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.
They also share stories about how they came to be—about the Emergence and the Migrations—when the first people came up from worlds below and into this one, and then wandered in groups over the land until each found the home it was intended to have.
Prayers still honor the ancestors who made those journeys, including the ancients who built cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colo., and Bandolier National Monument outside Santa Fe.
"If you really listen," a man from San Juan Pueblo tells me, "you can pick up on a different energy in those places. They're still alive, because people leave their energy wherever they live."
Archeologists say the Puebloan culture began more than 600 years ago, when nomadic hunters and gatherers began settling and raising crops in New Mexico's river valleys. At one time these early residents were called Anasazi and were said to have disappeared mysteriously.
It's more likely that ancestral Puebloans did what people always do when times get tough: They moved. Anytime someone leaves a pueblo today for a better job somewhere else, he's doing the same thing. That happens a lot, because opportunities on even the most prosperous reservations are limited. But leaving is a wrenching choice, given the intensity of the people's ancient connection to one another and to the land.
San Juan New Mexico's pueblos, except for Zuni, hold annual celebrations for the feast days of their patron saints. San Juan's is June 24, and on that morning, I am one of many drivers pulling off the highway north of Española, N.M., and onto the pueblo's main road. I park on a slope near the center of the village and walk toward the sound of the drums.
There are vendors along the way, offering snow cones and fry bread, cheap sun umbrellas from China, good turquoise jewelry from Santo Domingo and pottery from Acoma and San Ildefonso. I spot baskets with peculiarly low prices.
"What pueblo are you from?"' I ask the woman seated among them.
"Pakistan," she says, describing herself as well as the baskets. "Take one for your home!"
A little farther on is San Juan's Catholic church and a century-old chapel, Our Lady of Lourdes. Next to the chapel, the first of three plazas stretches back among small mud-plastered houses, the oldest structures in the village. A leafy green bower of cottonwood branches has been set up on one side of the plaza, and the figure of St. John has been brought out of the church and placed there; people stop by all day to pay their respects.
Two groups of dancers are taking turns, moving from plaza to plaza through the village. The Comanche Dance includes about a hundred people—men, women, teenagers, little kids—moving to the sounds of rapid drumming and song in a blur of bright feathers, leg bells and painted faces.
As the Comanches rest, the Buffalo Dancers come, two men and a woman with buffalo headdresses and dark paint on their bodies. The drummers change the rhythm, slowing it down, making it strong and stately.
Aware that there are secrets, I ask a young man standing nearby if there is anything he can say about what we are watching.
"Dancing is prayer," says Matthew Martinez, home on summer break from graduate school in Minnesota. "It's prayer and a way of connecting all these elements, people and land and animals and ancestors."
He wants to be sure that I don't think this is a performance. Performances are scripted; they happen at a set time; they can be canceled. "These dances continue whether there are people watching or not," he says. "Things carry on."
Later, a San Juan woman gives me an impressive example. When the Sept. 11 attacks happened, she says, the pueblo was getting ready for its annual Harvest Dance. And it kept on getting ready. In mainstream America, she says, "You held onto your immediate family. We held onto each other."
"Have you eaten?" Martinez suddenly asks, during a midafternoon lull in the dancing. I say I haven't. "C'mon," he says, and invites me to his grandmother's house.
This too is Pueblo custom: On feast days, you feast, and outsiders are often fed as well, even strangers like me. "Any spirit is welcome," another man tells me that day.
Spiritually, the pueblos were not conquered, despite centuries of outside interference. "We convinced the Spanish that Catholicism was the only religion we practiced," says Tony Chino, the tribal secretary at Acoma.
Even physical conquest took a long time. In 1680, after nearly a century of mistreatment, the pueblos joined together in a carefully coordinated revolt that drove the Spanish out of the region for the next decade.
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.
Zuni 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.
"It is the traditional homeland of the Acoma people," he says. "A very sacred space." The mesa's silhouette is a tribal emblem, and its nickname, the Sky City, functions like a brand. But its real name is Haak'u, meaning "a place prepared."
The tribe's Sky City Casino Hotel and Travel Center on Interstate 40 is fueling Acoma's future, and that future includes preservation of the past. Gaming revenue, for example, is paying for most of the tribe's $17-million cultural center, Vallo says.
From my room at the hotel, I can look across the swimming pool and see the economic engine behind it all—the raised roadbed of the interstate. It took the place of old Route 66, and it's still the Mother Road across New Mexico.
Rivers of semi-trucks glitter in both directions, and steady streams of them are pulling off at the Acoma exit to tank up. More than 120 semis are parked at the truck stop my first night there. In the casino/hotel, there are the familiar clangs, boops and jingles from the gaming hall off the lobby. But the complex does not serve alcohol, and the hotel is surprisingly tasteful and quiet. It's nearly full, and families are jamming the casino restaurant. It seems more like a social center than a mini-Las Vegas.
The roads up to ancient Haak'u run roughly south from the casino/hotel/truck stop complex. I take the longest road— miles—because it heightens the drama.
For most of the way, the road runs through a sweeping landscape of red and gold mesas dotted with plump, dark cedar shrubs. It's so little traveled that, on four drives this trip, my main company is a handful of cattle freely ranging on the asphalt. Once, just before sunset, I see a mountain lion lope casually across the road.
Finally, the road curves and a vista opens—a wide valley, studded with mesas and giant rock towers, like sentinels along a sacred way. I always stop at the lookout point here, but I've never gotten used to the view. It's always the same magnificent puzzle: The pueblo is right there, 3 1/2 miles away, but its camouflage is so perfect that you can't really see it, even if you know where to look.
This time I measure. I drive a mile closer, down onto the valley floor, and still see nothing but banded mesas and golden rock. It's another full mile before I can distinguish the twin bell towers of San Estevan del Rey, the old mission church, rising above the fringe of little flat-roofed houses along the mesa rim.
The village draws a different crowd from those who populate the casino/hotel complex, but it too draws large numbers—hundreds of tourists a day in summer. But the Sky City is small, with only about a dozen families living here full time.
The tribe has been attracting tourism for more than a century and began guided tours in the 1930s. Tours now are the only way you can visit the Sky City. Small buses shuttle groups from the foot of the mesa to the top on a road built in 1950 for a John Wayne movie.
The houses on the mesa are plain and box-like, made of stone or adobe plastered with clay. Gusts of wind fling sand along the narrow streets. There is only one small tree—"the Acoma National Forest" my tour guide jokes—and the sun always feels as if it's right overhead.
Tours take about an hour, and the guides move fast. Pause, and you'll miss something. But visitors do pause, caught by the stunning views at the end of every street, the tables of black-on-white pottery set out in front of potters' homes, and the apple turnovers and fresh fry bread sold from peoples' kitchens.
A lot of these pauses, I suspect, are meant to extend the experience, of getting to talk with people who live in this remarkable place. At least they are for me.
At the end of the tour, the guides offer a choice of how to return to the foot of the mesa: ride the bus back down or take the hidden foot trail that the Acoma people used for centuries before the road was cut. I chose the steep path.
Almost vertical in places, it follows a narrow slot in the cliff. Getting down safely requires trusting that the ancient builders knew what they were doing when they carved the footholds and handholds. It's also a good idea to follow the guides' advice and climb down backward.
I turn around to face the rock and then descend as if I am on a ladder, extending my toes down step by step, sliding my fingers into ancient niches carved exactly where I need to find them.
Of all the good experiences on this trip, I like that descent the best. The scale is human and the warm stone feels good against my hands. And I like feeling that I have become part of something that reaches far back in time, with so many connections to other people—even if they aren't my own.
GUIDEBOOK The Pueblo World
Getting there: From LAX, nonstop and direct (stop, no change of planes) service to Albuquerque is offered on Southwest; connecting service (change of planes) is available on U.S. Airways, Southwest, America West, Delta, American, United and Frontier.
Tourism policies vary by pueblo. Check with the New Mexico Tourism Department, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe; (800) 545-2070, http://www.newmexico.org . But ask individual pueblos too: Many ceremonials don't have fixed dates.
Food and lodging: In pueblos with gaming, the casino/hotel's restaurants are generally the best—and sometimes the only—choice. Variety is good, portions huge, prices modest. If you can't survive without upscale dining, you should base yourself in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. The same holds for accommodations.
San Juan: The tribe's Ohkay Casino Resort on Highway 68, just north of Española, N.M., is the nearest choice for food and lodging. Rooms at its Best Western hotel, (877) 829-2865, are $74 to $104 weeknights, $79 to $109 weekends. There are standard motels and restaurants in Española.
Zuni: The pueblo has limited food and lodging. The nearest alternatives are in Gallup, about 40 miles north. There is one restaurant, Chu Chu's Pizzaria, a pizza-burger-burrito place on Highway 53 on the east side of town. The Halona Plaza grocery store has a deli with lunch specials. The only place to stay is the Inn at Halona, an oasis-like bed-and-breakfast with eight rooms in a pair of old red sandstone houses linked by a shady patio. Double rooms are $84. With advance notice, the owners will prepare dinner for guests. Behind the grocery store, two blocks south of Highway 53 on Pia Mesa Road; (505) 782-4547; http://www.halona.com
Acoma: The only place to stay or eat is the Sky City Casino Hotel and Travel Center truck stop on Interstate 40. The hotel has a large restaurant (huge portions, good buffet, some traditional foods). There are snacks and pizza inside the gaming hall and a McDonald's at the Travel Center. Rooms are $65 to $79. (800) 747-0181, http://www.skycity.com .
Opening soon: Acoma is about to open a stunning cultural center at the foot of the Sky City mesa. The $13-million project, partly funded with gaming revenue, is the tribe's biggest investment, says Brian Vallo, the center's director. It's intended as a cultural home for visitors and for the Acoma themselves, for language and heritage classes, and for repatriated Acoma artifacts.
Arts and crafts: Some pueblos have tribal-run galleries or shops, and individual artists often sell from their homes. Good choices: Pueblo Pottery at Acomita in Acoma Pueblo, Pojoaque Visitor Center Gallery and Zuni's Turquoise Village. In Zuni, the Seowtewa family's murals in the 376-year-old Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission are on view for a $10 fee paid to the Pueblo of Zuni Tourism Department, (505) 782-7238, in the tribal office complex on Highway 53. The tourism office can arrange visits to artists' studios; call in advance. It also has an educational display of fake Zuni jewelry, most of it imported (including some from a village in the Philippines that once renamed itself Zuni).
Photography: This is a sensitive issue at all pueblos. Ask at the governor's office before you pull out a camera. Some tribes forbid pictures. Others require permits, usually $5 to $25 a day.
Background: For an excellent introduction to Pueblo cultures, visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, 2401 12th St. N.W.; (505) 843-7270, http://www.indianpueblo.org . Fee for museum and gallery, $6. Every New Mexico pueblo is represented; there's a good gallery, and the restaurant features traditional foods.
Books: A handy one to have in the car is "Pueblos of the Rio Grande: A Visitor's Guide," by Daniel Gibson (Rio Nuevo Publishers, $15.95).
-- Catherine Watson is a former travel editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A collection of her travel stories, "Roads Less Traveled," was published in July by Syren.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times