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Taos Pueblo



A Time When the Rocks Were Soft


Do you know exactly where your great-great-great-great-great grandmother slept? What about the kind of bread she ate? Can you bake it yourself, in the same style of oven she once used? Do you know which animals your forefathers hunted, and how they prepared the meat and cured the hides? Do you know the stories, songs and dances of your ancestors, and the meanings behind them?

If the answer is no, then you're not alone… I don't either. But today, Daphne and I visited a community that can trace their roots back to a time when "the rocks were soft." The people of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico have lived beneath the same stretch of blue mountains since the beginning of their time. In fact, they are said to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States! Moreover, they tell the same stories, hunt the same animals, and bake the same bread as their earliest ancestors. As a Mexican-American who has lost bits and pieces of her own culture, this amazes me. How did the people of Taos Pueblo preserve their roots despite repeated attempts by Spanish colonists and the Mexican and U.S. governments to unearth them? And how do they continue to foster their ancient values in the era of MTV, McDonald's and video games?

In the days preceding our visit to the Pueblo, I was dying to learn the answer to this question, but feared I never would. Since the beginning of our Trek, people have told us that we wouldn't be able to establish meaningful connections to any group of Native Americans, as most are wary of prying "outside" eyes. They warned us that our cameras would be confiscated and our questions would be refused. The curator at one museum said we'd be lucky if we even made it inside an actual reservation, much less talked to anyone.

Well, Daphne and I are happy to report that we have proven these predictions wrong! Not only did a member of the Taos Pueblo give us a special tour, but the governor himself, Dan Lightningbow, treated us to an elegant dinner of filet mignon and salmon that lasted more than two hours! The hospitality we encountered at this pueblo was deeply moving, and it all happened because these Native Americans want their fellow Americans to appreciate their place in our country's vast history. So that's what I'll attempt to do in this little dispatch, albeit without the use of video footage or photographs (see Daphne's article for an explanation).

The most obvious way that Taos Pueblo has upheld its traditional lifestyle is through its pueblos (of course!). They are an impressive sight: multiple tiers of adobe houses tucked beneath a mountain blanketed with trees. When Spanish explorers first saw the sun shimmering off these grand structures, they thought they had finally found one of the Seven Cities of Gold. Back then, tribe members entered their homes from the roof via wooden ladders. If they were under enemy siege, they simply pulled in their ladders and covered up the holes. The thickness of the adobe walls offered natural insulation, making them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. This type of housing proved so suitable to their lifestyle, they have maintained it throughout their history. One of the pueblos is thought to be 1,000 years old!

At first glance, it seemed that life in these pueblos hadn't changed much over the centuries. Tall wooden racks used for drying crops, wild game meat and animal hides still surround the adobe homes. Just beyond the drying racks are the same hornos, or outdoor adobe ovens, that women have been using to bake bread and pastries for generations. Some tribe members, known as "traditionalists," even choose to continue living without electricity or running water. Instead, these members - about 150 or so - use gas lighting and draw their water from the river. They dwell in the heart of the community, and a low wall encloses their homes. The 1,600 members who reside on the opposite side of this wall are "modernists."

You're probably thinking that only the elderly are traditionalists, right? What red-blooded teenager could live without his or her MTV? Well, when Daphne and I visited the local school, we learned that plenty of students live there too. As one sixth-grader put it: "We don't need electricity. We can go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when it rises." Others bragged that they hadn't watched television in months or even years -- imagine that!

These students took great pride in their roots. They enjoyed celebrating their feasts and holidays and participating in their sacred religious ceremonies. Many seemed to feel a certain responsibility to their tribe and didn't mind helping out in times of need such as harvest, when everyone is asked to pick corn. In fact, some students said they attended their pueblo's school instead of the public one in Taos precisely because they wanted to be more "in touch" with their culture.

Yet, not every tradition has been so readily maintained in this community. Ironically, the greatest threat to the ways of the Taos Pueblo has been neither war nor oppression, but modernization. Balancing conveniences like beepers and the Internet with old lifestyles and customs isn't easy. As in many of the world's indigenous cultures, one of the hardest things for the pueblo to uphold is its native tongue, Tiwa. Since it is not a written language, Tiwa must be taught orally. The problem is that only the oldest generation of tribe members is fluent in this language. The middle generation, which came of age in the '60s, often faced ridicule by outsiders for speaking Tiwa, and many did not master it. Consequently, it is difficult for them to teach it to their children. According to one of the teachers at Taos Day School, only 25 percent of her students are truly versatile in Tiwa. If they don't learn it before their grandparents die, this beautiful language may fall out of existence.

Another problem facing the Taos Pueblo (and other indigenous groups) is maintaining their rich bloodline. Ideally, every tribe member would marry a fellow member in order to keep the blood pure. This would also make it easier to pass down traditions and philosophies to succeeding generations. Unfortunately, many of the people who live in the Taos Pueblo are related. It seemed that every time we mentioned meeting one tribe member to another, they would say "Oh, that is my auntie/brother-in-law/second cousin twice removed." This means that more and more people are marrying outside their tribe, and some are even marrying members of other races. It is becoming increasingly rare to find those people with pure Taos Pueblo blood pumping through their veins.

In their hearts, however, everyone we met claimed to be 100 percent native. Why? Many pointed to their nature-based religion. Out of respect for this highly revered element of life, we refrained from asking too many questions about it, but the Taos Pueblo's unique way of worship seemed to me a possible solution to dealing with other aspects of our ever-changing world.

When Spanish colonists first arrived on the scene, they tried to convert every Native American they encountered into Catholicism, often by force. Today, at least 75 percent of the Taos Pueblos practice this religion. They even have an adobe church right in the middle of their community, which contains an altar to the Virgin Mary (who, to them, represents Mother Earth). But while they uphold Catholic rituals, such as weddings and baptisms, they do it with their own tribal flavor. For instance, they bury their dead with a cross as a headstone, as do most Christians, but they don't use caskets, as per their own tradition. Tribal members are simply buried in their native dress.

When it comes to ceremonies of their indigenous religion, however, the Taos Pueblo do not utilize a single element of Catholicism. They also do not allow "outsiders" to participate in their ancient rituals. That means that if a tribal member marries someone of another race, the spouse cannot join in. This religion does not accept converts -- one must be born into the tribe in order to be a part of it.

That may sound a little harsh, but it provides the people of Taos Pueblo with a spiritual foundation that enables them to nurture their roots. As Blue Moon Flower, one of the friends we made at Taos Pueblo, put it: "A lot of people are drawn to our pueblo because they feel something here; something special, something sacred. And it is ours alone to enjoy. It makes me proud to look around at our mountains and realize that we have kept our way of life intact for so many years."

As Daphne and I drove away from their peaceful community, I too felt a little twitch of envy.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Discovering what makes Sherman Alexie tick
Daphne - Cheerleaders and cowboys among the Native Americans?
Daphne - Living with those pesky, loud tourists at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico
Stephanie - So what exactly goes on at a powwow anyway?
Team - A little Native American-style Q & A to get your brain juices going