One Thousand Years at Taos Pueblo

How Po’Pay Saved His People

by Ria Nicholas

When Jim and I visited Taos Pueblo a couple of years ago, we were immediately struck by the beauty of its natural setting, by the warmth of its people, and by its indefinable sense of timelessness. The Pueblo has presided over the mountains of New Mexico since long before there even was a “New Mexico” – or an old Mexico, for that matter. It was here during the Civil War and during the American Revolution. It provided shelter for its people before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and probably even before Christopher Columbus was born.

The Race to America
‘Leif Erikson Discovers America’ by Hans Dahl (1849-1937);
image has been placed in the public domain.

Columbus wasn’t the first to discover America, of course. Neither was Leif Erikson 500 years before him, in 1001 CE. There were others, First Americans, who were already here and can be traced from the present day backward into the murky prehistoric past. Scientists speculate on exactly when or how they got here – though the theory that they walked from Asia across a Land Bridge during the Ice Age seems unlikely in light of the vast and hostile desert of ice they would have encountered. And with fossil records and artifacts indicating that these Original People were already widespread in the Americas more than 15,000 years ago*, we might as well say that they have always been here. And so we call them Native.

* According to Ciprian Ardelean of the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas and Tom Higham of the University of Oxford, archaeological sites at Chiquihuite Cave in central Mexico and several sites in Brazil offer up tantalizing finds, suggesting that perhaps humans may have occupied these areas as early as 33,000 years ago. (BBC.com, July 22, 2020)

Arctic landscape; photo courtesy NOAA. Ice Age glaciation made a Land Bridge crossing unlikely.

Whichever way they got here, anthropological records reveal that these First Americans developed cultures that were complex and rich and diverse. There is, in fact, such variety among indigenous people today that a blanket designation like Native “American” is no more helpful and exact than the term “European,” “Asian” or “African.” The Inuit of Northern Canada resemble the Seminoles of Florida about as much as Laplanders do Sicilians.

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The blue doors and windows are a later addition and a concession to a more contemporary lifestyle. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The Pueblo

Certainly not all Native people of the past wore feathered headdresses nor lived in teepees, as is so often depicted in vintage Westerns. In the American Southwest, where arid conditions prevail, indigenous people optimized available resources by building homes of adobe. These stone and mud-brick houses, with their rooftop entrances and retractable ladders, were built, not only for efficiency, but also to moderate temperatures and provide security.

One of the most incredible examples of this architectural genius survives to the present day in the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo*, a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the oldest continuously inhabited structure in North America.

*The 1,000-year time-frame includes the pit-house period. A pit-house is a large, often circular, in-ground house used for shelter, storage, and / or cultural activities. A pit-house(s) predated the present-day adobe structures, which archaeologists date from about 1350 CE.

Taos Pueblo sits at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We were awestruck at the massive and ancient structure and felt transported in time. Photo by Ria Nicholas

The designation ‘Taos Pueblo’ seems a bit redundant: it turns out that the Spanish name “Taos” derives from the Tanoan word tə̂o, meaning “village.” The Spanish word “Pueblo,” of course, also means “village.” But then, there is no denying the importance of community in the lives of the Pueblo people. Called ȉałopháymųp’ȍhə́othə̀olbo, or “at red willow canyon mouth” in the Tanoan language, Taos Pueblo consists of a series of ‘apartments’ that share common walls, while remaining separate.

Unaltered diagram of vigas and latillas as seen from below;
courtesy Ciaberde

Large timbers, dubbed vigas*, support the roofs. Smaller pieces of wood, called latillas*, sit side-by-side across the vigas, and all is covered and packed with dirt. Two multi-story structures – one on the north, called Hlauuma, and one on the south, called Hlaukwima – served as look-out ‘towers’ and rank among the oldest structures within the Pueblo.

* ‘Vigas’ and ‘latillas’ are Spanish, not Tanoan, words.

Like other pueblos, the one at Taos included round, recessed places of worship, known as kivas, where traditional spiritual ceremonies were held.

The warm, sunny days and cool nights of summer insure that Taos bursts with flowers. We browsed the quaint shops here at Taos City Center before driving over to the Pueblo.
Photo by Ria Nicholas

While Taos Pueblo – located only one mile from modern-day Taos, New Mexico – attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, it is vital to remember that a sojourn here takes us onto sacred ground and sovereign Native lands. About 150 full-time residents make their home at the Pueblo, and another 2,600 or so Native people live on the 100,000 surrounding acres. Here residents deftly bridge the traditional with the modern.

A Brief Retelling of a Long History

A number of distinct Southwestern indigenous groups built stone and adobe structures, and non-Native Americans commonly refer to these people collectively as the ‘Pueblo Indians.’ The Pueblo people of Taos are descended from the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellers of the Mesa Verde region.

Mesa Verde (photo courtesy AlisonRuthHughes); built circa 1100 CE.
Notice the ‘beehive’ oven, used to bake bread or steam corn. Photo by Ria Nicholas

Archaeologists date the emergence of the ancient Puebloan culture to around the 12th century BCE. For thousands of years, the Puebloan people maintained their livelihood through hunting and farming. Some groups demonstrated expertise in irrigation and agriculture, growing such crops as corn, squash, pumpkins, cotton, tobacco and beans. Other occupations included basket weaving and pottery making. Aside from occasional clashes with the Diné*, the Ndee and Numinu, they lived peacefully at Taos, and many other pueblos, for hundreds of years.

* Non-Native Americans often unwittingly use incorrect and even derisive names for tribes. For example, “Navajo” is actually a Spanish adaptation of the Tewa Pueblo word navahu’u, meaning “farm fields in the valley.” The “Navajo” people call themselves Diné. Similarly, “Apache” is an Ashiwi word meaning “enemy;” the correct name is Ndee. And “Comanche” is a “Ute” word for “enemy.” The correct name for “Comanches” is Numinu. (The “Ute” call themselves Nuciu.)

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Bust of a Conquistador, possibly Coronado

Then, beginning in 1540, Spaniards arrived in the area in search of ‘Cibola,’ the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Initially, the Pueblo people were gracious. However, under the leadership of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the Spaniards quickly wore out their welcome, trying to subjugate their hosts and force the Catholic religion on them. During the resulting Tiguex War, a war of resistance, Spanish forces killed thousands of Pueblo people. These hostilities, together with diseases carried by the Spaniards, such as smallpox, resulted in the involuntary abandonment of many pueblos.

Although the Pueblo people adopted many Christian icons and blended them with their own religious symbols, Spanish friars treated any adherence to traditional worship as heresy. In the ensuing years, attempts to convert the Pueblo people to pure Catholicism grew increasingly violent. Then, in 1675, Governor Juan Francisco Treviño had forty-seven Pueblo medicine men arrested, accusing them of witchcraft. Four of the men were sentenced to death. The rest were publicly whipped, imprisoned, and sentenced to slavery.

San Geronimo Church, built in 1850 to replace the prior church, which was destroyed by U.S. troops when Indians took refuge there during their resistance to American take-over of their land.

Pueblo leaders responded decisively, moving en masse to Santa Fe and forcing the release of the prisoners. Among those released was a Tewa religious leader named Po’Pay. He temporarily retreated to Taos Pueblo, from where he coordinated an uprising of 46 Pueblo villages against the Spanish occupation. Beginning August 21st, 1680, an army of 2,500 Pueblo warriors defeated and expelled the Spanish in what has become known as the ‘Pueblo Revolt’ or ‘Po’Pay’s Rebellion.’

Po’Pay had done what no one before him was able to do. He had united the sometimes rival Pueblo villages in a secret, effective attack against an occupying force. It was a uniquely successful uprising against colonialism in North America.

The rebellion had cost 400 Spanish lives, expelled the Spaniards from the region, and set Po’Pay up as the leader of a unified Pueblo people. When the Spaniards returned the following year with a force of 300 men, Po’Pay’s army was able to repel them. Another attempt by Spain to regain the territory in 1687 also resulted in failure.

On September 22, 2005, a statue of Po’Pay, by artist Cliff Fragua, was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. It was the 100th and last one, representing the Senate, and is the only statue in the collection created by a Native American. Image courtesy dougward; image has been cropped.

Po’Pay died in 1688. Meanwhile drought, attack by rival tribes, and internal strife had weakened the Pueblo alliance.

“It took a unique individual to orchestrate the revolt across two dozen communities who spoke six different languages and were sprawled over a distance of nearly 400 miles.”

–Matthew Martinez, New Mexico State historian

In 1692, the Spanish returned. But Po’Pay’s Rebellion had brought about a permanent compromise. Governor Diego de Vargas promised pardon in place of punishment, the encomienda system of forced labor was prohibited, and Franciscan friars no longer interfered in traditional native religion as long as the Pueblo maintained the outward appearance of Catholicism.

Since then, a succession of Spanish, Mexican and U.S. governments has repeatedly imposed itself on the Pueblo and its people. But Po’Pay’s legacy of pride has left a permanent mark. With only minor exceptions, the Pueblo people have managed to maintain their traditional way of life into the present.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1970, President Richard Nixon returned 48,000 acres of mountain land, that the U.S. had previously confiscated under the Theodore Roosevelt administration for incorporation into the Carson National Forest. An additional 764 acres was returned to the Tribe in 1996. The sacred Blue Lake, central to the Puebloan creation story, was included in the transfer.

“This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. The Congress of the United States now returns that land to whom it belongs … I can’t think of anything more appropriate or any action that could make me more proud as President of the United States.”

— President Richard M. Nixon

Today, the Pueblo people have the right to self-governance, including the right to make and enforce laws, to levy taxes, to determine membership, and to exclude persons from tribal lands, among others.

Understandably, the complexities of the Pueblo religion and the details of the residents’ personal lives remain a private matter.

Travel Tips

Taos Pueblo is located at 120 Veterans Highway, Taos, New Mexico 87571. For an excellent introductory guide, view this video from New Mexico True TV, with host, Michael Newman.

The author, Ria Nicholas, and Jim Zura of Zura Productions at Taos Pueblo.
We absolutely loved the beauty, mystery and history of this ancient village!

When visiting Taos Pueblo, be sure to review any literature and signage containing guidelines for your stay. Always apply the following rules of etiquette:

  • Don’t enter a building without an invitation or unless it is clearly marked as open for business.
  • Stay in the immediate village area. Don’t wander onto private property. 
  • Don’t hike or camp on Native lands without permission.
  • Keep your children under control at all times.
  • Don’t bring pets, alcohol, weapons or illegal drugs with you.
  • Don’t enter kivas, cemeteries, or other sacred places.
  • Don’t climb on walls or other structures.
  • Don’t pick up or remove any artifacts, including pieces of broken pottery.
  • Obey all traffic, parking, and speed limit signs in the community.
  • Be courteous and respectful of Native traditions and ways.
  • Don’t litter!
  • Don’t offer to buy something unless it’s for sale. (For example, if someone is wearing it, it is generally not for sale.)

There are several shops at the Pueblo, offering a variety of Native arts, crafts and souvenirs. Some of these shops have been in a family for generations. Here artisans present pottery, paintings, sculptures and more for sale. We purchased some beautiful hand-crafted jewelry to bring home as gifts for family and friends.

Dress for the weather. In the desert, temperature swings can be extreme, with very hot weather during the day and very cold weather after dark. Be sure to bring layers and sunscreen.

Taos, New Mexico offers many historical buildings and shopping opportunities.

But the other “absolutely must see” in the area is the incredible Rio Grande Gorge! Here the Rio Grande River follows a 50-mile-long tectonic chasm that reaches a depth of 800 feet near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge northwest of Taos.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

What are your favorite New Mexico destinations?

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Roughing it near Taos, NM


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