Language and Culture of Piro Pueblos

Voices of the Atsihem

By Tonio LeFebre

For the Atsihem of the Rio Grande Valley of Southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, our struggle to retain cultural identity and linguistic distinction has been a centuries-long battle in the light of cultural genocide and erasure. 

The Atsihem, also known as the Piro, relocated from our homelands about forty miles south of Albuquerque to modern day Juárez, México prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Due to drought, Spanish pressure and raiding of our villages by nomadic tribes, the Atsihem, forced by the Spanish, made our move south. Archeological evidence suggests that there had been violence between the Piros and the Spanish as early as 80 years before the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The forced removal from our homelands greatly impacted us as Piro.

In December of 2013, a revival of the Piro language was seeded. Dr. Deni Seymour, an ethnohistorian, working on the language of the Jumanos of the Southwest contacted Tonio LeFebre, a descendant of the Piro families from Las Cruces, New Mexico. LeFebre had been experimenting in reconstructing the dormant language of his ancestors. Through conversation between the two, it was determined that there was enough interest and data on the Piro language to spawn a project of its own. Dr. Seymour extended some of her resources to the Piro community. Specifically, Dr. David Shaul, a linguist with an extensive research background and an expertise of American Southwestern indigenous languages, was recruited to mentor, consult and ultimately unfold the elements of a seven year journey between himself, LeFebre and the Piro language.

Photograph Courtesy and with Permission of Tonio LeFebre.

In 2007, LeFebre and tribal members composed and choreographed the Buffalo Dance to bring out on our annual feast day in December. This endeavor took five years to complete. With the support of friends and family from other Pueblo communities the dance was reintroduced in the Winter of 2012 at the Camino Real Cultural Center, just a few miles from our ancestral Piro villages. As the dancers entered the plaza a sprinkle of rain fell solely upon them. This was a clear sign of acceptance from our ancestors, even though many believed that the Piro, as a people, were extinct.

In 2019, Jeff Lujan, Piro of the El Paso area, began collaborating with LeFebre with a goal of creating a curriculum for use in teaching the Piro language to our people. Lujan had been a teacher in the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, a project that sparked a native language revival for the people of Hawaii. He used his knowledge to teach high school science through the Hawaiian language medium for the first time in over 100 years. He is now focusing his experience in indigenous language preservation and cultural awakening to those of his Atsiwi ancestors.

In 2021, Daniel Sanchez, Piro of Senecú del Sur/El Paso region joined the Piro language team. Sanchez, who had been independently researching the genealogy of Piro families located in the Southwestern United States, brought his experience to the mix. Pivoting his attention to language, Sanchez has been able to uncover much data to support a theory that Piro as a language is of the Tanoan language family.

Photograph Courtesy and with Permission of Tonio LeFebre.

Most recently the team has collaborated to meld their knowledge and expertise to build a cultural ladder for the descendants of the Atsihem of the Rio Grande Valley. With footholds set into place for a continued existence, the Piro of the Rio Grande Valley will ensure the validity of their phrase, “Nasa’am Atsiwi oxiana,” when translated means, “We, the Atsiwi are still here.”

“Nasa’am Atsiwi oxiana,” when translated means, “We, the Atsiwi are still here.”

Tonio LeFebre is from Pueblo, Colorado, between the Southern Colorado mountains and the eastern plains. Although Tonio is a native of Colorado his family roots hale from New Mexico. He began creating at an early age, when his father, a part time silversmith encouraged him and his sister to make pieces of their own. His mother, designated a wall in his bedroom for him to draw on. Tonio relies on his rich Spanish and Piro Indian heritage to inspire him to create artwork in acrylics, oils, graphite pencil, silver, turquoise, and cotton wood root. He also enjoys writing short stories and  essays.

His works have been showcased in many exhibits to include the Colorado State Fair Hispanic Art Show, murals on the Arkansas River Levee, Legacy Art Albuquerque, as well as one man shows at the Kiva in La Junta, Colorado, the Robert Hoag Rawlings Library in Pueblo, and the Branigan Cultural Center of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Tonio’s paintings and jewelry are part of  personal collections throughout the United States. His painting entitled “Reflections of a Dream” was chosen in 2005 to represent the Pueblo Latino Chamber of Commerce for their 25th anniversary year. In 2007 his drum making abilities were highlighted by an article entitled “Birth of a New Voice” in the Dias De Fiesta magazine for the Colorado State Fair. In addition to creating artwork, he is active with his Pueblo community, The Piro-Manso-Tiwa Indian Tribe of Las Cruces New Mexico. Tonio participates in Pueblo Dances, studies Piro linguistics and plays violin for the Matachine dancers of his tribe. He is known throughout his community for supporting  charitable events, as well making public presentations  that encourage artistic creativity and increase cultural knowledge.

Tonio LeFebre can be reached at: toniolefebre931@gmail.com