INDIFFERENT COMPARISONS


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“The Old Arrow Maker” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

The stories of our state’s Native Americans and those of New Mexico have intriguing similarities. I have been writing about the Indians of the Southwest for some time without comparing the histories of the local people.

Santa Fe became a capital city 200 years before Washington, D.C. was founded. The Spanish stared colonizing New Mexico 100 years before California. Native Americans still make up almost 10 percent of the population of New Mexico, while in California less than 2 percent are listed as Native Americans.

Although the two states became part of the United States at the same time, it took New Mexico 62 years longer to achieve statehood.

The arrival of Europeans was disastrous to both states’ Native Americans. The white man’s diseases—measles, smallpox, and diphtheria—killed thousands.

California Indians were gatherers and hunters. When they had exhausted the resources of a place, they burned their rough wooden structures and moved on. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico were farmers who grew corn, squash and beans. They built permanent houses of adobe in villages that had been in the same place for 1,000 years.

The mission system in New Mexico was very different, but still cruel in its attempt to eradicate the ancient culture by destroying sacred artifacts and forcing a foreign religion on a deeply spiritual people. One priest boasted he had burned many sacred Indian masks.

The Pueblo Indians knew how to grow things. The Spanish conquerors demanded a tithe and confiscated many of their crops.

When the Spanish missionaries arrived in California, there were 300,000 Indians. By the time the United States took over in 1848, 150,000 were left. The great influx of people with the Gold Rush sounded a death knell for those remaining. By 1900, thee were 15,000.

There are 19 self-governing Pueblo nations in New Mexico, where Native Americans keep their culture, traditions and language. Most villages speak a variety of the root languages Tiwa or Tewa.

How did they manage to preserve their heritage? Perhaps it was because of charismatic leader Po’Pay, who brought together the different factions of his people to revolt against the tyrannical rule of the Franciscan priests and Spanish rulers. The Pueblo Indians—armed with bows and arrows—drove out their Spanish conquerors—whose soldiers had guns and metal armor—in 1680.

Drought and the Apaches hit the pueblos in the 1670’s and Po’Pay took up residence in Taos and plotted the rebellion among the 46 Pueblo towns in the Rio Grande valley. In the Acoma Massacre the Spanish killed and enslaved hundreds. Twenty-four men had a foot amputated when trying to escape from the “mile-high” city atop the mesa.

To spread the word among the villages he gave a knotted cord to runners sent to all Pueblos. Each day a knot was untied until the final knot which would signal the people to rise up against the Spanish. After the revolt survivors fled to Santa Fe and Isleta which was 10 miles south, and which did not participate in the rebellion. All the Spanish fled to El Paso.

For 12 years, the Pueblos were independent. In 1692, the Spanish regained control of the Pueblos, but this time they were more accommodating, allowing the Pueblos to keep their own spiritual practices as long as they also followed Catholicism.

As an interesting aside, in one or two villages the Franciscans paved a small area in front of the entrance to the churches, ostensibly to “make a better place for the Indians to perform ceremonial dances”. This however, removed the direct connection of their feet to Mother Earth, so they did not use the architectural improvement.

TAOS


Taos stands resplendent in the late afternoon sun, magnificent against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.  Taos is the jewel in the crown of the 19 New Mexican Pueblos, unchanged throughout the centuries, despite the influx of visitors who come to marvel at the three- story architecture still inhabited by this proud people.  The tourist town of Taos and the Pueblo village of Taos are separate places, and no where is this more apparent than in the peace and quiet of a sleepy summer afternoon, with a few wispy white clouds drifting around the mountain, and the buildings painted hues of pink or yellow with deep purple shadows,  all accomplished with a solar paintbrush.  It is the most highly photographed of all the villages, and the camera fee has increased throughout the years.  In the 1960’s it was $5, but a number of years ago when Dr. Advice and I were there, it had grown to $15.  There are restricted places where visitors may not enter or photograph, and  of course, common courtesy demands that permission must be obtained before photographing the people, and a fee tendered, whatever the going rate.

During the summer, my Laguna/Isleta friend and I visited many of the villages, sometimes to renew longtime friendships of Georgia’s, and sometimes to attend a seasonal celebratory dance.  All villages do not welcome outside guests, and those which do, expect that strict rules of decorum be observed.  This includes no cameras, no unnecessary talking during the performance, and to my great shame, no quick drawings of the dancers!  I was unaware of doing anything wrong, until I heard Georgia’s whisper not to look up.  Keeping my head down I saw two moccasined feet directly in front of me, and heard Georgia say that I was writing a letter home.   I guiltily looked up into an old and angry hawk-nosed face, deeply tanned and wrinkled, with not an ounce of compassion or forgiveness.  I smiled weakly and quickly looked back at the dancers.  After an abnormal length of time, the old man moved on to try and find any other miscreants.  I realized that the best sketchbook is frequently in your head, and a lot safer too!

As the summer drew to a close, we spent a lot of time in Santa Fe, which was not completely taken over by the tourists yet, and was beginning to develop a thriving gallery business on Canyon Road.  I entertained highly unrealistic dreams of living there, being quite sure that Dr. Advice would thoroughly enjoy running a gallery while I spent my time painting and sculpting off in the hills somewhere.  Alas! he did not agree, but did agree that we would make an annual pilgrimage, which we did, if not annually, at least frequently, for 40 years.

In the week before we departed for home, there were many bread bakings, stewed chile feasts,  and much laughter.  On one such evening, more women seemed to be dressed in traditional clothing, and there was lots of giggling and whispers as if a secret were there trying to escape.  I became aware that I was the object of their mirth when they scooped me up and announced their intention of bestowing a new name on me.  I was overwhelmed and waited breathlessly to know what it was to be.  The governor of the village approached and said a few words in their Tiwa language, and then asked Georgia to come forward.  She said that after much discussion, she had suggested the name of “Pacho Fa” which means “Three Feathers” denoting the three paths my life takes of family, friends and Art.  It was a special moment for me climaxing a long visit which began as strangers wary of one another, and ended with being a part of an ancient civilization which had embraced me and honored me as “one of their own”.

May we all walk in balance. Aho    

Taos In Winter