Pueblo of Isleta

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Isleta Pueblo (Shiewhibak)
House at Isleta Pueblo.jpg
Ruins at Isleta Pueblo
Pueblo of Isleta is located in New Mexico
Pueblo of Isleta
Pueblo of Isleta is located in the US
Pueblo of Isleta
Location U.S. 85, Isleta, New Mexico
Coordinates 34°54′31″N 106°41′30″W / 34.90861°N 106.69167°W / 34.90861; -106.69167Coordinates: 34°54′31″N 106°41′30″W / 34.90861°N 106.69167°W / 34.90861; -106.69167
Area 155 acres (63 ha)
Built 1613
Architectural style Pueblo Style
NRHP reference # 75001162[1]
NMSRCP # 247
Significant dates
Added to NRHP September 5, 1975
Designated NMSRCP May 5, 1972[2]
Francisca Chiwiwi, Isleta Pueblo, circa 1925. Photo by Edward Curtis.
Adobe San Agustín de la Isleta Mission, with wooden Gothic Revival elements introduced by Padre Anton Docher, shown in 1925.
Isleta Lakes Recreational Complex and tribal casino.

Pueblo of Isleta or Isleta Pueblo (Tiwa: Shiewhibak [ʃiexʷibʔàg], Navajo: Naatoohó) is an unincorporated community Tanoan pueblo in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, United States, originally established around the 14th century. Its people are federally recognized as a Native American tribe.

Pueblo of Isleta is located in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, 13 miles (21 km) south of Albuquerque. It is adjacent to and east of the main section of Laguna Pueblo. The pueblo was built on a knife-shaped reef of lava running across an ancient Rio Grande channel.[3] The Isleta Pueblo Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On January 15, 2016, the tribe's officials and federal government representatives held a ceremony to mark the government's taking into federal trust some 90,151 acres of land, 140 square miles, which the Pueblo had purchased. It enlarged their communal territory by 50%. The tribe had worked for more than 20 years to acquire this land, once part of their homeland. It is so far the largest such acquisition handled under the President Barack Obama administration.[4]


Language and group[edit]

The population of Pueblo of Isleta consists of mostly the Southern Tiwa ethnic group (Spanish: Tigua.[5]). They speak Isletan Tiwa, one of the two varieties or dialects of the Southern Tiwa language, part of the Tanoan language family. The other variety is spoken at Sandia Pueblo.

In August 2015, the tribe announced that the Tiwa language would be taught to children at Isleta Elementary School, following the school's transfer from federal to tribal control.[6] In 2016 the Kellogg Foundation made grants totaling $148,000 for development of the dual language, Tiwa-English program, for young children at the school.[7]

Culturally, Pueblo groups have been divided usually into two cultural group classifications: a Western Pueblo group and an Eastern Pueblo group. Other scholars classify the pueblos into three cultural groups: the Western, Eastern, and Keresan (or Central) Pueblo groups. In either system, Pueblo of Isleta is considered an Eastern Pueblo group. The adjacent Laguna Pueblo is a Central—Keresan Pueblo group.

Tribal government[edit]

The Pueblo of Isleta has a democratic tribal government. Their tribal constitution was approved in March 27, 1947. There are thirteen articles with the constitution. They have three (3) branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.

Tribal Council[edit]

The Isleta Tribal Council has 7 members, each elected for two-year terms. Their duties are outlined within Article V - Legislative Branch of the constitution.


The governor is the top executive officer and is elected democratically. In mid-October, nominations are taken, and a general election is held the last Saturday in November. The newly elected governor selects two lieutenant governors, a sheriff, and an under-sheriff to assist during his/her governorship. The governor is bound by Article IV - Executive Branch of the constitution.

Tribal courts[edit]

The governor appoints all tribal judges, who are confirmed by the Tribal Council (offering advice and consent). According to the constitution, Article IX - Judicial Branch, tribal judges are appointed by the governor; and must receive two-thirds (2/3) majority vote by the Isleta Tribal Council to be confirmed. The tribal courts comprise three judges: chief judge and two associate judges. Some of the tribal judges are not law trained. Some members and observers believe that political appointment of tribal judges can cause distrust of the judicial system, if opponents of the governor believe the judges are too influenced by the politics.

Social organization[edit]

Isleta (and the Sandia) have matrilineal kinship systems, with descent and inheritance traced through the mother's family; the children are considered born to her people and receive their status from her family or corn group, akin to a clan. They have an endogamous system of marriage. These kinship and cultural divisions are connected with the sacred directions and colors, as well as tribal lineages, clans, phratries, moieties. In the matrimonial moiety system, one moiety is connected with the winter, and the other with the summer. The tribe maintains and operates a kiva as sacred space for particular rituals and ceremonies.

In the early 20th century, the tribe was headed by a cacique, selected by elders from a clan with hereditary rights. In addition, the tribe annually elected a governor and assistants. The governor acted as a judge in civil cases; criminal cases were turned over to the federal government. The grand council was made up of all the chiefs, leaders of the pueblo who had gained popular respect. There were distinctions between peace chiefs and those leaders appointed in war.

Kachina cults are found in Isleta. They may have adopted this cult from the Laguna people of the Western Pueblos, who have historically practiced such cults for a longer period.

Father Anton Docher, a French Catholic priest serving for decades at the Pueblo church, described the community in a 1913 article in The Santa Fé Magazine:

A Cacique appointed for life, has the supreme power over his subjects. A governor is elected yearly by the people with two assistants, and occasionally a grand council meets. The governor is the judge in civil cases only (crimes are turned over to the district courts). A war captain and other officials have charge of the various celebrations and dances, such as the "dance of the kings" in January, the "tortoise dance" in February...[8]

This historic tribal government was fully recognized by the United States government.


17th century[edit]

The native name of the pueblo is Shiewhibak (Shee-eh-whíb-bak)[9] meaning "a knife laid on the ground to play whib,[10] a native footrace.[11]

When the Spanish arrived in the late 1500s they named the village Isleta, Spanish for "little island". The Spanish Mission of San Agustín de la Isleta was built in the pueblo around 1629 or 1630 by the Spanish Franciscan friar Juan de Salas.[12][13] He tried to teach the people about Catholicism and western ways of cultivating plants.

During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, many of the pueblo people fled to Hopi settlements in Arizona, while others followed the Spanish retreat south to El Paso del Norte (present-day El Paso, Texas. After the rebellion, the Isleta people returned to the Pueblo, many with Hopi spouses.

19th century[edit]

In the 1800s, friction with members of Laguna Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo, who had joined the Isleta community, led to the founding of the satellite settlement of Oraibi.[citation needed] In the 21st century, Isleta includes the main pueblo, as well as the small communities of Oraibi and Chicale.

On October 21, 1887, the French missionary Father Anton Docher traveled to New Mexico, where he was assigned as a priest in the Cathedral of Santa Fé.[8] After three years in Santa Fé and one in Taos, he was assigned to Isleta, arriving on December 28, 1891. There, he met Adolph Bandelier and Charles Fletcher Lummis, who became long-term friends.[14] Young Pablo Abeita (no relation to Diego or Louise Abeita) had recently been selected as Governor of Isleta, continuing into the 1930s.

Father Anton Docher served for 34 years in the historic St. Agustin Mission Church until his death in 1928. He is buried near the previous priest, Padre Padilla, near the altar of the church in Isleta. (Built by the Tiwa under direction of a Spanish missionary in 1612, the church is one of the oldest in the United States.)

20th century to present[edit]

On October 26, 1919, the King of Belgium Albert I, together with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium and Prince Léopold, journeyed to Isleta during their official visit to the United States. The King decorated Pablo Abeita, Governor of the Pueblo, and Father Anton Docher with the Order of Léopold.[15] Abeita gave the king a turquoise cross mounted in silver made by the Isletans.[16] 10,000 people journeyed to Isleta for this grand visit by European royalty.

Abeita was appointed by the tribe to the Council of All Indian Pueblos, which was active in the 1920s to resist United States government political takeover of its lands. The Pueblo had an unusual land title, as the Spanish had a tradition of affirming indigenous title. When the United States took over the Southwest in 1848 following the Mexican War, it promised by treaty to preserve Spanish-Mexican titles. Abeita and other Pueblo leaders organized to raise awareness of these terms; they gained passage of the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 by the US Congress, which affirmed their indigenous title.

But, through takeovers by Europeans and the United States, the Pueblo continued to lose lands. Some land claims were affirmed by court cases through the 20th century (see Aboriginal title in New Mexico). Beginning in the late 20th century, the tribe's leaders have worked to buy back lands to re-establish their homeland territory.

In January 2016, the Secretary of Interior joined the Governor of the Pueblo to celebrate the federal government taking this large amount of acquired land into trust on behalf of the Pueblo. The addition of 90,151 acres {140 square miles} increased the Pueblo's territory by 50%. The land is primarily located within what is known as Comanche Ranch. It is one of the Pueblo's profitable businesses, where they run 1,000 head of cattle.[4] They now control a total of more than 211,000 acres.


In addition to the cattle ranch, Pueblo of Isleta owns and operates the Isleta Resort Casino which is one of the larger New Mexico casinos, the Eagle Golf Course, and the Isleta Lakes Recreational Complex. The Isleta Resort Casino is accessible via the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, a commuter rail line from Belen to Santa Fe, at Isleta Pueblo station. The casino has naming rights to the Isleta Amphitheater.[citation needed]

Cultural references[edit]

  • Isleta is mentioned in Willa Cather's 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Book Three, Chapter 1. The houses are described as white inside and outside.
  • Isleta during the early 1900s is described in a biography of Docher: The Padre of Isleta/ The Story of Father Anton Docher (1940/reissued 2009), by Julia M. Keleher and Elsie Ruth Chant.
  • Isleta is the main setting of Samuel Gance's novel in French, Anton ou la trajectoire d'un père (2013).[17] His fictional account is based on the life of the padre Docher, about whom he did extensive research.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ "New Mexico State and National Registers". New Mexico Historic Preservation Commission. Retrieved 2016-10-16. 
  3. ^ Lummis, Charles (1910). Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories. New York: Century Company. p. 252:1. 
  4. ^ a b Mary Annette Pember, "Isleta Pueblo Score Largest Parcel of Trust Land in Single Application", Indian Country Today, 20 January 2016, accessed 20 January 2016
  5. ^ Note that Spanish Tigua only referred to the Southern Tiwa and not the larger Tiwa grouping that includes the Northern Tiwa ethnic groups Taos and Picuris.
  6. ^ Boetel, Ryan (August 2, 2015). "A new beginning for education at Isleta Pueblo". Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved 2015-10-03. 
  7. ^ Mark Fogarty, "Kellogg Foundation Has $30 Million in Open Grants in Indian Country", Indian Country Today, 28 October 2016; accessed 28 October 2016
  8. ^ a b Anton Docher. "The Quaint Indian Pueblo of Isleta," The Santa Fé Magazine, 1913, vol.7, n°7, pp. 29-32.
  9. ^ "Knife-shaped-Ridge-where-they-play-whib."
  10. ^ Frances Densmore. Music of Acoma, Isleta, Cochiti, and Zuñi Pueblos. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1957, p.1.
  11. ^ Lummis, Charles (1910). Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories. New York: Century Co. p. 252:1. An ancient game in which the players race many miles, kicking a small stick ahead of them. They must touch it only with their toes. 
  12. ^ Montaño, Mary Caroline (2001). Tradiciones Nuevomexicanas: Hispano Arts and Culture of New Mexico. UNM Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-8263-2137-4. Retrieved 2012-07-22. 
  13. ^ Bandelier, Adolph Francis Alphonse (1890). Final Report of Investigations among the Indians of the Southwestern United States: Carried on Mainly in the Years from 1880 to 1885 ... Printed by J. Wilson and son. p. 233. Retrieved 2012-07-22. 
  14. ^ Keleher and Chant. The Padre of Isleta. Sunstone Press, 2009, pp. 41 and 88, respectively
  15. ^ Keleher and Chant. The Padre of Isleta. Sunstone Press, 2009, p. 94.
  16. ^ W.A. Keleher. The Indian Sentinel, 1920, vol. 2, pp. 23-24
  17. ^ Samuel Gance, ANTON OU LA TRAJECTOIRE D'UN PÈRE; L'histoire romancée du père Anton Docher, L'Harmattan, 2013


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