Taos Pueblo (NM)


When the Catholic Church under the Spaniards tried to Christianize pueblo peoples in the seventeenth century, one of the biggest revolters were the Taos. Resistance to religious imposition lasted for many years, resulting in the killing of priests and destruction of St. Jerome church on two separate occasions, until over a period of time, St. Jerome’s was erected for a third time and Catholic beliefs became established. I think though it’s true to say that the practice of religion among Pueblo Indians today is a hybrid of Catholicism and traditional beliefs.

The Taos Pueblo lies just north of Taos, NM, an ancient community that had its beginning about 1,000 years ago. It’s clear that, with the advent of tourism among the Pueblo communities, there was a rise in organized tours and commercial opportunities that come with it. When we arrived at the pueblo, we were directed to a dirt parking lot where we had to pay $10. We were then told to meet at the center, from where we were led on a “gratuity-based tour,” as the guide put it.

Immediately noticeable were two distinctive residential, multi-storied adobe complexes that flank the pueblo to the north and south (see above). So architecturally unique they are that they’ve been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. placed on the National Register of Historic Places and are the subject of many photographers. The Taos also have kivas, a recurrent religious and architectural building throughout the Southwest that seems (to us anyway) to have had their roots in the great Chacoan civilization. Within the pueblo lies the Church of St. Jerome, inside which are the ruins of the old church.

St Jerome
As well as English, the residents speak a form of Tiwa. Also, like other Puebloan people, their pueblo has no electricity, running water or sewer system. Unlike other pueblos, they do have a stream (Red Willow Creek) that runs through it, fed by sacred Blue Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, that is pure enough to drink.

Red Willow Creek

Acoma Pueblo (Sky City, NM)



Our third visited pueblo was one that surprised us. Known in artistic circles for their intricately decorated clay pottery, the Acoma people have one village perched on a 365-foot mesa high above the surrounding valley. Guided tours are the only way to visit the village, more commonly known as Sky City. Photography permits for a fee are also available.

Though the Acoma share a common ancestry with the Zuni and Hopi, including similar gods and spirits and a matrilineal society, they seem to have adopted material culture much more readily. The Sky City Cultural Center is second to none, a modern facility that houses a gift shop, cafe and museum, with massive wooden front doors that suggest a Spanish influence. In fact, the Spanish seem to have converted the Acoma to Catholicism, which the Zuni and Hopi have long since largely rejected, even though the Acoma took part in the 17th-century Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish with the other surrounding tribes. The Acomas have Spanish surnames and the church in the pueblo (San Esteban del Rey Mission, on the National Register of Historic Places) still conducts mass and church services.

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church

The homes atop the mesa, the original architecture still evident, seem to have been partially renovated using more modern materials, including double-pane glass windows and modern doors. Even though the pueblo still is not electrified nor does it have running water or sewage system, large propane tanks and modern-day honey buckets are in use.

Acoma homes are more updated than those of most other pueblos

Acoma homes are more updated than those of most other pueblos

Propane for fuel

Propane for fuel

The Acoma have also recently opened a large casino, something that the Hopi or Zuni have not or probably never will do.

View of valley from mesa top

View of valley from mesa top

The pottery is much sought-after by collectors. Pots exhibit complex geometric patterns on thin clay walls with fluted rims and often decorated with a characteristic black paint made from pulverized hematite rock. The coveted, hand-coiled pottery is very expensive, but more affordable ones made from pour-molded stock have the same meticulous hand-painted patterns.

acoma_seed_pot

Acoma seed pot (Wikipedia)

Zuni Pueblo (NM)


The town of Zuni is indistinguishable from any other small American town. The only difference is that it is inhabited by about 6,000 Zuni people. Like the Hopi, Zuni are thought to be descended from the Ancient Puebloans who famously and mysteriously abandoned their cliff dwellings centuries ago, but the languages of the two groups are meaningfully unrelated.

Many of the Pueblo Indians offer guided tours, the best way to get a sense of the culture and way of life. We took one to the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church (no longer used as a Catholic church) where the guide talked about Zuni culture, which (again like the Hopi) is matrilineal for the purposes of primary clan affiliation and land ownership. However, it is the men who take part in all religious activities, which seems to consume a large portion of their waking hours. The women perform the more traditional roles, such as preparing food and keeping the home. The Zuni have highly complex social relationships and practice a complex religion that are unlike that of other Pueblo Indians.

A researcher has suggested that there is a genetic connection between the Zuni and Japanese. She speculates that 13th-century Japanese Buddhist wayfarers may have sailed across the Pacific and eventually discovered and mixed with the Zuni sometime during the thirteenth century. There are tantalizing connections, such as a serious kidney disease, many words that are similar for the same things (cognates), symbols (such as the chrysanthemum), cosmological beliefs and artistic motifs that are common to both. Zuni origin tales tell of an emergence from the underworld (Grand Canyon) and eventual migration to their current and final location. There is no tale of any ancestors having crossed an ocean, though the word is associated with certain mythological figures. The book was also translated into Japanese; for this reason, many Japanese visit the Zuni pueblo.

Corn maidenThe arts & crafts shops and proprietors were happy to educate us about Zuni artistry—their fine stone inlays in silver jewelry, stone fetishes, their pottery with cultural and religious motifs and kachina dolls, who like the Hopi consider them spirits from the San Francisco peaks that lie to the west.

Curiously, the Zuni allow you to take photos for a $10 fee, which makes you wonder to what extent the issue that one’s spirit being trapped in images is taken seriously by all native tribes in the area. The Hopi seemed genuinely concerned, but for a fee, it’s not an issue with the Zuni?

fried chickenWe had lunch at the Inn at Halona, where (during my research) a website highly recommended the fried chicken with chile sauce. The restaurant at the “inn” turned out to be a deli tucked away in a grocery store and the fried chicken just like what you’d find at any supermarket behind the fast food counter. The red chile sauce was served in a small plastic tub. Pretty disappointing.

Hopi Villages (Arizona)


One of my biggest apprehensions as a tourist is—being viewed as a tourist. Not that there is anything I can do about it. You kind of stick out, so to speak, whether it’s the backpack, camera, REI clothes, synthetic zippered-khaki pants, even shorts in certain parts of the world, anything that pegs you as being different from the locals. Economically speaking, many people rely on tourism for their livelihood. It’s the classic dichotomy: you are the income and the intruder, a necessary evil.

And so it was that my wife and I went to visit a Hopi village, one of the oldest pueblos in the Southwest, a community of people living high atop a mesa in a remote part of northern Arizona. Many families still live there in modest homes. The drive to the top was over a dirt road. Rather than just roaming around unescorted, guided tours are provided that can be arranged at the community center.

Hopi pueblo, probably Walpi - NARA - 523645

Hopi pueblo, probably Walpi – NARA – 523645 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went on a guided tour of Sichomovi and Walpi, the latter one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States and where there is no electricity or water. Besides a rehearsed explanation of Hopi culture and life, one that sounded like it had been given many times before, there were stops at tables where artists were selling kachina dolls and pottery, most of them exquisite—and beyond our means. So here we were, tourists, upon whom the artists’ livelihood depended. We felt guilty each time we were invited to look at an artist’s wares, only to decline a purchase after each was gracious enough to talk about the symbolism of his/her artwork.

After the tour, we were free to walk around. On our way to the car, a grandmotherly woman was standing outside her home and invited us in. I knew we were in trouble. She showed us her crafts for sale. It took all our will power to thank her and not buy anything.

The sun was intense at this high altitude, even though the temperature was only about 80 degrees. I’m not sure how I felt about the visit. This was our first visit to a pueblo, and it was informative. The guilt-trip that was gnawing at me was self-imposed, of course. Was it better not to have come at all? No, of course not.

No photography is allowed in this (and many other) Indian pueblos, so there are no pictures I can share.

Down below the mesa, we had a Hopi lunch at the Hopi Cultural Center, a lamb stew and a pinto bean stew, each with hominy, served with blue corn frybread.