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 Indian labour in about 1619, and was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo. It 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, killing 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and they drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed. Some accounts also tell of a previous uprising, in 1637, when an even earlier church was destroyed, but the official Taos Pueblo website only mentions the 1680 one.
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 is the church whose ruins can be seen here today. 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 and 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 hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was some questionable use of violence on both sides.
The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle, and around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought in fact 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.
The Pueblo is located a few miles north of Taos itself and you’ll need a car to get here (or take a taxi). It is open Monday - Saturday 8.00am - 4.00pm and Sunday 8.30am - 4.00pm. The guided tours start from 9.00 am. I recommend coming early when the light is better for photos and there are fewer people around – we arrived soon after 9.00am on a Sunday and it was fairly quiet.
When you arrive you’ll be directed as to where to park, as there are a couple of places just outside the Pueblo – you can’t drive into the Pueblo itself. Once you’ve parked you need to pay your admission fee at the ticket booth to the left of the gate. When we visited (October 2011) the fee was $10 for adults, and we also paid a further $6 each to use our cameras. Unlike at Acoma, you can take video as well as still images, but you need to pay for each camera you plan to use (including your mobile phone if using the camera on it) and the images should not be intended for commercial use.
Also unlike Acoma, you are free to wander around on your own, following the map you’ll be given when you pay, although some areas are off-limits to tourists. However, based on our experience I would strongly recommend taking one of the guided tours as an introduction to the pueblo, before going off to explore some more. Our young guide was excellent, and shared more about the culture here they we learned at Acoma, although she was still a little guarded 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 about her own life growing up here. A university student, she is 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 and the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be mainly a historic curiosity.
These tours are free (or rather I guess, included in your admission price, whether you choose to take one or not), but tips are encouraged – and in our experience, deserved.
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 (I have also read four in some sources), was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. That church, whose evocative ruins still stand near the entrance to the Pueblo, was first built in 1619, but destroyed in the Spanish Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt on the same site (see my next tip for more on the earlier churches).
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 this religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so and that the two belief systems were quite complimentary in their eyes.
The most distinctive structures in Taos Pueblo, and the ones you will see in every photo, 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, and are really an early example of an apartment block, though built in this manner as a form of defence.
The North House consist 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 replastered 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 to have easier access took over.
The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that the:
“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.”
A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known variously 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. The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century, but was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. They regard this restoration as the "single most dramatic event" in their recent history, so clearly Nixon got some things right!
The creek flows gently through the Pueblo, providing the water essential for life here – for 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 – but it seems that nobody told the dog in photo two that the stream was off limits!
Parking is outside the main entrance: get there early in the day as it can fill quickly. Lock your car and don't leave any valuables in plain sight. Tickets are obtained at the booth just outside the entrance and are $10 for adults, $5 for students over 10 year of age, and free for children 10 and under. Allow a couple of hours for your visit, most of which is outside so come prepared for heat and sun in the summer. Do check the website before your visit for dates the pueblo is closed for tribal ceremonies.
There is also a fee for photography: $6 each for still or video cameras and cell phones. A tag will be attached to them so it's evident that you've paid for a permit. Special permits are needed for commercial cameras and sketching.
Your ticket comes with a pamphlet of pueblo highlights for self-guided touring but it's very general and rather poorly organized. If this is your first visit, I highly recommend taking one of the 30-minute guided tours (ask when you buy your ticket) as you'll get a little more information plus be able to ask questions. The tours are free but a gratuity for the guide is expected. In addition to/instead of a tour, I'd recommend purchasing a small, softcover book by anthropologist John Bodine entitled "Taos Pueblo - A Walk through Time", an easy and very interesting read about the people, the place, and some of the history with wonderful vintage, sepia-toned photos from as far back as 1880. Look for it in area bookshops.
On the northwest side of the pueblo and encircled by a low wall is a cemetery with the remains of the 3rd church of San Geronimo (St. Jerome), patron saint of the pueblo mission. The information I've been able to gather has been inconsistent at best but according to an NPS document on historic places, two earlier churches were destroyed, in 1637 and 1680 respectively, by the puebloans during revolts rising from ill-treatment by the Spanish, and this third mission church constructed around 1706.
In 1847, shortly after the United States took control of the territory from Mexico, Mexican loyalists enlisted the Taos in a violent, 3-week confrontation in which the newly-appointed governor, Charles Bent, was scalped and other officials and citizens killed. When the US Army arrived from Santa Fe to end the rebellion, the defenders barricaded themselves behind the massive walls of this mission and the troops mounted a full assault with heavy artillery - destroying the church and killing 150-200 people. Several dozen others were later arrested and hung for their roles in the uprising. The ruin of the mission walls and bell tower stand above burial ground that likely contains the remains of those who perished in that sad and bloody battle.
The cemetery probably dates back to the first mission church and has been able to accommodate many, many generations of Taos due to recycling of gravesites. A traditional burial involves dressing the loved one in their best, wrapping them in a blanket, and consigning them to the earth: no coffin or permanent marker. Natural decomposition allows the site to be reused after a number of years. You will see a number of stone markers, and coffins are occasionally used but they're the exception.
This area of the pueblo is considered sacred so they ask you not to enter the cemetery to sit/stand on the fragile outer walls.
The two largest and oldest structures in the pueblo are North House (Hlauuma) and South House (Hlaukwima). North House has five levels and is the largest inhabited, multistoried building of its type in existence. South House is across the creek and is four stories high. When both adobe structures were built, they had no doorways or windows: access was by ladders which could be pulled up if under enemy attack, and you scrambled down another ladder into your living space through an opening in the roof. Wooden portales (open porches) covered parts of the plaza-facing sides and terraces to provide shade.
Living quarters were two rooms deep with the front serving as living and sleeping space, and the back as kitchen and storage. Fireplaces vented through the roofs provided heat and cooking facilities. Adobe walls several feet thick also helped keep the rooms cool in summer and warmer in winter. While adobe is fairly resilient, the elements do take their toll so exterior walls are repaired annually.
Today, some of the ground-floor "apartments" operate as craft shops (look for signs) and are open to the public so duck into a few to get an idea of how they look inside. The cozy rooms are whitewashed with later additions of windows and/or skylights to brighten them up, and doors and window frames are painted in Southwest hues of blue, red or green. Upper stories are now mainly used just for storage but are still accessed only by ladder and are not open to visitors.
Taos was designated a UNESCO site due to preservation of the ancient village structures by people indigenous to the pueblo, and efforts to provide maintenance of those structures using materials native to the region. While that isn't always possible, care is taken to try and preserve the appearance and integrity of this historic place.
Safeguarding of traditional beliefs and culture was also a factor. The pueblo is a small piece of the 100,000 acres within the sovereign nation of the Taos and while most of its roughly 2,000 members choose to live outside of the old village, in standard housing with modern conveniences, the small number who reside within the walls do so as their ancestors would have: without electricity or plumbing. I read that some propane and battery-operated appliances are allowed but the absence of pipes and wiring is by tribal mandate.
All of the dwellings are owned by individual families and they are responsible for the upkeep - both interior and exterior - of their property. Some are artisans who have chosen to turn their small rooms into shops, and others only occupy their ancestral homes during ceremonial periods.
Red Willow Creek - also known as Rio Pueblo de Taos - flows between north and south sides of the pueblo, and is the primary source of water for the inhabitants. The origin of the creek is Blue Lake, high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and very sacred to the Taos' creation story as the birthplace of their people. The lake and surrounding lands were claimed by the U.S. government when they took territorial control of the Southwest in 1848 but in 1970, the lake and 48,000 acres were returned after a long tribal campaign. Blue Lake Wildness Area is now managed by the Taos, and off-limits to the public.
People living within the village haul water from the creek to their homes for washing and drinking so it's important to them that it remain as pure as possible. Livestock must be carefully watered downstream, and wading in the creek is forbidden.
Behind a barrier on the northeast corner of the pueblo are three kivas. Pronounced "KEE-vah", these underground chambers are primarily for religious rituals by tribal males, and have existed in the Southwest for many centuries. If you ever visit Chaco Canyon, you'll be able to see the roofless ruins of many excavated circular kivas dating back well over 1000 years. It's believed that ceremonial kivas are an evolved form of subterranean pit houses that the ancient ancestors lived in before evolving to above-ground structures. Not all kivas are round or below ground, and archeologists seem to have some disagreement about their function in prehistoric times. Let's just say that it's probable that they were once more than ceremonial chambers but that the jury is out.
Whatever the case, it's hard to tell what shape these kivas are as they're completely below ground so all you can see are ladders disappearing through circular entrances in the top. If you were to ask a Taos about their kivas, they'll tell you they're for traditional religious purposes: period. They are so sacred that no non-member of the tribe is ever allowed entry, and the barrier is to keep visitors a respectful distance away.
The fourth (or third, depending on the source) San Geronimo Mission was built in 1850 after the previous one in the cemetery was destroyed in the revolt of 1847. The newest of the pueblo structures, it's made of adobe and has some nicely carved vigas and old santos. As she's often closely associated with the Earth Mother of tribal beliefs, a santo of the Virgin is the predominant figure and her costumes are changed 4 times a year, according to the seasons. The mission is still a functioning church, and no photography is allowed inside.
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500's, pueblo bread was made from ground corn and cooked, tortilla style, on hot, flat stones. The Spanish introduced wheat and these beehive-shaped ovens for baking foods made from it. Seen all over the Southwest, hornos (OR-nos) can be made of sandstone, lava rock, adobe or a combination of the three. To heat them, a cedarwood fire is built inside, left to burn down to coal and ash, and then swept out while the walls are still very hot. The interior is then filled with bread dough, meat or other foods, and the doorway sealed for however long it takes to cook. These ovens are still occasionally used, and horno-baked bread is available for purchase at some of the pueblo craft shops and outdoor stands.
Just like the beehive ovens, the custom of painting doors and window frames various shades of turquoise blues or greens came with the Spanish, and is believed to keep evil spirits out and good ones in. This custom is also observed in other corners of the world - including parts of the Mediterranean, Africa and southern United States - and represents water, which spirits both friendly and not-so aren't able to cross.
There is not much to do except for a visit of the church and browsing of the shops that surround the central open area. The church is elaborate and spacious in the context of the adobe architecture but this does not say much. Only a guide can let you in. The other area available for a peek is around the ruins of the old church turned into a graveyard and the front dwellings around the “plaza” where most of the shops are concentrated; the alleys beyond are off limits. There are expressive signs such as “keep out”, for example, making sure that intruders are kept at bay. The guided tour does not venture beyond this point either. In this sense the only use of the guide is to let you in the church. Plus, of course the information provided but most of it is already public knowledge though the guide books. Redeeming feature is the direct communication with a young Indian woman (in this particular case) that allows for some understanding of the degree of “Indianness” or ” Americanness” and how these traits express themselves.