Hidden in the mountains above Taos, lies Blue Lake.
A deeply forested mountain valley cradles this small lake, an ancient sacred site for the Taos Pueblo community, the headwaters of the Rio Pueblo, the pristine stream that runs through the village of the Red Willow People. Oral tradition tells us that the Taos tribe was created out of the sacred waters of Blue Lake, and as a place of ritual worship and historic importance the lake is essential to Taos culture, religion, and daily life.
From the 16th century, Spanish and Mexican authorities recognized Taos Pueblo land rights, and sovereignty was reaffirmed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 when the U.S. government acquired most of the Southwest including Blue Lake and the surrounding area. As growing numbers of European settlers traveled west by railroad, farms and ranches were established in the area and the land was exploited for various natural resources. In 1906 the federal government placed Blue Lake and the surrounding watershed under the control of the Forest Service.
As Taos elder, Paul Bernal testifiying at a 1969 congressional hearing, wisely noted: “We are probably the only citizens of the United States who are required to practice our religion under a permit from the government. This is not religious freedom as it is guaranteed by the Constitution.”
A statement issued by the Taos Pueblo during their fight to regain parts of their homeland proclaimed: “The story of my people and the story of this place are one single story. No man can think of us without also thinking of this place. We are always joined together.” After 64 years of protest, appeal, and lobbying by Taos leaders and their supporters, Blue Lake was restored to the Pueblo in 1970.
Blue Lake is now restricted to enrolled Taos Pueblo members. It was the first of two areas of land returned to Native Americans,. Under the Nixon administration, in 1972, ( Mount Adams in Washington State was also returned to the Yakama Nation.)
The oldest continuously inhabited structure in the country, Taos Pueblo is best known for its iconic, multi-storied adobe complex built over 1,000 years ago.
Located just one mile from the Town of Taos, the oldest part of the pueblo is still home to over 100 full-time residents, with about 2,600 living on the 100,000-acre reservation.
The northern-most of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, Taos Pueblo is both a tourist destination and a sacred site; a mix of tradition and contemporary culture finds a crossroads here, in the only extant Native American community designated both as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and as a National Historic Landmark.
An adobe wall runs around the original village, built between 1000 and 1450 A.D. Once 10 feet tall, the wall protected Taos Pueblo residents from marauding tribes. The adobe dwellings, built four or five stories high, were designed as lookout posts so sentinels could see the enemy approaching from each of the two main structures—one on the north and the other on the south.
The pueblo is built entirely of adobe and maintenance is continuous. Residents pack more adobe onto the walls every year to maintain the pueblo’s appearance and upkeep.
The pueblo consists of many individual homes, built side-by-side and accessible by ladder. Originally, homes were entered from holes in the ceilings, but the Spanish Colonists introduced the doors that are used today. In accordance with pueblo traditional laws, residents who live inside the ancient village do not have running water or electricity. They rely on skylights or kerosene lamps for light, and use outhouses that are hidden from public view. Modern homes are built outside the ancient walls.
When the first Spanish Conquistadores stumbled on Taos Pueblo in 1540 as they searched for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, they imagined they had indeed discovered it, due to the micaceous clay Taos women had rubbed on the pueblo walls causing them to glow like gold in the mythical Taos light.
Taos Pueblo potters are renowned for the use of mica in their wares, to this day.
In 1619, Spanish Jesuits built the first Catholic church in Taos Pueblo and established the mission of San Geronimo, or Saint Jerome. The Spaniards brought disease and Christianity to the pueblo, forcing its residents, (much like the Jews and Moors in Spain at the time), to convert to Christianity or be killed by torturous devices, including burning alive. During the Pueblo revolt of 1680, Taos Pueblo warriors destroyed the original St. Jerome’s Chapel.
The revolt lasted 12 years, after which the chapel was rebuilt, with the Tribe (symbolically) accepting Catholicism. The chapel was destroyed again in 1847 during the war with Mexico, and its ruins can still be seen inside the pueblo. The present-day St. Jerome’s Chapel was built in 1850.
Religion at Taos Pueblo still is rooted in ancient tradition despite the presence of St. Jerome’s Chapel (and eponymous Feast Day), and the traditional kivas are used for religious practices.
Taos Pueblo has survived two separate attempts at assimilation; the Spanish conquest of the 17th century and the United States’ efforts to absorb Native Americans into its melting pot of culture, to no avail. However after Taos Pueblo was designated a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO Heritage Site, St. Jerome’s Chapel was also considered a National Historic Landmark.
Tens of thousands of visitors annually flock to this tiny, not quite 20-acre village built on either side of the little stream that flows down into our valley from Blue Lake.
Set against the backdrop of the awe-inspiring Taos Mountain, the village flourishes as a vibrant farming and arts community, and there is no better time than in the winter, to visit the studios and stores of fine artists and artisans at Taos Pueblo. Tucked into the adobe dwellings on the historic plaza are numerous artisan studios and shops where you can find authentic Native American jewelry, pottery, paintings and sculpture, drums, flutes, traditional pueblo foods, and so much more!
The shop owners, many of whom are acclaimed artists themselves, are happy to talk about the history and provenance of the items they sell, including origin of both the designs and materials. Not to mention that buying directly from the makers, will enrich and elevate your entire experience, sending you home with both mementos and memories!
Although winter is my favourite time in the village, when it is quiet and peaceful, one can visit the pueblo at any time, during any season, but there are certain attractions that draw more and more visitors every year.
The Annual Taos Pueblo Pow-Wow is an excellent time to visit. It takes place on the second weekend of July at the Taos Pueblo Buffalo Pasture, and includes Native dancers from all over North America, as well as a large arts and crafts market and plenty of food vendors selling traditional (and non traditional) fare.
As many as 10,000 people visit on the San Geronimo Feast Day, an annual celebration held September 30 and open to the public. With morning foot races, traditional clowns (kashari), venders in the courtyard, as well as the shop owners, artists and artisans who sell from their homes throughout the year, and the pole climb by the clowns as its climax, San “G” is a big draw.
The Christmas Eve celebrations and bonfires too, draws a large crowd, but the pueblo has dances and “doings” all year round, including a period of “quiet time” in spring, so do check their site before visiting.
The Taos Pueblo Mountain Casino is another favourite destination spot for locals and visitors alike, gambling on a lucky streak.You may not win that pot of gold, but you never know what you might discover instead, as you explore the village of the Red Willow People, nestled beneath their sacred mountain, here in Taos.
Visitors over 10 years of age have an admission charge. Photography is allowed for personal use only. Commercial, documentary, and educational photography and videography, or the creation of artist renderings, must have prior approval and payment of fees through the Taos Pueblo tourism office. No photos may be taken of tribal members without permission.
For more information on visiting the pueblo, please visit The Taos Pueblo website. linked below.
All images stock files, except third image from the top by Rick Romancito/Taos News
If anyone knows the names of the other photographers, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll credit them.