Taos Pueblo

Historically on par with Taj Mahal, Great Pyramids and the Grand Canyon

BY RICK ROMANCITO

People have said that stepping into the plaza at Taos Pueblo is like venturing back in time. The surroundings certainly suggest that: Multi-storied adobe structures, bread-baking hornos underneath wood drying racks and the imposing presence of Pueblo Peak forming an unmatched scenic backdrop. But, this is only part of the story.

Taos Pueblo dawn, January 2010. Photo by Rick Romancito/Taos News

Taos Pueblo remains a proud and thriving Native American community. Ancient as it is, the village has withstood colonial invasions, violent revolts and even the seizure of its most important religious site. It has remained strong, even today, due to its adherence to venerated spiritual practices, cultural traditions and a language not openly taught to outsiders. These are a people for whom identity is paramount, yet humble as the aspen leaves shimmering in a mountain meadow.

As of this writing, Taos Pueblo remains closed to outsiders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2020, tribal leadership was made aware of the rapid spread of the virus and chose to close its boundaries. All roads have been blocked other than the Veteran’s Highway main entrance at the southern end near the Allsup’s convenience store in the town of Taos. Since then, a tribal police checkpoint has monitored all who come and go.

Indian Hills drum group out of Barstow, California, pounds out a rhythm during the Grand Entry at the 2019 Taos Pueblo Powwow. Rick Romancito/Taos News

The state Department of Health created a system that shows when schools, businesses and other public venues may reopen. “Counties will operate under one of four levels: Red, signifying very high risk; Yellow, signifying high risk; Green, signifying medium risk; and Turquoise, signifying low risk,” a NMDOH statement reads. As this article is being readied, there are no counties that are designated Red. Taos County is in the Green.

However, Taos Pueblo, being an independent sovereign Native nation, will reopen when tribal leadership decides the time is right.

Taos Pueblo bison herd, October 1995. Photo by Rick Romancito/Taos News

While the pandemic has certainly interrupted the lives of tribal members in terms of work, commerce and family, there is one occasion that deserved recognition which had to be postponed. It was to be a commemoration of the Return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo.

Return of Blue Lake

According to a statement at taospueblo.com, “The single most dramatic event in the recent history of Taos Pueblo land is the 1970 return of 48,000 acres of mountain land including the sacred Blue Lake. It was taken by the U.S. Government in 1906 to become part of the National Forest lands.”

TAOS PUEBLO
From left are Curtis Sandoval, Richard Archuleta, Gilbert Suazo, Luis Romero and Nicholas A. Concha singing the Taos Pueblo flag song composed in honor of Blue Lake. The occasion was the opening ceremonies in December 2010 of a Harwood Museum exhibition of memorabilia collected during the nearly 60 year long struggle to return the tribe’s sacred Blue Lake from US government control. Photo by Rick Romancito © 2010 Taos News

The statement says that “among the ritual sites where Taos people go for ceremonial reasons, Blue Lake is perhaps the most important. Its return is a tribute to the tenacity of Pueblo leaders and to the community’s commitment to guarding its lands for the spiritual, cultural and economic health of the Pueblo. The return of this land capped a long history of struggle. Blue Lake and mountains are off-limits to all but members of our Pueblo.”

Plans to conduct a public commemoration, plus an exhibit and recognition of some of the key players in the legislative effort were underway when the lockdown occurred. Now, there is a possibility it may take place in some form this year.

President Richard M. Nixon, sitting at center on the right side of the table, and federal officials meet with members of the Taos Pueblo delegation concerning Blue Lake in 1970. Courtesy Taos Pueblo

The return of this sacred site was the result of decades of dedication to what some over the years called a lost cause. But, through the sheer will and tenacity of tribal leadership, the goal was finally accomplished on Dec. 15, 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed into law a landmark piece of legislation. Up to that day, no other tribal lands had ever been returned by the U.S. government to a Native American tribe after it had been seized. It was an event celebrated not only by the people of Taos Pueblo, but by Native tribes across the nation.

This victory brought to mind the many other struggles the tribe has endured over history. In 1680, for instance, a man from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo named Po’pay helped to organize a revolt against the Spanish who, since colonies were established in 1598, imposed far-ranging oppression and despair among the Pueblo people. This began at Taos Pueblo and spread throughout the Pueblo realm, forcing for the first time, foreign colonists to be evicted.

Then, in 1847, residents of the town of Don Fernando de Taos and Taos Pueblo rose up against what they perceived to be another invasion. The Taos Revolt, as it came to be known, resulted in the death of Territorial Gov. Charles Bent and many others. The remaining fighters retreated to the San Geronimo Church at Taos Pueblo where members of the U.S. Cavalry laid siege and destroyed the church and killed many men, women and children.

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These are the ruins of the second Catholic church at Taos Pueblo named after St. Jerome. The first was destroyed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. This one was destroyed by the U.S. Cavalry under the command of Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny during the 1847 Taos Revolt. Rebels had take refuge in the church hoping the military would respect the concept of sanctuary afforded houses of worship. Photo by Rick Romancito/Taos News

World Heritage Site

Today, Taos Pueblo has become an important draw for visitors the world over. It’s World Heritage Site status is a reflection of its historical significance. Many tribal members operate arts and crafts businesses, work for the tribe and maintain jobs in the town of Taos. It has its own school, police department and government.

Still, with the pandemic and other concerns, the challenges ahead are many. A statement from the tribe’s website addresses this.

As a sovereign nation within the United States, preserving our ancient traditions in the face of advancement of ‘modernization’ is our prime concern. We are encouraged by an increased population of tribal members choosing to remain in Taos, as well as by these actions acknowledging Taos’ important cultural heritage: Taos declared a National Historic landmark in 1965; Blue Lake returned to Taos in 1970; Taos Pueblo admitted to the World Heritage Society in 1992 as one of the most significant historical cultural landmarks in the world (other sites include the Taj Mahal, Great Pyramids and the Grand Canyon in the United States).

For updated information on the Pueblo’s status, call the tourism office at 575-758-1028 or visit taospueblo.com.

The Taos Pueblo Powwow is a gathering of many Indian Nations in a common circle of friendship. It’s the common fiber that draws Indian people together. This year’s event will be held on July 12-14. Photo by Morgan Timms/Taos News