Established in the 1300’s, the Southern Tiwa-speaking community of Isleta is, and long has been, one of the largest Eastern Pueblo towns in New Mexico.
Isleta, or Shiewip, is situated on the Rio Grande at what once was the intersection of important north-south and east-west Pueblo roads. The north-south route later became the Spanish Camino Real, or “Royal Road,” making Isleta an important settlement at the crossroads of both Pueblo and Spanish trade routes. As a large town, Isleta was also a central gathering place for the surrounding smaller villages in the area, servicing as a cultural capital for other Tiwa communities and the Piro and Tompiro-speaking villages to the south and east. As most of these smaller communities collapsed during the early Spanish Colonial period, many of their residents resettled at Isleta.
Over the course of 3,000 years, the Pueblo peoples developed agricultural practices suitable to the harsh environment of the American Southwest. In later centuries, Isleta irrigated land along the Rio Grande, where they grew maize, beans, squash and cotton. These practices continued throughout the 250 years of Spanish rule, which began in 1598, and survived through the beginning of the American acquisition of New Mexico.
By the 19th century, visitors to Isleta found a prosperous farming community with well-tended agricultural fields, irrigation canals, vineyards and orchards. In addition, the people of Isleta developed a wide trading network, regularly engaged in hunting buffalo and other game and gathered plants and minerals over a vast region. During this time, a number of community members became quite affluent.
The Pueblo of Isleta became a favored destination of many 19th century American travelers, scientists and linguists. As a result, Isletan ritual observances and ways of life were documented, with varying degrees of success. Individuals who were to become the vanguards of anthropology and archaeology began to appear at the Pueblo. Among them, Adolph Bandelier, one of the founders of Southwestern archeology, as well as a precise and avid historian, was a frequent visitor. Another important contributor to the historic record of Isleta was Charles Fletcher Lummis, an early champion of Native American rights. He arrived at Isleta in 1889 and resided there until 1892.
The Pueblo of Isleta remains a traditional society today. The town of Isleta, located 13 miles south of present day Albuquerque, has a resident population of almost 5,000. They continue to speak their native language, Southern Tiwa, as well as English, and adhere to and participate in the yearly cycle of ceremonial events. They continue ancient practices at home. They live as Americans in the outside world and connect with our ancestors in our village.