There were about 100 pueblos before the Spanish arrived, but then the populations started to shrink. Many communities died out entirely, and sometimes refugees from several pueblos had to regroup and form a new one.
As recently as 20 years ago some pueblos were on the verge of vanishing. Others have made surprising comebacks. Pojoaque Pueblo, for instance, is still tiny, with only about 300 members, but now has a casino/hotel and an aggressive policy of reinvesting its revenue. The result includes a tribal-owned shopping mall, a large apartment complex that rents to the public, a new fitness center and a handsome new visitors center patterned after an ancient ruin. It also has a kiva, one of the traditional ceremonial chambers that are vital to Pueblo culture. "There hadn't been a kiva here in 100 years," a Pojoaque man says proudly.
Other tribes with gaming—three-fourths of the pueblos have it, including San Juan and Acoma—are diversifying. It's a kind of insurance, San Juan's governor Garcia says, so people won't suffer if gaming is restricted or taken away.
"Do you know why government exists?" Garcia says. "Only one reason. A government exists to take care of its people." And gaming is a way to do that. The revenue has brought jobs, scholarships and increased pride and strength. Some pueblos are even buying back lost land. And Acoma founded its own fire department. Until then, says the tribal secretary, firetrucks had to come from a Bureau of Indian Affairs facility in Albuquerque, nearly an hour away.
Funny, I think, checking into a casino/hotel early in the trip, if the Spanish now came looking for gold they might actually find it. But they'd have to play the slots.
The Spanish were driven by greed, says Tom Kennedy, tourism director for the Pueblo of Zuni, where the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola was born. "They saw what they wanted to see."
The legend began as a mistake or a lie. The traditional explanation is that the tan walls of Zuni's six, not seven, villages shone like gold in the setting sun.
There now is a casino called the Cities of Gold, but it's not at Zuni. That's the name of Pojoaque's casino, halfway across the state. Zuni, the largest of the pueblos with nearly 11,000 members, has no casino. The tribe is discussing it, says Carmelita Sanchez, a retired nurse who is Zuni's first female lieutenant governor.
Casinos require a big initial investment, and that's a huge risk for a tribe that needs money. The ones that thrive are near big cities or busy highways or both, and Zuni is neither. Gallup, on Interstate 40, is the nearest city, and it's nearly 40 miles away.
Meanwhile, Zuni's economic mainstay continues to be arts and crafts. Its artists do wonderful work in all the traditional Pueblo forms: inlaid silver jewelry, fine hand-coiled pottery, woven baskets and fetishes—tiny stone animal sculptures that are a Zuni specialty.
At least 80% of Zuni households receive some income from art, Kennedy says. This means Zuni may have more working artists for its size than any other town in America. But it doesn't look like an artists' colony. It looks like an average- to low-income suburb, except there's no city next door.
"We estimate that we're within reach of 100,000 people," Kennedy says, but about only 8,000 a year sign the tourist office guest register. So another thing the tribe is discussing is how—and whether—to promote itself more. One problem is that there isn't much for visitors to do in Zuni but buy art, visit artists in their home studios or look at the magnificent and controversial murals in the old mission.
The murals were started 30 years ago by Zuni painter Alex Seowtewa and his family. They depict sacred figures from Zuni ceremonials, and the tribal government's view is that they shouldn't be displayed in a church.
Gaming symbolizes better than anything else the interior and exterior worlds of Pueblo life. The symbolism is most striking at Acoma. Its old pueblo commands the most exotic location of any community in the United States, the top of a 376-foot-high mesa, a natural citadel, an island in the sky.
It is North America's Machu Picchu, more impressive because it's older and still alive. Acoma people have lived here since about 600, says Brian Vallo, the pueblo's historic preservation officer and director of its impressive new cultural center.