Column: Like Notre Dame, Taos Pueblo is another 13th-century icon of survival

  • Cindy Stableford photograph

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Saturday, May 18, 2019

As my wife and I drove from Santa Fe to Taos and enjoyed the stark beauty of the High Road, images of Notre Dame de Paris in flames were still fresh my mind.

Three years earlier we had visited Paris. We walked from our hotel in the Latin Quarter to experience Notre Dame, first the Gothic glory of the cathedral from within, and then we climbed the interior steps as high as we were allowed, past the bell that deafened Quasimodo, and stepped out onto the walkway that circles the roof. Like gargoyles we looked down onto the city of Paris and across the roof to the steeple. Now both the roof and the steeple have been destroyed by the 2019 fire.

But this April we were guests of New Mexico and heading for Taos, not to see the galleries and shops or the Kit Carson Museum, but to visit Taos Pueblo. I confess that as an Anglo from Vermont, I fretted a little about seeming like intruders at this ancient Native settlement, but at the entrance we were welcomed by tribal members in yellow vests who directed us to a dusty parking lot next to a graveyard fringed with purple flowers. There was no reason to fret because the rules are so clear about where visitors may go and what they may see inside the settlement, and the people (in Spanish, pueblo means people) are eager to share some of their history and culture with visitors.

While we waited for our tour to begin, we sipped pinon coffee in an adobe café served by women who asked where we had come from. On one wall of the café I saw a map with push-pins marking the states and countries of visitors. Right there with New Zealand and Ukraine was Vermont.

The settlement at Taos dates back to the 13th century, 300 years before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola; today it is still a living community. The homes within the pueblo have no electricity or running water, but some are occupied by year-round residents. Most of the nearly 2,000 tribal members live outside the pueblo and use their family homes for festivals and ceremonies and to live in the traditional way.

Most practice two religions — the Catholicism brought by Spaniards in the 16th century and their own traditional religion — and the fusion of the two is emblematic of pueblo survival. Within the pueblo there are two Catholic churches, one of them in ruins. St. Geronimo was built in 1619 with forced labor. It was damaged in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Spaniards were briefly expelled. A decade later, when the Spaniards returned, the church was rebuilt. But in 1847, during the Mexican War, the U.S. Cavalry leveled St. Geronimo with howitzers, killing the women, children and elder men sheltered within. St. Jerome was built in 1850 as a replacement, and today it is the church of the Taos Pueblo; but the ruins of St. Geronimo — a small tower with a bell — are maintained and protected as a reminder of the past.

Our guide was a young Pueblo man, a college student working as a volunteer, and he seasoned the serious narrative of his people with a little irony and humor. There was a twinkle in his eye when he called the traditional religion of his people “nature-based.” The traditional religion of the Pueblo people is sacred and private and not a part of the tour, but we could sense its presence as our guide pointed east to the mountains where Blue Lake is the source for Red Willow Creek, which flows through Taos Pueblo and provides its water. Like the men in yellow vests at the entrance, like the women in the café, he wanted us to know about their history and survival and their devotion to family and traditional ways. Like them he tactfully drew a curtain over what was sacred and private.

Near the beginning of the tour we had learned how adobe homes are made of bricks of clay, sand and straw. Dried in the sun, the bricks are formed into walls and held together with a mortar made of clay. The walls are then covered with more clay to make the surface smooth. The building is slow and methodical for these ancient houses, which are then passed down by families through the generations.

At my age I see paradoxes and bizarre connections everywhere I look. Notre Dame de Paris and Taos Pueblo both trace their origins to the 13th century, and both are icons of survival through wars and the ravages of time. With the worldwide reach of Catholicism, Notre Dame is better known and it enjoys a special prominence in literature, art and culture. I have read that it will be rebuilt, although it may take decades. Because the cathedral belongs to the world, the whole world will participate in the rebuilding, both spiritually and financially.

Taos Pueblo is different. Throughout history, the rest of the world has tried to erase it and its people. Its survival has been possible only through the persistence of the people against terrible odds.

But today the juxtaposition of Notre Dame de Paris and Taos Pueblo creates no moral dichotomy in my thinking. This is not to say that the history of colonization and what has been done to indigenous people in the name of God is unimportant, but for me what emerged this particular April is a powerful story about permanence and survival. Like others of my generation, I worry about the mistakes we have made and the world we will leave behind when we are gone, but my visit to Taos Pueblo has me believing that our children and grandchildren will make repairs and rebuild.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.


This column has been updated to correct the date of the destruction of St. Geronimo by shelling from the U.S. Cavalry.