It’s never easy to speak about Native Americans. You are supposed to tread lightly, because their troubled history generates different opinions. But this isn’t what I want to do. I want to tell you a part of America that you ought to know precisely because they are the first inhabitants of the continent and if you want to know the history of the United States (and of the American continent in general), it’s essential to understand the New Mexico Pueblos history, art and culture.
During our long and beautiful trip along Route 66, we didn’t just visit the roadside attractions along the way. One of the detours we did (a little one actually, because is not far away from the Mother Road) led us to New Mexico’s Pueblos and their villages.
New Mexico is the home of 19 pueblos: Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni and every Pueblo is a sovereign nation.
Here you can find the map with every Pueblos, useful to discover where they are and build a customized itinerary like we would love to do in the future.
If you want to discover something more about Pueblos traditions, history, culture and art you must visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, that houses a museum with hundreds of rare objects and Native artefacts, through which they tell their world, and a restaurant with typical Native Americans dishes. We visited it before going to visit the Pueblos and I suggest you do the same because is very important to go there well prepared. I also suggest reading the Cultural Etiquette on Visit Albuquerque website.
Visiting the New Mexico Pueblos requires respect above all: a lot of families live in those villages and they aren’t there for your entertaining, so you must enter on your tiptoes. It is very important to know that in these villages pictures are forbidden. We asked for permission but we were only allowed to do a few using just mobile phones or a camera: no Gopro, no drones, no tripod.
New Mexico Pueblos: Isleta Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo
The Isleta Pueblo, from Spanish “little island”, is the nearest Pueblo to the south of Albuquerque. Founded in 1300, it was one of the biggest Pueblos community for many years, with a current population of 4.000 inhabitants.
It is located in the Rio Grande Valley, in the place that once was an important crossroad of Pueblo and Spanish trade routes and was a central meeting place for people from the surrounding villages. Today Isleta Pueblo is a traditional society with people who still speak Tiwa, descendants of the Shoshoncan, the first who set foot in America, 30.000 years ago. Traditions, songs and dances are handed down from generation to generation from centuries.
All the buildings here are adobe-style (a mixture of clay, sand and sun-dried straw), the one that also characterizes the city of Santa Fe, but mostly in white, a color that under the lighting of New Mexico sun makes everything more beautiful, more brilliant. One detail that struck me is precisely this: although the buildings are centuries old they are incredibly well maintained and clean. The most important building in the village is St. Augustine Church, one of the oldest missionary church in the United States. The original church was built around 1612 by the Spanish Franciscans but was destroyed during the Pueblo revolt of 1680 and was rebuilt in 1710.
If you want to discover their more “modern” side instead, you can go to the Isleta Resort & Casino or the Isleta Eagles Golf Course.
The Laguna Pueblo, 72 km from Albuquerque going west (and continuing to follow Route 66) is much older, or at least so they say, declaring that they have always been settled in these lands and, in fact, some archaeological findings dating back to 3000 BC seem to prove them right.
The Laguna Pueblo is split into six different villages: Encinal, Laguna, Mesita, Paguate, Paraje e Seama, each of which celebrates their festival during the year but on September 19th they celebrate all together St Joseph with traditional dances, a mass in the famous St. Joseph Church and a local market with artsy local products (their ceramics are very famous).
St. Joseph Church, also visible from the road as soon as you arrive, is the village main tourist attraction. Registered in the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, is built with stones, adobe, mortar and gypsum. The only openings in this structure, which looks more like a fortress, are the door on the main facade and a small window in the upper front, under the twin bells. The church is most famous for its interior decorations, and the display of original Laguna artwork and rare Spanish paintings.
In Laguna Pueblo, taking pictures is prohibited, especially inside buildings. Permission may be sought, and is often granted for limited areas or individual buildings. We, for example, have been allowed to take a photo outside St. Joseph Church. Always respect their rules!
Curiosities about New Mexico Pueblos
Some curiosities to know the Pueblos a bit more:
- The word “Pueblo” comes from the Spanish word “city”, but today it indicates the tribes of the Southwestern United States.
- As we know, many Native peoples were forced to leave their lands (today you can travel the Trail of Tears, the path that many tribes were forced to do when deported from their homelands to Oklahoma. Almost 4000 people lost their lives for bad conditions, hunger and fatigue), but not the Pueblos, who have been here since their existence was known.
- Although today many speak English very well, their mother tongues and dialects, different from tribe to tribe,are widely used.
- They are excellent jewelers, famous for their silver and turquoise jewelry, especially necklaces.
- Traditionally, Pueblo men wear only wool trousers and buckskin moccasins.
- The women instead wear cotton dresses called mantas, which are tied on the right shoulder leaving the left shoulder uncovered. On their feet they also wear buckskin moccasins.