The Hopi Pueblo is extremely isolated – in the middle of the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona – but most of the other pueblo villages are more accessible, clustered near the Rio Grande valley in northeastern New Mexico. Since this area also contains the population center of New Mexico – from Albuquerque through Santa Fe to Taos – these pueblos attract many more tourists, and they have clearly learned how to manage this tourist influx to their benefit – providing income for the tribe, while minimizing the intrusion upon their way of life.
Acoma Pueblo is about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, and their village on top of a mesa, “Sky City” (they clearly hired a branding consultant before the other pueblos) has many similarities to the Hopi mesa villages – masonry and adobe houses tightly clustered around plazas, with a very defensible location hundreds of feet above the valley floor. There has been this ongoing dispute between Acoma and Walpi, as to which is the oldest existing settlement in the US, or the oldest continuously-inhabited, etc. The different clans own the houses in Acoma, just as in Walpi, but Acoma seems to have a more organized approach to actually living there. All the members of the tribe have more modern houses in the valley, but they sign up to be in residence on the mesa top for a year or so, living without running water or modern utilities.
As you enter the Acoma reservation, you first spot this mesa ahead, a striking and isolated element in the horizontal landscape. We were told that the Acoma people first considered this as the site for their village, but that two people were struck by lightning after climbing the mesa, and this was not taken as a good sign.
To visit Acoma you head to the Sky City Cultural Center, a new building at the foot of the mesa, which has a museum, meeting center, café and gift shop. The architecture is based upon the traditional Puebloan forms, with a series of boxy volumes that contrast in size and color. It is at a much bigger scale than the adobe buildings, and reminded me of some of the recent National Park buildings which work in the local vernacular, in a much more thoughtful way than you see in commercial buildings ineptly imitating the style.
However, visitors are allowed to walk back down the ancient pathway at the end of the tour if they wish. It is easy to see how defensible this route is, and also how tiresome it would be to carry everything up.
There was a lot of construction going on while we were there, and in a very organized manner. It is clear that there is much greater concern for the historical integrity of the new building than at Walpi, and this might be directly due to the huge numbers of tourists who visit here. The tourists are probably much more interested in seeing authentic-looking buildings (rather than ones with obvious Simpson Strong-Tie connectors), and the tourist income can pay for those careful renovations.
Narrow streets run between the plazas in the village. The Hopi mesas are pretty narrow, and small villages are very near each other, whereas Acoma is one, much bigger settlement (Sky City, not Sky Village).
The mesa is a big solid rock, so excavating kivas into the ground would have been difficult. So here they are built of masonry above ground, but still entered in the traditional way through the roof. These ladders are a recent reconstruction – when the native religion was being actively suppressed by the Spanish and the Americans, the big ceremonial ladders were a tip-off to the authorities, as well as a visible symbol. So the residents used less conspicuous ladders that could be hidden, and posted a lookout.
but there are some new buildings. They are clearly based upon the same premises as the old style, but are not pretending to be ancient. Acoma felt more like a European village, where you can sometimes see this blending of old and new in a vernacular tradition.
The Catholic church, San Esteban del Rey from 1640, is by a large plaza and cemetery on one side of the mesa. While we were told the church is not used for any religious services, our guide was clear that we couldn’t take photos of the church interior, or of the cemetery, and implied that most of the current tribe members shunned the Church in favor of their traditional beliefs. When she was pressed by a tourist for some more detail on this, she just said, We don’t talk about that. It seemed to me that there was a big difference between Hopi and Acoma here – they didn’t want to discuss their beliefs, but they were generally unconcerned about photographs in the village, whereas with the Hopi it was the opposite. (The Hopi talk about their legends to a certain degree, but obviously there are many secret parts they’re not mentioning.)
The questions of the tourists strongly reflected the preoccupations of modern Americans – sex and money. Acoma Pueblo is matrilineal, so the tourists were very interested in how that affected marriage conventions, divorce, and especially, disposition of property after a divorce. What struck me as strange was that all of these questions about Acoma society could be answered by reading a book, whereas the one aspect of their culture that required a visit to comprehend was the nature of their physical settlement. Yet I didn’t hear one question about the village or its buildings, which reinforced my feeling that Americans are generally completely oblivious to the meaning of the built environment around them, focussing more upon the more abstract organizational and relationship issues. Americans don’t really care about the house as a physical artifact, they just want to understand what it’s worth and who gets it after the divorce.
One of the larger plazas was remarkable in that it had a tree, the first one we had seen on any mesa top. It was the urbanized version of all the garden valleys in the desert we had been seeing, the organic surrounded by mineral. It is adjacent to a small pool, which acts as a cistern.
Santa Clara Pueblo is located on the Rio Grande River, between Santa Fe and Taos, in what might be called the Pueblo Belt – many different, distinct reservations are adjacent here. We were attracted to this pueblo by their renowned, abstract black-on-black pottery, and we stumbled upon a small gallery run by a potter of about my age, who showed us his and a few others’ work. He took the time to explain how their firing process worked, which was amazing in the contrast between simple and rather ad hoc facilities they used and the incredible sophistication of the final products. They don’t have large, permanent kilns, but rather build a small one every time out of rocks and metal sheets, achieving the black finish not though a glaze, but by packing the kiln shut with dirt at the right time, so the fire is dampened and the pots are smoked. They then burnish the pots with a stick to get the shiny surface. It must have taken generations to get that process right, a process that must be learned by every new potter. The approach relies upon a complex series of steps that must be guided by experience and judgement, rather than complicated tools or equipment. We leaned a lot, and once again we found that buying some art (in this case a couple of extraordinary small pots for Linda) gave us a great excuse to spend time talking to some wonderful people.
and there was a relatively lush landscape everywhere. There was a newer part of town immediately adjacent to the old village, with schools, administrative buildings and detached houses. Some of the older houses were in disrepair and boarded up, but others had been recently rebuilt. Santa Clara doesn’t get the tourist throngs of Acoma, as it more resembles a normal western town, and isn’t the anomaly of a Sky City. But its location right on the Albuquerque-Taos axis makes it much easier for the residents to participate in the larger economy off the reservation, and so rather than the large-scale and highly-coordinated renovations we saw at Acoma, the work we saw here was at the level of the individual house, probably based on what one family was able to accomplish.
Finally we visited Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site located north of the city of Taos, which is the Mecca of pueblos for architects. It is mainly known for the large building on the north side of the village, a multi-story complex which antedates our own multi-family condos by at least 600 years. Architects tend to respond to the simple cubic forms – the irregular but similar volumes based upon the construction system with bearing walls and the span of small trees.
Everywhere I’ve travelled in the past 35 years, I’ve noticed a bias inherent in how architects and historians think about and document important places: there is always an emphasis upon the building as an object, but a relative disregard for the importance of the setting, whether urban or natural. The north building at Taos is truly remarkable, an incredible pile of abstract forms that gets at the primal idea of dwelling in the same way as do the cliff dwellings, but the natural setting is no less incredible.
In the Northwest we’re used to seeing big mountains from in town, but those mountains are usually 50 miles away from the cities, which are set on the water. In all the cities in northeastern New Mexico, the cities are right at the base of the mountains, and their visual presence dominates the place. This is even stronger at Taos Pueblo, and not just due to proximity. These mountains were the traditional preserve of the Pueblo, containing their sacred Blue Lake, but they ended up being part of the National Forest system. The Taos Indians fought a protracted legal battle to get them back, which they eventually won in 1970. So the overwhelming beauty of the city of Taos has really been preserved by the Pueblo, which has kept the mountains free of development (or logging).
When we see the mountains behind the pueblo, it is not merely the visual background/foreground relationship which gives it power. It is knowing that there is a deep cultural connection between the natural world and the built world, that the pueblo was built where it was to have that relationship to the mountains.
This relationship is then strengthened by the stream that comes from the mountains, and runs through the center of the pueblo. There are obviously great practical benefits to having a stream in the middle of your village, but once again, the power derives more from the symbolic relationship than the pragmatics. The mountain – the stream – the people: the primal aspect of dwelling in a specific place on earth couldn’t be made any stronger.
As with any great work of art, analysis can’t begin to capture the multiple layers of meaning implicit in the work itself. You can dissect the pieces to try to explicitly understand what is going on, but you just experience it more directly. Taos Pueblo is simply one of the most beautiful places built by humans I’ve ever seen, and we wandered around happily for hours, soaking up every aspect and detail.
However, this is a newer church, built in 1850. The first church was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and the remains of the second can be seen below, standing in the middle of the cemetery. Taos was the center of a revolt resisting the transfer of power of when the territory was ceded to the US in 1847. The governor was killed, and the rebels retreated to this church, which was destroyed in a bombardment, killing all those within. The ruins now stand as a simple memorial.
The kivas and traditional ceremonial spaces are located towards the edge of the village, on both the north and south sides. Taos gets a lot of visitors, and they are explicit about which areas are off limits.
I haven’t seen many places in this country where there is such a complete or beautiful expression of people inhabiting a place, with their complex culture and history being made visible, accomplished with an abstract, built formalism that clearly says that residents are claiming this place,
Taos was right up there with the places we most wanted to visit on this trip, but the experience of seeing it was so much better than we anticipated. And seeing several pueblos led to a much better understanding of them all – before visiting we mainly could see the similarities among them, but now it is apparent how they are all clear and vivid places, something you have to directly experience to understand.