How Regis Pecos ’77 confronted history and bridged a gap between two communities

Regis Pecos ’77 outside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, built on the site of a church that was destroyed in 1680, when the Pueblos drove the Spanish out of Santa Fe. They returned 12 years later.
Eric Draper/AP Images

BORNE ALOFT BY CONQUISTADORS, the statue of the Virgin Mary processed through the Plaza de Santa Fe surrounded by dozens of angry Pueblo Indians. The conquistadors on the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2017, were play-acting; the Pueblos definitely were not. Nor were the nearly 180 armed riot police, including four stationed on the rooftops to look for trouble.

Down in the Plaza, a faux conquistador approached a faux Indian princess, who read a prepared script welcoming him and his fellow soldiers into the city. The ceremony was meant to commemorate the Spanish reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692. “Peaceful” reoccupation, the pageant’s organizers emphasized. Hardly, Pueblos and historians countered. When the rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi attempted to give a blessing, protesters drowned him out, shouting, “No pride in genocide!” while counterprotesters chanted, “Viva La Fiesta!” Eight of the Pueblo demonstrators were arrested. 

Regis Pecos ’77 did not attend the ceremony, known as the Entrada. No self-respecting Pueblo would participate in a whitewashed celebration of the tribe’s subjugation. But Entrada protests, which had simmered for years, had escalated dramatically, and it seemed that Santa Fe had narrowly missed an escalation into violence. Pecos — the former governor of the Cochiti Pueblo, director of the Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute, longtime player in New Mexico politics, and Princeton’s first Native American trustee — recognized that something needed to be done.

The Entrada kicked off Santa Fe’s annual Fiesta, a weeklong tourist attraction in September that includes Catholic masses, musical performances, a ball, a pet parade, and the burning of a 50-foot-tall marionette called Zozobra (“Old Man Gloom”). Although the Fiesta is funded by the city, the Entrada had been staged by a private group called Los Caballeros de Vargas, which, its letterhead states, is “dedicated to preserving the rich Spanish History, Culture, and Faith.” 

The history behind the Entrada is generally agreed upon. The Pueblos drove the Spanish out of Santa Fe in 1680. Twelve years later, the Spanish returned. After surrounding the town with cannons and threatening to destroy it, Don Diego de Vargas entered without bloodshed. 

This is the “event” the Entrada aimed to re-enact. 

But of course, the story doesn’t end there. By 1693, when it became clear that the Spanish had returned to stay, the Pueblos resisted and were brutally suppressed. De Vargas ordered more than 70 of them to be executed in the Plaza. While the moment of Spanish re-entry may have been peaceful (albeit at gunpoint), the Entrada ceremony is, at the very least, deliberately incomplete. 

Eventually, that incomplete story becomes reality, “a history no one disputes,” Pecos says of the Entrada ceremony. “It really speaks to who the storyteller is. You realize how others have been telling our story and how over time we embraced somebody else’s story to be the truth of our history.”

Like many historical fictions, this one has proven to be enduring; the Spanish have been commemorating their peaceful re-entry into Santa Fe since 1712. The modern Entrada, however, dated back to 1919, when white businessmen who ran the city created it to drum up tourism. Hispanics did not even get to play de Vargas until relatively recently.

Sporadic demonstrations against the Entrada began in 1977 but escalated in 2015 when protesters put tape over their mouths to signify the silencing of Native voices. Over the next two years, they became increasingly charged until the events of Sept. 8, 2017, less than a month after the violent clash over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Va.

The morning after the 2017 Entrada, Pecos contacted the leaders of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the collective body of the 20 sovereign New Mexico Pueblo tribes, and implored them to act. The governors, who also had seen the news, needed little prodding. They asked Pecos to represent them and called for immediate talks with the city and the Roman Catholic archdiocese. In addition to observing his Native religious practices, Pecos is, like most Pueblos, a devout Catholic.

“He’s a person of unique stature in bridging all sorts of New Mexico worlds,” says Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber, who has worked with Pecos. Most of those worlds center on Santa Fe, but to get a fuller understanding of the world Pecos comes from, it is necessary to travel to Cochiti Pueblo, about 35 miles to the southwest.

THE ONLY ROAD TO COCHITI PUEBLO, the tribal settlement, is dominated by a view of the Jemez Mountains in the far distance and a massive brown wall in the foreground. The wall is Cochiti Dam, built by the Army Corps of Engineers nearly half a century ago to control flooding on the Rio Grande. Pecos refers to it as “the desecration.” 

It is difficult to overstate the size of Cochiti Dam. Five miles long and nearly 250 feet high, it is the 23rd-largest earthen dam in the world. Besides creating Cochiti Lake, a popular fishing, boating, and recreation area, the dam spawned a new town (named Cochiti Lake) centered around tourism, a golf course, and condominiums on land leased from the tribe. But the lake submerged some of the tribe’s sacred land, and its enormous pressure on the water table caused seepage up to half a mile away. Within months of the dam’s completion, almost all of the Cochitis’ agricultural land was flooded. 

Pecos, a burly, soft-spoken man with thick white hair, remembers the constant beep-beep of construction vehicles, day and night, throughout his childhood. “It was annoying not just to the ears,” he says. “There was a paradise being destroyed before your eyes.”

Cochiti Pueblo is a tiny place, with a population of about 500. Pecos grew up speaking only Keres, the tribal language, until he entered school. His father was a farmer and school bus driver; his mother was a homemaker. “Everyone we knew lived in similar circumstances,” Pecos recalls. “We didn’t know how poor we were.” When he was a boy, Pecos and his brothers turned in old bottles for deposit and used the pennies to buy Kool-Aid packets, which they would prepare with brown river water.

Neither of Pecos’ parents finished high school, but all five of their children attended college. Baseball, though, was Pecos’ first love. He says he hoped to pursue it at least at the college level until his grandfather pointedly asked him one day how playing ball would help his people. 

Following a game at an Albuquerque prep school when he was in eighth grade, Pecos saw a flyer advertising a summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy. He decided to apply and spent two summers there on scholarship, riding the Greyhound bus to New Hampshire and back because his family could not afford plane fare. 

Another chance encounter during his senior year turned Pecos toward Princeton. Anthropology professor Alfonso Ortiz, a Pueblo himself, heard Pecos speak at a high school conference and encouraged him to apply. “He said, ‘You come to a place like Princeton, and it will open doors and put you on a national stage,’” Pecos recalls.

After graduation, though other opportunities were open, Pecos says it never occurred to him to go anywhere but home. He earned his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, returned to New Mexico, and spent his career in a variety of tribal posts. He has served as governor and lieutenant governor of the Cochiti Pueblo and is on its tribal council.

In those roles, Pecos spent nearly 30 years seeking redress from the Army Corps of Engineers for the damage done to the Cochiti lands. With uncharacteristic bitterness, he still remembers how patronizing the Army officers could be in their crisp dress uniforms. After one meeting, he was so upset that he again sought advice from his blind, 99-year-old grandfather. 

“There will be many more people like this appearing in your life journey,” his grandfather said. “They can define who you become or, if your mind and heart are open, will teach you differently. Never allow yourself to become what you hate.” 

Working with Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Pecos pushed the Army to issue an apology in 2001 for the damage that Cochiti Dam had caused. In a separate deal in 2016, he helped secure the return of nearly 9,000 acres from the federal government that had been wrongly taken from the tribe.

While working on tribal matters, Pecos also served as director of the New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs and as chief of staff to New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján, a state powerbroker who provided him with a master class in negotiation, compromise, and getting parties to reach agreement. Pecos ran for public office once, unsuccessfully, but says he has no regrets working behind the scenes. “Being in those circles of power allowed me to have more influence than I could ever have as a legislator.”

Education has been a third strand of Pecos’s public career. He chaired the board of the Santa Fe Indian School and co-founded the school’s Leadership Institute, which brings high school students to the Woodrow Wilson School each summer. In 1997, Pecos was named a Princeton trustee. He is believed to be the first Native American trustee at any Ivy League university.

Pecos works in a shared office in the New Mexico Capitol building, where he advises the state Senate majority leader.
Eric Draper/AP Images

ONCE THE PUEBLO GOVERNORS retained Pecos to negotiate for them, he requested meetings with the city and the archdiocese, deliberately excluding, for the time being, the Caballeros and the Fiesta Council. This was partly a point of pride for the governors, who insisted that they would only negotiate “government-to-government,” in Pecos’ words, but it also enabled a small group to frame the discussion behind closed doors, where everyone could speak freely. 

Throughout the fall of 2017, Pecos engaged in shuttle diplomacy, meeting privately with the archbishop of Santa Fe and the mayor, who agreed that the Entrada should not continue. Then Pecos invited the others to join the discussion. With each group, he began by asking participants to identify their core values, seeking to find something that united them and to keep them from entrenching in old grievances. They spoke of similar values, using words such as love, respect, compassion, faith, understanding, empathy, and gratitude. In subsequent meetings, whenever they were stuck, Pecos returned to that list and asked the parties if they were acting consistently with the values they had articulated. 

This proved especially important in negotiating with the Caballeros, the group that ran the Entrada and thus had the largest stake in continuing it. Its leaders offered to modify the ceremony to make it less objectionable, such as having the conquistadors process without swords or armor, but insisted that the event celebrated the idea of peaceful coexistence, even if the historical details were not accurate. Furthermore, they said, the Entrada had become central to their Hispanic identity, and they resisted giving up something they had come to accept as part of “their” history.

Here, the blending of ethnicity and religion proved to be helpful. One thing that united the Pueblos and the Caballeros was their shared Catholicism. As part of the Entrada ceremony, the Caballeros carry a 29-inch carved wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which was brought to the New World in 1625 and is believed to be the oldest such statue in the United States. 

Over the centuries, the statue has had many names. It was originally known as Our Lady of the Assumption, but de Vargas renamed it La Conquistadora because he credited the Virgin Mary with allowing him to retake the city in 1692. The statue is still known by that name today, although the archbishop of Santa Fe proposed a more politically correct alternative name, Our Lady of Peace, in 1992. For many years, even during the Entrada, women from the nearby Tesuque Pueblo dressed the statue in Native clothes for the Fiesta.

Pecos appealed to the Caballeros, in part, as Catholics, and pointed to the example of the statue with dual names, celebrating both conquest and peace, and even dressed in Pueblo clothes. He says he also resorted to the dictionary, citing the definitions of “colonialism” and “faith.” Colonialism, he wrote, “is about imposition, forcefulness, displacement, and subjecting others in the name of power. Faith is about brotherhood and peace.” He concluded by posing a question: “If this event is about defining the inheritance for your children, which of these do you want them to inherit?” 

By the end of July 2018, just weeks before the Fiesta was to begin, the parties had reached an agreement: The church would issue a formal apology for its historical mistreatment of the Native population, a piece of art would be commissioned for the Plaza commemorating the parties’ commitment to move ahead in unity, and a truth and reconciliation commission would be appointed. Most important, the Entrada would be retired, replaced by a Celebration of Community Faith made up largely of Catholic and Native prayers. 

In a public statement, the Caballeros formally acknowledged the Spanish oppression of Native people following the reoccupation. “The decision to retire the Entrada celebration came with a lot of friendly and continual dialogue,” it said, “but ultimately it was determined to retire it for the sake that all cultures be united, in honor of the peace that was achieved through Our Lady of Peace, La Conquistadora, the conqueror of hearts on that September day in 1692.”

To memorialize their agreement, Pecos asked a group of distinguished New Mexicans, including poets and civic activists, to write a new proclamation to go alongside the original one issued by the Spanish in 1712. “We recognize that there is much healing to do,” the new proclamation states. “For that reason, we commit ourselves to honest and compassionate engagement no matter how hard, no matter how long. We believe in our capacity to change and be changed.

“Let us release our burdens. Let us unlearn and relearn. Let us walk together ... that we may speak truth, that we may be transformed, that we may heal, that we may be kin.”

TO AN OUTSIDER, an obvious question is whether the retiring of the Entrada could be a model for a nation still wrestling over the future of Confederate monuments and other markers of an often sanitized history. Paul Torres, the chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, believes the parties were able to reach agreement because they were “the right people in the right place at the right time.” Certainly, a small group of local residents, bound by a shared faith, were able to meet privately and hash out their differences free from outside interference. What also seems clear, and what could offer a model, is that the parties found a solution because everyone wanted to find a solution. 

 As the new proclamation acknowledges, healing takes time and the truce the parties reached remains tenuous. Some steps in their agreement, such as commissioning an art project and appointing a truth and reconciliation commission, have not yet been undertaken. For Pecos, stopping is not an option. “Whenever we fail, it creates the unintended consequence of another generation deepening their entrenchment.”

There is a story he likes to tell. Last year, on the first day of the Fiesta, Pecos arrived downtown before dawn and traced the route the Entrada had taken in the past, starting at the cathedral and continuing past the Plaza toward the Rosario Chapel, where a sunrise Mass of peace and reconciliation would be held instead. The chapel was hidden by trees, and Pecos had trouble finding his way. 

“You could only see the dim lights from inside the church,” he says. “It was very symbolic of where we started, where there was a glimmer of the spirit, but it could very easily be blown out, depending on how we engaged in making it brighter to guide us into the future.”

As Pecos stepped tentatively through the predawn darkness, he heard someone call his name. It was Paul Torres. 

“He asked, ‘Are we going the right way?’ ” Pecos recalls.

“And I said, ‘You know what, Mr. Chairman, let’s just walk a little further.’” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.