Small tree with pueblo houses behind
Culture & tradition,  History,  New Mexico

Taos Pueblo: home of the Red Willow People

When the first Spanish explorers arrived in what is today northern New Mexico in 1540, and saw the adobe structures of Taos Pueblo, they believed that they had found one of the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola. These were rumoured to be dotted across the desert plains of this region. Some say the sunlight glinting off the straw embedded in the adobe mud fooled Europeans into thinking there was gold in the soil.

There may not be gold here, but there is treasure of a different kind to be found: the stories and culture of a people tied to this place by tradition and love of their homeland.

Chillies hanging from blue window frame
Chillies drying

Visitors are free to wander around parts of the pueblo on their own, although some sections are cordoned off for privacy. But we decided to take a tour (free, although tips are of course welcome). We were very pleased that we had done so. Our young guide was excellent and shared more about the culture here than we had learned at Acoma Pueblo a few days earlier; she was still a little guarded, however, on the subject of traditional beliefs.

We heard lots about the way of life here in the Pueblo and elsewhere on Taos tribal lands; and she also talked about her own life growing up here. A university student, she was paying her way through college by working here as a guide over the weekends and in college holidays.

But it was clear from how she spoke about her home that she also sees this work as her way of giving something back to the community; she would not dream of taking work outside the Pueblo. She also told us something about her hopes for the future; about the balance between traditional and Catholic beliefs; and about relationships (and marriages) between different tribes. I really felt I got to know so much more about the people here than at Acoma; the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be a largely historic curiosity.

San Geronimo Church

Our tour of Taos Pueblo started here, at the church that sits in the heart of the village. And isn’t it a stunner, with that combination of adobe and white against the blue sky? I could have photographed it for hours! Only the exterior though, as photographing the interior is strictly forbidden.

This church, the third in the pueblo to be dedicated to Saint Jerome, was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo and a santo of him can be seen in the church, as well as one of the Virgin. It is the custom to change the clothing of the santos several times a year, according to the seasons and festivals. When we were there Mary was dressed in a gold-coloured cloth, for the autumn and harvest.

The church has the traditional heavy viga ceiling and is very much in use as a place of worship. About 90% of the Pueblo Indians describe themselves as Catholic, although the majority of these practise that religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so; the two belief systems are quite complimentary in their eyes.

The old church and cemetery

As the Spanish conquered the area now known as New Mexico, they brought with them their religion, which they imposed on the defeated inhabitants. Thus the first Spanish-Franciscan mission was built here in Taos Pueblo by Spanish priests, using native labour, in about 1619. It was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo – but did not last long. Worsening relations between conquerors and conquered gave rise to the Pueblo Revolt. This uprising was co-ordinated by several different pueblo communities, through a series of secret meetings held here at Taos Pueblo and covert communications between tribes. In August 1680 more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors attacked a number of Spanish settlements. They killed 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed.

Twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish re-colonized the province. There were on-going skirmishes with the inhabitants of Taos Pueblo, who were repeatedly attacked for refusing to provide corn for starving settlers in Santa Fe. However by 1706 things had settled down enough for the San Geronimo Mission to be rebuilt. This second church is the one we see in ruins here today.

The 1847 uprising

So why is it too now in ruins? We have another revolt to blame for that, one which our young guide talked about still with bitterness in her voice.

In 1846 the United States conquered this territory, which at that point still formed part of Mexico, and installed a governor, Charles Bent. The Mexican loyalists plotted to oust the conquerors, and enlisted the support of pueblo peoples. In early 1847 the uprising began, centred on Taos and led by a Mexican, Pablo Montoya, and a Taos Puebloan, Tomas Romero. The latter led a group of Native Americans who broke into the home of Governor Bent, shot and scalped him in front of his family. Further attacks followed in the area, and the US army retaliated. They moved up from Santa Fe and pushed the insurgents back as far as Taos Pueblo, where they barricaded themselves into the church, thinking that its thick adobe walls would offer sufficient protection.

During the battle that followed however, the US military breached a wall of the church; they fired cannons into it, killing about 150 rebels and wounding many more. As our guide told it, women and children were also taking shelter there and were killed in the fighting, although other accounts that I’ve read don’t mention this. The US also captured 400 more men, while only seven of their own troops died in the battle. The next day they tried some of these captives in a very one-sided trial; and they hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was questionable use of violence of both sides.

The ruins today

The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle. Around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought though that this cemetery dates right back to the very first church, and as at Acoma it holds several layers of graves. Unlike Acoma, there are no restrictions on photographing the cemetery. But you are not allowed to enter it, nor to climb on the crumbling walls that surround it. Our guide explained that even the Pueblo residents only enter twice a year: once on the Day of the Dead, and once on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. On these occasions they go to visit the grave, not to mourn but to celebrate a life well lived.

Multi-storey living

The most distinctive structures here are the multi-storied, multi-home North House (Hlauuma in the native Tiwa) and South House (Hlaukwima). These are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA; they can be regarded as an early example of an apartment block, although built in this manner as a form of defence.

The North House consists of five storeys and the South of four. They are built entirely of adobe, with walls several feet thick in places. These walls are regularly re-plastered with mud to keep the structure sound. Originally, the buildings had no doors or windows and entry could be gained only from the top of the buildings by means of ladders. But gradually openings have been added over time, as the need for defence declined and the need for easier access took over. My photos are all of the North House, as the South was in deep shadow when we visited.

The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that:

‘Pueblo de Taos is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day. … The multi-tiered adobe dwellings still retain their original form and outline, but details have changed. Doors, which traditionally were mostly used to interconnect rooms, are now common as exterior access to the ground floors and to the roof tops on upper stories. Windows, which traditionally were small and incorporated into walls very sparingly, are now common features. The proliferation of doors and windows through time at Taos reflects the acculturation of European traits and the relaxing of needs for defensive structures. In addition to ovens located outdoors, fireplaces have been built inside the living quarters.’

UNESCO

Red Willow Creek

Small stream with pueblo houses on far side
Red Willow Creek

A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known as Red Willow Creek or Rio Pueblo de Taos. The stream begins high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, at the tribe’s sacred lake, Blue Lake. A traditional belief among the Taos Pueblo people is that their ancestors originated from the waters of this lake. Hence they refer to themselves as the Red Willow People.

The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century. It was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. At the time he said:

This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. The Congress of the United States now returns that land to whom it belongs … I can’t think of anything more appropriate or any action that could make me more proud as President of the United States.

The people regard this restoration as the most important event in their recent history; they see it as having set a precedent for self-determination for all American Indian people, tribes and nations, so clearly Nixon did some things right!

The creek flows gently through the Pueblo. It provides the water essential for life here: drinking, cooking, bathing and for religious activities. Even in the depths of winter, which is harsh at this height above sea level, it never completely freezes. Because the water is the main source of drinking water visitors are asked not to paddle in it.

Pueblo homes

As well as the multi-storey homes of the two main houses, there are several streets of smaller individual ones. These are also built from adobe, in the traditional style. Many still have mica windows instead of glass, as you can see in some of my photos. You can also clearly see the viga beams that support the roof jutting out through the adobe wall.

Although all these houses are owned and cared for by a Pueblo family, only a few are inhabited full-time; most are used more as holiday homes for festivals and special family occasions. The 150 or so who live here permanently do so as their ancestors would have done, without electricity or plumbing. Those that live elsewhere will have ‘all mod cons’ in their properties. The rationale for not doing so here is to preserve a traditional way of life in this sacred spot; it isn’t through a more general aversion to modernisation such as that practiced, for instance, by religious groups such as the Amish.

Traditional ovens

After our visit to Acoma we were quick to recognise the beehive ovens which sit outside most homes here. Known as horno, they were introduced by the Spanish. They in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so their similarity to those seen in North Africa is unsurprising. The ovens are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out and rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked.

Adobe house and oven

Adobe oven and house with mother and children
Typical homes with ovens in front

Traditional crafts

Several of the homes in the Pueblo have been adapted to serve as small shops, selling traditional crafts. Even though we didn’t want to buy anything, we went in a few to see inside the ancient dwellings.

We particularly liked the Morning Talk shop, which had an interesting mix of pottery, drums, dream-catchers, jewellery and more. And I also enjoyed talking to the owner of the Summer Rain Gift Shop where the jewellery looked especially good. We didn’t buy anything at the Pueblo (I was sort-of all shopped out at this point). But I was tempted by the ‘smudges’ – small bundles of cedar and sage bound with grasses. These are traditionally burned in ceremonial cleansings, and have a lovely scent. They would be wonderful to toss on a fire at Christmas, or simply to leave in a bowl like pot-pourri. Afterwards I rather regreted not buying a couple, especially as they only cost a few dollars.

I left Taos Pueblo with a renewed respect for how its people are maintaining their old traditions whilst adapting to the 21st century – something epitomised by our young guide.

I visited New Mexico in 2011

21 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    Good for you to have taken a tour and learned so much! The historical details were fascinating, the heartrending invasions of the Spanish and later Americans. I didn’t realize their living arrangements still had no modern updates. I especially love the photo of the old church from the cemetery.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah, you found this! Thank you Ruth 🙂 Yes, the tour was really worth while, especially as we could also look around on our own afterwards and take our photos (at Acoma Pueblo we had to stay with our tour group throughout, individual exploration isn’t allowed). It’s really helpful to understand that history and how it still shapes people’s lives and feelings.

  • notablenance

    I totally loved this blog and learned so much. One thing that stood out was the history of the (beehive oven) I didn’t know they adopted them from the Moors, and that they are similar to those seen in North Africa! We have one at the Spanish mission where I’ve worked for 18 years as a docent. I’ve taught about how it was used. For example it took 4 hrs. to bake bread. Now, on very special occasions, meat has been cooked in the Horno for Docent barbeques. I also loved all your photos of the Adobes amazing and unique architecture. You’ve done a great job writing the history of the Pueblo and I think you’d make a wonderful docent!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Nancy, I’m really pleased you got so much out of this post 😀 We don’t use the word ‘docent’ in the UK but I guess the equivalent would be a museum volunteer guide? It’s not a million miles from the field I did work in. I trained and worked as a professional librarian for many years, mainly working with children. I then ended up working at a government body called the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. My focus there was national library policy but I worked closely with museums sector colleagues 🙂

  • Amy

    This is a beautiful post for this special place. We visited there a few years ago. We joined a local tour and got to know its history.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 I highly recommend New Mexico if you’re ever looking for a US state to tour. There’s such variety there – lots of history, great landscapes, interesting towns …

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I think there’s something special about a guide who feels connected to the place. I felt the same on our tours in Rapa Nui where we had guides who were born and brought up on the island, who could talk from personal experience

  • Suzanne

    That’s the ultimate in life combination of the positives from our history interwoven into modern life. It’s honoring our ancestors. The use of language, arts and crafts and the growing of food are good examples.
    Very detailed post Sarah. I’ve never been to Mexico.

  • gaiainaction

    So I learnt something new which is the word ‘adobe’, gosh I really like their traditional building style so neat and clean and all the rounded forms too. A very interesting post Sarah, happy to have read it and enjoyed your lovely photos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      And I’m very happy that you enjoyed the post 🙂 That building style is common all over that part of the US as there aren’t many other natural resources for construction (forests, stone etc.) I’ll have to share some of my photos of Santa Fe one day as examples!

  • wetanddustyroads

    This was a really fascinating read … it’s unbelievable how much history one can find in such a small place. Thanks Sarah, I’v enjoyed this post and photo’s very much 🌸.

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