Perhaps 200 Indians still live in the two red adobe buildings of Taos Pueblo, much as their ancestors did in 1540, when the Spanish conquistadors showed up. Now, as then, there is no electricity. No telephone. No plumbing, even. Water is hand-carried by bucket from a lake-fed stream -- Rio Pueblo de Taos, the "Sacred River" -- that races clear and clean through the village.
The two buildings, the North and the South, are believed to date to about 1450, making them among the oldest residential structures in continuous use in North America. They resemble condo apartments stacked haphazardly but neatly five stories high, each story reached by a handmade wooden ladder from the terrace below. Their flowing lines, rounded edges and flat roofs have become the distinctive style of Southwestern architecture.
Taos Pueblo is the northernmost of New Mexico's 19 Indian pueblos, most of them concentrated on or near the Rio Grande River within a stretch of about 150 miles from Albuquerque north to Santa Fe and Taos. All of them welcome visitors -- although with varying degrees of hospitality. There is a certain etiquette required -- most importantly, don't invade sacred precincts -- and a fee is sometimes charged.
Americans often travel abroad to observe foreign cultures, but the pueblos of New Mexico offer up an interesting and very different culture within the country's borders. Ceremonial dances are as colorful as those of many other lands, exotic foods can be sampled, and you may return home with a fine piece of pottery, a basket or other native craft.
Vera Lefthand, a Taos Pueblo guide, says she grew up living in two crowded rooms in the North building with her parents, six brothers and two sisters. "I don't know how we did it." However, like the majority of Taos Pueblo's 2,000 residents, she and her own family now live in a fully modern home elsewhere on the pueblo's 102,000 acres.
The current dwellers in the two buildings, says Lefthand, are the old, who wish to practice the ancient traditions, and a number of the young and hardy who have developed a strong interest in their cultural heritage. Some of the women bake bread in the large beehive-shaped ovens of adobe outside their doorways, and visitors who arrive early may watch and purchase a sample.
Travelers can easily visit two, three or more of New Mexico's pueblos in a day. Many invite outsiders to witness traditional dances, festivals and footraces scheduled throughout the year. These are quite colorful and exciting events, although you may be required -- under penalty of tribal law -- to leave your camera in the car.
If the pueblos whet your cultural curiosity, you should also plan to take in one or more of New Mexico's informative Indian museums as well as Bandelier and Pecos national monuments, two stunningly beautiful parklands that preserve ruins of Indian villages. You can expect to be rewarded with a story of a people that is both beautiful and heroic but also tragic.
A "pueblo," by today's terms, is an Indian reservation, which usually includes a village center and surrounding farms and ranches. "Pueblo Indians" is the collective term for the tribes whose home is a pueblo; customs and languages differ among the pueblos. Unlike some Indian tribes elsewhere in the country who were forcibly moved to their reservation, the Pueblos of New Mexico occupy ancestral homelands. An estimated 40,000 Indians live on 1.4 million acres divided among the 19 pueblos.
Because of its two ancient buildings, Taos Pueblo is probably the most historically interesting of New Mexico's Indian lands. And, dominated by 12,282-foot-high Taos Mountain, which is a part of the pueblo's acreage, it is also one of the most scenic. But a number of others are very much worth a visit, especially:
San Ildefonso: Just north of Santa Fe, it was the home of Maria Martinez, certainly the most famous Indian potter of this century. She is credited with a renaissance in crafts among the Pueblo Indians not only in her own pueblo but in many of the others. Her specialty was black design on black pottery. She did not use a potter's wheel, but formed coils of wet clay that she joined and molded into shape with her strong hands.
Family members who learned from her -- now in the third generation -- have continued making pottery, which is sold in the shop of her late son, Popovi Da (pronounced "day"). The shop, located on the plaza near the little village church, is now run by his wife. A simple black bowl made by a grandniece, Helen Gutierrez, sells for about $300. Prices for other works at this and other shops range from $75 up to $1,000 or more.
Santa Clara: Just a few minutes north of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara also is famous for its pottery. The style features an incised design, which may be red, black or brown. Knock on the doors where a pottery sign is displayed. Located on the pueblo also are the interesting Puye' Cliff Dwellings, the ruins of a 12th-century pueblo village.
Acoma: West of Albuquerque, Acoma is dramatically situated atop a steep 357-foot-high mesa with a sweeping view of the valley floor below, earning it the name "Sky City." The mesa has been occupied since the 11th century. In the 16th century, Acoma Pueblo suffered one of the worst atrocities inflicted by the Spanish invaders. As a warning to other pueblos to submit, the commander of the colonial forces ordered one foot amputated from each Acoma male 25 and older.
Cochiti: About midway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Cochiti represents one of the pueblos where tourism -- unlike Taos Pueblo and the three described above -- is apparently not promoted. As a result, as you drive along the few dusty, rutted streets that weave between San Buenaventura Mission and the two large and rounded kivas (enclosed ceremonial chambers), you can perhaps get a glimpse of everyday life on a pueblo.
Cochiti is noted for handmade drums of aspen and cottonwood and the delightful pottery figures called "storytellers." A storyteller is usually a large mother figure with several children in her lap. In Santa Fe, storyteller prices climb quickly to the high hundreds and more. Some Cochiti artisans welcome shoppers; you will see signs posted in windows of their homes.
For the record, the nine northern New Mexico pueblos closest to Santa Fe and Taos are Cochiti, Nambe', Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Taos and Tesuque. The 10 southern and western pueblos, several of them outside Albuquerque, are Acoma, Isleta, Je'mez, Laguna, Sandia, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, Zia and Zuni.
When the Spanish conquistadors spread north from Mexico into New Mexican territory in the 16th century, their purpose was to find gold and convert the Indians to Christianity. They had no success with the first endeavor and mixed results with the second. According to Vera Lefthand, at least some of the Taos Indians observe the native religion or have blended it with Christianity.
An outsider usually may visit the Catholic churches that can be found in the village plaza. At Taos Pueblo, the Mission of San Geronimo, built after its predecessor was destroyed in 1847, honors the pueblo's patron saint. But the kivas, which may be either above ground or scooped deep into the earth, are strictly off limits. Much of the ceremonial ritual -- some of it open to public view -- centers on maintaining the delicate relationship between man and nature. At Taos, a few promising young men from the tribe are chosen each year to make a special study of the pueblo's history and ceremonies so that they may be preserved for the next generation.
The Pueblos of the past have been stereotyped as a passive people, but that is untrue, according to Edward P. Dozier, a noted anthropologist and native of Santa Clara Pueblo. In "The Pueblo Indians of North America" (Waveland Press, 1983), an excellent resource, he argues that they were "dependable and courageous warriors" who ably defended themselves against assaults by other Indian tribes. They were overwhelmed, however, by Spanish guns and horses, both of which were new threats.
In 1680, after enduring almost a century of religious persecution and enforced servitude at the hands of the Spanish, the pueblos revolted under the leadership of Pope', believed to have been a medicine man from San Juan Pueblo who made his headquarters at Taos, where the revolt started. For perhaps the only time in their long history, the various independent pueblos were united in this one violent action.
In the successful attack, they killed 21 of the territory's 33 Franciscan missionaries and 380 of about 2,500 colonists, according to Dozier. However, he notes that while the rest of the Spanish were vulnerable, the Pueblos let them leave the territory unharmed. "In comparison to the atrocities of the Spanish, the Pueblo behavior was humane."
The victory was only temporary, and in a little over a decade the Spanish marched back with stronger forces. The unity forged by Pope' had evaporated, and the pueblos were plucked one by one by the invaders. Today, on a low hill above the Plaza in Santa Fe, stands a huge white cross commemorating the slain Franciscans. Vera Lefthand says the Pueblos still honor Pope' during occasional Indian sporting events.
To make a living today, many of the pueblo dwellers have had to give up traditional farming and hunting activities to go to work in Santa Fe, Taos and the federal nuclear research facilities at Los Alamos. Some earn their way, and quite successfully, with crafts, but there is also much unemployment.
Pueblos such as Taos foster tourism as a way to produce income, but growing tourism has its problems. As Avelino Trujillo, governor of Taos Pueblo, and his aides explain, the pueblo is attempting to determine where to place limits. Without controls, the pueblo faces the possibility of becoming overcommercialized -- as an occasional tourist complains -- or angering its residents, whose private lives are intruded upon.
(At the local level, pueblos are self-governed, and a governor -- an official term dating from the Spanish colonial era -- is elected or appointed for a term of usually one or two years, depending on the pueblo.)
To attract visitors, Taos Pueblo has just published a new brochure, and a new visitor center is in the planning. The pueblo charges a $5 entrance fee per vehicle and $5 for a permit to use a still camera. The charge for a movie camera is $10; to sketch is $15 and to paint is $35.
In an excellent guide to the pueblos, "Indian Villages of the Southwest" (Chronicle Books, 1985), author Buddy Mays lists several points of pueblo etiquette for visitors. The book is available in Santa Fe and Taos bookstores. Mays and other pueblo sources advise:
Keep a low profile; remember that you are walking through somebody's neighborhood and not a national park.
Obey restrictions on photography, which means not snapping photos from a car window if you have not paid the required fee. Seek permission before you photograph a pueblo resident. You may be asked for a tip of $1 to $3.
Respect signs forbidding entrance to kivas, cemeteries and other prohibited areas. "Attempting to enter a kiva is a sure-fire way to end up in the tribal jail," writes Mays.
Honor any posted request to visit the information or governor's office before exploring a pueblo.
Do not take alcohol onto a pueblo.
Do not litter and do not climb on walls to get better photos. Nature is considered sacred, so littering is an offense. Ancient walls crumble easily.
If you attend a public ceremony, observe rules of silence; don't walk across the plaza where the ceremony is being held; and don't applaud.
If an Indian doesn't speak English, which is possible, use sign language, advises Mays. "You'll be surprised at the results. Pueblo Indians were using sign language long before the white man appeared."
While exploring the world of the Pueblos, a visit to these museums and national monuments in northern New Mexico can answer a number of questions:
Bandelier National Monument, Bandelier: In deep and narrow Frijoles Canyon, northwest of Santa Fe near Los Alamos, are a cluster of cave homes and pueblo ruins of the Anasazi, ancestors of the Pueblos before they made their home along the Rio Grande River. The canyon, as beautiful as it is historically interesting, is a place where you might spend much of a day.
A mile-long trail lined with interpretive markers leads along the base of the cliff, where Indian-style ladders provide access to the caves. At some points, the trail edges between rock walls so narrow you momentarily have to suck in your stomach and twist your hips to slip through. The return is a shaded nature walk along a stream. Near the visitor center are streamside picnic tables.
Pecos National Monument, Pecos: This anthropological parkland is to the east of Santa Fe, located on Fort Lightning Ranch, which is owned by actress Greer Garson and her husband. They contributed substantially to the new visitor center, which rightly claims to be one of the most beautiful in the national park system.
Pecos preserves the ruins of a once-flourishing pueblo that failed to survive into the 20th century. When the Spanish arrived, the pueblo had 660 rooms, several kivas and a population of about 2,000. But European diseases afflicted the residents, who also suffered in warfare with Comanches from the Plains. In 1838, the remaining group of less than 20 abandoned their homes and moved west to Je'mez Pueblo.
A 1 1/2-mile trail climbs a small, rocky ridge to the pueblo ruins and then circles back past the two mission churches. The earliest, built in 1620, was destroyed in the Pueblo revolt of 1680. The second was built atop it. Along the trail are two underground kivas that have been restored. Agile visitors can climb down a ladder through the ceiling for a permitted look at one of these ceremonial sites.
The views from the trail of the open, rolling countryside are very agreeable, and there is a shaded picnic site. New Mexico Route 63 from Pecos leads north along the headwaters of the Pecos River to the Pecos Wilderness. It is a scenic drive of about 20 miles. Several marked trails climb into the wilderness.
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque: This large and attractive center provides an excellent introduction to New Mexico's 19 pueblos. Exhibits outline the history, culture and crafts of the Pueblos both in general and individually. Often traditional dances are performed, and there are talks and films.
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe: Opened just a year ago, the museum displays rotating exhibits of basketry, pottery, textiles and jewelry from the state's Laboratory of Anthropology, which is next door. The snack bar serves lunches of typical Indian foods, including stews and fry bread.
Millicent Rogers Museum of Native American and Hispanic Art, Taos: The excellent Pueblo pottery collection contains many works of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso. The exhibits provide good background information should you want to go pottery shopping in one of the pueblos.
For information about touring the pueblos or attending a public ceremony, contact:
New Mexico Tourism and Travel Division, Joseph M. Montoya Building, 1100 St. Francis St., Santa Fe, N.M. 87503, (800) 545-2040 or (505) 827-0291. A calendar is available listing Pueblo ceremonial dances, rodeos, powwows, crafts fairs and intertribal celebrations.
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, 2401 12th St. NW, Albuquerque, N.M. 87102, (505) 843-7270.
The governor's office of the individual pueblos. The two information sources above or the phone operators can provide the numbers.