female boot.’ The teen wore doing little, save to lend their moral support. But late last night little bands of them wandered jovially over the pueblo, pausing at the door of every house wherein they found a light, and singing a pious appeal to all the saints to protect the inmates, who were expected to reward this intercession by gifts or bread, meat, coffee, tobacco, or something else, to the prayerful serenaders.

Thus anticipated, the Day Of the Dead dawned clear and warm. As the sun crawled above the ragged crest of the Sundial the gray old sacristan, in shirt and calzoneillos of spotless white, climbed the crazy staircase to the roof of the church and assaulted the bell, which has had comparatively few breathing spells the rest of the day. The ringing of the church bell of Isleta is an experience that is worth a long journey to enjoy. The bells hang in two incongruous wooden towers, perched upon the front corner of the huge adobe, church. ‘There are no ropes, and tongues would be a work of supererogation. The ringer, stepping into the belfry through a broken blind, grasps a hammer in his hand and hits the bell a tenintive rap, as if to see whether it is going to strike back. Encouraged by finding that it, does not, he gives it another thump after a couple of seconds, then another, then, growing interested, he whales it 3 times in half as many seconds, then, after a wee pause, he yields to his enthusiasm, rushes upon the bell, drums it in a wild tattoo, curies it down from crown to rim with a multiplicative scrub, and thenceforth devotes himself to making the greatest possible music of sound waves to the second. As a held persecutor ho has on superior.

All this feverish eloquence of the bell had no visible effect for awhile. The people evidently knew its inevitable temperament, and worn in no hurry to answer its clatter, But by 9 o’clock there was a general awakening. Along no aimless street across the big, flat plaza, long lines of Women began to come churchward in single file, Each bore upon her head a big, flaring basket, the rash chiquihuites of home make or the elegantly woven Apache jlenra, heaped high with enough toothsome viauds to make the soundest sleeper in the camp sanio forget his fear of fasting. Each woman was dressed in her best. Her moccasins and queer aldermanic boots’ shone bright and spotless her dark skirt of heavy home-woven stuff was now, and showed at its ending by tho knee a feint suggestion of snowy white; her costliest corals nod turquoise and silver beads hung from her neck; the tapale, which covered all her head except the face, was of the gayest, pattern. One young girl had turkey red tablecloth for a head shawl, and another an American piano cover of crimson, with old gold embroidery.

“Marching through the opening in the high adobe wall which surrounds the graveyard, each woman went to the spot whose gravel covered beloved bones, sat her basket, down there, planted a let of candles around it lighted them, and remained kneeling patiently bolting her offering. It was a quaint and impressive sight there under the bright Now Mexico sun, the great square, shut in by the low adobe houses (for Isleta has none of the terraced houses of the more remote. pueblos), the huge adobe church filling the space on the north, with its inadequate steeples, its 2 dark arches, and its long dwindle into the quarters of the priest; the indiscriminate graveyard, whose flat slope showed only the 3 latest of its unnumbered hundreds of graves; the hundred kneeling women weeping quietly under their shawls and tending the candles around their offerings while the dead ate to their heart’s content, according to tho belief of these simple folk.

“The big clumsy door of the church were open, and presently some of the newcomers entered with their basket offerings, crossing themselves at the door, and disposed their baskets, their candles, and their knees at certain points along the rude floor of loose beards laid flat on smooth adobe. It was not at random that they took these scattered positions. These were they whose relatives had enjoyed the felicity of being buried under the church floor; and each knelt over the Indistinguishable resting place of her loved and lost, The impressive mass was prefaced by a short, businesslike talk from the now priest, It had always been the custom for the women to wail loudly and incessantly over the graves all through mass; but the now padre intended to inaugurate a reform right here, he had told them the Sunday before that there must be no “keening” during divine service, and now he gave them another word of warning on the same subject. If they did not maintain proper quiet during the mass he would not bless the graves.

The warning was effective, and the mass went on amid respectful silence. A group of Mexican women kneeling near the altar rail sang timidly in pursuit of the little organ, with which they never quite caught up. The alter flared with innumerable candles, which twinkled on ancient saints and modern chromes, on mirrors mid tinsel endpaper flowers. Through the 3 square, high, dirty windows in the 5 foot adobe wall the sunlight strained, lighting up vaguely no smooth round visas and strange brackets overhead; the kneeling figures, the heaped up baskets and the flickering candles on the floor below. Near the door, under the low gallery, stood a respectful knot of men, Indians and Mexicans. The gray-headed sacristan and his assistant shuffled hither and thither, with eager eyes, watching the candles of the women lest they burn too low and kindle the floor, mid now and then stopping to snuff out sonic threatening wick with their bare fingers and an air of satisfaction. Sometimes they were a little too zealous, and put out candles which might safely have burned 3 or 4 minutes longer, but no sooner were their backs turned than the watchful proprietress of that candle would reach over and relight it. There should be no tallow wasted.

“At last the mass was over and the padre went into the retiring room to change his vestments, the Women and baskets retaining their positions, Directly he reappeared, and the sacristan tottered beside him with a silver bowl of holy water. Stopping in front of the women and basket nearest the altar, the priest read it long prayer for the repose of the soul over whose long deserted tenement she knelt, and then sprinkled holy water ward, at once moving on to the next.

“The woman thus satisfied rose, put the basket on her head, and disappeared in the long side passage leading to the priest’s quarters, while the ayudante thumbed out her candles end tossed them into a wooden soap box which he carried. So went the slow round throughout the church and then through the 100 patient, kneeling waiters on the gravel of the campo santo outside, As soon a grave was blessed the woman, thus candles, and the basket of goodies vanished elsewhere, and the padre’s storeroom began to swell with fatness. Tho baskets were as notable for neat arrangement as for lavish heaping. A row of ears of corn standing upright within the rim of the basket formed a sort of pallisade, which doubled its capacity. Within this cereal stockade were artistically deployed those indescribable contortions in bread and cake, funny little ‘turnovers’ with a filling of starred dried peaches, half-dried hunches of grapes whose little withered sacks of condensed sunlight and sweetness were like raisins, and still displaying the knots of grass by which they had dangled from, the rafters; watermelons, whole or sliced; apples, quinces, and peaches, onions, and occasionally candy and chocolate. The beauty or it all was that after the dear departed had gorged their fill there was just as much left for the padre, whose perquisite the remainder invariably is. He treated me to a peep into his storeroom in the evening, and it was a, remarkable sight. Fully 2 tons of these edible offerings assorted as to their kinds filled the door with enormous heaps, and outside in the long portal was enough blue, and red, and white corn to fill an army of horses. Bread led the list, and as the liberal proportion of lard in this bread keeps it good for months, the padre’s housekeepers will not need to bake for a long time to come.

“With the blessings of the lost grave the services of the Fiesta de loa Muertos were ever, and the population settled down to the enjoyment of a rare repose, for they are a very industrious people and always busy, save on holidays, with their farms, their orchards, their houses and other matters.”


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