[On 4 May, I published a profile of writer Frank Waters, who lived in and wrote about Taos, New Mexico. One of his most passionate subjects was the Taos Pueblo and its people; Waters’s masterpiece novel, The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942), is set in and around the pueblo. In the mid-1990s, I was writing about Leonardo Shapiro, a New York stage director who lived near Taos at the turn of the ’60s and then returned there to retire and, unhappily, die. In May 2002, I took a trip around New Mexico and spent time in Taos and visited the pueblo. It’s little wonder that a writer like Waters, a painter like Georgia O’Keefe, or a theater artist like Shapiro would settle in Taos, which has become a writers’ and artists’ center, as the area has stunning landscape and is chock full of history and the clashes or overlaps of cultures as old as America itself. After writing the Waters profile, I decided to write about Taos and Taos Pueblo, too. I hope you’ll agree that it’s a fascinating subject.
[Because of the complexity of this subject, even in the cursory way I’ve covered it for ROT, I’ve had to split the article into two parts. In part one below, I’ll discuss the geography of the area, the layout of the Indian pueblo, and some of its ceremonial events. As much detail as I’ve provided here, I can assure you that I’ve only scratched the surface. The Taos Pueblo, the Taos Indians, and their culture are intricate and complex and even the little they allow outsiders to see and understand could fill a book. In fact, it has—many, many books: you already know about Frank Waters’s writing, and in “Frank Waters,” I listed some of the other non-fiction works that discuss the Taos and Pueblo people. That short list is just the tip of the iceberg: there are plenty more where they came from, believe me! If “Taos & Taos Pueblo” whets your appetite, go spelunking in the stacks of any decent library. There’s a lot of information on the ‘Net, too, of course, but the old books, from the turn of the century through, say, the 1970s, are the best. It was all still such a surprise to everyone, such a wonderful gift. We got blasé after a few decades.]
Taos is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America, possibly the longest (there’s a debate with Acoma Pueblo), but the Spanish town, once known as Don Fernando de Taos, dates from around 1615 when the Conquistadores defeated the Pueblo Indians in northern New Spain, including present-day New Mexico. (The Spanish settlers, however, lived within the Indian pueblo until 1795, when they moved to Don Fernando de Taos, the site of the modern town.) The name Taos means "place of red willows" in the Tiwa language spoken by the Taos Indians. (The 19 pueblos in New Mexico are each a separate tribe and don’t all speak the same language. There are five distinct Pueblo languages, including Zuni, spoken only by the members of that pueblo.)
Modern Taos, incorporated only in 1934, is 130 miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, and 70 miles north of Santa Fe, the state capital. It’s the seat of Taos County, right in the center of New Mexico’s northern border with Colorado, and sits at an altitude of just under 7,000 feet. Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the highest point in the state at 13,161 feet, is 10 miles north of the town; known as Taos Mountain until 1950—and still called that locally—it is sacred to the Taos Indians and located within the reservation lands. (Today the mountains, a southern branch of the Rockies, are home to a ski resort, Taos Ski Valley, begun in 1956, and the Indian-run Taos Mountain Casino, opened in 1997.) The population of Taos in 2000 was 4,700 spread out over about 5½ square miles. Today, the town and the valley are home to three cultures, Anglo (a regional term that designates anyone who’s neither Hispanic nor Indian), Spanish/Mexican, and Native American, and though there are political and social tensions among the groups, some of which have broken out into violence from time to time, the valley’s culture is a combination of all three heritages.
The Taos Valley holds attractions for many who come only to visit or pass through, both today and in decades past. (A few who stayed, following the Ancestral Pueblo People in the 3rd millennium BCE, include the Navajos and Apaches in the 13th century CE, the Spanish in the 16th century, the Mexicans in the 1820s, the Americans in the 1830s, artists from around the world in the 1890s, writers in the 1920s, and hippies in the 1960s.) The land is semi-arid and the soil, paved with a thin layer of pebbles left behind by erosion, is a fine, pewter-hued clay that gets slimy in the rain but dries brittle. As if nature had always intended this place to be a contradiction or a paradox, it is both mountain country and desert; it has bright sun that can heat up the day—the mountains aren’t high enough to shade the floor of the valley, which runs generally east to west—but the nights can be bitter cold. The lands are watered by little rivers, tributaries of the Rio Grande whose sources are in the sacred Sangre de Cristos, which can run icy and clear, lined with aspens, junipers, pines, and cottonwoods (los álamos in Spanish). All along the valleys are unique geologic formations, abundant wildlife, and dazzling scenery and short distances away, the red dirt of the desert and the table-top mesas (like the one atop which Acoma Pueblo sits, 365 feet above the desert floor) seem like a moonscape. Photographer William Davis was drawn to its beauty—“a result,” he believed, “of a rare combination of mystical and human elements.” As writer John Nichols—who lived in Taos and wrote extensively about the area—said of Taos Mountain (Wheeler Peak), which physically, emotionally, and psychologically dominates the town, the pueblo, and all the villages of the valley: It “casts spells” to keep people from leaving and lure back those who try. It’s a region that remained an isolated frontier for three centuries, becoming almost a distinct nation unto itself, surrounded by round hillocks to the south and rocky crags to the west where the Rio Grande River Gorge drops down hundreds of vertical feet.
Though the Taos Indians have a long oral history, they don’t reveal it to outsiders for religious reasons. (Taos Pueblo is among the most traditional and conservative Indian communities in the country; the people have resisted assimilation on almost every level for centuries.) What we believe about the history of the area and the village comes from anthropology and archeology by Western scholars and experts. There is evidence of human presence going back over 12,000 years and of agriculture as early as 3000 BCE. By 200 CE, pit dwellings were constructed and early permanent village life had begun. (There are excavated remains of some Ancestral Pueblo dwellings from as early as 1150 CE at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos. Ancestral Pueblo People is the currently preferred term for what anthropologists used to call Anasazi, a Navajo word which the Pueblo people dislike because it means ‘ancient enemy.’) Settled around 900 CE, the Taos Valley saw the first large, multi-storied adobe structures around the first millennium. By the dawn of the 14th century, the village of Taos had appeared.
The pueblo, the northern- and easternmost of the existing ancient Indian villages, has been occupied in its current location for centuries (except for brief periods of abandonment during the colonial era, as we’ll see), but the present structures are, of course, not so old. The village is continuously being rebuilt as the adobe—sun-dried bricks made of mud mixed with straw—is constantly restored and new houses replace old ones. The exterior of the adobe walls, usually several feet thick, are regularly replastered with thick layers of mud and the interior walls are carefully coated with thin washes of white earth to keep them clean and bright. The five-story houses are actually many individual homes, built side-by-side like row houses, with common walls but without connecting doorways between the dwellings. (In ancient times, there were no doors or windows at ground level; entry was made through the roof, reached by ladders that could be drawn up for protection. The pueblos were often targets of marauding Apaches as well as Comanches and other tribes from the northern plains.) The roofs of the dwellings, covered with packed dirt for coolness, are supported by large timbers; smaller pieces of wood are placed side-by-side on top of the timbers.
Two buildings, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited structures in the United States, are believed to date from the mid-16th century: Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house). Taos Pueblo is divided into moieties or halves, each with its own kiva, the ritual chamber, and kiva traditions. The north side is inhabited by the Winter People and the south side by the Summer People. There is a traditional rivalry between the two sides, which is openly played out in the foot races held each 3 May (Santa Cruz Dance), the beginning of the planting season, and again on 30 September (San Gerónimo Day), the end of the harvest.
About 150 people live within Taos Pueblo itself, with another 1,900 on pueblo land (the reservation), approximately 99,000 acres surrounding the village. There are other Taos Indians who live in the American towns nearby and still more who live far away and return for ceremonial events and celebrations. Today the village itself, however, is largely a ceremonial and tourist site. Indians return for religious ceremonies or during tourist season when the houses around the central plaza are used as shops for art and various local crafts such as silver jewelry, some pottery (though the most important Pueblo pottery center is San Ildefonso Pueblo, the home of the late Maria Martinez) and, because Taos Indians were traditionally superb hunters, products made from skins such as moccasins, pouches, and drums. Modern Taos has become an important art center and many Taos Indians are painters and printmakers who combine Western and Indian motifs and techniques into striking art. They maintain permanent galleries in town but in tourist season, they operate small galleries in the pueblo. (On my visit to the pueblo, I met a printmaker who ran a gallery from his mother’s house in the village during the tourist season. His main residence and studio was in Hollywood, Florida, where his family lived while he was in Taos.)
There’s one building within the pueblo that’s alien to the village’s Native American past. As in every Indian village in what was once New Spain, Taos Pueblo has a Catholic church. Spanish colonial practice was to establish a misión in each village, dedicated to a patron saint for the pueblo which would then bear its name, while the priests who accompanied the Conquistadores went about forcibly converting the Indians. The church in Taos, Mission San Gerónimo (St. Jerome), was originally built in 1619 by Indian slave labor. The Church of San Gerónimo de Taos (the pueblo’s full Spanish name) remained until the first Indian revolt against their colonial masters (which I’ll cover briefly in part two); a second chapel replaced the original one until the U.S. Army destroyed it during the Mexican-American War. The present church dates from 1850. The curious thing about the Pueblo Indians and Western religions is that, despite the early resistance and the general refusal of tribes like the Taos Indians to assimilate, they coexist. As prominent in the village as the Catholic church are the pueblo’s kivas, the native “churches,” the center of the Pueblo religious practices. The Indians see no contradiction between their adopted Catholicism (90% of Taos Pueblo’s population is Catholic) and their traditional beliefs. “Yes, most of us are Catholic,” explained one modern Taos Indian. “But that is not in conflict with our older Indian religion. We worship life—the water, the trees, all growing things. We could make room for a newborn Child who came into the world to teach us. We regard every man as an individual brother.” Indeed, when the Spanish friars arrived in New Mexico to convert the Indians, they found the Pueblos intransigent. The Indian ceremonials the priests found when they got there remained, simply redressed in Catholic garb. The Pueblos celebrated the saints’ days on the dates specified by the church, and the ceremonies began with a mass and other Catholic observances—but the celebrations themselves, the dances, prayers, rituals, were conducted just as they had been before the Conquistadores arrived in 1540. The pueblo’s most important celebration, for example, is the Festival of San Gerónimo on 29 and 30 September, a combination of traditional rites and ceremonial events and Catholic practices. All 19 New Mexico pueblos have a similar arrangement: for instance, nearby Picurís Pueblo (San Lorenzo de Picurís) celebrates San Lorenzo Day on 10 August.
Despite this apparent cultural palimpsest, Taos Pueblo is one of the most conservative places in North America. As I’ve noted, the Taos Indians resist assimilation even today. Within the village itself, old ways are enshrined. Taos Pueblo houses are owned by the women while the land is owned by the men. Most Indians speak unaccented English and have Anglo names (for generations past, both were Spanish), but among themselves they use the unwritten Tiwa language and retain Indian names which signify their reverence for the Earth and nature. There are no motor vehicles within the pueblo borders. No modern technology is permitted in the village, though homes on the reservation lands surrounding the pueblo may have modern conveniences and pueblo members who live in town or elsewhere may do as they please. (I visited one family’s home on the reservation, a small ranch-style house with a modern kitchen run off of propane tanks outside, vents for central heating, electric lighting, a TV in the living room, a pick-up truck parked out front, and a satellite dish on the roof. I didn’t see a computer, but the family made and sold jewelry and the little labels for the business included an address for a website, so I assume there’s a computer in the house somewhere.) No one in the pueblo has a TV, radio, telephone, computer, plumbing, or electricity. When visitors come for a festival such as San Gerónimo, no cameras, cell phones, tablets, or iPods are permitted; no one may photograph or record the ceremonies which, even though they may seem like little more than a carnival, are religious rites for the Taos Pueblos. Even note-taking and sketching are prohibited: one artist who attended pueblo events often said he made sketches from memory afterwards, but out of deference to “my friends here,” he wouldn’t exhibit or publish them.
Indian children may go to church and attend Anglo schools if their parents wish, but boys will all be initiated into the appropriate kiva when the time comes. Every part of Pueblo life—the arts, crafts, commerce, social structure, and religion—is intertwined and all tribe members participate in the ceremonials and rites that have been part of their people’s lives, virtually unchanged, since perhaps long before the Ottoman Empire or the Hundred Years’ War. Frank Waters, the Taos-area writer who depicted Indian life in both fiction and non-fiction books, wrote in his masterpiece, The Man Who Killed the Deer, about Martiniano, a young Pueblo man, educated in Western ways and taught to live in the modern world, who finds himself conflicted when he returns to the pueblo and must discover a way to reconcile the two cultures so that he can benefit from what both offer. (Other pueblos are not necessarily as traditional as Taos, though several are. Acoma Pueblo, for instance, also maintains many of the old traditions, including female ownership of the houses. Zuni is also very traditional, and it was the constant breaches of proper behavior, including photo-taking and recording, that resulted in the Zunis’ forbidding outsiders from attending the Shalako ceremony.)
San Gerónimo Day is 30 September, but Taos Pueblo’s celebration begins on the 29th with, as with all similar Pueblo festivals, a mass in the pueblo church. No one finds it incongruous that the Catholic priest blesses the Indian ceremonies that will follow, many of which have roots in the native religion that the Catholic Church would never recognize. Parts of the celebration are religious, or at least spiritual, and other parts are pure entertainment—a common mix among Pueblo ceremonials (and, I believe, those of most Native Americans). The Pueblo Indians have a rich dramatic expression—poetry, myth and history, song, dance, and even magic tricks and clowning—embedded in the ceremonials by which their religion is given external manifestation.
At about 7:30 the morning after the vespers service, shortly after sunup, the traditional foot race between the north and south kivas is run on a course extending east to west, symbolizing the celestial paths of the sun and moon. The two teams number perhaps as many as 50 on each side, ranging from boys, who do most of the running, to men of all ages, who urge the young runners on and help them recover when they’ve completed their legs of the race. The teams assemble at each end of the track, parallel to the little Pueblo River that bisects the village and worn down by decades of use to a level below the surrounding fields, the north kiva team on the north side and the south kiva runners on the south side. Behind the start is a sort of reviewing stand for pueblo dignitaries, but beside the Indian bigwigs also sit an array of santos, hand-carved wooden statues of St. Jerome and other Catholic saints carried from the church. Above them is a large cross made from branches.
The men run in relays, one runner from each kiva starting in the east like the rising sun runs westward about a half a mile where he touches the arm of another runner who returns to the east, and so forth until the winning relay team is declared. No outsider knows the real rules of the foot race; they’re kept a pueblo secret like most rituals, learned in kiva instruction. In 1935 Mabel Dodge Luhan described a race that, like all Pueblo ceremonials, looked virtually the same then as it did centuries before and as it does today: “Teeth bared, heads back, they tear along the track lightly but with incredible swiftness, and they are giving back to earth and sun what they have received.” Despite the crisp September morning, the runners are naked except for a loincloth and a belt of bells. (Spirits are attracted to ringing bells in Pueblo lore.) Most runners race barefoot over the stony, uneven ground to show their disdain for pain. On their chests and backs are painted two diagonal white stripes and their lower arms and upper legs are also painted white; their upper arms and lower legs are painted black with a white band around their ankles. Some runners also use red and yellow paint. They wear eagle feathers in their hair, worn in braids, and pasted wherever their bodies are painted white.
The purpose of the ceremonial race is to assure the sun and the moon sufficient power to make their daily journeys for another year—and to secure long life for the heavenly bodies, the runners, and the village. As one Taos native explained it: “The foot races are literally a race for life. We believe that long ago the world ended when the Sun God fell to the earth at the north end of the race track, plunging the world into total darkness. The foot races are run to draw power and strength from the sun to enable us to survive as a tribe.” Athleticism isn’t the point, of course, and winning isn’t a matter of one kiva team defeating the other; that kind of competitiveness is not an Indian virtue. My friend Leo Shapiro recounted his response to witnessing the race: “It just totally knocked me out. They were racing not against each other. It didn’t matter who won. But they really were racing.” Frank Waters put it this way: “Running not to win from one another, but extending all their strength to the sun for his new race, that once again he might return it to them, the creative power to carry the tribe forward another year.” The winner is the village, the tribe, who benefit from the strength and devotion displayed by their best young men. A well-run race is good for everyone.
Before the Spanish arrived and the Catholic church essentially coöpted the festival, it had been a trade fair at which the Taos Indians hosted their neighbors, including the Apaches, Utes, Hopis, and Navajos, so the afternoon is filled with an arts and crafts fair which includes numerous vendors of food, Indian, Mexican, and American. Today, aside from the Taoseños and Anglo tourists, Indians come from as far away as the Great Plains. Since this is a feast day, friends and family are invited to the villagers’ homes at the end of the day for a meal of red and green chilies, corn, frybread (a traditional Native American flat bread made from deep-fried dough), bread baked in a horno (the beehive-shaped outdoor adobe oven that is essentially the Indians’ traditional kitchen), and other traditional native dishes; also on the menu might be cross-over dishes like “Navajo tacos” (green chilies, beans, cheese, tomato, and lettuce wrapped in frybread), deer-meat chili, pozole soup (pre-Columbian Mexican soup of hominy, or nuxtamal, with meat—usually pork, chicken, or turkey—pork rinds, chili peppers, and seasonings), and cornbread (yes, that cornbread).
At about 4 p.m., chiffonetti (“delight-makers”) or Black Eye clowns, one of the few groups in Pueblo life who must be members of a specific, religious clan, gather around a 50-foot-tall, greased pole in the middle of the pueblo plaza, topped with harvest foods such as corn, apples, melons, and squash, a sack containing a variety of fresh-baked breads and groceries, and a slaughtered deer or sheep. The Black Eyes’ bodies, clad only in a breechcloth and moccasins, are horizontally striped black and white to represent the spirits of the dead, and their unmasked faces are painted white with black circles around the eyes and mouths. They wear their hair parted in the middle and twisted up on either side of their heads like two horns, topped with corn-husk florets. The chiffonetti also wear evergreen branches in their belts or in a bandoleer, or hold them in their hands. Thus encumbered, the chiffonetti, must climb the greased pole, the trunk of an entire pine tree, too wide at its base to reach around and tapering to a point at the pinnacle, and retrieve the food. It’s not so easy to accomplish, a real feat of will and strength. The first to the top then lowers the goods to his brothers below who distribute them to all the villagers. When the climber makes it to the top, he entertains the other villagers gathered below and on the flat rooftops to cheer him on, with jokes and teasing; his fellow Black Eyes join in amusing the crowd with horseplay, acrobatics, and magic tricks. The impromptu entertainment might include mimicking the spectators, Indian, Chicano, or Anglo; acting out local gossip; and even mocking the Catholic ceremonies. Nothing is sacred, for the chiffonetti aren’t afraid of anything, and they gleefully make fun of their own tribe and their village neighbors along with the outsiders—but all with obvious good humor and sense of fun; though some of the fun is pointed and trenchant, no bitterness, insult, or hurt is overtly intended. The victorious Black Eye slides back down the pole, greeted with whoops and cheers from below, and there’s a brief dance in the plaza. Eventually, the pole is chopped down; once climbed, it can never be climbed again.
If no clown gets to the top and gets the prize down, the Pueblos believe the next year will be bad for the village. There’s an oft-told story of one disastrous San Lorenzo Festival at nearby Picurís, which follows the same rituals as Taos, when no young man was strong and agile enough to climb the pole and the pueblo nearly vanished. As Frank Waters concluded his account of the story: “But there is no power left in Picurís, no good medicine, no strong thoughts.” (Picurís is even today the smallest and poorest of the 19 New Mexico pueblos and the tale’s considered a cautionary one.) Leo Shapiro explained that this is more than just a spiritual belief: “[I]t makes perfect sense, if you live out there, that if everybody is just sort of so out of shape that nobody’s gonna get up the pole, then it’s a pretty good predictor of the fact that they’re not gonna make it. So it’s not an abstraction.”
[Please come back in a few days to read about the history of the area and some of the cultural history of both the modern town and the Indian village. I won’t preview it here, but I’ll tell you that the area in and around Taos has an action-packed and surprising history.]