Feast Day at the Pueblo

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I arrived at the square in front of the Adobe church just as the bells were being rung just inside the open door. Mass was over. When the drumming began the bells seemed to be ringing in harmony. The hair stood up on my arms and involuntarily I looked up into a cobalt blue sky remembering the story…

Abiquiu had a unique heritage… no one knows exactly when the village was settled but the story goes that in ancient times ancestors of the Tewa Indians had come from Mesa Verde in Colorado and some peoples called the Asa settled in the Chama valley around Abiquiu. There are at least ten prehistoric pueblo sites that can be found in this area. In the 16th century ( perhaps earlier) the Asa left their homes and began to migrate south to Santo Domingo and west to Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi villages. Sometime later the Asa were forced to leave Hopi country because of severe drought and joined the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly. Here they were treated well and food plants like peach nuts were exchanged. As often happened, some women married into the tribe and later the people returned to Hopiland and built new homes at Walpi, defending the Pueblo’s south side.

From the Great Pueblo revolt beginning in 1680, the Hopi’s were secure on their mesa top and were able to resist Spanish domination for a long while. Other tribes were not so fortunate. Eventually sometime in the 1700’s some Hopi’s began to listen to the Catholic friars and agreed to move eastward. A group of descendants of the old Asa people, about 400 people, returned to New Mexico and settled at Abiquiu for the second time, for this was the place from which their ancestors had departed centuries earlier. Other Indians – the Pawnee, Wichita, Apache, Comanche and Kiowa – had been raised from childhood in Spanish households as servants. In New Mexico both Hispanicized members of these nomadic tribes and Pueblo Indians like the Hopi who broke with their own cultural tradition became known as Genizaros. The Hopi settled in one area of Abiquiu away from the plaza and were known as El Moque. The other group, descendants of Plains or other nomadic Indians clustered around the plaza and village church of Santo Tomas Apostel. The women and children of the Ute and Navajo were often taken in battle and adopted by Abiquiu families adding additional Indian blood to the mix. In 1754 Abiquiu was recognized as a legal community when the village was issued a Land Grant to its Genizaro Indians. Today the villagers think of themselves as Hispanics but they also acknowledge and honor their Native roots that extend back to the southwestern soil with two yearly celebrations, the Feast of Santo Tomas, always held during the last weekend of November and the Feast of Santa Rosa that is held in August…

The drumming became more insistent as the procession appeared at the church door. Santo Tomas led the procession as four young girls dressed in bright red regalia complete with brightly colored ribbons danced in circles along with (led by?) one gifted male dancer named Maurice. The girls had bright red spotted cheeks to signify their purity and held turkey feathers in each hand. This dance honored the young Indigenous girls that were taken as slaves during raids and battles between Native peoples, Mexicans, and Spaniards. New Mexico’s history was so bloody and lasted for so long that I was amazed that these Indigenous peoples survived with any traditions intact. Later, in the evening, the women that were also taken as hostages would be honored at a dinner held in one of the buildings on the plaza.

I joined the people following the pageant around the church. Each time they stopped the dancers circled around, and loud whoops punctuated the air as a gun discharged its bullet. I wondered if the roar of the gun was symbolic of the Spanish Invasion but I read in one of local histories that the point of the Civil war gun blast was to ward off evil spirits. Both could be true. After circling the church the dancers dispersed and disappeared quite suddenly. It was a beautiful morning as my new friend Iren led the way up a steep and winding hill past village houses with astonishing views and crossed Abiquiu creek (which we walked through!) to one of the homes where a celebration was already under way. A table was set up outdoors with Posole as the featured dish. The corn and the sauce were separate and even though I wasn’t particularly hungry I appreciated tasting yet one more rendition of this delicious Mexican dish. Traditional cookies were passed around a number of times with two kinds of cake afterwards. Coffee and wine were also offerings. Three musicians gathered around the metal tables to sing songs and then all were invited to dance. I felt awkward not knowing the steps, and after a few turns left the drumming circle so I could watch everyone else dancing. The general effect was hypnotic.

Eventually the clouds closed in and it became quite cold (it felt like snow) so Iren and I started down the serpentine hill. When we passed the cattails on either side of the road I could understand why this location was chosen for a village because the creek (whose waters were crystal clear) once provided the entire Pueblo with it’s drinking water, and the upper fields were watered by Acequias from the same creek. Below the fields were irrigated by acequias from the winding Chama river. Iren told me that cattle were still raised here, and I saw a horse munching grass in a small pasture with surprisingly thick green grass. I loved the way the houses were perched on flat areas that were surrounded by mountains on every side. When Iren and I parted to enter our separate cars, she thoughtfully waited to make certain that mine started because I was having serious engine/brake issues.

It wasn’t until I got home and began reflecting on the day that I experienced a peculiar sense of kinship with the village of Abiquiu. Each time I visited the Pueblo I had this same experience, either at the library or at my friend Beatrice’s house. I felt honored to have been invited to this gathering of people that included folks with such varied ethnic backgrounds. I wondered about my own Native Passamaquoddy roots and wished that the oral traditions of the northern Indigenous peoples had survived…

I know how grateful I am that Abiquiu Pueblo is attempting to bring back more of its earlier traditions. The Abiquiu Library and Cultural Center (totally dependent upon grants) is doing what it can to help the people here any way it can. “People of Abiquiu…have never refused to shelter anyone, regardless of their obscure or humble origins,” wrote Giberto Benito Cordova author of a folk history of Abiquiu. The Pueblo itself sets an example for the rest of us. Although times may be hard for many people in this country there is a sense of determination and pride present in these Indigenous people that reflects their strength and character – providing a cross cultural beacon of hope for all of us to live by.

Photo Taken by Iren Schio –

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