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  • From This Day Forward I Am Your Way of Life:The Capitan Icon on Rio Grande Glaze Wares in the Southwestern United States (AD 1300–1700)
  • Michael Mathiowetz (bio)

For now, let me simply suggest that the resilience of Pueblo cultural institutions has been profoundly underappreciated by ethnologists and archaeologists alike, in part because of the secrecy that surrounds these institutions but also because of assumptions about European dominance and the effects of historical disjunction. In my judgement, prehistoric research in the northern Southwest has suffered immeasurably from this misunderstanding, not because we have abandoned a source of speculative analogies about the past, but because we have allowed our studies of deep prehistory to become detached from what is arguably one of the most important components of that record, the ethnographic destinations.

—John Ware (2014:15)

An Introduction to Religion and Social Change in the Pueblo World

Following the late-thirteenth-century depopulation of the Four Corners region in the U.S. Southwest, the ensuing period of social change during the Pueblo IV period (ca. AD 1325–1600) represented among the most dramatic periods of cultural transformation in the ancient Americas (Cameron 1995; Glowacki 2006; Kohler et al. 2010; Lekson & Cameron 1995; Ortman 2012; Spielmann, ed. 1998). Newly reorganized ancestral Pueblo communities in the modern states of Arizona [End Page 699] and New Mexico produced highly elaborated symbolism in rock art, kiva murals, and polychrome ceramic vessels and designed new forms of architecture and site layouts sufficient to suggest a significant disjunction in cosmology and political, religious, and social organization. It is generally accepted that modern Pueblo worldview took form at the onset of the Pueblo IV period (Ortman 1998:182). The reason behind such an abrupt cultural shift long has interested Southwestern scholars, with some suggesting that aspects of this cosmological change were partly if not wholly the result of either the invention of new religious beliefs or the adoption and local adaptation of religious influences from northern Mexico or Mesoamerica (Adams 1991:132; Hays 2000:54; McGuire 1989:58; Schaafsma 1999, 2000a:79, 2001).

In the past 50-plus years, scholars increasingly have studied the richly diverse symbolism from this dynamic time period across the Pueblo world (e.g., Crown 1994; Hays 2000; Mathiowetz 2011; Schaafsma 2000b, 2009; Schaafsma & Schaafsma 1974; Searcy 2010; Smith 1952; VanPool 2003). Some of these studies have traced a historical relationship between symbolic complexes that are evident in different archaeological media across the Western and Eastern Pueblo regions and northern Mexico and correlated them with those ideas, rituals, and supernatural beings that are present among contemporary Pueblo people. While a variety of interrelated social and political changes occurred across the region at this time, the present work focuses upon the development of new social and religious identities and institutions along the Rio Grande Valley of north-central New Mexico, particularly as reflected in the symbolic repertoire on glaze-painted pottery vessels.

Rio Grande Glaze Wares and other polychrome ceramics developed in this social milieu of tremendous cultural and religious change. These changes in worldview and ritual are reflected in the incorporation of complex symbolism on the interior and exterior of ceramic vessels. In order to assess the fundamental religious significance that is embedded within the icons painted on glaze-painted vessels, the present study examines a single design element on Rio Grande Glaze Wares that is known as the capitan icon. Herein I describe the origin, meaning, and continuity of this important icon (and the being it represents) in Pueblo people's lives over the past seven centuries until the present day. In order to analyze this archaeological symbol one must consider it in relation both to current dialogues on broader Southwestern and northern Mexico social change and to the Puebloan ethnographic record. Likewise, it is [End Page 700] important to situate this analysis within the context of the Flower World complex, a widespread religious system of Mesoamerican origin that took full root with localized variants in the Puebloan world in the U.S. Southwest by the early 1300s.

Integrating Archaeology, Ethnograp hy, and Indigenous Oral Traditions

One key method...


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