The Rio Grande has sustained human life in this desert valley for thousands of years. The settlements that became El Paso and Ciudad Juárez grew together along its banks. Long before the river divided people, it connected them.
Ysleta del Sur Pueblo
For generations this area has been part of the traditional homelands of ancestral and contemporary American Indian peoples. These people include the Suma, Piro, Jano, Jacome, Manso, Jumano, Jornada, Comanche, Kiowa, and the Lipan, Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache. For the people of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, their living culture remains tied to the land and river. Experience the history and heritage of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo by visiting their Cultural Center.
"In our traditional beliefs the river, El Rio Grande, Pethla, is a living entity. . . . It is very sacred to us."
Javier Loera: The River
Excerpt from an interview with Javier Loera, War Captain, of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribal Council
In our traditional beliefs the river, El Rio Grande, Pethla, is a living entity. It's part of our cultural landscape. We depend on the river for sustenance to give us waters to water our fields, our crops. Most importantly our corn fields. It is very important that we maintain our ties to the river because, in essence, we are in unity with everything in the earth, in our Mother Earth, be it the river, the mountains. We strive to live in unity with everything that our Creator created for us. To live in unity with nature. But we’re talking here about the river. How I interpret it, and many other Pueblo peoples, is the river is a vein of the earth, of our Mother Earth. It keeps the earth alive. The water is—that flows through the river—it’s what keeps the earth alive. That is also tied in with the rains that feed into the rivers and the mountains that the arroyos come down and thus feed into the rivers. And everything is interconnected. The water, from the rain-making process and the rain that flows into the rivers, the arroyos, and streams. So that is my and many Pueblo’s interpretation of the river. It is very sacred to us.
Our ceremonies, our ceremonial calendar, our dances, everything starts with the river, in the river at the beginning of the year of our traditional ceremonial calendar. And everything ends in the river. It’s this complete cycle which we follow throughout the year--the cycles of the seasons and the dances that pertain to the seasons and the ceremonies. So everything starts and ends at the river.
The river afforded us many plants and medicinal plants that we still to this day go and gather and harvest. Also, many of the species of our trees there we use for our ceremonies which we go during various seasons of the year. Also, the trees were part of, an essential part of, our—the building of our Pueblo. When there was cottonwoods at the river, we used the logs for building material for our Pueblo, the vigas, the beams, and the other plants and materials that we used on our roofs.
Also, food was a very, very integral part, a very important part. I heard stories from my grandfathers that there was a lot of water birds a couple of decades ago. There was duck hunting. Quail hunting. Mourning Dove. We used those species of birds—water birds—those that migrated to—in the area as a food source. Also, for their feathers. Another animal that we hunted was the turtles, the water turtles. And also, the fish. We used to fish for several species of fish. And those cray fish, I guess you call them. And deers that used to go to the riverbanks and forage and drink. We also hunted deers. Antelope. And way, way, way back there was those elk. But they were further up in the mountains.
It is vital, and it is very important that we take care of the river. Because a lot of ceremonies cannot be performed now because it is so polluted, that we cannot continue. It is also very important to us to be accessible. Because like I mentioned many of our ceremonies are—begin there and end there in the river, in the banks and in the river itself. So, to me and to the Pueblo that is a very, very, very important thing that we must consult with the different governmental agencies for us to have free access to our river and take care of it and preserve it. And this, at least with the areas that we have our traditional activities.
Pottery made by the people of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (Tigua Indians) embodies their relationship to the Rio Grande: the clay from which it’s made, the water it carries, and the people who make and use it.
El Camino Real De Tierra Adentro
In this area the river cut through a mountain pass which had long facilitated travel and trade. Nearby, Spanish colonials developed a settlement which they called Paso del Norte (today’s Ciudad Juárez), along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
For approximately 300 years, traders and settlers drove hand-hewn wooden oxcarts (carretas) along what we now call El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
The name Chamizal (chah mee SAHL) comes from the chamizo plant, or four-wing saltbush. This shrub grew abundantly on El Chamizal, land in the floodplain contested between the United States and Mexico.