Taos Pueblo

Grand Tour 14: Holy Jumble and the Intrusiveness of Tourism

This entry is part 14 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

To travel is to intrude. The intrusion may be welcomed. It may be invited. You may pay for the privilege of intruding. But it is still an intrusion, and sometimes you feel like an intruder even where you are welcomed. But then, there are some places, no matter how foreign, where you always feel at home. 

Friday, May 11, 2018, Taos to Albuquerque: Our day begins with a visit to Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in North America. Being continuously inhabited means that it is inhabited still, and thus I feel like an intruder visiting here. These are people’s homes. We learn that they are now more like a family cottage than a full-time home for most Pueblo people. Only 15 people live here year-round we are told. But each family in the tribe has a house here which is still used for ceremonial purposes and family gatherings. I think my condo association would not look kindly on busloads of Pueblo Indians turning up every day to tour our complex. It feels intrusive to do the same to them.

This feeling is silly, because the Taos Pueblo encourages people to visit and explore. We are directed to visitor parking lots where an official directs us to the administration office to pay our entry fee. There we are read the rules about where we can go and what we can do and not do. The limits of intrusion are clearly marked. It is all controlled and regulated, and as long as we obey the rules, we are not trespassing. But it feels like we are intruding, all the same.

We arrived a little early before the first tour started and were told that we were free to wander around until the tour began as long as we did not pass any restricted area signs or climb on anything. As we wandered we saw people opening small shops around the plaza and setting up jewelry tables. All this activity is further confirmation that this is a tourist site and the tribe is running it as such. There is no reason for me to feel like I’m intruding, but I still do.

Mission Church, Taos Pueblo

We decide to visit the mission church while we wait for the tour to begin. It is small, but it is quite wonderful inside. The interior decoration is entirely folk in style. It is a rich and varied collection, clearly assembled over time, with each object there to represent something particular and of its moment, with no thought given to symmetry or artistic effect. But the effect is profound and moving precisely because it seems so personal. It is what I am coming to think of as a “holy jumble.” Holy jumble is quite different from the naive and gauche decorations one sees in many suburban churches. In those cases the decorations were aiming at symmetry and failing. A holy jumble, on the other hand, is simply an accumulation of sacred objects, objects made sacred by the significance they had for the people who placed them there as some expression of their hope, devotion, or gratitude to God. There is no attempt at anything other than collection here. It cannot fail to be art because it does not try, and in not trying, it succeeds.

We have seen holy jumble in churches across the region, particularly in Santuario de Chimayo. We have also seen genuine art and symmetry successfully blended with diversity at Saint Francis in Santa Fe. And we have also seen suburban ugliness and unchurchiness in the affluent Saint Thomas in Amarillo. When it comes to church, the poor, it seems, simply do it better than the rich.

No photographs are allowed in the church, nor in any gift shop, here and elsewhere in the region. Our guide says that photography is not allowed in the church because they regard it as a sacred space equal to the kivas—in which photography is forbidden even, it seems, in reconstructions of kivas at historic sites that have never been used for religious purposes. However, the prohibition on photography, or depicting sacred spaces, has never been an element of Christian tradition, except for conservation reasons, and the fact that there are postcards for sale at the back of the church with photographs of the interior shows that there is some humbug going on here. You can own a photograph of the sacred space, you just can’t take one for yourself. In other words the real restriction is commercial. You could make a conservation argument, but available light photography causes no damage and digital cameras are so good now that flash is seldom needed or seen. Really all they needed to say is that they claim the rights to all images of the church and that would be sufficient. We are tourists. We know our presence is suffered for the money we bring. Our intrusion is delimited and paid for. By all means place artificial restrictions to separate us from more of our cash. But there is no need to sugarcoat it or wrap it in mumbo-jumbo.

The kiva restriction is another thing of course. Some religions are secret—private and closed to outsiders. Our guide tells us up front that he will not answer any questions about the kivas or even say anything in the Pueblo language. To me, brought up on “go out and tell the whole world the good news,” this notion of a private, secret religion into which you can only be born, not converted, is very strange. The church debated the question of whether the Indians were human beings and could therefore be Christianized. They decided that they were, which is why the missions were established. As one of the displays in one of the museums we visit says, the tribal names for themselves mean simply “the people” or “the human beings” —something that seems common to other native groups elsewhere.

This notion that only my people are really or fully human is historically widespread. While most of us would condemn the notion out of hand today, we still often act as if it were true. Even those who preach most ardently about equity— indeed, such people especially—tend to implicitly cast their opponents. or the people they see as unjustly privileged, as less than human.The instinct to close ranks with one’s own tribe—with “the human beings” —is very strong in all of us. It is not a learned prejudice. It is the natural world view of a tribal species. Professing Catholicism, a religion that proclaims the equal humanity of all people from conception to the grave, does not automatically erase this natural prejudice. But it can make one startle when encountering examples of religious particularism.

But perhaps the secrecy of the kivas is not about this at all. Maybe it has another meaning altogether. Since it is secret, I can’t know. It could simply be part of a minority culture working to maintain its apartness. I noted in my discussion of the Poeh Cultural Centre that small cultures surrounded by large ones need to establish bastions to prevent themselves being swamped by the tide. Creating a museum celebrating their national mythology is only one of the ways in which such bastions can be built and maintained. Societies in these situations tend to turn back to their traditions, seeking points of differentiation from the wider culture, bringing to the fore any practices that are distinct, and shying from those that are similar to those of the main culture. They become more like themselves, in other words, striving for greater distinctiveness, and creating secret spaces and rituals by which they may show their backs to the world. Part of holding back the tide of culture is saying, “This is only for us, not for you. Only we may see it, know it, participate in it.” A secret kept from the wider world is an anchor of distinctiveness and continuity. Have the kivas become more of a secret because they too have become a bastion protecting the culture? I can’t ask, because the kivas are secret.

This business about apartness versus universality is fraught with difficulty. I belong to a church that calls itself universal yet there is something in me that yearns for the connectedness and groundedness that comes with being a people set apart. The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Catholics in modern western society are increasingly a people set apart. But for all that, there is little social cohesion at the parish level. Though they love to slap the word “community” on everything, the typical parish is, for most Catholics, the place they go to Mass, not the center of their social, civic, or cultural lives.

Real Catholic communities do exist. There are villages in deeply Catholic areas where everybody knows each other and many live there their whole lives and feel a deep connectedness to each other while still being members of the universal church. (This is obviously true for other faiths as well.) There are also close knit communities where people do everything together except that they attend different churches. But in a modern economy that demands mobility, living like this seems inevitably to come at the price of a degree of relative poverty. Making such choices (or rejecting them) is not a question just for native communities. The outports of Newfoundland or the old coal towns of the Appalachians are just two examples of where people face the same choice between community and prosperity.

As much as there is comfort in belonging to a specific place and a specific people, however, there is also great comfort in belonging to the universal Church, of being able to go into any Catholic Church anywhere in the world and know that I am at home. Our guide describes the church on the Pueblo as “our church” but it is my church as much as it is his. I am an alien, an intruder, a paying guest in the rest of the Pueblo, but in the church I am at home.

The tour does not go into the church, and I am glad of that. Catholic churches are not secret spaces, but they are sacred spaces, and tours within them have always made me uncomfortable. I’m not saying that they are wrong. If the local ordinary approves them, they are licit. But they make me uncomfortable. They make me feel like my home is being intruded upon by people who do not understand or respect the place they are gawping at. This is very much akin to the discomfort I feel in intruding in the Pueblo, despite having been invited to do so, and having paid for the privilege.

Our guide’s statement that they regard the church and the kivas as equally sacred reminds me that when missionaries first came to Britain and converted my tribe, members of that tribe, like those of other tribes, often kept up the practices of their old religions in parallel to the Christianity they had adopted, particularly it in tough times. If Christ seem not to be answering requests there was the temptation to try asking one of the old gods.

I say “my tribe” for effect here, but of course the Brigantes who once occupied the territory that my mother came from, and the Cornovii who once occupied the territory that my father came from, have long since dissolved into the great river of humanity. It would be vain today to say that most English-born people were Celtic, Saxon, Norman, Dane, Roman, or indeed any particular variety of European, Indian, African, or anything else. Most of them are a bit of a lot of these. The old tribes, their blood and their culture, are entirely extinguished. Our current identities—English, Canadian, American—are not of the blood, but a matter of place and, ultimately, a matter of election. There is something enviable in the closeness of the Pueblo communities, therefore, a closeness forged not only of commonalities of place and history, but of blood. It is something impossible to elect. You must be born to it.

Graveyard at Taos Pueblo

These Pueblos are clearly Christian communities, at least in part. I note that though our guide criticizes the actions of the Spanish and the US he never speaks ill of the church. Is this a reflection of his true feelings, or a sensitivity to the likely religious adherence of many of his listeners? It is so common these days to hear religious belief mocked and/or vilified, often by people who seem to assume that none of their hearers could possibly be one of “those people.” One becomes suspicious when it so particularly does not happen, particularly with the image of the monk with a whip from the diorama at the Poeh Cultural Center still fresh in the mind. Still, I very much wish to believe that in this case our guide’s forbearance is born of affection or respect, that his expressed sense of the sacredness of these things is genuine. The mumbo-jumbo over taking photos in the church plants a small seed of doubt, alas.

Yet if they hold the kivas and the church’s to be equally sacred, is the nature of their faith and the significance of their practice the same to them? Do they really serve two gods? Or is it that some are Christian and some practitioners of the kiva religion simply living together in peaceful respect for each other? That too, I suspect, is a secret. To ask, it seems, would be to violate the rule about not asking about the kivas. Would looking it up in Wikipedia be disrespectful? To be honest, I find something distasteful about a mystery religion. It suggests that you are being left out in the cold to die while others stay warm and safe inside. The door should always be open (though no one should be forced inside). But even if the practice of secrecy is odious, the right of people to their faith is sacred and so I elect not to ask, or to look it up.

Looking back now, two years after our visit, I realize that my instinctive reaction against mystery religions is based on something of a false premise. Christianity has accustomed us to the idea of a single universal God for all people. If every religion thought the same way, then any tribal or mystery religion would indeed be leaving the rest of humanity to perish. But that is not how most religions have thought of it. Every people have their own gods. You are an outsider, so you may not come into the presence of our god. Go back to your own gods. It is not that you are being abandoned to die in the cold, but that you are being sent back to the care of the gods of your own people (lesser gods though they may be). As Ruth says in Ruth 1:16: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Each people has its own gods. It is an extraordinary act to leave your gods for those of another people.

Christian universalism overthrows this conception of the universe. It is no longer each tribe to its own gods, but one God for all peoples. This belief in universal human brotherhood sounds wonderful in theory. It has proved to be difficult in practice. Considering our inherent tribalism, this should not surprise us.

Taos Pueblo

The ancient adobe of Taos Pueblo creates a very different impression from the adobe style in Santa Fe. This is in large part because it is ancient and primitive. It is not a style. It is the practical use of the materials at hand to achieve a practical purpose. And yet there is a sense of beauty in it as well. Practical it may be, but it has none of the brutalist quality of a modern concrete tower. Perhaps it is because it has grown organically over the centuries. Perhaps its beauty lies in a domestic echo of the holy jumble of the church. It is a domestic jumble, but, unlike the domestic jumble of a shantytown, which is merely ugly, there is a sense of unity and caring about it. Having seen this, you feel that if you had only seen Santa Fe or Taos you would not really have seen adobe at all. And this despite there being no trees at all—trees being the element that saved the adobe of Santa Fe and Taos from mere brutality. The hills beyond are green, but the Pueblo itself is all gravel and dirt and the day is windy. There is a wind warning in the forecast for the day, and the dust flies around and gets in your eyes and in your teeth. It may be beautiful in its strange organic domestic jumble, but I can’t help asking myself why it was built here when there appear to be more salubrious climes nearby.

At the end of our tour, our guide makes an interesting statement. After acknowledging the role that Richard Nixon played in returning some territory to the tribe, he mentions that on the same day that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln also signed the death warrants of 250 members of the Pontiac tribe. They certainly don’t tell you that in the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. The union army that had lost over 600,000 men ostensibly to free the black man then turned West to dispossess and ultimately exterminate the Indians. (Some historians believe that the Church’s prohibition on enslaving the Indians led to the growth of the African slave trade in the Americas. An interesting juxtaposition, if it is true.) Still, this turn from liberation to extirpation is a tough contradiction to get your head around. One can’t lay it at Lincoln’s feet, since he was dead by then. But nor can one assume he would have acted differently. It is perilous to turn men into saints or into demons. Genuine examples of both are rare, and those created for political purposes are almost never genuine examples of either.

On our way out we stop at one of the tiny stores in the Pueblo buildings for a sample of fry bread. It is a very simple dish, but delicious, served straight from the fryer, cooked when ordered. It reminds us a bit of Yorkshire pudding and a bit of beavertails, but it is simpler and lighter than both. This sort of thing must have been eaten by primitive peoples all over the world wherever wheat or corn is grown.

Speaking of which, our guide showed us ovens, which are the simple beehive design that the Romans or the Saxons would have used. Our guide says that the Pueblo people learned them from the Spanish, so they are not as ancient here, but apparently they are still in use by the tribe. Another case of the similarities between ancient sites continents apart.

Mud Oven

We drove back through the Rio Grande Gorge road toward Santa Fe, but rather than rejoin old 66 in Santa Fe we veered off to approach Albuquerque via Los Alamos and Jemez Hot Springs.

Taos to Albuquerque map

We looked for lunch in Los Alamos, and suddenly found ourselves in Silicone Everywhere again—as if we were in Waterloo or Ottawa or San Jose—except hotter and drier. We had lunch in a brew pub. The food was quite good but we remembered too late again that in these places we are supposed to order one meal and split it. I ordered smoked duck pizza and salad. Where else but in Silicone Everywhere do they have brew pubs that serve smoked duck pizza? It is good, though not really as good as it should be—the chef needs to think a bit more about what would go well with smoked duck on a pizza.

As we proceed through town we suddenly came upon what looked like a toll plaza We started scrambling for money and looking for a sign to tell us what the toll was. But it was not a toll booth. it was some kind of identity check. the attendant asked to see my driver’s license, looked at it, looked at me, and asked me if I could vouch for my passenger. “Yes,” I said, having no clue as to what I was vouching for on Anna’s behalf. He handed back my license and waved us on with an instruction to stay in the right lane—it is unclear why since it is an ordinary four lane suburban artery (two in each direction) with nothing apparently special about either lane. We are baffled by all of this palaver at first, but then we start passing buildings marked “Los Alamos National Laboratory”. Somehow, the road out of town runs through the precincts of the lab. They used to invent atomic bombs here. What do they do here now? Like the kivas, I have a sense that this is something I am not supposed to ask about.

Once we leave town we are climbing through a very sparse pine forest, parts of which have recently burned. I am usually annoyed by roads lined with pointy trees, but here the trees are so sparse that you can see through the forest to the Hills beyond. It is another case of a landscape both intimate and expansive. Again the near trees tell the brain how to interpret the green blobs in the distance as a whole forest. This is so much more enchanting then the impenetrable wall of green that lines so many Canadian highways.

Sparse pine forest

We proceeded through pine forests, which are clearly major recreational area. The trees are denser here so that scenery is less interesting to me but it is here that I realize how special is area must be to the desert dwellers locally. Then suddenly the forest opens up and we are skirting the rim of a vast open grassland. At an overlook we discover that this is the Valle Grande, part of the enormous Valles Caldera.

Vallee Grande

As we later discover, the vast plain before us is perhaps one tenth of the whole caldara. We are fascinated by the fact that this vast yellow grassland is entirely featureless. there appears to be a trickle of water somewhere in the distance, but not a tree, road, fence, cow, sheep, goat, or building as far as the eye can see. Is it unusable or left unused for some purpose? (There is actually a dirt road running through it but it is invisible from our vantage point.)

Further down the road in Jemez Springs we visit the ruin of another pueblo and mission church. The church is in ruins but it is huge—far bigger than any of the standing ones we have seen, despite belonging to what seems like a pretty small community nestled in a steep valley with little room to grow.

Mission Church at Jemez Springs

Here I recognize another example of the pattern I have mentioned before—a settlement on a high place surrounded by higher places.

Jemez Pueblo surroundings

The buildings here were made of stones bound by mud though it feels a lot like cement. The style of what remains standing is similar to adobe but the materials are those found locally.

We drive into Albuquerque. Any romantic Looney Tunes association with the name Albuquerque dissipates in the rush hour traffic. I sympathize with Bugs Bunny. It is not fun trying to make a left turn in Albuquerque. We bought frozen enchiladas in a supermarket, nuked them, and ate them in the room. Then we walked to the Baskin-Robbins next door for dessert. The flavors at Baskin-Robbins here are totally different from what we have at home. No Rum and Raisin. Rats. This is all very much conventional North American urban sprawl, loud and ugly. But at least I no longer feel like I am intruding. The hotel is right on Route 66. Back on the old road tomorrow.

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