By Scott Gerdes
Taos Pueblo is thought to have been built between 1000-1450 A.D. Photo by Scott Gerdes.
Taos Pueblo is not just a home; it’s a way of life.
The preserved, proud culture of the Red Willow people stands tall amid the large timbers and adobe bricks that make up the more-than-1,000-year-old multistory dwelling. Taos Pueblo culture inhales and exhales the warm smell of cedar wood and bread baking in hornos (outdoor adobe ovens). Its heart beats faster during the traditional dances and feast days … in the drum beats, ancient songs and handcrafted art. It lives in the faces of the more than 1,900 Pueblo members.
The walls of the original structure can talk. Their translators are the tour guides. The Red Willow people know their history. And in knowing that, they know where they came from and hold the knowledge close to their hearts.
One of the Pueblo tour escorts is Kevin White Feather. He has been guiding and educating visitors at the Pueblo for about six years. Most of the tour guides are students. White Feather is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.
Without giving too much away, the tour guides tell you the rich, colorful and sometimes tragic history from a perspective that can’t be found in a textbook or in a brochure. They begin by welcoming tourists to their home. It is important to remember that even though there are a number of shops and places to eat at the Pueblo, people live there. Some 5 percent of the residents reside in the original structure, White Feather said, that is thought to have been built between 1000-1450 A.D. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and registered National Historic Landmark. The World Heritage Foundation placed Taos Pueblo in the same company as the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China, among others. Roughly 90 percent of the people, stated by White Feather, still live on the surrounding tribal lands.
From left: The entrance and bell towers of the “newest” St. Jerome Chruch erected in 1850; To bake in Horno, the coals from a cedar wood fire are taken out before the bread is put in. The adobe retains the heat; Taos Pueblo guide Kevin White Feather.
Walking with White Feather into the main area of the Pueblo on a mild, quiet March morning, he looked at the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) mountains with a sparkle in his eye. “Those beautiful mountains,” he said, “provided an abundance of wild game for our ancestors.”
And the Red Willow River that effortlessly flows from sacred Blue Lake — hidden from view in the mountains — to the Río Grande is the Pueblo’s main source of drinking water. Therefore, please don’t walk in it. Blue Lake, the mountain areas and lands outside Pueblo walls are off-limits to visitors.
Just a mile from the town of Taos, the Pueblo (a Spanish word meaning “village”) is a cultural beacon and a lesson in Northern New Mexico history.
The Red Willow people were a peaceful, agricultural-minded community, unlike nomadic tribes like the Navajo and Apache who often raided them, White Feather explained. That’s why doors came later to the original Pueblo structure. The ladders you see on every level of it were part of a defense strategy. Residents climbed up, pulled the ladders up behind them and entered through roof hatches.
He then turned attention to St. Jerome (San Geronimo) Church with its unmistakable twin bells and white crosses. It is a focal point during the annual Christmas Eve celebration. St. Jerome is the patron saint of the Pueblo.
“The Spanish introduced Catholicism in the 1500s,” White Feather said. “They were looking for gold.”
The Spanish colonists that settled near the Pueblo, and their foreign religion, were not greeted with open arms.
“The Spanish would punish those who didn’t conform,” White Feather explained, adding that the punishment was death. “It was a very difficult time.”
The first St. Jerome Church was erected in 1619 through forced labor (as was the practice in the Southwest). A successful revolt in 1680 destroyed the church, and all non-Natives were forced out of the village. That success, however, was short-lived.”
The Spanish returned (about 10 years later) and forced the Natives to reconstruct the church on the same spot in 1692,” White Feather said. “But this time, the Spanish were more compromising, ‘allowing’ Natives to keep their traditional religion.”
The second church was demolished in 1847 by the U.S. Calvary during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), leaving it in ruins that are still visible today. The site was used as a cemetery up until about 10 years ago, when space ran out. It is interesting to note the number of Native veterans’ headstones, especially considering American Indians weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until 1924. Even so, some weren’t allowed to vote because that right was governed by state law. New Mexico extended voting rights to Natives in 1948. Even up until 1957, some states barred Americans Indians from voting.
The present St. Jerome church was built in 1850. Tour guides will take you inside the church, but photography is not allowed.
Traditional religion is still practiced today, harmoniously alongside Catholicism. The Turtle and Deer dances, for instance, are examples of the ancient, pure, complex spirituality of their ancestors. And while the Pueblo permits the public to witness certain celebrations, photography, cell phone use and recording devices are not allowed out of respect and to prevent exploitation. As a church is a gathering place for worship in Christianity, the kiva serves a similar purpose in Pueblo religion.
Tradition is their lifeblood. The homes in the oldest adobe structures are passed down for generations. To this day, those dwellings made of earth, straw and water are without plumbing and electricity. Many people move out into more modern homes that surround Pueblo land, White Feather shared, but added that the original structure “will always be occupied due to our culture.”
Because families still reside in the original structure (approximately 150 people), there are privacy issues. Only doors that are clearly marked as a business should be entered. The Pueblo has been a major place of trade for centuries, which is still evident by the various businesses. Most shops accept credit cards.
It is also respectful to ask permission before taking a picture of a Taos Pueblo resident. Any areas and pathways that are off-limits to visitors are clearly marked.
Other rules state pets must be leashed, and climbing on ladders or buildings is strictly prohibited.
Some of the most commonly asked questions fielded by White Feather are:
• Do you pay taxes? “Yes, on income tax.” There are no sales or property taxes assessed.
• Do the dogs belong to anybody? “Yes, they do. But, they come around for the free bread.” It is very common to see dogs greeting people, lounging in a shady spot or stirring up dust during play.
• Do you have your own government? “Yes. New tribal leaders are appointed every New Year’s Day by the Tribal Council.”
There is no charge for a tour, but gratuities are appreciated. Note that the Pueblo will be closed during the last week of August.
The Red Willow people continue to live in a traditional and modern world — the balance secures their survival.
Taos Pueblo rules:
• Stay within the village walls
• Observe restricted areas
• Do not feed dogs
• Climbing on buildings or ladders is strictly prohibited
• Pets must be leashed
• Do not enter the river
Summer Events (open to the public)
June 13 San Antonio Feast Day, Corn Dance, children’s traditional foot races
June 24 San Juan Day, Corn Dance
July 9-10 Annual Taos Pueblo Powwow (for more information, see page ??)
July 25 Santiago Day, Corn Dance
July 26 SantaAna Day, Corn Dance
Last week of August, the Pueblo is closed
Sept. 29 San Geronimo Eve Vespers
Sept. 30 San Geronimo Feast Day
More Taos Pueblo facts:
• St. Jerome Church is still used for Sunday Mass. Services are open to the public.
• The prominence of the Blessed Virgin Mary within the church and in the religion-inspired artwork is because Natives closely associate her with Mother Earth.
• Because of forced baptism, Natives were given Spanish sir names. Many people prefer to go by their Native names.
• The land base of Taos Pueblo is 99,000 acres.
For more information:
Taos Pueblo Tourism office (575) 758-1028