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The Spanish Arrival

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:40 PM by Joel Toppen

In one respect, the Diné had one thing in common with the Spanish: They were relative newcomers to the region. Compared with the Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest, the Navajo were newcomers, arriving sometime in the 1300s A.D. When Juan de Oñate marched a column of Spanish Colonists north of the Rio Grande in 1598 for the purpose of adding new lands to the domain of King Phillip of Spain, the Navajo were not even the most powerful tribe in the region. Theirs, when compared with the Pueblo tribes, was a more primitive existence. They were semi-nomadic farmers and hunter-gatherers. Their pottery and weaving skills had been learned from the more sophisticated Pueblo tribes.

The arrival of the Spanish changed everything. Not only for the Diné! The Spanish arrival set into motion a string of events that would lead to a meteoric rise in power for some tribes, and the ultimate subjugation of all the tribes on the continent.

One thing above all propelled the Spanish northward from their colony of New Spain (Mexico): gold. Fantastic rumors of cities of gold had reached Spanish ears. This, and a desire to spread the Catholic faith to the “savages” combined to form a lethal combination of religious zeal, imperialism, and greed. 

The first Tribes to be encountered by the Spanish were the city-dwelling Pueblo tribes. By languages they are the Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa in the east (along the Rio Grande) and the Zuni and Hopi off to the west (western New Mexico and north-central Arizona). The Spanish set about almost immediately to subjugate these town-dwelling natives, forcibly converting them to Christianity and economically enslaving them. The benefit that the Pueblos brought to the Spanish were significant: they taught the Spanish how to survive in the harsh, arid land. They taught them what plants could be sown and harvested and what plants and herbs could be used medicinally. The benefit the Spanish imparted to the Pueblos was negligible.

In stark contrast, the benefit the Spanish brought to the Diné transformed the Diné from a second-rate, and more primitive tribe (when compared with the Pueblos) into a militarily powerful and economically wealthy tribe. One of the great characteristics of the Navajo is their ability to adapt to circumstances. They learned weaving from the Pueblos. They would learn even more from the Spanish, for the Spanish brought with them two things that would transform their way of life: the horse and the sheep. 

Now the Spanish did not give the Navajo horses and sheep! The Diné acquired them through one other great skill they possessed. The Diné were one reason why the Pueblos at first welcomed Spanish “protection.” For the Diné were incorrigible raiders. They had a remarkable ability to slip in unnoticed, take what they wanted, and then melt away into the wilderness as quickly and as quietly as they came! When a reprisal raid was organized, the Diné were as elusive as the cougars that roamed the rimrock — perhaps this is why Diné warriors often wore helmets made from the heads of mountain lions.

In 1680, a remarkable thing happened. Something akin to what happened in New England in 1675: Native tribes united in a concerted effort to eject the Spanish colonists from their lands. The Pueblo Revolt, unlike King Phillip’s War, was a complete (if temporary) success. Spanish colonists were massacred in Taos and other pueblos along the Rio Grande. Taken by surprise, and facing overwhelming numbers as the revolt grew in size and ferocity, the Spanish colonists abandoned Santa Fe and retreated all the way to El Paso del Norte (modern-day Juarez, Mexico). It is for this fact that Santa Fe is not regarded as the oldest continually-inhabited city in North America.

In their haste to leave, the Spanish were unable to take all of their livestock with them. Horses left behind were either taken by the Pueblos, or left to run wild. Many would find their way into the hands of people living a difficult existence on the vast North American prairie. The horse would transform these tribes into a dominant military presence; one which would present a definite obstacle to any westward expansion by the European colonists in the east. The Comanche, for example, would become one of the most powerful light cavalry forces in human history. They would come to dominant the souther plains, ranging from east Texas to Arizona. 

The horse also transformed the Diné. The Navajo became outstanding horsemen. Their power quickly eclipsed that of their town-dwelling neighbors along the Rio Grande. 

The horse provided the Diné with great mobility.  The sheep provided them with sustenance. The sheep became to the Diné what the buffalo were to the plains tribes. They used every part of the animal. With the weaving skills they learned from Pueblo tribes, using wool from their sheep, the Diné developed weaving into an art unequaled by any other tribe. Navajo blankets would come to be extraordinarily valuable — as they are to this day: On the Santa Fe Trail, a single “Navajo blanket was worth ten buffalo robes” (Blood and Thunder; pg. 35).

The Pueblo Revolt’s success owed much to the unity the tribes showed in their hour of crisis. Once the Spanish left, however, disunity once again set in and rifts fractured the coalition. Within 12 years the Spanish would return and systematically subjugate the Pueblo tribes once and for all.

In the game, NAVAJO WARS, the player must acquire sheep and horses as soon as possible by raiding New Mexico. But how soon should the player attempt this? Early in the game, the Spanish are “protecting” the Pueblos which means that the player is likely to encounter Pueblo warriors in a raid. But if the player waits until the Pueblos are fully subjugated by Spain, the Navajo will have Spain’s undivided attention.

In the game, NAVAJO WARS, the player raids New Mexico by pulling a cube from a bag. The color of the cube dictates what has been stolen or encountered. A red cube signifies the presence of Pueblo warriors and a battle may ensue. Similarly, a green cube is Spanish (later Mexican) soldiers and a blue cube is American troopers. Brown cubes are horses, white cubes are sheep, and black cubes are the player’s choice Benton horses and sheep. Yellow cubes represent people that will eventually be integrated into your tribe — slaves (more on this later). Whenever you pull a red, green or blue cube, the player will either fight a battle or lose a Military point and the cue will go back into the bag. But when any other cube is pulled, the cube will go into a box on the game board. Each cube on the game board subtracts from the number of Action Points (APs) the Enemy has to conduct operations against your tribe. So you can see how it behooves the player to raid as often as practical. But here’s the rub: the more often you raid, the more likely it is you will draw a “bad” cube from the bag. This represents the Enemy being more on the alert.

Historically, the Diné would never take all of the horses or sheep from a flock or herd. They would leave some behind so that when they returned the next year, there would be more animals to make off with! In the game, the player must know when to back off of raiding and allow the sands of time to do their work. The player can undertake an operation known as “Planning” which causes the cubes to return to they draw bag. There are also numerous events on cards which cause the cubes to reset and return to the draw bag. When this happens, raids become safer to carry out, but at the same time, the Enemy will likely become very aggressive — representing reprisal raids, etc.

Another consideration the player must make is how much to assist the Pueblos when they revolt. The player can offer this assistance in two ways: not raiding New Mexico (i.e. not raiding the Pueblos) and by conducting actions which cause raid cubes to be placed back into the draw bag — making it harder for the Spanish to draw a red cube and subjugate the Pueblos.