The First Thanksgiving – A Pueblo Perspective

Marker and monument at the San Gabriel de Yunque-Ouinge site, near current day Ohkay Owingeh. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Peña, Flickr's Creative Commons

The First Thanksgiving – A Pueblo Perspective

By Matthew J. Martinez, Ph.D
Director, Northern Pueblos Institute
Associate Professor, Pueblo Indian Studies
Northern New Mexico College

As kids growing up at Ohkay Owingeh, I have fond memories of running along the banks of the two rivers – where the Rio Chama and Rio Grande meet. My family would often gather for fishing and camping under the bright stars. Later, I’ve often reflected how these two rivers served as a historical crossroads where the Spanish first settled in Yungeh, Place of the Mockingbird, on the western bank of the village. In 1598 Juan de Oñate rode thousands of stark miles in search of a new home and to build a Spanish empire. It is known that Oñate traveled with 80 ox wagons, 560 colonists, 129 soldiers, over 1,000 Tlaxcalan Mexican Indians, women and children and 7,000 cattle that included sheep, goats, oxen, mules and horses. As a people living along the Rio Grande, the Pueblos could see the caravan’s dust from miles away. The exotic sounds of 7,000 cattle was new – perhaps even daunting and frightening. It is also known that the smell of cattle preceded the Spanish caravan from miles away.

Despite these new sights and sounds,  Oñate was reluctantly welcomed into the village. He renamed the place San Juan de Los Caballeros after his patron saint, John the Baptist. Tewa oral history remembers a time when new people, animals and new foods came into the village. I recall hearing about soldiers who were tired, hungry and had women and young children traveling with them. Oñate and his colonists were indeed thankful for a safe passage across the Camino Real from central Mexico. Their arrival in July of 1598 was probably too early for the traditional harvest season. Regardless, the people of Ohkay Owingeh were skilled farmers and hunters and shared what they had which included such foods as corn, wild plants, pheasant, rabbit and perhaps even turkey. Despite the violent episodes that later followed with Spanish colonization and the events leading up to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, we come from a place that is very much centered on giving and being thankful for our food, families and well-being. It is significant to recognize that twenty two years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620,  northern New Mexico’s rich cultural history exceeds this national holiday of Thanksgiving.