When faced with a culture that is different from our own, sometimes we humans are uncertain how to respond and might act kinda inappropriately.
Take a situation that our new friend Suzanne described for us. Our plan was to go to Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the next day. Suzanne warned us that photos are not allowed (not exactly correct—more on that below), but someone she knew had taken photos when he shouldn’t have, and an official at the Pueblo seized his phone. Permanently. As in, the phone was no longer his. The guy then went on social media and complained obnoxiously about the fact that his phone had been confiscated.
But here’s the thing: there are 19 Pueblo communities and 3 Indian Nations in New Mexico, and each one is a sovereign entity that makes its own rules and laws and has its own governing body (in Taos’ case, they have a tribal governor and a war chief). And this is true of Native American Nations and Reservations across the United States.
And another point—these Indian communities have opened their homes and villages to visitors so as to share the beauty and uniqueness of their culture, and as their guests, we should respect their rules. I mean, if you invite people into your home, you certainly have expectations that they’ll behave a certain way, i.e., using a coaster when placing a drink on your oak coffee table, or not spray-painting your dog (It depends on what kinds of guests you welcome into your home—no judgement here!).
So if the laws at Taos Pueblo mandate that you not take pictures, and you take pictures anyway, and they take your phone away, well, that’s just the way it is.
It occurred to me that many people may not be aware of this, so the purpose of this post is to tell you a little more about Taos Pueblo and also elaborate on how to visit just about any Native American community without causing an international incident (or, at the very least, getting your phone confiscated).
What is a pueblo, anyway?
When the Spanish explorers began arriving in New Mexico in the 1540’s, they found numerous permanent settlements. The name they gave these communities was pueblo, which means “village,” and the name stuck.
Taos Pueblo is unique in that it’s the only National Historic Landmark in the United States that has been continuously inhabited for almost 1000 years. We toured the grounds, which included two 5-story adobe structures, Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house). While a few homes in the village were built about 100 years ago, the two main complexes were constructed between 1000 and 1450 A.D., and they haven’t changed very much over the centuries.
About 150 Taos Puebloans (also called the Red Willow People after the creek that runs through the village), currently live in the village full-time, while about 1000 more live here part-time. All of the homes are owned by members of the tribe and are passed down from generation to generation and maintained by the families.
People live here in the same manner as they did a thousand years ago, with no running water or indoor plumbing because pipes would degrade the adobe. Families therefore have to haul their water from Red Willow Creek. The only modern convenience allowed is propane for lighting and heat.
Over the centuries, Taos Puebloans have had to contend with various groups of outsiders. The Spanish began colonizing the area around Taos in 1616 and, devoted Catholics that they were, made it their mission to convert the Puebloan “pagans.” To appease their new neighbors, some Natives accepted Christianity, but the Spanish used force and violence—including murder, mutilation, and rape—to forcibly convert those Puebloans who resisted conversion.
The Indians finally got fed up and, in 1680, drove the Spanish south into Mexico in what was known as the Pueblo Revolt. The Spanish returned twelve years later, this time asking for permission to live in the area. The Puebloans agreed, and the Spaniards settled the town of Taos. From then on, the Indians and Spaniards coexisted peacefully, with most Puebloans adopting Christianity along with their traditional rituals.
The area remained peaceful until the Americans came along. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the area fell under Mexican rule for a short time; but when it lost the Mexican-American War and ceded the region to the United States, New Mexico became a U.S. Territory and Charles Bent its first governor. According to our tour guide, he brought authoritarianism, persecution, and strong-arm techniques with him, and, like I mentioned in our last post, the locals killed Bent as well as about 15 other Americans in the Taos Revolt of January 19, 1847.
The U.S. response was swift and brutal. The insurgents were defeated, and at least 28 men were hanged, some in Taos Plaza. But the most tragic outcome was the U.S. Army’s destruction of St. Jerome Church, on the grounds of the Taos Pueblo, and we saw the ruins on our tour. Around 150 men, women, and children were taking shelter in the church when the Army began bombarding it with cannon fire; the only thing left standing afterward was the bell tower. All within were killed, and the site, once associated with worship and peace, became a place of death and loss, and the church grounds were converted into a graveyard. It was a haunting sight to see.
The Rules for visiting Taos Pueblo (and other Native American communities)
Many Pueblo villages, Indian Nations, Reservations, and other Native cultural sites welcome visitors, but there’s definitely an etiquette that should be followed.
- Like I mentioned above, all Pueblo villages and Indian Nations are sovereign entities that operate under their own governments and set of laws. Visitors are subject to these laws, and from what I read, the consequences of violating them may range from expulsion to fines, confiscation of possessions, or even prosecution.
- Be aware of these laws ahead of time. Many sites have webpages that make regulations and restrictions clear. For example, Taos Pueblo’s visitation guidelines are quite straightforward.
- Photography restrictions vary from entity to entity. Taos Pueblo allows photography for personal use only. Some Pueblos may not allow photography at all, while others have pretty loose restrictions. Many places charge an extra fee for photography, videos, or sketching.
- If you’re a professional, there’s typically a very large fee for photography. Even for us and our little travel blog, we would’ve had to pay several hundred dollars for the right to use our photos. Considering we are a non-profit blog (as in, we make no money off of it), paying almost $300 dollars was out of the question, and the fact that we couldn’t share pictures of such a beautiful place bummed us out. We questioned whether we even wanted to pay the entrance fee of $16.00/person, but given the significance of Taos Pueblo and our desire to better understand New Mexico’s culture and history, we decided to visit anyway.
- Some locations, such as the interior of a church, are off limits for photography.
- Don’t photograph tribal members unless you have permission (this should be a general rule for any place anywhere.)
- Non-Natives are generally not allowed to enter cemeteries or kivas (sacred sites where religious ceremonies are performed).
- People still live at many Pueblos, and one should not enter a home or building unless explicitly invited.
- Do not remove any artifacts that you find on the grounds.
- Alcohol is usually forbidden, as are weapons.
- Many communities allow visitors to attend feast days and other cultural & religious ceremonies, but one should attend with the utmost respect and civility. It’s not a party; it’s a religious ceremony. Also, applause is not appropriate, nor is asking questions of or talking to the performers or observers during the ceremony.
- If invited into someone’s home for a meal, it’s inconsiderate to say no, and leaving a tip is not appropriate.
- Pets are usually not allowed.
- Cell phones are sometimes prohibited.
There are many beautiful, unique Native American sites across the country that are totally worth a visit, and with a bit of understanding and respect, your visit should be a wonderful experience.
- These are just general guidelines; be aware that each place has its own specific set of regulations, so check ahead of time before visiting.
- Much of the information above came from our tour guide, a sincere, beautiful young college student who seemed to enjoy sharing the story of her people. I supplemented the information from her tour with that of the Taos Pueblo website and a little extra research.
- The above photos are all public domain and so I was allowed to use them. These include several gorgeous photos from Ansel Adams. In 1941, the National Park Service commissioned Ansel Adams to photograph historic and scenic locations throughout the western United States, and the National Archives has a collection of 226 of these photos online. They’re beautiful. Check them out.