The drive to Taos New Mexico takes us skyward to more than seven thousand feet. There are few cars on the roads and my friend and I stop to gather fragrant bunches of stiff Black Sagebrush, an aromatic herb used to purify people and areas before and during Native ceremonies. The junipers and pinion pine are taller in this country and the latter is spilling out her cones and seeds (the pinion nut is a delicious food, first eaten by Indigenous peoples). Along the way, we stop the car and help silver dollar sized black tarantulas cross the highway to safety. We both wonder why the spiders need to cross the road at this time of year. (This question remains unanswered at the time of this writing)*. The air is crystal clear, and as we move closer to the town the pull from the Sacred Mountain intensifies. Called Taos Mountain by Anglos, the mountain has it’s own sacred name for the people who have inhabited this astonishingly peaceful place for millennium.
I notice immediately that visitors are only allowed into the Pueblo in one open area. This is fine with me, because having Native roots myself I am sensitized to what the American people have done to the Indigenous peoples of our country, and part of me feels a terrible hopeless shame.
The buildings belong to the land and are built of earth, straw. mud, and the trunks of trees. They stand one upon another and are fashioned by hand with softly rounded corners with small windows and doors of various sizes. Many doors are painted bright blue, others weather naturally and have pleasing designs.
There is a quiet sense of activity present as men repair the walls of the buildings for the coming winter. I sense that these beautiful structures along with these peoples “belong” to the earth in a way that I cannot articulate because the feeling is in my body. I feel so rooted, conscious of the way my feet are moving over the packed ground. Some older women and men are sitting under ramadas – square open structures also made of wood that offer shade even on the hottest of days. Contented dogs of uncertain breeds roam the area freely. There are signs that say “do not feed the dogs.” Wonderful, functional wooden ladders allow the workers to move up and down the pueblos with ease. I love it that the perpendicular poles of each ladder are a different length. No two are exactly alike.
It is a brilliant fall day and here the cottonwoods are turning gold in the sun. The small clear stream is crossed easily by a wooden bridge, and I stand in the middle to listen to the water talking to the willow trees that bend so gracefully towards the source of the sounds I hear. Everything is clean. Behind the signs on the coyote fences that make it clear that visitors are not allowed to trespass, we see lush gardens with corn and other vegetables growing, small houses in neat rows, some almost completely covered by large trees.
In the plaza there is a church that has had its entrance walls white washed so that the cross at the top almost blinds me, it is so white. My friend comments that this work must have been recently completed. She knows because she has been here many times before. People are milling about in the courtyard and we enter the church just as a guided tour is ending. I learn that the coffin at the right of the chancel represents the body of Christ. The altar intrigues me because there are many paintings of Mary, Guadalupe, and other saints; Although painted on a blue wall they appear to be floating in the air although Guadalupe has skin that has been lightened. I am puzzled by this attempt to make Guadalupe, who was an Indian into a white person. My overall impression is that ancient goddesses are present in these images of Guadalupe, Mary and the other Christian saints…Although the usual gold cross/crucifix is present as part of the picture, the feeling I have is that a Great Mother is living here, one who cares for the people who live under her Mountain.
We are aware that although some doors are open at ground level we are ambivalent about entering any of the low ceiling rooms. I see a beautiful unevenly carved micaceous pot displayed outside one particular door and we are drawn in to a small room, another is curtained off behind it. It is very cool inside as we step down into the room and quite dark after the brilliance of an almost blinding sun. A woman displays many small black and white scaled quail and other handmade clay objects, pots, and some jewelry. The quail, she notes, is a bird sacred to her people. In a quiet voice she tells us that this small room was once inhabited by her great great grandparents. And that even today the People (Native peoples of all tribes traditionally call themselves the First People) come here to the plaza to re-enact their ceremonies. I ask her where she gets the clay to make her pots and she replies that she goes to the same place on the mountain to dig clay that her ancestors did.
This Indian woman has a lovely round face with beautiful eyes; something about her reminds me of a doe. She seems to want to engage us in conversation. She asks me if I am Native, and where I come from. When I tell her that my Native roots are Passamaquoddy/Maliseet she immediately remarks on the baskets that the Passamaquoddy are so well known for. We talk about the pliability of ash, used by Northern peoples and the red willow that grows by the stream here that is equally pliable. My friend asks a question about all the work that is being done on the pueblos by the men. The Indian woman tells us that this weather is just right, not too hot or too cold to work with the mud, and that the men are preparing for the coming winter. She is frank when she says that many of her people want to close the area down to visitors. They are tired, she continues, without saying of what…She also mentions that some of the young people are leaving the Pueblo to work in the city of Taos. Poverty is a way of life in the Pueblo and continuing to make the choice to stay is saying yes to that poverty. Life is hard without running water regulated heat and all the conveniences that many of us take for granted. The winters are harsh. And yet there is a sense of peace here that is palpable. No one is in a hurry. The mountain watches over her people. There is also a genuine sense of “community,” a word that no longer carries deep meaning for people living in western culture.
I find myself longing to be part of this kind of society, one based on the importance of relationship instead of power. Reflecting upon the experience when I arrived home, I felt a great sadness. These people have so much to teach us about how to live, if only we could open our hearts and minds to something other than greed, war, and acquisition, qualities that simply do not exist for some of these Indigenous peoples who live in harmony with the Earth, and call her home.
*After doing a bit of research I discovered that male tarantulas are crossing roads in the fall because they are seeking mates. Two small leg-like appendages near the male’s mouth will be used to transfer sperm from the surface of the web the male spider will spin for his lady. Sometimes this ritual is preceded by the spider dancing and drumming. As soon as he mates the male spider runs away because female tarantulas are known to eat their mates! The female then seals the eggs and sperm in a cocoon and guards it for six to nine weeks. At least 500 tarantulas hatch from the egg sac just in time for the winter solstice!