Solomon Bibo: Jew and Indian at Acoma Pueblo, By Gordon Bronitsky

Posted on October 5th, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews

A version of this article first appeared on the website of the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism and is reproduced here with permission.

Acoma Pueblo is an Indian village in western New Mexico that has been inhabited for a thousand years.  Solomon Bibo was a Jew from the town of Brakel, which is now a suburb of Dortmund, Germany.  In 1885, Solomon Bibo became the governor of Acoma Pueblo, the only non-Indian ever to serve as a governor of an Indian Pueblo.  How did Solomon achieve this distinction?  Did he remain Jewish?  Before we can answer these questions and understand his amazing and complex story, we need to meet the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and the people of Acoma Pueblo.

Background: The Pueblo World

When the first Spanish explorers came to what is now New Mexico in 1540, they met Indians who lived in multistoried apartment buildings of adobe, farmed crops of corn, beans and squash, and worshipped in underground religious structures, now called kivas.  The Spaniards called the villages of these people "Pueblos", to distinguish them from the more nomadic Apache and Navajo Indians of the area.  The Pueblo of Acoma is located on a high plateau, or mesa, accessible only by foot-trail until recently.  Because of its defensive location, the Pueblo was not conquered by the Spaniards until 1599, and then only after a bloody battle, in which eight hundred Acoma Indians were killed and many of the survivors executed or sold into slavery. As a warning to other Indians, all men over twenty-five years of age were also sentenced to have one foot cut off.  A Catholic mission church was soon established and the people of Acoma became Catholics – on the surface.  The native religion continued to be practiced in secret but Spanish persecution of the native religion and economic oppression led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which Pueblo Indians throughout New Mexico united and expelled the Spaniards south to El Paso.  Although the Spaniards re-conquered New Mexico in 1693, they never again punished the Pueblo people for their native religion. The people of Acoma Pueblo, and the other Pueblos, remained Catholic but continued to practice their traditional religion as well.

As with their religion, government at Acoma Pueblo became a blend of Spanish and Indian practices. The traditional government by priests of the native religion continued but the Pueblos added an outer layer of Spanish-derived offices, including the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and others. These officers dealt with the world of the Spaniards, Mexicans, and later the Americans, protecting the sacred inner core of the Pueblo and its religion from prying outsiders.

The traditional way of life at Acoma began to change in the 1880s.  Anglo-American and Spanish settlers encroached on Acoma land.  As the population grew, there were disputes with the neighboring pueblo of Laguna over land.  The threat of raiding from Navajo Indians disappeared as the Navajo were placed on reservations, so that the Pueblo could move down from the mesa of Acoma and closer to their fields.  In 1880, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad entered New Mexico, bringing a whole host of manufactured goods such as kettles and china dishes.  Many Acoma people established small villages close to the railroad.

The Bibo Family in Germany and America

Solomon was born in 1853 to Isak and Blümchen Bibo in Brakel, Westphalia, Prussia, where his father was a cantor.  His older brothers, Nathan and Simon, had left for America during the chaotic aftermath of the suppression of the liberal government in 1848.  Following his brothers' lead, Solomon arrived in New York on October 16, 1869, and journeyed from there to Santa Fe, where he joined his brothers in their mercantile business.  They had established themselves in the early 1860s in New Mexico, first using capital provided by the Spiegelberg family, a pioneer Jewish family in the state. Thanks in part to Spiegelberg capital, the Bibos moved quickly to establish their own independent firm, with stores at Laguna, Fort Wingate, Cebolleta, Bernalillo, and Grants. As did most traders, Solomon spoke several languages in the course of his business –Acoma, Laguna, Navajo, Zuni, Spanish, German, Yiddish and English.  With his brothers, he spoke German and English.[i]

In the course of his business, Solomon evidently learned of the unhappiness of the people of Acoma Pueblo at the federal survey of the Acoma Pueblo Grant in 1876 and 1877.  Solomon and his brother Simon wrote several letters to the Department of Interior, as a result of which the Department in 1881 investigated the survey. However, the investigation did not support the Acoma claim, and the Government issued a patent to the Acomas based on the survey of 1877, forestalling further claims. Much of the disputed land went to Laguna Pueblo at the instigation of Walter and Robert Marmon, government surveyors, Presbyterian missionaries and traders who had married into the Laguna tribe.[ii] Naturally, the Acomas were not happy.

On December 12, 1882, Solomon Bibo applied to the Indian Commissioner for a license to trade with Indians of Pueblo of Acoma and established the first trading post at Old Acoma high atop its protective mesa.  He had a considerable influence with the people of Acoma, in part because he had married an Acoma woman named Juana Valle, granddaughter of a former Acoma governor.  There was no rabbi available in the territory of New Mexico at that time and two marriage ceremonies took place, an Indian one before a Catholic priest on May 1, 1885 at Acoma and a civil one before a justice of the peace on August 30.  His marriage to an Acoma woman made Solomon a member of the Acoma tribe.  He and his bride lived at Acoma and then in some nearby villages, finally moving to San Francisco after the turn of the century.

Solomon Bibo Elected Governor

Later in 1885, and following a controversial spate with the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the Acomas elected Solomon Bibo as their governor.  Because the selection of the governor by the traditional religious leadership of the Pueblo is bound up in the innermost religious core of the Pueblo, we shall probably never know the exact reasons for the choice of Solomon Bibo as Governor of Acoma Pueblo. But it is clear he had gained a supportive following as a prominent trader and member of the tribe.

His years as governor were busy ones.  His greatest achievements lay in opening up new educational opportunities for the people of Acoma.  In 1885, he supervised the installation of first schoolteacher at Acoma and allowed a house of his to be used as the school for the first year; later a government school opened in a building owned by Bibo at McCarty's Station.

However, school itself was quite controversial. In all schools, children were forbidden to speak their native language at school, and violators were severely punished.  Children who wore their hair long in the traditional style had it cut short.  The wearing of traditional clothing was similarly forbidden.

As a result, many members of the Acoma Pueblo accused the schools of destroying the old ways.  In turn, Acoma children who had been educated began to refuse to return to Acoma.  Those who returned often refused to participate in the native religious ceremonies or to wear native clothes again.  In response, the traditional religious leadership often attempted to make the schoolboys (as they were called) wear Indian clothes and join in dances and ceremonies.

In 1889, Solomon Bibo, by then no longer governor, wrote to Captain Pratt, Superintendent of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and accused the incumbent governor and "a little gang of his tribe"[iii] of tying up Acoma men and boys and giving them a general horsewhipping during the September 2 feast day, a punishment for not staying out of school, having cut off their hair, and refusing to wear Indian dress.  As a result of this report, the Indian Commissioner directed the arrest of the governor, who was put in jail in Albuquerque to await a district court hearing.  In the meantime, the agency appointed a "progressive" Acoma as interim governor until elections were held in 1890. Nonetheless, tensions continued between the traditional Acoma Pueblo, “progressive” members of the community, and the United States government.

In order to distance themselves from the increasingly difficult situation at Acoma, Solomon Bibo and his family moved away from Acoma some time after 1900, first making a home at the nearby community of San Rafael, New Mexico.  By 1920, the family was in San Francisco, California, where some of their children attended school. However, his years as a ‘progressive' had earned Solomon enemies as well as friends at Acoma. In 1920, they received a letter from the Governor of Acoma, Frank Ortiz, claiming that Solomon was no longer a resident of the Acoma community and hence no longer entitled to grazing or other privileges on the Acoma grant. Some Acomas disagreed and insisted Bibo had the right to a sheep-grazing permit.  Solomon appealed his exclusion to Governor Ortiz and the Superintendent of the Southern Pueblos Agency on the fact his wife was an Acoma, that he had a house on the reservation and farmlands, and had served as governor.

The current governor took the matter to the pueblo attorney for a legal opinion, noting that, since his departure from Acoma, Solomon Bibo had not helped the people in any way or participated in the affairs of the Pueblo.  The attorney stated that the governor and the council had the right to exclude the family from tribal membership.  Traditional Acoma practice dictated that all lands belong to the cacique (the traditional religious leader and head of the Pueblo) to be allotted to men who ask for it.  When the land is no longer used, the cacique can then reassign it to someone else.  At a meeting called to discuss this issue, the officers, principal men and people of Acoma voted not to allow Bibo to return and further stated that he had no right to return. The relationships between the Bibos and Acoma have remained uncertain to this day.

Bibo’s Personal Life

Despite Bibo's Catholic marriage ceremony, reports from friends such as Charles Lummis, a pioneer historian, indicate he continued to value Judaism; in fact, one reason for his family’s move to San Francisco was to provide a better education for his children, both Jewish and secular. In San Francisco, the family joined Temple Emanu-El.  Lummis further notes that Solomon Bibo’s wife Juana adapted well to the world of her husband; in fact, an interview with two of their children indicates that it was Juana who first went to San Francisco and settled there in 1898, when she became aware of the possibilities of business development in the Bay area.[iv] She learned to speak English and became a good businesswoman in her own right, helping with her husband's work.

The marriage between Solomon and Juana was a happy and long one, despite their differences in temperament.  Solomon was mercurial and volatile, Juana was calm and imperturbable; together they prospered.  One of his major investments, a select grocery firm known as Bibo, Newman & Eichenberg, was located at Polk and California Streets, now the site of the famous Blum's Candy Store.[v] In San Francisco, Solomon regularly attended High Holy Day services, and most of the couple's friends were Jewish.[vi] At least one son, Carl, was bar mitzvah, at the Bush Street Temple, Congregation Ohabai Shalom.

The Great Equalizer

Ultimately, the Great Depression ruined the Bibo stores in New Mexico, and wiped out most of Solomon's considerable stock investments.  In 1933, a heavy early snowfall in the mountains the Bibos used for summer pasture decimated his flocks of sheep, some 20,000 in all.  As a result, the only portion of the estate remaining at Solomon’s death was of his San Francisco properties.[vii] Solomon and Juana remained together until Solomon died in 1934; Juana died seven years later in 1941.  Both Solomon, the German Jewish merchant and Indian Governor and Juana, his Acoma wife, were cremated and interred in the cemetery of Temple Emanu-El in Colma, California.


References Cited

American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Box No. 2802.  Joint interview with Mr. LeRoy Bibo and Mrs. Max Weiss, children of Solomon Bibo, at Charter Oak, California, February 21, 1969, conducted by Dr. N.B. Stern

American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  Microfilm Nos. 1692-1694.  "Over the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary and On to the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico and to the coast Range in California by the Golden Gate"

Minge, Ward Alan. Acoma, Pueblo in the Sky.  Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

National Archives, Record Group 75, Letters Sent, 1884, #8717

National Archives, Record Group 75, Letters Received, 1884, #13722.

Rochlin, Harriet and Fred.  Pioneer Jews:  A New Life in the Far West.  Boston:  Houghton Miflin, 1984.

Additional References

Fierman, Floyd S. Guts and Ruts, The Jewish Pioneer on the Trail in the American Southwest.  New York:  Ktav Publishing House, 1985.

Parish, William. The German Jew and the Commercial Revolution in Territorial New Mexico, 1850-1900 . Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico. Sixth Annual Research Lecture, 1959.

[i]Joint interview with Mr. LeRoy Bibo and Mrs. Max Weiss, children of Solomon Bibo, at Charter Oak, California, February 21, 1969, conducted by Dr. N.B. Stern; manuscript in possession of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Box No. 2802.

[ii]"Over the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary and On to the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico and to the coast Range in California by the Golden Gate".  Ms. in possession of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  Microfilm Nos. 1692-1694.

[iii]Ibid, p. 79.

[iv]Joint interview with Mr. LeRoy Bibo and Mrs. Max Weiss, children of Solomon Bibo, at Charter Oak, California, February 21, 1969, conducted by Dr. N.B. Stern; manuscript in possession of the American Jewish Archives. Box No. 2802., Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

[v]Joint interview with Mr. LeRoy Bibo and Mrs. Max Weiss, children of Solomon Bibo, at Charter Oak, California, February 21, 1969, conducted by Dr. N.B. Stern; manuscript in possession of the American Jewish Archives.  Box No. 2802., Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

[vi]Joint interview with Mr. LeRoy Bibo and Mrs. Max Weiss, children of Solomon Bibo, at Charter Oak, California, February 21, 1969, conducted by Dr. N.B. Stern; manuscript in possession of the American Jewish Archives.  Box No. 2802., Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

[vii]Ibid.

IMG_1351_2Gordon Bronitsky is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he grew up as a member of Congregation Albert, the oldest Reform Jewish congregation in the state.  He is trained as an anthropologist (PhD University of Arizona 1977).  For the last fifteen years, he has been the founder/president of Bronitsky and Associates. The firm, with offices in New Mexico and Germany, specializes in working with indigenous talent around the world in international cultural marketing of traditional and contemporary art, music, dance; fashion; film/video; photography; theater; and speakers and writers (Native languages and English).  They also work with Indigenous communities in festival development as an integral part of economic development across sectoral boundaries.

2 Responses to “Solomon Bibo: Jew and Indian at Acoma Pueblo, By Gordon Bronitsky”

  1. Tehillah says:

    I want to compiment you on your most interesting research on a Mr. Bibo. I have visited Acoma Sky City with my family and came back with a memory of this fascinating city for years . I still thing about this wonderful experience. Now to know that one of their governors was a Jew like myself makes me even MORE fascinated by your account. Thank you so much for enhancing my experience!!!

    Tehillah Attias -Zoloto

  2. Joshua F. says:

    Thank you for publishing this article. I am a member of the Pueblo of Acoma and I found this to be an interesting bit of history about my tribe’s history that I had not heard before. There is a small village (I guess it could be called that) named Bibo on the Laguna resevation called Bibo with a restaurant sharing the same name (great hamburgers btw). I am now curious to find out if there is any connection (and it seems very likely) between Mr. Bibo and the village. And also why it would be on the Laguna reservation, though, I think the article covered that. I am pleased to hear Mr. Bibo was accepted into the tribe but sad to hear that it was taken away. Well, I look forward to any replies and or future article postings.

    Dawaa’e.

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