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History and art in Taos

New Mexico day eleven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Chris in the breakfast room

Our B&B in Taos, La Doña Luz, fell short of some of the other bed & breakfast places we’ve been to in the US in one respect – the breakfast part. There was absolutely nothing wrong with what we got, but it was self-service from a counter and didn’t offer much more than we had got in some of the chain hotels where we stayed on the trip, except that the waffles were made for us by the young girl in attendance.

However, it was served in a lovely room hung with some of the owner’s eclectic collection of art works, and there was fresh fruit to go with the waffles (though I discovered you had to move quickly to get some, as there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, to go around all the guests).

Taos Pueblo

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North House (Hlauuma), Taos Pueblo

After breakfast we picked up our car from its spot at the end of the road and drove the short distance north of town to Taos Pueblo. This is an incredible place, and a must-see when you are in the area in my opinion. It’s the only living Native American community to have been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Its multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years and are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA.

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Walking tour map - Taos Pueblo

We arrived soon after nine to find the pueblo just opening for business. We were directed to a parking place and went to pay our admission fee at the ticket booth to the left of the gate. When we visited (October 2011) the fee was $10 for adults, and we also paid a further $6 each to use our cameras. Unlike at Acoma, you can take video here as well as still images, but you have to pay for each camera you plan to use, including your mobile phone if using the camera on it. I decided one was enough!

Also unlike Acoma, you are free to wander around on your own, following the map you’ll be given when you pay, although some areas are off-limits to tourists. But we decided to take a tour (free, although tips are of course welcome) and were very pleased that we had done so. Our young guide was excellent and shared more about the culture here than we had learned at Acoma, although she was still a little guarded on the subject of traditional beliefs. We heard lots about the way of life here in the Pueblo and elsewhere on Taos tribal lands, and about her own life growing up here. A university student, she was paying her way through college by working here as a guide over the weekends and in college holidays, but it was clear from how she spoke about her home that she also sees this work as her way of giving something back to the community – she would not dream of taking work outside the Pueblo.

She also told us something about her hopes for the future, about the balance between traditional and Catholic beliefs, and about relationships (and marriages) between different tribes. I really felt I got to know so much more about the people here than at Acoma and the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be mainly a historic curiosity.

San Geronimo Church

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San Geronimo

Our tour of Taos Pueblo started here, at the church that sits in the heart of the village. And isn’t it a stunner, with that combination of adobe and white against the blue sky? I could have photographed it for hours! Only the exterior though, as photographing the interior is strictly forbidden.

This church, the third in the pueblo to be dedicated to Saint Jerome (I have also read four in some sources), was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. That church, whose evocative ruins still stand near the entrance to the Pueblo, was first built in 1619, but destroyed in the Spanish Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt on the same site.

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San Geronimo

St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo and a santo of him can be seen in the church, as well as one of the Virgin. It is the custom to change the clothing of the santos several times a year, according to the seasons and festivals. When we were there Mary was dressed in a gold-coloured cloth, for the autumn and harvest.

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San Geronimo

The church has the traditional heavy viga ceiling and is very much in use as a place of worship. About 90% of the Pueblo Indians describe themselves as Catholic, although the majority of these practise that religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so and that the two belief systems were quite complimentary in their eyes.

The old church and cemetery

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Old church and cemetery

As the Spanish conquered the area now known as New Mexico, they brought with them their religion, which they imposed on the defeated inhabitants. Thus the first Spanish-Franciscan mission was built here in Taos Pueblo by Spanish priests using Indian labour in about 1619, and was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo. It did not last long. Worsening relations between conquerors and conquered gave rise to the Pueblo Revolt. This uprising was co-ordinated by several different pueblo communities, through a series of secret meetings held here at Taos Pueblo and covert communications between tribes. In August 1680 more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors attacked a number of Spanish settlements, killing 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and they drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed. Some accounts also tell of a previous uprising, in 1637, when an even earlier church was destroyed, but the official Taos Pueblo website only mentions the 1680 one.

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The old church

Twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish re-colonized the province. There were on-going skirmishes with the inhabitants of Taos Pueblo, who were repeatedly attacked for refusing to provide corn for starving settlers in Santa Fe. However by 1706 things had settled down enough for the San Geronimo Mission to be rebuilt. This is the church whose ruins can be seen here today. So why is it too now in ruins? We have another revolt to blame for that – one which our young guide talked about still with bitterness in her voice.

In 1846 the United States conquered this territory, which at that point still formed part of Mexico, and installed a governor, Charles Bent. The Mexican loyalists plotted to oust the conquerors, and enlisted the support of pueblo peoples. In early 1847 the uprising began, centred on Taos and led by a Mexican, Pablo Montoya, and a Taos Puebloan, Tomas Romero. The latter led a group of Native Americans who broke into the home of Governor Bent, shot and scalped him in front of his family. Further attacks followed in the area, and the US army retaliated. They moved up from Santa Fe and pushed the insurgents back as far as Taos Pueblo, where they barricaded themselves into the church, thinking that its thick adobe walls would offer sufficient protection. During the battle that followed however, the US military breached a wall of the church and fired cannons into it, killing about 150 rebels and wounding many more. As our guide told it, women and children were also taking shelter there and were killed in the fighting, although other accounts that I’ve read don’t mention this. The US also captured 400 more men, while only seven of their own troops died in the battle. The next day they tried some of these captives in a very one-sided trial and hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was some questionable use of violence of both sides.

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The old church bell-tower

The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle, and around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought in fact that this cemetery dates right back to the very first church, and as at Acoma it holds several layers of graves. Unlike Acoma, there are no restrictions on photographing the cemetery, but you are not allowed to enter it, nor to climb on the crumbling walls that surround it. Our guide explained that even the Pueblo residents only enter twice a year – once on the Day of the Dead, and once on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. On these occasions they go to visit the grave, not to mourn but to celebrate a life well lived.

Multi-storey living

The most distinctive structures in Taos Pueblo, and the ones you will see in every photo, are the multi-storied, multi-home North House (Hlauuma in the native Tiwa) and South House (Hlaukwima). These are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA and are really an early example of an apartment block, though built in this manner as a form of defence.

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The North House (Hlauuma)

The North House consist of five storeys and the South of four. They are built entirely of adobe, with walls several feet thick in places. These walls are regularly re-plastered with mud to keep the structure sound. Originally, the buildings had no doors or windows and entry could be gained only from the top of the buildings by means of ladders, but gradually openings have been added over time as the need for defence declined and the need to have easier access took over.

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The North House

The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that the:
‘Pueblo de Taos is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day. ... The multi-tiered adobe dwellings still retain their original form and outline, but details have changed. Doors, which traditionally were mostly used to interconnect rooms, are now common as exterior access to the ground floors and to the roof tops on upper stories. Windows, which traditionally were small and incorporated into walls very sparingly, are now common features. The proliferation of doors and windows through time at Taos reflects the acculturation of European traits and the relaxing of needs for defensive structures. In addition to ovens located outdoors, fireplaces have been built inside the living quarters.’

My photos are all of the North House, by the way, because the South was in shade and harder to capture.

Red Willow Creek

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Red Willow Creek

A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known variously as Red Willow Creek or Rio Pueblo de Taos. The stream begins high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, at the tribe’s sacred lake, Blue Lake. A traditional belief among the Taos Pueblo people is that their ancestors originated from the waters of this lake. The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century but was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. They regard this restoration as the most important event in their recent history, so clearly Nixon got some things right!

It flows gently through the Pueblo, providing the water essential for life here – for drinking, cooking, bathing and for religious activities. Even in the depths of winter, which is harsh at this height above sea level, it never completely freezes. Because the water is the main source of drinking water visitors are asked not to paddle in it – but clearly nobody told the dog in my photo that the stream was off limits!

Pueblo homes

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A pueblo street

As well as the multi-storey homes of the two main houses, there are several streets of smaller individual ones. These are also built from adobe, in the traditional style. Many still have mica windows instead of glass, as you can see in some of my photos. In some you can also clearly see the viga beams that support the roof jutting out through the adobe wall.

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Traditional ladders

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Mica window, and chillies drying

Although all these houses are owned and cared for by a Pueblo family, only a few are inhabited full-time, with most being used more as holiday homes for festivals and special family occasions. The small number who do live here permanently live as their ancestors would have done, without electricity or plumbing. Those that live elsewhere will have ‘all mod cons’ in those properties. The rationale for not doing so here is to preserve a traditional way of life in this sacred spot, not through a more general aversion to modernisation such as that practiced, for instance, by religious groups such as the Amish.

Traditional ovens

After our visit to Acoma we were quick to recognise these ovens shaped like beehives which sit outside most homes here too.

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House with horno

Known as horno, they were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors – so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked.

Traditional crafts

Several of the homes in the Pueblo have been adapted to serve as small shops, selling a variety of traditional crafts. Even though we didn’t especially want to buy anything we did go inside a few for the opportunity to see inside the ancient dwellings.

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Pueblo shops

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Outside the Morning Talk shop

We particularly liked the Morning Talk shop, which had an interesting mix of pottery, drums, dream-catchers, jewellery and more. And I also enjoyed talking to the owner of the Summer Rain Gift Shop where the jewellery looked especially good. We didn’t buy anything at the Pueblo (I was sort-of all shopped out at this point) but I was tempted by the ‘smudges’ – small bundles of cedar and sage bound with grasses that are traditionally burned in ceremonial cleansings. They have a lovely scent and would be wonderful to toss on a fire at Christmas, or simply to leave in a bowl like pot-pourri. I did afterwards rather regret not buying a couple, especially as they only cost a few dollars.

La Hacienda de los Martinez

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La Hacienda de los Martinez

I had read about another out of town sight that sounded interesting, La Hacienda de los Martinez, so before returning our car to its parking place we detoured to visit it. This is an historic house from the late Spanish Colonial period, dating from 1804, and was the home of Severino Matinez and his wife Maria who raised six children here. Their eldest son was Padre Antonio Martinez, a forward-thinking priest and educationalist who argued for Native education, founded the town’s first newspaper, and resisted the attempts of Bishop Lamy to enforce Western European principles on Hispanic New Mexicans.

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At the hacienda

Touring the hacienda’s twenty one rooms is said to ‘provide the visitor with a rare glimpse of the rugged frontier life and times of the early 1800s’. Note I say ‘is said …’ – on arriving here we found that contrary to the information in our Moon Handbook it was closed on a Sunday morning. And although we considered returning later in the day, as it turned out we found more than enough to occupy us in the centre of town and never did so. I had to be content with a few photos of the exterior and surroundings, before we drove back into the centre to park and look for a late-morning coffee.

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In the grounds of the hacienda

World Cup Coffee

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Display in World Cup Coffee

You couldn’t get a better location in Taos than this for a friendly local coffee shop, and it would be hard to find a better selection of coffee drinks too, so the only thing this place really lacks is space. There are just a few seats on a bench outside, and a few more at a counter inside, and if we hadn’t been able to secure one of the latter we would have had to opt for ‘coffee to go’ – although with the Plaza just a few steps away that wouldn’t have been too bad an option. But we managed to grab a couple of those inside seats and enjoyed a relaxing brew – an iced latte for me and a cappuccino for Chris – while watching the world go by.

The Kit Carson House

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The Kit Carson House

We hadn’t been able to go inside the Hacienda de los Martinez, but in town there was an historic house that was open on a Sunday morning, the Kit Carson House. I confess that I didn’t know a lot about Kit Carson before visiting his house, and our motivation for doing so was not so much to find out more about him as to have an opportunity to see inside a historic Taos home, but we did also learn quite a bit, and enjoyed the various displays here.

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In the Kit Carson House

Our visit started with a video about Carson’s life, which I thought was well-made and carried just the right amount of information. In fact, this video was described as ‘award winning’ (I don’t know what award!) and was made for the History Channel, so was of broadcast quality. From it we learned that Carson lived in this house for 25 years, having bought it as a wedding present for his bride, Josefa Jaramillo. His work as an army scout, Indian Agent and army officer kept him away from home a lot of the time – the period of time that Kit he actually lived in this house was during the time he served as Ute Indian Agent from January 1854, to June 1861, when he had his Agency headquarters in Taos. Meanwhile Josefa raised the family here – seven children born to her and Carson, and several more Indian children adopted by them after he had freed them from captors.

Carson was a member of the Masons, and it is they who purchased the by-then dilapidated house in the early part of the twentieth century, restored it and now open it as a public attraction. This gives the presentation of the family history a slight slant perhaps, as naturally they put more emphasis on Carson’s activities as Mason than you might expect, but on the whole I thought it provided an interesting insight into life in a frontier town in the mid nineteenth century.

I especially liked seeing the kitchen, which is sparsely furnished with objects of the period. Each room had an informative notice detailing how it would have been used in Kit and Josefa’s time here, and inviting visitors to imagine the activity around them – with so many children, and regular visits from many of the important men of those times (including Generals and Congressmen), it must have been a lively household.

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In the kitchen of the Kit Carson House

Doc Martin's

When we left the Kit Carson House we were ready for lunch and decided on a return to the Taos Inn where we had eaten last night, mainly because we liked the look of the little patio at the front of the building.

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Grilled apple & blue cheese salad

But we discovered that only the limited bistro menu was being served here, and as we were looking for salads which only appeared on the main brunch menu, we were directed to the restaurant, Doc Martin’s. This is quite a formal place by Taos standards, and more so than we would usually choose for lunch, but we’d been on the go all morning and were ready for the break it offered.

The brunch menu was extensive and with larger appetites I think we’d have found it difficult to choose. But we rarely eat a large lunch, so we focused on the salads. I opted for the grilled apple and blue cheese salad, which was a good plateful and pretty tasty, while Chris chose the Cobb salad, which was OK though nothing special.

Taos gallery hopping

Some of our greatest day-time pleasure in the town of Taos itself was in simply strolling the streets, people-watching in the Plaza, and visiting some of the numerous shops and galleries.

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A Taos weaver

Of the latter, the one that impressed us the most was Lenny Foster’s Living Light Studio. Lenny is an incredible photographer (you can see for yourself on his website) and we were lucky enough to meet him in the gallery and enjoy a long chat – about his work, his general approach to photography and the possibility of him exhibiting in London one day (which we strongly encouraged, although I am not sure that he has yet done so).

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Lenny's calendar

I especially liked his images of New Mexico, while both of us were moved by his ‘Healing Hands’ series. After our chat he kindly gave us a copy of his 2011 calendar, which, although it had only a few months left to run, made a lovely memento of our visit. Sadly however, the prints themselves were a little outside our budget for holiday souvenirs.

In the Plaza

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Plaza bench

We spent the last part of the afternoon in and around the Plaza. Perhaps surprisingly, it would be easy to drive straight through Taos and miss this, as it is tucked away to the west of the main north-south artery, Paseo Del Pueblo. But to do so would be a real shame. The Plaza was intended by the Spanish settlers who created Taos to be the heart of their community, and such it remains today.

Guadalupe Plaza, to give it its proper name, is surrounded by shops and galleries, with its south side dominated by the historic Hotel la Fonda de Taos. We popped in here briefly hoping to see the collection of D H Lawrence’s so-called ‘Forbidden Art’ – paintings by the author which were considered obscene and banned in England, and under threat of destruction until Lawrence removed them from the country and brought them here to New Mexico. Unfortunately a private function in the room where the paintings are displayed prevented us from seeing them, but it was worth going in to see this Taos landmark.

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Statue of Martinez

In the centre of the Plaza is a gazebo which was donated to the town by heiress and long-time resident Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts scene here (it was she who encouraged Lawrence to move here). On its south side, in front of La Fonda, is a large bronze statue of local hero Padre Antonio José Martinez, the son of Severino Matinez whose hacienda we had been unable to tour this morning.

Much of the Plaza was taken up by a craft fair (I don’t know if that’s usual at the weekend or if it was a special occasion). We enjoyed browsing the stalls, even though we didn’t buy anything here. But we did shop for ice creams in a shop just next to La Fonda (part of the same building, in fact) which we enjoyed sitting on one of the many benches in the Plaza while people-watching.

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Plaza craft stall

In the south east corner, we found an interesting shop selling Native American crafts, clothing etc. which was well worth a browse. And down the little alley to the right of this we discovered a surprisingly good view of the hills that surround the town.

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The mountains around Taos

Eske's Brew Pub

Eske’s came well recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, and was also just across the parking lot from our bed and breakfast, so it was a natural choice for an evening out, and a great one! This is a casual spot that seemed popular with locals as well as visitors to Taos, and with good reason, as both food and beer were very good. There are a couple of linked rooms, and the only tables available when we arrived were in the first room, so that’s where we settled. There are also tables outside, but October evenings in Taos are too chilly for us to have contemplated that option!

We shared some good hot salsa and chips to start with, while we sampled our first beer (the Artist Ale for both of us) and perused the menu. The beer was fresh-tasting and went well with the spicy flavour – a good meal accompaniment. From the tempting menu I chose the Green Chilli Burrito, which was stuffed with beans and cheese and smothered with a vegetable and green chilli stew – yummy! Chris was pleased to see a German favourite so went for the bratwurst with sauerkraut and mash, which he also really enjoyed.

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My burrito, and Chris's Bratwurst with Sauerkraut

We had no room for dessert, but of course hung around to sample more of their beers. After a taster of the Green Chilli Lager I decided that this was surprisingly good, so had a full one – and another! Meanwhile Chris was drinking, and enjoying, the Seco Stout – described as ‘Irish style’. A super evening to end our too-brief stay in Taos.

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Eske's at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:11 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art culture history statue restaurants houses museum photography new_mexico taos customs

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Comments

Taos Pueblo looks like an amazing place, and how wonderful to be guided around by someone who lived there. Love the pictures of the church. ♥

by Grete Howard

Thanks Grete - yes, we were so glad we'd taken the tour even though we would normally choose to explore on our own, and of course we were able to do that anyway once the tour had finished :)

by ToonSarah

What an incredible place. I would absolutely love it here - and the home of Kit Carson too!

by Easymalc

Love your pictures of the old church. Looks like an interesting place.

by irenevt

Thank you Malcolm and Irene :) This was indeed an incredible place, one of the (many) highlights of this trip!

by ToonSarah

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