The Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, formerly known as the San Juan Pueblo, is a Tewa-speaking village located in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. Located on the east side of the Rio Grande, people have been living at the site since 1200 A.D.
The ancestors of the pueblo people were said to have migrated south from the San Luis Valley of Colorado into New Mexico where they built two villages on each side of the river — Ohkay Owingeh, meaning “place of the strong people” and Yungé Owingeh, meaning “Mockingbird Place” on the west side of the Rio Grande. The people then established a large community based on irrigation farming along the Rio Grande in a valley between the Sangre de Cristo and Jèmez Mountains.
The people of Ohkay Owingeh first encountered Europeans when the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition came to New Mexico in 1541, but having heard of the depredations of the Spanish upon the people they encountered, the villagers fled into the mountains when the expedition came through the area. Later, explorer Gaspar Castaño de Sosa briefly visited the pueblo in 1591, but it was the colonizing expedition of Juan de Oñate in the summer of 1598 which brought the full force of the Spanish presence to the village.
Onate, known as the colonizer of New Mexico, brought with him soldiers, families, and Franciscan priests as well as herds of cows, sheep, mules, and horses. When he arrived at Ohkay Owingeh, he temporarily established his headquarters at the pueblo and christened the village San Juan Bautista. It was later renamed San Juan de los Caballeros. The settlers introduced new crops, like wheat and apples, and animals, like cattle and new breeds of dogs.
After living at Ohkay Owingeh for a short time, Onate decided to make Yungé Owingeh, across the river less than a half a mile away, the capital of the new Spanish colony of New Mexico, naming it San Gabriel de Yungé. He then forced or convinced the inhabitants of Yungé to relocate to Ohkay, and the settlers and soldiers from Mexico moved into their former homes, a Pueblo house block of about 400 apartments. They also built new houses, a garrison, and a church named San Miguel.
The Spaniards then renovated the Yungé pueblo according to European tastes, such as the addition of wooden doorways and window frames. Oñate’s main purpose in colonizing New Mexico was to discover gold and silver mines, while the Franciscan priests Christianized the Indians.
The colonists and the people of Ohkay Owingeh appeared to have a peaceful relationship. The people of the pueblo provided some food and shelter for the new settlement of San Juan de los Caballeros until the colonists could sow and harvest their own crops.
Early on, Oñate visited all the area pueblos, and through translators, required their allegiance to the Spanish government. In those meetings, Oñate assigned missionaries to each one, thus initiating the Franciscan mission field of New Mexico. Along with the mission regiment, the Spanish introduced a form of taxation, feudal in nature, called the encomienda. Under the encomienda, heads of households in each pueblo were required to pay an annual tribute collected in produce or blankets, to support the defense of the Spanish settlement and the pueblos against raiding Plains tribes, the traditional enemies of the pueblos. Most disturbing to the pueblos was that if the tribute could not be paid in kind, the value of the tribute owed was converted to labor for public works. Though the missionaries argued that the encomienda interfered with the mission process and opposed its collection from mission neophytes, the practice continued.
In 1607, Juan de Oñate, having discovered nothing of value in the area, resigned under pressure for his poor leadership and returned to Mexico. Don Pedro de Peralta was appointed Governor-General in 1609 and a year later, he moved the capital to present-day Santa Fe.
In the meantime, San Juan remained as a flourishing mission and the Franciscans built a new rectory sometime between 1640-1660. Members of both the San Juan and Yungé pueblos used the San Miguel church at Yungé until a new church was built at San Juan in 1642 and dedicated to San Juan Bautista.
In the decades that followed, the people of Ohkay Owingeh, like other Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, suffered under an oppressive Spanish rule in which they were conscripted into forced labor, required to pay demanding taxes in goods, and their religious activities were suppressed. By the 1670s discontent had spread through the Pueblo peoples, which led to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 led by an Ohkay Owingeh man named Popay (Popé). During the revolt, the Pueblo people destroyed every trace of the Spanish on their lands, including the San Gabriel de Yungé settlement and the San Juan Bautista church at Ohkay Owingeh. They also killed their priest, Juan de Morales. In the end, the revolt drove the Spanish out of New Mexico and they didn’t return for 12 years.
In 1692, reconquered New Mexico in 1692 and in 1706, a new church was built at the San Juan Pueblo. At that time, the village had a population of about 340 people.
The mission program endured until 1826 when it became secularized, and its lands held in common passed into private ownership after Mexican Independence. San Juan Bautista was a local parish church by the time New Mexico came under United States control following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. On December 22, 1858, the United States Congress confirmed a 17,544.77 acre grant to the pueblo and this was patented on November 1, 1864. Because of white encroachment, later court decisions reduced the reservation to 12,213 acres.
The adobe church was reroofed and maintained through the mid-19th century, but the arrival of French clergyman to the diocese of Santa Fe heralded a change for old San Juan Bautista. Padre Camilo, or Camille Seux, came from France to the U.S. in 1865 and six weeks later was ordained in Santa Fe. After serving as an apprentice he was assigned to San Juan Bautista as a pastor. He remained at the parish for 53 years. During his time he knocked down the old adobe church and by 1912 had rebuilt a two-story rectory, a school, and a new neo-Gothic style church using brick rather than adobe. The church was renamed after Our Lady of Lourdes, but has since returned to its original name of San Juan Bautista.
The San Juan Pueblo officially returned to its pre-Spanish name of Ohkay Owingeh in November 2005.
In addition to the church that sits on the former mission site, the historic pueblo consists of parallel blocks of one- and two-story adobe houses and rectangular ceremonial kivas. Today, San Juan Bautista Parish is an active Catholic parish that continues its ministry in the pueblo and the surrounding community and has choirs that sing in Tewa and Spanish. Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo welcomes visitors, offering lodging at the Ohkay Casino Resort and a chance to see Pueblo arts and crafts. Nearby is the National Historic Landmark of San Gabriel de Yunque-Ouingue, but there are no remains of the pueblo today.
Also of note is the Oke Owinge Arts and Crafts Cooperative, a well-known arts center that showcases local artisans. A replica of Mission San Miguel is located in Española, New Mexico, south of Ohkay Owingeh, that serves as the Misión Museum in the Plaza de Española can also help orient visitors to the Spanish history of the area.
A federally recognized tribe today, the pueblo has kept many of its traditions and an annual fiesta and corn dance are held on June 24th.
The Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo is located four miles four miles northeast of Española, New Mexico, off NM 68. The Pueblo can be visited daily from dawn to dusk. No cameras, recording or sketches are allowed.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, February 2019.