Taos Pueblo: A Trip Back in Time

New Mexico is a fascinating place. In many ways, it feels both old and new at the same time. Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in North America.

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From a U.S. perspective it is associated with the new. It is the 47th State, having only achieved Statehood in 1912. When the Eastern States had well established State identities and were lining up to take sides in the Civil War, New Mexico was part of a large open area thought of as the Wild West. It’s rugged terrain still suggests that to this day.

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Taos Pueblo is a part of New Mexico’s older heritage, having been around for over 1,000 years. It is here that Native American tribal people still practice the culture of their ancestors.

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Taos Pueblo is only several miles to the Northeast of the town of Taos. Admission is $16, and volunteers give free guided tours of the Pueblo (tips recommended). Visiting the Pueblo without taking the guided tour would not do justice to the experience. The tour guide on this particular day was a cheerful father of two who is currently getting an English degree from the University of New Mexico- Taos and was happy to talk about the Pueblo and answer any questions tourists might have.

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Life in the Pueblo sounds quite a bit like life in the Amish country. Within the Pueblo, there is no plumbing or electricity. Much like the Amish, they have a communal living situation that involves a lot of hard work that those outside the village have delegated to technology decades to centuries ago.

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The most significant difference between life in the Pueblo and the life of the Amish is that they do often engage with the outside world. The tour guide indicated that many of the Pueblo’s residents pursue higher education or careers in the military. Taos being a very artistic community, one of the residents became a famous artist and travels quite frequently to sell and talk about her artwork.

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While there is not plumbing or electricity within the Pueblo, cars can be seen all around, which the Taos use to travel outside the Pueblo. While the residents of Taos Pueblo practice ancient cultures, rituals and gender roles within the walls of the Pueblo, when they go forth into the outside world, they often behave quite a bit like everyone else does in the modern world.

The way of life is also distinctly Native American. The river that runs through the Pueblo is considered sacred, visitors are advised not to touch it.

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They also all use the traditional stove, called the Horno (pronounced like the Spanish word orno), to cook their food

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With everyone’s horno outside, it suggests a lifestyle that involves much more time outdoors.

Spiritually, they practice a hybrid faith between the ancient religion of the Taos people and the Catholicism that was forced on them by their Spanish conquistadors.

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As is the case with many Catholic communities, the church serves as a community center. However, rather than Jesus, they place the Virgin Mary at the altar. Their patron Saint is St. Geranimo, a man who refused to join the Catholic church until he was permitted a certain amount of individual autonomy behind his methods of worship and study. One of his oddest preferences; He preferred to pray and write naked.

The traditional indigenous religion is something the villagers do not talk about outside the tribe. The tour guide did indicate that it still played a major role in the lives of the Taos tribe, and that it was “nature based”.

Discussions of history naturally came up. Part of the tour is a visit to the remnants of the first church, which was destroyed in the 1840s by the U.S. military.

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When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican American war, there were a lot of people in Taos, both Mexican and Native American who did not want to be part of the U.S. U.S. officials tried handle this known resentment by appointing Charles Bent as the first territorial governor. It seemed like a logical choice. He was a successful businessman who was known for having good relations with people of Hispanic and Native origin. However, it did not end well for him. He was eventually murdered by the Taos, with support from Mexicans, both resentful of the prospect of being ruled by the United States.

The gripe that his assassins had with him was not about his personality or actions, it was about the sheer fact that they resented being conquered and ruled.

I personally struggle with this situation because I see a lot of myself in Governor Bent. Charles Bent was a very ambitious and successful person who was also cheerful and well liked. As was indicated by the account of his assassination by his five-year-old daughter at the Governor Bent Museum, he was willing to lend a helping hand and go out of his way to understand people from different cultures- even embrace them.

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Ironically had he been a stereotypical business tycoon with no regard for others, he would never had been appointed as Governor and never would have been assassinated. He also could have avoided his fate by turning down the position, which would have required putting concern for others over his own ambitions. Many suggest this course of action, but, like Charles Bent, I am not convinced it leads to true happiness.

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While many of the Pueblo residents pursue higher degrees and career opportunities elsewhere, all indication is that they “always come back” to the Pueblo. The Amish cite preserving their community as their primary reason for rejecting certain technology. The Taos similar rejection of technology seems to have produced a similar result. People here feel a much deeper tie to their community than most of us 21st century Americans. Many of us gladly leave our hometowns for whichever city provides us the best opportunity. Some of us never look back.

Maybe the Taos, in New Mexico, have the right balance, between the old and the new. There is a place for high-tech life and there is a place for low-tech life.

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