I struggled with whether I should write this post or not. After my visit to the Crazy Horse Monument and the stir of emotions my experience there elicited in me, I was reluctant to share the experience at the Taos Pueblo. I did not want to be disrespectful of the people living in this community. I did not want to contribute to an exploitation of their lives and livelihoods. In the end, however, I decided to share, because I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the Pueblo, to have a glimpse into Pueblo life. And it is only a glimpse. But I am ever grateful for it nonetheless.
The Pueblo was built sometime between 1000 and 1450. The people who live in the Pueblo today maintain many of the traditions practiced by their ancestors and passed down across the centuries. They had recently held a fall Feast Day, which I sadly did not make it to. For these feast days, the Puebloans allow visitors, but absolutely no photos are to be taken. The feast day honors a combination of traditional beliefs and beliefs incorporated from Christian efforts to convert the “heathens.” As such, there is a melding of custom. A blend of old and new. A demonstration of a people not quite willing to give over their beliefs, but open to influence from the outside. It is an outcome often seen throughout history in conquered peoples. They might be forced into submission, fed a new system of beliefs that they are told they must live by, but they don’t give over completely. Sometimes, they just go underground. They practice in secret. They hide symbols at the base of newly constructed churches that pay homage to their old gods. They hold feast days to honor Christian saints, while performing ancient rituals that only those belonging to the Pueblo understand. They invite people in to share in the celebrations, but keep them at a distance, only allowing them just so close. Close enough to see hints of the history and spirit of a people and system here on this continent long, long before the arrival of the Europeans. But not so close that we share in their secrets. Those they hold closer. And I understand why. It is a way to ensure that their traditions are not turned against them. It is a way to hold on. It is a way to maintain what little power they have to go on living the old ways to any degree.
The Feast Day I had missed was held the week before my visit. We had been unable to go that particular day, and we had also wanted to save the trip there for when a friend of ours was to be in town. The day we went, it was just an ordinary day in the Pueblo. A day when work was being done on maintaining walls and structures whose purpose I could not fathom and was too afraid to ask. It was a day when artisans were selling their goods to the few tourists who arrived on a chilly weekday morning in October. It was a day when the bakers were selling their fry bread from an entry way into their home. It was just an ordinary day. An ordinary day in the life of today’s Puebloans in Taos Pueblo. A place that is now set up to be on display for visitors, where community members sell things to tourists as a way to make a living. They have somehow managed to fit this life into a way of living that still honors private gods and death and tradition and community.
The first thing I noticed, before even stepping inside the walls of the Pueblo, was the dogs. So. Many. Dogs. They were everywhere. For this animal lover, the sign stating the do not pet or feed dogs rule was the only rule it killed me to follow. Not pet the dogs? How does one NOT pet a puppy who is weaving around your legs? How does one not pet and even hug a dog who is shivering in the chilled air? Now, to be clear, these dogs were not neglected. They all looked fat and happy. But still. I had to shove my hands into my pockets more than once to keep them from straying down to the top of a furry head or from impulsively scratching an upturned belly. Inside the Pueblo and just outside its walls, the dogs were roaming with little concern for cars, as there were few around. They greeted visitors but were so well behaved. Not one jumped up on anyone that I saw. Not even the puppy.
As the three of us wandered through the Pueblo and into a few stores, we wondered at the age of the Pueblo. At the history palpable in the adobe walls and outdoor ovens still in use and emitting smells that caused my stomach to rumble. We passed by one abode with a dog laying at the door, which was just barely cracked. I noticed the signs on the door. One said, “Not my President” and another said, “Water is Life.” And a third said, “Open.” As the other two wandered down the adjacent narrow walkway to see what it held, I ventured over to the door. I’m not going to lie. One of my first thoughts was that maybe the dog wanted inside, so if I went in to see what was inside his home, where the sign read “Open,” he would be able to go inside, if he were allowed. I opened the door slowly, unsure of what I’d find.
Paintings lined the walls and a fire burned in the hearth. It smelled of incense. An earthly, calming, peaceful smell. A young man sat at the only table in the room, a small desk lamp casting a glow on the paints and works in progress strewn across the table in front of him. He greeted me with a warm smile, and his dog with a chuckle and kind words as the dog took up post at the man’s feet. I wandered around the room, looking at the paintings and spoke a little with the young man about his work. I found a magnet. A perfect addition to the magnet collection adorning the cabinets in the RV. I called out to the other two when I heard them passing by so that they would know where I was, and they joined me inside. I went up to buy the magnet, talking with the gentleman a bit more about the pieces he was currently working on. I pulled out my money as he wrapped my purchase and laid the cash on the table. The man did not take my money. I pushed it a bit closer to him, to be sure he saw it. He still did not take it. It was as if he was purposefully avoiding touching it. I was a bit perplexed as I took my bag and headed out the door.
We finished our wanderings and made our final stop at a home selling frybread near the entrance. Inside the door, the fire glowed and flute music played. An older man worked on some sort of craft at a desk in the corner of the room, while a woman worked in the kitchen. We claimed the last two pieces of frybread and sat down in front of the fire to share in the sweet goodness. It was the perfect end to the visit.
It humbles me to witness this life. To be welcomed into a community, even if it is a welcome that has become a necessity for survival. I never sensed from the people inside the Pueblo any regret or any resentment for my presence there. I am sure they must feel it sometimes. But I did not see it. I only felt welcome and an openness and kindness from those I encountered. Gail shared with us something else. Something that made the day for me. Something that signified what is good in a place where private gods and death and tradition and community take precedence over the mighty dollar. After I had taken my little brown bag with my magnet inside and turned to leave, Gail had turned back to say something to me. It was then that she saw the young man pick up the money, when he thought no one was looking, cup it in his hands, and bow his head over the top, in gratitude for the gift he received.
But this was my gift too. It wasn’t about the purchase. It was an understanding that my action brought a gift to this young man. My small gesture meant something to him. It was a gift he did not take for granted. And for me, this simple act was in itself a gift of gratitude. This young man, unbeknownst to him, gave mea powerful gift that day in his private gesture of gratitude. It is this that has stuck with me. When we can all look to our everyday and be grateful, when we can see the gifts in the smallest of interactions, in the receipt of a smile or a kind gesture, praise for a job well-done, and even in the mundane, and be grateful for these gifts, we make the world a more forgiving, kinder, gentler place. When we can show a bit of the spirit of Taos Pueblo in our everyday lives, we might touch on something that reaches beyond politics or division or selfishness or self-preservation and into a gratefulness born from honoring private gods (whomever those may be for any of us) and death and tradition and community.
The image below is from a plaque at the ruins in Mesa Verde National Park.