Dec 212011
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The Tao of Taos Pueblo
by Linda Thompson

Taos Pueblo ©Terry Thompson,

(Taos, New Mexico) In Chinese philosophy, the tao is the natural process through which all things change, a process necessary to a harmonious life. Taoism is a mystical sixth-century B.C. philosophy that Confucians adopted as the path of virtuous conduct. In the Tiwa language of Taos Pueblo, however, tao means 'to or toward the village.' Are the two words related?

It is believed that Spaniards, encountering the people now known as Taos Native Americans in their multistoried villages as early as 1598, heard them say 'tao' and added the 's' to form a plural. Thereafter, foreigners called both the village and its inhabitants 'Taos.' Although they are spelled the same and pronounced not too differently, the two versions of 'tao' have no common ancestry. Yet with their strong belief in the unity of all living things, a focus on fostering a balanced relationship between human beings and nature, and a general preference for the spiritual over the material, the Taos people can be said to walk a virtuous path. It is the path of preserving their culture, strengthening their community, and honoring their families.

Archaeologists believe that the Pueblo people who settled the Rio Grande valley migrated from the Four Corners region of the Southwest. If so, they are descendants of the Anasazi, a native culture that antedates these Tanoan-speaking groups. (Tanoan includes Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa, languages still spoken by people in ten of New Mexico's nineteen existing pueblos.) In any case, the Taos people and their village have been in this location since at least A.D. 1350, and some ruins in the area may go back a thousand years or more.

Spanish explorers visited the Rio Grande Valley beginning with Coronado's journey in 1541-42 and culminating in 1598 with the founding of the first Spanish settlement in this region at San Juan Pueblo just north of what is now Española. (San Juan has recently reverted to its native name of O'Ke Oweegne.) In 1680 Taos led a rebellion against Spanish occupation, with the result that the Spaniards were kicked out of New Mexico for thirteen years. This is said to have been the only successful expulsion by natives of a colonizing force in U.S. history. Eventually Spain was allowed back into the region to help the pueblos protect themselves against raids by Apaches and other nomadic tribes.

Taos Pueblo has been continuously occupied for at least 650 years. Today it has about 150 full-time residents. By tradition, they have no electricity or running water, using the water of the Rio Pueblo, which flows from the sacred Blue Lake high in the mountains, for their needs. Another 1,800 or so Taos people live on nearby Pueblo lands, which total about 99,000 acres. Some of them move back to Pueblo homes for feast days and religious ceremonies.

The two large five-story adobe structures – Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house) – are made of mud and straw. Large timbers (vigas) form the roofs, with pine or aspen branches (latillas) placed on top and covered with packed dirt. Each year, residents add a thick layer of mud to the buildings' exterior walls. The brightly colored window trims and doorways are fairly recent additions. In the days of nomadic raiders, homes had no doors or windows; residents used ladders to enter rooms from holes in the roof, pulling the ladders up behind them.

The San Geronimo Chapel is also relatively new, dating from 1850. It replaced the original Spanish mission of 1619, which like all things Catholic was burned in 1680. It was soon rebuilt, only to be destroyed by the U.S. Army in the Mexican War of 1847. Its ruins still stand on the west edge of the Pueblo, alongside the old cemetery. Photography is not allowed inside the church or around the ruins and cemetery.

Taos Pueblo was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. In 1992, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. The Taos people generously share much of their culture with others; however, as with many native cultures, their religion is private and they do not freely discuss it. Most of the ceremonies that are open to outsiders forbid photography, sketching, or other 'capturing' of dancers or participants. An exception is the autumn Pow-Wow, an event attended by natives from all over the country, which includes dance competitions for men, women, and children. Cameras must be declared, however, and a small fee is required. In addition, professional photographers must apply for a permit in advance.

Other must-see events include the New Year's Day Turtle Dance, various dances on January 6, San Geronimo Day on September 30, and the unforgettable Christmas ceremonies. Taoseños and visitors alike flock to the Pueblo at dusk on Christmas Eve to watch the Procession of the Virgin, as she is carried out of the church and around the village accompanied by rifle shots and dancing matachines, while dozens of bonfires soar to thirty feet or more, creating a rare and primeval experience. The following day the dignified Deer Dance or a similar formal observance of Christmas is offered. A full schedule of events, along with visiting hours and other helpful information, is posted at

Inside Pueblo walls, visitors can try native foods such as fry bread and roasted corn and visit the modest shops of Pueblo artists and artisans. Taos specialties include pottery made with local micaceous clay, silver jewelry, buckskin moccasins and drums, and alabaster sculptures. Zuni fetishes, Hopi kachinas, and woven blankets also can be purchased in some shops.

Entry to the Pueblo is currently ten dollars for adults, five dollars for students with I.D., and free to children under thirteen. Three or more adults are admitted for eight dollars each. Except for closures for religious reasons, the Pueblo is open to visitors from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. It's a good idea to check the web site or call ahead to make sure it is open.

Contact the Taos Pueblo Tourism Department at (505) 758-1028.
For permit information call the Governor's Office, (505) 758-9593.

The Taos Mountain Casino, located on the main road to the Pueblo, is open every day from 8:00 a.m. Explore its web site, or call for information: (888) 946-8267 or (505) 737-0777.

Article: Linda Thompson
Photo: Terry Thompson
High Mesa Productions
HCR 74 Box 22273
El Prado, New Mexico 87529

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