San Felipe Pueblo

Black and white photo of San Felipe in 1879
San Felipe Pueblo in 1879
    Katishtya
  • Language: Keresan
  • Size: About 49,000 acres
  • Population: 3,185

Pueblo History

San Felipe is probably the most culturally conservative of the Keresan-speaking pueblos. That conservatism has kept them a bit isolated and allowed them to retain virtually all of their traditional religion and culture. During the great migration from the Mesa Verde area through Chaco Canyon and down to the canyons near the Rio Grande in the 1200's, the people of San Felipe and Cochiti were one, living in a village named Kuapa at the edge of what is now Bandelier National Monument. They separated sometime around 1400 and (what is now) San Felipe and Cochiti were born. Archaeological evidence found in the area indicates that in addition to the main pueblos, there were numerous small settlements built around the countryside in the 1500's.

Coronado most likely visited San Felipe in 1540 as he passed through searching for gold. The Spanish came back in force and stayed in 1598. At that time, there were two main San Felipe pueblos, one on each side of the Rio Grande. The main villages consisted of two-and-three-story apartment-style dwellings plus about 200 individual homes. The first mission church was built in the eastern village in 1600.

The people of San Felipe participated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 but no Spaniards were killed there. There was also no resident priest in San Felipe. While the Indians were busy sacking the church, the Spanish settlers in the area quietly got away to Isleta. When the Spanish returned in 1681, the San Felipe abandoned their pueblo and took refuge atop Horn Mesa (southwest of Cochiti Pueblo). The Spaniards looted and burned the pueblo before retreating south again. In 1692 when Don Diego de Vargas arrived at the head of (what looked like) Spanish military trrops, the people of San Felipe agreed to return and be baptised. At first they moved to the top of Santa Ana Mesa but in 1696, they came down from the mesa and founded the modern pueblo. In those days the San Felipe were relatively friendly with the Spanish and that alienated them from the other pueblos.

When Mexico declared its independence Mexico also threw open the door to marauding Apaches, Comanches and Navajos. The pueblos in New Mexico were unprotected, both from the nomadic raiders and from the corrupt politicians and judiciary. American control of the area didn't change that until they finally subjugated the tribes in the 1860's. But that didn't stop the politicians or the judiciary from working hand-in-glove with various land speculators seeking to steal pueblo land. That was when it came clear that the rights granted to owners of Spanish and Mexican Land Grants by Congress had precedence over the rights granted any Indian tribe through any treaty or other contractual agreement. Part of the problem as it related to San Felipe is that San Felipe was granted more arable land per person than any of the other pueblos. Finally, Congress in 1924 passed the Pueblo Lands Act and has taken further action since to guarantee the Pueblos their sovereignty and control of their own land. To this day San Felipe is known primarily for its agricultural products.

A historic San Felipe cooking jar
A historic San Felipe cooking jar
Unknown artist, circa 1880-1890

Pottery History

Because the people of San Felipe have kept so much to themselves over the years, little is known about the internal workings of the pottery tradition in the pueblo. Conversations with San Felipe potters have pointed out that the cultural conservatism is, in some respects, ending numerous of the people's long-time cultural activities as so little old knowledge is being passed down. Most active potters in the pueblo are either self-taught or went off-pueblo to learn their craft because almost no one teaches it in the pueblo. That has led to an active experimentation with styles and designs.

Historically, San Felipe always found it easier to trade agricultural products for pottery made elsewhere. The Zia were especially good with pottery and always short of food so bits and pieces of their wares are still found all over pueblo country. Prior to 1700 there was a regular flow of pottery north to the Tewa pueblos, then after 1700 that flow reversed. With advanced pottery being readily available, the people of San Felipe focused more on their agricultural developments than on their ceramic developments. To that point, it is hard today to find usable clay for pottery-making on the pueblo lands as so few remember where the clay is and fewer yet will say so.