Descendants Of Native American Slaves In New Mexico Emerge From Obscurity

Dec 29, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 10:25 am

Every year in late November, the New Mexican village of Abiquiu, about an hour northwest of Santa Fe, celebrates the town saint, Santo Tomas. Townfolk file into the beautiful old adobe Catholic church to pay homage its namesake.

But this is no ordinary saint's day. Dancers at the front of the church are dressed in feathers, face paint and ankle bells that honor their forebears — captive Indian slaves called genizaros.

The dances and chants are Native American, but they don't take place on a Pueblo Indian reservation. Instead, they're performed in a genizaro community, one of several scattered across the starkly beautiful high desert of northern New Mexico.

After centuries in the shadows, this group of mixed-race New Mexicans — Hispanic and American Indian — is stepping forward to seek recognition.

Genizaros are descendants of slaves, but not Africans who crossed the Atlantic in shackles to work in Southern cotton fields. They are living heirs to Native American slaves. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Native American women and children captured in warfare were bought, converted to Catholicism, taught Spanish and held in servitude by New Mexican families. Ultimately, these nontribal, Hispanicized Indians assimilated into New Mexican society.

"Who is the genizaro?" asks Virgil Trujillo, a ranch manager in Abiquiu. "We know who the Apache are, the Comanche, the Lakota. We know all this. Who's the genizaro? See, in our history that was suppressed. Spanish people and white people came in. [They said] 'bad Indian, bad Indian.' "

The name genizaro is the Spanish word for janissary, war captives conscripted into service to fight for the Ottoman Sultan. Some New Mexican genizaros gained their freedom by serving as soldiers to defend frontier villages like Abiquiu from Indian raids. By the late 1700s, genizaros comprised one-third of the population of New Mexico.

The territory changed hands from Spain to Mexico to, in the early 20th century, the United States. Genizaros intermarried with Hispanics, and their identity as Native Americans was effectively erased, at least in the historical record.

"Today we have a little tiny opportunity to get our word out," says Trujillo. "The genizaro people of the pueblo of Abiquiu are alive and well."

The Santo Tomas fiesta moves from the church grounds to the home of the festival chairman. A trio of musicians entertains. People sit at outdoor tables in a chill wind, eating bowls of steaming pozole, or hominy stew, with red chile.

One of the dancers is Gregorio Gonzales, a 28-year-old man in a black skullcap with a red arrow painted on his cheek. If asked, he says, he would say he is a genizaro.

Today, genizaro is a neutral term. But it wasn't always so, Gonzales says. He's a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, writing his dissertation on genizaro identity.

"Genizaro, the term, was actually used as a racial slur by people, especially here in northern New Mexico, the equivalent of the N-word," he says.

What's happening in New Mexico today is a sort of genizaro renaissance.

There have been recent symposia on genizaro history and identity. A pair of scholars at the University of New Mexico is putting out a book. The working title is Genizaro Nation.

"There was a lot of Native American slavery going on. It's just an eye-opener to the average Americans when they discover this," says co-editor Enrique Lamadrid. He is a distinguished professor emeritus of Spanish at the University of New Mexico who has done some of the groundbreaking scholarship on genizaros.

While Native American slavery was commonplace, New Mexico was the only place where free Indians were called genizaros.

They were often Comanches, Utes, Kiowas, Apaches and Navajos taken as slaves by each other, and by colonists.

"In the 1770s, if you were going to get married, one of the best wedding presents you could get is a little Indian kid who becomes part of your household. They took on your own last name, and they became part of the family," says Lamadrid.

One thing the new genizaro scholarship does is smash the conventional notion that New Mexican identity is somehow defined as either the noble Spaniard or the proud Pueblo Indian.

"The Spanish fantasy is a myth," says Moises Gonzales, an architecture professor at UNM and co-editor of Genizaro Nation. "I think it's great that we're finally having a very elevated conversation about what it means to be genizaro in contemporary times."

In the 300-year-old villages tucked in river valleys of New Mexico, the genizaros are finally telling their stories.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After being overlooked for centuries, a group of mixed race New Mexicans is stepping forward to seek recognition. They are Hispanic and American Indian descendants of slaves. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Native American children were captured and sold. They converted to Catholicism, learned Spanish and were held in servitude by New Mexican families. As NPR's John Burnett reports, their story is scarcely known in the history of the American West.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Every year, the village of Abiquiu, about an hour northwest of Santa Fe, celebrates its saint's day the weekend after Thanksgiving. Townfolk file into the beautiful, old adobe church to pay homage to Santo Tomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

BURNETT: But this is no ordinary Catholic saint's day. The dancers at the front of the church are dressed as Native Americans. Their feathers and face paint and ankle bells pay homage to their forebears, captive Indians slaves called genizaros.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Native American language).

BURNETT: What you're hearing is a recording of the nanille, a dance that takes place every year at the Santo Tomas Fiesta. It was recorded by cultural historian Enrique Lamadrid and played with his permission.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Native American language).

BURNETT: This is a Native American dance, but it's not taking place on a Pueblo Indian Reservation. It's being performed in genizaro community, one of several scattered across the starkly beautiful high desert of northern New Mexico. Virgil Trujillo is genizaro ranch manager in Abiquiu.

VIRGIL TRUJILLO: Who is the genizaro? I mean, we know who the Apache are, the Comanche. We know who the Dakota is. We know all these. Who's the genizaro? See, in our history, they were suppressed. Spanish people, white people came in. Bad Indian, bad Indian.

BURNETT: Genizaros were Native American women and children captured in warfare and then assimilated into New Mexico society. They became non-tribal Hispanisized Indians. The name genizaro is the Spanish word for janissary, which means war captives who serve as soldiers. By the late 1700s, genizaros comprised one-third of the population of the New Mexican territory. The land changed hands from Spain to Mexico to the United States. Genizaros intermarried with Hispanics, and their identity as Native Americans was effectively erased, at least in the historical record. Again, Virgil Trujillo.

TRUJILLO: So today we have a little, tiny opportunity to get our word out.

BURNETT: What's the message you want to get out?

TRUJILLO: The genizaro people of the Pueblo of Abiquiu are alive and well.

BURNETT: The Santo Tomas Fiesta has moved from the church grounds to the home of the festival chairman. A trio of musicians is playing. People sit at outdoor tables in a chill wind, eating bowls of steaming pozole, or hominy with red chili.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Native American language).

BURNETT: One of the dancers is a 28-year-old man in a black skullcap with the red arrow painted on his cheek. His name is Gregorio Gonzalez. I ask him how he self-identifies.

GREGORIO GONZALES: I'd say I'm genizaro.

BURNETT: Today genizaro is a neutral term, but it wasn't always so, says Gonzales. He's a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology writing his dissertation on genizaro identity.

GONZALES: Genizaro - the term was actually used as a racial slur by people, especially here in northern New Mexico, so kind of the equivalent of the N-word.

BURNETT: What's happening in New Mexico today is a sort of genizaro renaissance. There have been recent symposia on genizaro history and identity, and a pair of scholars at the University of New Mexico is putting out a book, the working title - "Genizaro Nation." One of the co-editor is Dr. Enrique Lamadrid at the University of New Mexico. He's done some of the groundbreaking scholarship on genizaros.

ENRIQUE LAMADRID: There was a lot of Native American slavery going on. It's just an eye-opener to the average Americans when they discover this.

BURNETT: New Mexico was the only place, however, where free Indians were called genizaros. They were often Comanches, Utes, Koiwas, Apaches and Navajos, taken as slaves by each other and by colonists.

LAMADRID: In the 1770s, if you were going to get married, one of the best wedding presents you could get is a - is a little Indian kid who becomes part of your household. They took on your own last name, and they became part of the family.

BURNETT: One thing the new genizaro scholarship does is it smashes the conventional notion that New Mexican identity is somehow defined as either the noble Spaniard or the proud Pueblo.

MOISES GONZALES: The Spanish fantasy is a myth.

BURNETT: Moises Gonzales is an architecture professor at UNM and the other co-editor of "Genizaro Nation."

GONZALES: So I think it's great that we're finally having a very elevated conversation about what it means to be genizaro in contemporary times.

BURNETT: In these 300-year-old villages tucked in the river valleys of New Mexico, genizaros are finally telling their stories. John Burnett, NPR News, Abiquiu, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.