On the flank of a slight hill on the west side of the Rio Grande, I stand beside a 6-foot-tall concrete cross and, for a moment, hold history in the palm of my hand. The place is a rough field that in some other climate might have been called a pasture. Here in northern New Mexico, it is dry dirt and clumps of weeds, alive with small grasshoppers that ricochet around my legs when I move.

Next to the cross is a red brick monument the size of a fireplace. Atop it, a plaque marks the site of the first capital of Nuevo Mexico, founded in 1598—nine years before Jamestown, Va.—to control a Spanish territory that stretched all the way to the Pacific.

Across the river is a different kind of settlement, a Pueblo Indian village originally called Ohkay Owingeh, the Place of the Strong People. I can't see it from where I stand; the shallow valley is too thick with cottonwoods and high grass. But the village is still there, still occupied, as it was long before the Spanish arrived.

Around my feet are bits of trash, some very old: an iron nail, forged by hand; a bit of sky-blue glass, mouth-blown, iridescent with age; and two bits of pottery that make me catch my breath. They are grayish-white with black patterns, like the old pots I've seen in museums. There is no doubt they are Indian.

Together, these things tell a story—tell it better than the memorial beside me, better than any book I've read. They make it real. This is where it happened, they say. This is where two cultures collided and everything changed.

I turn and reread the plaque: "On July 11, 1598, Juan de Onate, colonizer, established the first Spanish capital in this pueblo. The Indians received the Spaniards with great courtesy."

The Spanish changed the pueblo's name. It became San Juan de los Caballeros—St. John of the Gentlemen. Its descendants, like those of all the other pueblos, have been living in two worlds ever since: the exterior world of the dominant culture, whether Spain's or Mexico's or that of the United States—and the interior world of their own way of life. They've managed to preserve it for more than 400 years.

"The balancing between the two worlds—the Indian and the non-Indian world—is very difficult for some individuals," says Travis Suazo, manager of New Mexico's Indian tourism program and a member of Laguna Pueblo. "It's up to each individual to find that balance."

The struggle for balance begins early. I remember something a 10-year-old pueblo boy said on the Hopi reservation two summers ago. The child was telling me about a wonderful dream he'd had. In his dream the fictional characters Harry, Ron and Hermione from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series came to Hopi for a visit and he got to show them around his homeland.

twenty pueblos—the spanish word can mean village, tribe or individuals—survive in the Southwest. One tribe, the Hopi, lives in northeastern Arizona. The 19 other pueblos are in New Mexico, arrayed on the map like a backward L, with Albuquerque at the hinge.

In June, I drove most of the L, from Taos in the north, down through Albuquerque, and finally west to Zuni, near the Arizona border. I lingered longest in San Juan and Acoma, but I took many side roads, physically and mentally, and I talked to many people. By trip's end, I had the sense that I'd traveled not among cities of gold but in realms of the spirit.

All along, I tried to imagine the Pueblo world—a world where everything is sacred, where everything has meaning, where everything is connected to everything else. A world that is whole. It was like trying to imagine a color that isn't in the spectrum. I couldn't get my mind around it. But I envied the people who could.

Today's pueblos are different nations, speaking different languages—Zuni at Zuni, Hopi at Hopi, Keresan at Acoma Laguna, Tewa and its variants up along the Rio Grande.

They are different architecturally too. Taos is known for its ancient pair of multistory apartment buildings. Tiny Picuris is set high in lush hills. Jemez, beside a mountain river, has narrow, tight-knit lanes and the feel of a Greek village. Nambé is near Santa Fe and bounded by modern suburban homes.

The pueblos share a powerful belief system so encompassing and so interwoven with all aspects of daily life that to call it "tradition" or "religion" is to limit its scope.

"What's the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?" Joe Garcia, the governor of San Juan Pueblo, asks me during an interview.

"Brush my teeth," I say, "walk the dogs, read the paper."

"One of the first things traditional people do is give their blessings to the sun, give their blessings for being alive and then blessings for others, blessings for people in need, up to and including the United States of America. That's the way it starts," he says. "Then I move into the technical world, come to the office, check my e-mail."

All the pueblo people I ask say they start their day the same way.