An Odd People at Home

By Charles P. Lummis

“In this view of the ‘Strange Corners’ we ought certainly to include a glimpse at the home life of the Pueblos. A social organization which looks upon children as belonging to the mother and not to the father, which makes it absolutely imperative that husband and wife shall be of different divisions of society, which makes it impossible for a man to own a house, and gives every woman entire control of her home, with many other equally remarkable points of etiquette, is surely different from what most of us are used to; but lathe neglected corners of our own country there are 10,000 citizens of the United States to whom these curious arrangements are endeared by the customs of immemorial centuries.

“The basis of society in the 26 quaint town republics of the Pueblos [Mr. Lummis includes the 7 Mogul pueblos of Arizona and the 10 pueblos of New Mexico in the 26 pueblos], communities which are by far the most peaceful and the most governed in North America, is not the family, as with us, but the clan. These clans are clusters of families, arbitrary social divisions, of which there are from 6 to 16 in each Pueblo town. In Isleta there are 16 clans: the sun people, the earth people, the water pebble people, the eagle people, the mole people, the antelope people, the deer people, the mountain-lion people, the turquoise people, the parrot people, the white-corn people, the rod-corn people, the blue-corn people, the yellow-corn people, the goose people, and the wolf people. Every Indian of the 1,100 in the pueblo belongs to 1 of these clans. A man of the eagle people can not marry a woman of that clan, nor vice versa. Husband and wife must be of different clans still, order is the law of descent. With us and all civilized nations descent is from the father; but with the Pueblos, and nearly all aboriginal people, it is from the mother. For instance, in, man of the wolf clan marries a woman of the mole clan. Their children belong not to the wolf people but to the mole people by birth; but if the parents do not personally like the headman of that clan, they can have some friend adopt the children into the sun or earth or any other clan.

“There are no Indian, family names; but all the people here [in Islets] have taken Spanish ones, and the children take the name of their mother and not of their father, Thus, my landlady is the wife of Antonio Jojola, Her own name is Maria Gracia Chihuihui, and their roly-poly son, who is commonly known as Juan Gordo, “Fat John”, or as often, since I once photographed him crawling out of an adobe oven, as Juan Biscocho, “John Biscuit”, is John Chihuihui. If he grows up to marry and have children, they will not be Chihuihui nor Jojolas, but will bear the Spanish last name of his wife. This old customs more than are any of the other towns, and in seine families the children are divided, the sons bearing the father’s name and the daughters the mother’s. In their own language each Indian has a single name, which belongs to him or her alone, and as never changed.

“The Pueblos almost without exception now have their children baptized in a Christian church and given a Spanish name; but those who are true believers’ in “the ways of old” have also an Indian christening. 1 Even as I write, scores of dusky, dimpled babes in this pueblo are being given strange Tigua names by Stalwart godfathers, who hold them up before the line of dancers who celebrate the spring aliening of the great main irrigating ditch. Here the christening is performed by a friend of the family, who takes the babe to the dance, selects a name, and seals it by patting his lips to the child’s lips. In some pueblos this office is performed by the nearest woman friend of the mother. She takes the child from the house at dawn on the third day after its birth and names it after the first object that meets her eye after the sun comes up. Sometimes it is Bluish Light of Dawn, sometimes Arrow (ray) of the Sun, sometimes Tall Broken Pine, and so on. It is this custom which gives rise to many of the Indian names, which seem so odd to us.

“When a child is born in a pueblo a curious duty devolves upon the father. For the next 8 days he must keep a fire going, no matter what the weather, in the quaint little fogon or adobe fireplace, and see that it never goes out by day or night. This sacred birth fire can be kindled only in the religious ways, by the fire drill, flint and steel, or by a brand from the hearth of the cacique. If paterfamilias is so unlucky as to lot the birth fire go oat there is but one thing for him to do. Wrapping his blanket around him, he stalks solemnly to the house of the cacique, enters and seats himself on the floor by the hearth, for the cacique must always have a fire. He dare not ask for what he wants; but making a cigarette, he lights it at the coals and improves the opportunity to smuggle a living coal under his blanket, generally in no better receptacle than his own tough, bare hand. In a moment be rises, bids the cacique, Good bye, and hurries home, carefully nursing the sacred spark, and with it he rekindles the birth fire. It is solemnly believed that if this fire were relighted in any other manner the child would not live out the year.

“The Pueblo men, contrary to the popular idea about all Indians, take a very generous share in caring for their children. When they are not occupied with the duties of busy farmers, then fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers are generally to he seen each with a fat infant slung in a blanket on his back, its big eyes and plump face peeping over the shoulder. Time white-haired governor, the stern-faced war captain, the grave principals, none of them are too dignified to ‘tote’ the baby up and down the courtyard or to the public, square and to solemn dances, or even to dance a remarkable domestic jig, if need be, to calm a squall from the precious riders upon their backs.

A pueblo is the children’s paradise. The parents are fairly ideal in their relations to their Milliken. They are uniformly gentle, yet never foolishly indulgent. A Pueblo child is scarcely ever punished, and seldom needs to be. Obedience and respect to age are born in those brown young Americans, and are never forgotten by them. I never saw a spoiled child in all my long acquaintance with the Pueblos.

“The Pueblo woman is absolute owner of the house and all in it, just as her husband owns the fields which he tills. He is a good farmer and she a good housewife. Fields and rooms are generally models of neatness.

“The Pueblos marry under the laws of the church; but many of them add a strange ceremony of their own, which was their custom when Columbus discovered America. The betrothed couple are given 2 ears of raw corn; to the youth a blue ear, but to the maiden a white ore, because her heart is supposed to be whiter. They must prove their devotion by eating the very last hard kernel. Then they run a sacred foot race in the presence of the old councilors. If the girl comes ahead she wins a husband and has a little ascendancy over him; if be comes in first to the goal he ‘wins a wife’. If the two come in together, it is a bad omen, and the match is declared off.

“Pueblo etiquette as to the acquaintance of young people is extremely strict. No youth and maiden must walk or talk together; and as for a visit or a private conversation, both the offenders, no matter how mature, would be soundly whipped by their parents. Acquaintance between young people before marriage is limited to a casual sight of each other, a shy greeting as they pass, or a word when they meet in the presence of their elders. Matches are made by the parents, as was the case with their Mexican neighbors until very recently and as it still is in many European countries, but marriages are never against the parental consent. When a boy wishes to marry a certain girl the parents conduct all the formal ‘asking for’ her and other preliminaries.

“The very curious division of the sexes which the Spaniards found among the Pueblos 350 years ago has now almost entirely disappeared, as have also the community houses which resulted from the system. In old times only the women, girls, and young children lived in the dwellings. The men and boys slept always in the estufa. Thither their wives and mothers brought their meals, themselves eating with the children at home. So there was no family home life, and never was until the brave Spanish missionaries gradually brought about a change to the real home that the Indians so much enjoy today.

“When a Pueblo Indian dies there are many curious ceremonials. Besides the attempts to throw the witches off the track of his spirit, food must be provided for the soul’s 4 days’ journey, and property must also be sent on to give time deceased ‘a good start’ in the next world. If the departed was a man and had horses and cattle, seine, of them are killed, that he may have them in the beyond. His gum his knife, his bow and arrows, his dancing costume, his clothing, and other personal property are also ‘killed’ (in the Indian phrase) by burning or breaking them; and by this means he is supposed to have the use of them again in the other world, where he will eat and hunt and dance and farm just as he has done here. In the vicinity of every pueblo is always a ‘killing place’, entirely distinct and distant from the consecrated graveyard where the body is laid, and there the ground is strewn with countless broken weapons and ornaments, earthen jars, stone hand mills, and other utensils, for when a woman dies her household furniture is sent on after her in the same fashion. The precious beads of coral, turquoise, and silver, and the other silver jewelry, of which these people have great quantities, is generally laid away with the body in the bare, brown graveyard in front of the great adobe church.”Citations:

  1. “My own little girl, born in the pueblo of Isleta, Was formally christened by an Indian friend one day and has ever since been known to the Indians us Thur-be-Say, `the Rainbow of the Sun’. For a month after her birth they came daily to see her bringing little gifts of silver, calico, chocolate, eggs, Indian pottery, and the like, as is one of their customs.”[]


Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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