Saturday, May 16, 2009

Taos Pueblo

I first visited Taos Pueblo in 1971. I was captivated by the feeling of the place and by the people who have roots there. When Merry and I visited last Sunday I expected the passage of 38 years to have effected major changes in the place. I was wrong. There is a new road to serve the modest new casino and a new community office at the entrance to the village. The ancient pueblo buildings are in slightly better condition than I remembered. Otherwise the place seems unchanged.

To reach Taos Pueblo you drive a few miles north of the artsy village of Taos then a few miles back the road that leads to Taos Mountain. Last weekend this road through dusty sage brush was partly lined by blooming sand plum and choke cherry trees nearer the creek banks. A few miles after passing the casino the road comes to the traditional village where all cars are directed to a small dirt parking lot. All visitors pay a $10 fee to enter and an additional $5 fee for a camera.

The entire village is made of adobe, surrounded by an adobe wall. Red Willow Creek cuts through the middle of the village which is arranged around a large packed earth plaza the same color as the buildings. Multiple story ancient buildings lie on both the north and south sides of the creek. These older buildings have been continuously occupied for more than 1000 years. Every year the adobe has been renewed. Numerous small adobe houses are scattered about. Some seem occupied, some not. The west side of the plaza is dominated by a beautiful church. Tours are offered, but we decided to explore on our own. Tourists are pretty much restricted to the immediate area of the plaza, and no climbing to the upper levels of the pueblo is allowed. The doors to about a dozen houses with items to sell are open to visitors, some in the main structures, some in small outlying buildings.

We were attracted to a one room house with a covered porch. This is the house of Kalbatu White Wolff, a jeweler. He has two tables of nicely made necklaces composed of hishi and silver beads. Hishi are small beads of stone, shell or coral. As soon as we approached he began a fast patter of stories about the pueblo and his family history. He invited us into the 10' x 10' house. He told us his grandfather had owned the house, but that it was much older. His grandfather put in the door and a very small window. Before those modern renovations the house could only be entered by ladder through a hole in the roof. A small cone shaped adobe fireplace was fit into the east corner, made by molding adobe around a tree trunk then removing the tree. He told us he inherited the house, but because the deed was lost he had to petition the tribe for a new one. His case was unusual since he claimed ownership not only to the house but the open porch area that normally would be tribal land, as was all unenclosed land. He was lucky. We purchased one of his necklaces. A few new people approached. He started his patter over at the beginning. We walked on.

The day was clear and just starting to heat up. We walked the length of the north building then crossed the spring full creek on a log bridge. There seem to be more detached houses on the south side, arranged around narrow alleys. At the back of one of these alleys a door was open. I glanced in but saw no one. I called out “hello.” A voice behind a curtained door invited us in. This two room house is the shop and studio of Meko Concha, a potter. A few shelves held some bowls and a half dozen small bear sculptures. I was immediately attracted to the bears. He explained his process of finely screening the micaceous clay he works with. I picked up one of the bears. “Is that one speaking to you?” An 8x10 black and white photo on the wall that looked exactly like Mr. Concha turned out to be his grandfather. The three of us talked for a long time about the politics of native culture. Events from the past two hundred years seem totally present to him. He explained that some of the proceeds from the casino were being used to repurchase the 5 miles in every direction, centered on the Pueblo church, that the Spanish granted to his people. They now own about 100,000 acres including Taos Mountain and the entire Red Willow Creek watershed. “Land and water are politics in New Mexico.”

Outside again the day was heating up. We walked past a line of traditional beehive shaped bread ovens called “hornos.” Dogs slowly shifted from one shadowy spot to a cooler one. We crossed the creek again and entered the 1850 churchyard of San Geronomo. Small bouquets of fresh flowers graced each windowsill inside the cool dark church. The altar is crowded with very old wooden statuary called “santos,” the largest of which represents the Virgin Mary. On this day the santos were each carefully wrapped in pink organza, except for the statue of Jesus. On one side of the altar sits an empty casket, also draped in pink. Native american Catholic churches contain these caskets as a reminder of how the Spanish converted them to christian funeral practices. By the altar rail commemorative candles flickered. We sat in a front pew of the empty church to take it all in. Without saying anything to me Merry got up, went to the rail, lit a candle then came back and took my hand with tears in her eyes. I was overcome with grief. The night before I learned that my mother had died. Here on Mother's Day in a church of a religion that I do not follow the reality of the situation crashed on me and I cried.

We sat there in memory a little while. A man from the village came in to replenish the supply of candles. The spell was broken. Outside again the clear light was blinding. We smiled at a tour guide gathering her charges. Taos is timeless in a way you can only know by standing in its plaza. I smiled. I was glad I had returned. The bear now standing on our mantle in St. Louis reminds us of the day.

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