I approached my first visit to Taos Pueblo with all the wonder of the conquistadors, but none of their courage and certainly none of their motives. My interest was people rather than gold. We drove there from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, where we were staying. We had visited the ranch of D. H. Lawrence and on our return home were stopping in the pueblo.
It was already evening. The sun was setting; a wind blew tumbleweed across the cactus-strewn plains; the sky was clear, and there were a few stars in view in the eastern sky. A few old Indian men sat round adobe homes at the lower entranceway, and a few children played in the dusty road that led to the more populated apartment complexes on a cliff. Surrounding the village, like a sleeping giant, were the ranges of mountains to the north.
The cluster of houses stood, before me and my friend Rene, like mounds of clay made by a giant ice cream scoop. The cliff dwellings were in the usual adobe style, angular tawny-colored cubes streaked by the shadows of projecting posts and ladders from one story to the next. The effect was an irregular step-pyramid against the white-crested, pink, gold, and green mountain known as Pueblo Peak, sacred mountain of the Indian.
Shortly a young woman dressed in moccasins and a plain red dress came over to us and greeted Rene as an old friend. He introduced her as Zora, but I'm not sure how the name was spelled.
She was thickset, skin of red-brown complexion, with straight glossy black hair, wide cheekbones, and white straight teeth. She had the small, dark eyes of a child, but her personality had the warmth and generous manner of a friendly matron. Perhaps she had once been as shy as the children who peered from the adobe doorway, but now she appeared to possess confidence and the anticipation of a familiar acquaintance.
She invited us to the best meal I had eaten since leaving Boston the week before. A thick spicy corn and chicken stew, with corn bread, vegetable cakes, and tea.
Around us, on the floor, sat three small children and Zora's mother, who did not speak English; at least she did not appear to want to converse. The children were silent but kept studying us. I assumed that the men were still at the plaza selling crafts in Santa Fe.
The apartment was severely furnished, a few chairs, sleeping cots lining the walls, a television set, a record player. Smaller rooms made up a kitchen and bathroom, and that was all.
Rene and Zora were old friends since his student days at the University of New Mexico. I was perplexed, disoriented, by the mix of tribal and modern culture. When Zora placed a record in the player I was surprised to hear the urban soulful voice of Diana Ross.
In the 16th century a governor of New Spain spoke of this region as ''The Miserable Kingdom!'' Now Taos Pueblo is thronged with tourists and sightseers like me, seeking Indian jewelry, pottery, weavings, handicrafts, and merely trying to satisfy curiosity.
The league of seven Indian cities of gold was called Cibola, and their purported existence lured the Spanish explorers here. The modern tourist perhaps still reflects the pacified conquistador, whose aggression now takes the form of the Indian cultist or bargain hunter.
I left my friend Rene and Zora to reminisce, and I wandered outside. It was late August. The yellow flowers of the yucca filled the air with their fragrance.
In the dim light the pueblo had a pitiful cast of solitude and desolation, the vacant center plaza looking as though it mourned for the children who had filled it only hours before. I crossed a dry gulch where a handful of puppies scampered in the dust and shadows just as puppies play everywhere. It was getting late, and soon we would have to return to our mountain camp before starting back home.
The stillness and desolation reminded me of the pueblos' bloody and destructive conquest by the 16th-century Spaniards. Conquistadors like Cabeza de Vaca were insatiable and stubborn. How long did it take for them to realize that Cibola was a myth?
In the days since the Spanish conquest the pueblenos have put up a remarkable resistance to European culture. But now the discoveries of uranium, oil, and other natural wealth have undermined the old tenacity of some.
And the tourists are another corrupting, albeit economically necessary, influence. An avalanche of dollars now realizes the Cibola of myth. The resistance of the pueblo has become symbolic, fixed in native folklore and native culture, which has become itself commercialized.
The progress that Americaniz-aton brought may therefore not be all bad. The ironic aspect is that the Indian ancestral ways are now sustained by the very forces that destroyed Indian civilization and reduced Indian lands.
On the mountain range there is an extraordinary vista of sunset. The striking color patterns in the skyscape recall Gotthold Lessing's conception of visual beauty as a kind of dumb poetry. Near the crown of snow the sunlight emits a single beam from the earth's edge, and a passionate blush fills the lonely sky.
The ancient pueblenos must have felt incomparable pleasure in these sunsets, each so different yet offering such singular enjoyment at the end of a hard day. I doubt that the tourists will ever stop coming to this desert mountain area.
On the road back to Santa Fe the passing pickup trucks are filled with dark faces and black glinting eyes. It is a twilit world, the night filled with laughter and songs. One of the few Indian verses I know comes to me: Will I leave only this! Will nothing last of my name? Nothing of my fame here on earth? At least flowers! At least songs!
By that score the conquistadors must envy the people they sought to conquer.