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A path through the pueblos. New Mexico travel notes

Hundreds of years before Columbus set foot in the New World, as many as 30,000 native people lived in some 80 adobe villages, or pueblos, spread across the Southwestern landscape. They farmed, fished, and hunted along fertile river valleys in what is today New Mexico. Beginning in the 16th century, first came the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally the Americans - to share and to seize the Indians' corner of the world. Since then, historians, philosophers, and writers have predicted the imminent demise of the pueblo peoples. Not only do they hang on, however, but everywhere in the Southwest their influence is seen.

Their practical style of adobe architecture dominates the Santa Fe skyline. Their arts and crafts are found in the best homes and museums. And perhaps most remarkable, their communities live on proudly.

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Of the 19 pueblos surviving in New Mexico, the eight northernmost are within an easy day's drive of Santa Fe. Unlike the flat, arid southern half of the state, the north's higher elevation brings cooler temperatures, more rain, and richer vegetation.

San Juan Pueblo, 36 miles north of Santa Fe, is a good starting point for a tour. It's a leader in the movement to promote Indian-made crafts, with its Eight Northern Pueblos Artisans' Guild Shop. Here you can learn how to identify the specialties and styles of each pueblo: San Juan, Taos, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Nambe, Picuris, Tesuque, and Pojoaque.

The O'ke Oweenge Crafts Cooperative sells local works, made primarily by graduates of the co-op's own training program. San Juan artisans produce brown or red incised pottery, coral and turquoise jewelry, embroidery, leather and bead work, weavings, and basketry.

Taos Pueblo is probably the best-known village, because of its distinctive architecture and accessibility, just two miles north of the artist colony of Taos. Built on a 7,900-foot plateau at the base of the Sangre de Cristo range, the pueblo's two ancient adobe buildings are separated by the Taos River, which flows through the central plaza. About 1,000 Indians live there.

This is one of the most traditional of the pueblos. Visitors see almost exactly what the early Spanish saw when they first rode past the entrance. This isn't true elsewhere, as government or tribal housing projects have often led to the construction of newer buildings.

The 2,800 residents of Santa Clara Pueblo enjoy a scenic location - just south of Espanola - with four lakes, a beaver dam, and a stream for fishing. Forming a backdrop are the Puye Cliff Dwellings, the ruins of a 2,000-room village where their ancestors lived until drought forced them to move to the lowlands sometime in the late 15th century. Pottery, highly polished red and black, is the most popular craft of Santa Clara artisans. Several of the region's most renowned painters and potters are from this pueblo.

The smallest of the eight is Pojoaque Pueblo, with just over 100 inhabitants. The original village is in ruins, as the pueblo almost became extinct after the smallpox epidemic of 1890. In the 1930s, however, Pojoaque reorganized, and today residents live in a scattering of houses connected by a dirt road. The main attraction for visitors is a trading post with an excellent selection of high-quality crafts made by artists from many pueblos. Prices are good, and bargaining is possible. Profits go to the pueblo. Pojoaque is on the main Interstate highway 16 miles north of Santa Fe.

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Just north of the Pojoaque Trading Post is the turnoff for Route 4 West, the road to San Ildefonso Pueblo. In 1919, potters Maria Martinez and her husband developed an original black-on-black design technique that made her and the pueblo world famous. The international attention led to a general appreciation of other pueblo arts which continues today.

The eight northern pueblos welcome guests, although each has its own regulations. Be sure to check in at the local governor's office at each entrance. Some pueblos charge a visitor's fee, and most have rules about taking photos. Frequently there are designated areas, such as religious buildings, that may be off limits to visitors. An interesting time to visit a pueblo is on a holiday, when a special fair or traditional dance is held.

Practical information

For a brochure from the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, along with a map and a year-round calendar of events, write to the council at Box 969, San Juan Pueblo, NM 87566, or call (505) 852-4265.

One of the several area museums that focus on pueblo history is the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, displaying a superb collection of Southwest Indian crafts acquired by Millicent Rogers, a Taos resident, during the 1940s ([505] 758-2462). Exhibits at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque describe pueblo history from prehistoric times until the present and feature crafts from each pueblo in the state ([505] 247-4907).

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