Taos Pueblo


David Whitley visits one of the oldest settlements in the US, and quickly gets over the photography ban


The reaction was one of spluttering disgruntlement. Being asked to pay $16 to see what is essentially a collection of quite cool-looking buildings, and then being told you’re not allowed to take any photographs, is always likely to raise the hackles.


That we’d driven for over four hours to get to Taos Pueblo didn’t help. But, playing the responsible tourist, we left the cameras in the car boot and wandered on in.


The initial appeal of the Taos Pueblo is the setting. It’s on a 2,100m-high plateau beneath the tallest mountains in New Mexico. Wheeler Peak, the biggest of the Sangre de Cristo range, comes in at just over 4,000m tall.


But a close second comes the buildings, made traditional adobe style from earth, sand, straw and water. They’re recoated every year as the winter weather cracks the exteriors. They’re remarkably simple, but highly distinctive – the clay-like orange/ brown colour and flat roofs organised in up to five unsymmetrical tiers have a hugely photogenic quality to them.


What is truly remarkable, however, is how long the village has been there. The inhabitants reckon it’s the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the United States, having been built somewhere between 1000AD and 1450AD. There are plenty of other places that would debate that assertion, but there can be no doubt that the tribe was living there way before Spanish adventurers arrived in the area.


The inhabitants are known as the Red Willow People, after the trees lining the stream which provides the Pueblo’s water supply. They’re not easily lumped in as part of a larger tribe, as the village historically kept itself to itself, mixing with outsiders through trade rather than attempts at empire-building. Their language has never been written down or recorded, and the Red Willow People insist it never will be.


The homes within the Pueblo boundaries – although most now live outside with modern amenities – have no running water or electricity. A sign by the stream asks people not to wade in it – an attempt to keep the water quality as high as possible.


Many of the buildings have been turned into arts and crafts shops, or rudimentary restaurants where fry bread tacos are cooked in traditional outdoor ovens. We walked into one of them, perused the tiles, and asked about the photography ban.


It turns out that we’ve arrived on a feast day – it’s part of the San Geromino festival – and that photography has long been banned on all feast days. Any spectacles are for the people, not the world.


But why the festival? And who is San Geronimo? Well, it’s not the Apache warrior Geronimo, as I’d been expecting – he has nothing to do with this area. It’s boring old St Jerome – a Catholic saint who was born somewhere in central Europe in 347AD. He too has nothing to do with Taos, but the woman selling postcards explains that his feast day was the crucial factor in him being celebrated.


There has been an autumn fair going on around September 30th for centuries, it seems. People from other tribes and villages would come to sell crops and pelts. When the Spanish came and foisted Catholicism on Taos Pueblo, they just picked the saint whose dates matched.


Elsewhere, we leaf through textiles for sale in another house, assuming that weaving is a traditional thing in Taos. “It’s not,” the woman replies. “These are made elsewhere, inspired by the Pueblo, but nothing in them has symbolic significance to use.”


Well, if that’s the case, why aren’t they making their own? “Because we’ve never made textiles here. Only a few villages do. We’ve always been a corn-growing community – there are no sheep to raise, and there’s no cotton to grow here.”


The afternoon continues like this, idly asking questions and having expectations confounded. That we’re not allowed to take photos is soon forgotten. Treat people like people, rather than human statues that will look good in a photo album, talk to them, and it’s amazing how much more vivid the picture you get is.


by David Whitley




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