Tiwa Culture: A Mosaic of Landscapes, Languages, and History

2019 tiwa

The Tiwa language may be one of the rarest languages in the world today, with less than 3,000 speakers scattered across five pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Texas. But those speakers all share a tale of cultural survival and perseverance that stretches back centuries to the arrival of the Spanish in the American Southwest some 500 years ago.

Tiwa is not a single language, though. It's a family of languages that are divided up into two current groups: Norther Tiwa, which is spoken in Taos and Picuris pueblos in northern New Mexico; and Southern Tiwa, which is spoken at New Mexico's Isleta and Sandia pueblos as well as Ysleta del Sur (Tigua) Pueblo in far southwest Texas.

The Northern and Southern Tiwa languages share a common cultural background, but historians say that the two branches were split by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680—which, at least temporarily, drove Spanish colonizers from New Mexico.

It's with this cultural backdrop that in 2019 the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center's Cultural Explorations program presents "Tiwa Culture: A Mosaic of Landscapes & Language" travel seminar from September 25 through October 1.

This travel seminar, which will be led by Severin Fowles, Ph.D., and Ron Martinez Looking-Elk of Isleta Pueblo and Taos Pueblo. Fowels is a highly-respected anthropological archaeologist and the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Barnard College. He has written two books (a third is on the way) along with many papers and articles on the Native peoples of New Mexico, and was recently featured in the PBS television series Native America.

Martinez Looking-Elk is an international award-winning artist as well as an expert in sustainable economic development in indigenous communities worldwide. He has worked and trained with indigenous artists, leaders, and organizers from many countries, including New Zealand, Japan, Greece, South Korea, Africa, Bolivia, and Peru, as well as with tribes throughout the United States.

This travel seminar will focus on two Tiwa-speaking pueblos in particular. The Southern Tiwa-speaking Isleta Pueblo, just south of Albuquerque, dates back to the 14th century. When the Spanish under conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado arrived some 200 years later, they built the Spanish Mission of San Agustin de la Isleta, and the pueblo began to be joined by Pueblo people fleeing Apache raids in present-day western New Mexico and Arizona.

During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, some of the residents of Isleta Pueblo fled to join the Hopi in Arizona while others followed fleeing Spanish forces south into Texas and northern Mexico.

“Before the Spanish conquest, over a dozen Tiwa Pueblos existed in the Albuquerque area,” says Crow Canyon Cultural Explorations coordinator Kate Thompson. “These Pueblos were the first to be devastated by Coronado’s brutal conquest on Pueblos.”

Following the rebellion, and the return of the Spanish in 1692, the Isleta people returned to the Pueblo—which had been burned after the Spanish left.

The Northern Tiwa-speaking Taos Pueblo, on the other hand, is one of the oldest permanent inhabited communities in the United States, dating back as far as 1000 A.D. Built at the foot of the Taos Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range, Taos Pueblo was a center of trade between the Pueblo people along the Rio Grande and the Plains Tribes of eastern New Mexico.

“The Tiwa are descendants of the Shoshone, the first people to enter the Americas some 30,000 years ago,” says Thompson. “Much of the rock art in the northern Rio Grande area relates to Tiwa cosmology.”

When the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500’s, the deeply conservative Taos Pueblo—which still rarely discusses many cultural or religious matters with non-Pueblo members—resisted the efforts of the Spaniards to convert the population to Catholicism. This led to numerous conflicts over the following centuries, including a large role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Today, both Isleta and Taos pueblos are thriving communities with deep cultural traditions that have both been shaped—albeit in different ways—by the Pueblo Revolt. “Tiwa Culture: A Mosaic of Landscapes & Language” is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn about these histories from both Northern and Southern Tiwa perspectives through art, food, and people of these resilient people and the incredible landscape they call home.

For more information, click here or call 800-422-8975, ext. 457 to speak to an enrollment specialist.