Taos Pueblo: America's 1000-Year Old Apartment Building
I have two pet peeves.
- When Americans say "America has no culture."
- When Americans say "America has no history."
As to the first, let's just say that even our most swornest enemies are waving their black flags while blasting out our KRS-One, our Public Enemy, but I don't recall anyone cruising downtown LA blasting out muwashshah.
"That qanun solo is dope," --no American ever.
And while the American government might only have 238 years of history (making it, yes, the 2nd oldest government in the world and as such, VERY OLD), people have been living in the American land for over 14,000 years. The people of America have a LOT of history - if only we would get off the couch and see more of it.
You Should Care About Taos Pueblo
This brings me to the remarkable Taos Pueblo, which is one of America's few UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites (along with the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China) but it's also my Culture of the Week.
The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest were named by the Spanish for their sprawling multi-story housing complexes that looked like pueblos - or towns. Taos Pueblo is one of the largest and most famous Pueblo communities, although it is one of the most conservative and private. There are extensive regulations for visitors relating to dress (be normal/no bikinis), behavior (don't swim in their drinking water), don't walk into private homes uninvited, and photography (ask people first) which are mostly general good manners.
The relationship between the American government and the indigenous peoples is complex at best, but I think that as Americans we have a sort of moral debt to the cultures we displaced to at least learn about them. In the case of the Taos people, we also owe it to ourselves because there are so many life-enriching facets of their culture.
When you visit Taos Pueblo, one of the many things that strikes you is the resiliency of the people and the culture. Even today, Taos is a remote place in the center of a harsh desert valley. The Taos people have lived at the current Pueblo site for over 2000 years in spite of constant attacks by the nomadic raiding tribes of the Comanche, Apache, and Navajo.
Then there is the post-Columbian history and honestly, even though the native Taos guides (university students who live in the Pueblo) are very friendly and surprisingly objective, is a bummer.
Basically, the 1500s brought the first wave of harsh Spanish rule - conquistadors searching for the Cities of Gold and priests who brutally forced Catholicism onto the "pagan" Pueblo people, destroying sacred sites and hanging the two most prominent medicine men from each Pueblo in Santa Fe Plaza.
Then, the Mexicans claimed the land and Taos became an international trading center with all of the vices of city life. Finally, and just as bad as the conquistadors, the American Occupation was led by a small band of sadistic soldiers whose abuses were so bad that the Taos and Mexicans banded together to execute the American governor and attack their fort. That rebellion was put down brutally and as part of American reprisals, over 150 men, women, and children were massacred in the Catholic Church where they ran to for sanctuary. That church was burned to the ground and although part of the nave is standing, the remainder was turned into a very moving cemetery.
Taos Pueblo is Super Fun to Visit
Despite its difficult recent history, Taos Pueblo today is a really fun and interesting place to visit and is worth the drive. Admission is $16 adults, $14 students, $0 children under 10. The village is bisected by a sparkling river and 150 residents live in the historic pueblo full-time. Other Taos live in modern homes on the vast reaches of their traditional lands (which were returned to the Taos by Nixon and are now a sovereign nation). While the majority of the houses within the Pueblo are private homes, many have been turned into small businesses selling food, crafts, art, and music.
I think the most interesting part is learning about the Taos culture on the tour. Tours depart roughly every 20 minutes, are 30 minutes long, and led by native university students. They work for gratuities only and view the tours as a way to help pay for their studies as well as participate in community life.
You'll learn a lot from 30 minutes - the guides speak English super-quickly with a Native cadence and they are clearly bursting with information. I'm relating some of the things I found especially interesting from the tour, although obviously I'm NOT claiming to have any special knowledge about the Taos - even Carl Jung came here to study the Taos philosophy which contributed to his work in archetypes and cultural connection.
Our guide was majoring in Environmental Science which is an important field in the Tribe's operations. He explained that the government of the Taos is divided into three parts: the War Chief and Staff, the Governor and Staff, and the Tribal Council.
The first step for a young man entering public life is to join the War Chief staff. The Office of the War Chief deals with environmental issues, mostly regarding protection and use of the Pueblo's mountains, lake, rivers and land management. They fought for decades to ban all mining operations and so the integrity of the water system has been restored - in fact, the river that runs through Taos provides their drinking water.
After working in the War Chief's staff, a man can move up to the Governor's staff, which acts as intermediary between the tribe and the Federal Government. Here the work is primarily legal and financial - they hammer out contracts with the Federal Government, sue on behalf of tribal interests, and perform all of the administrative and judicial functions of the Tribe.
Finally, around the late 30s, a man can be chosen to join the Tribal Council of about 50 men who make decisions for the Pueblo based on the best interests of all tribal members. Council members are chosen by the community based on their reputation for working in the best interest of the tribe. In this horrible election year, the system really seems especially wise and worthy of our admiration.
How to Establish a Good Reputation, Taos-Style
- Participate in civic life
- Act on behalf of the good of the tribe
- Know the history of the people through oral tradition
- Practice the Tiwa language
- Practice traditional culture
- Be involved in religious life (both Catholic and traditional are practiced simultaneously)
- Care for your home and the homes of the historic Pueblo.
These tenets tie into why the Taos people are so welcoming to visitors. First, the Taos want to share their culture, to preserve their ideas, and to convince visitors in America and around the world that we should care about the Pueblo. Second, they realize that with tourism as their main industry that "the good of the tribe" involves being friendly and welcoming to the busloads carrying wads of cash.
And when you arrive at the shimmering mica complexes of the Pueblo - which really, in the right light, look like a City of Gold - there are plenty of opportunities to spend those wads of cash.
One place to spend your money is chowing down like a piggy, and there are many options. One fun day out would just be to use Taos Pueblo as a giant tapas complex, hopping from place to place.
The food offered in Taos Pueblo is great. There should be Taos restaurant chains across the country.
Above, that's classic fry bread - like a donut, but huge. Even though it's 3 times the size of a donut, calories don't count for Americans on sovereign native land. Some bakeries carry blue corn fry bread but unfortunately some elderly German women came in before us and cleared the place out, monsters. Those calories will DEFINITELY count for them.
And the fry bread is covered in syrup made from the chokecherries that grow wild on the Pueblo. You can buy chokecherry jam as well as wild plum jam - these are the two primary fruits of the Taos people although they also have wild blueberries.
There are many food options in the historic Pueblo including plenty of vegetarian options - a lot of hominy-based dishes and squash. They offer traditional piñon coffee, roast pine nuts, and all kinds of stews, sandwiches and meats. There's nothing better on a hot day than their ice-cold watermelon juice "Agua de Sandia" - but my kids loved the ancient and traditional "Shave Ice Snow Cone with Blue Raspberry Syrup."
The Pottery of Antonia "Tseme" Lujan
The clay in the Taos pueblo is micaceous - there is a lot of mica in it - and because it has a warm terra-cotta color, the pottery can have a glow. Many collectors of Taos pottery love the shimmering traditional look, but I think the work of Tseme combines the best of traditional design with a clean, modern aesthetic.
Her shapes are angular and simple, and unlike most potters she uses an old Taos technique to blacken the pots. As she described, when she was growing up in the Pueblo on the 50s, she remembered older family members always used black pots but they grew out of fashion and disappeared.
Like all Taos potters, she begins with a trip to the nearby mountains where she gathers her own clay. Then she meticulously picks out any organic matter until it's pristine. She shapes her pots and then fires them, allowing the wood smoke to permeate the shimmery golden clay. The smoke doesn't absorb uniformly (or sometimes at all) which gives some of the pots an inky-black color, and some have a palomino effect alternating gold and black. She also uses horsehair to singe designs into the fresh-from-the-fire pots, which creates swirling abstract lines.
I think her work is extraordinary, and although she is practicing a historical craft and using traditional materials she has also found a way to assimilate new techniques (like the horsehair) to move her art in a modern and individual direction. If we want to support the growth of arts in indigenous communities, it's important to first, purchase them, and second, support artists who are not simply recreating traditional styles that are popular with collectors.
There is a long discussion about "art" versus "artisan" here but I'm going to spare all of us - instead, why don't you google her work. You can even purchase her work online, and several of her pieces can be found in various upmarket Santa Fe galleries, 1stdibs, and eBay.