As one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the country, Taos Pueblo is best known for its iconic, multi-storied adobe complexes built roughly 1,000 years ago.
Tens of thousands of visitors annually flock to this tiny, 19-acre community built on either side of a pristine creek that flows from the nearby Blue Lake. Located just one mile from the modern town—and art mecca—of Taos, New Mexico, the ancient part of the pueblo is home to about 150 full-time residents, with about 2,600 Taos Indians living on the 100,000-acre reservation.
“We’ve always been builders,” said Gilbert Suazo, a tribal councilman and respected elder. “When our people first came here, there were no other people. So we built here, and we’re still very protective of our homelands.”
The historic Taos Pueblo, the northern-most of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, is located at an elevation of 7,200 feet. It is, at once, a tourist destination and a sacred site; a mix of ancient and modern. Residents juggle a deep commitment to the pueblo’s rich history with a desire for economic diversity.
Here are 10 things you should know about Taos Pueblo:
An adobe wall runs around the original village, built between 1000 and 1450 A.D. Once 10 feet tall, the wall protected residents from enemies.
Adobe dwellings, built four or five stories high, were designed as lookout posts so residents could see enemies approaching, said Ilona Spruce, tourism director for Taos Pueblo. The two main structures—one on the north and the other on the south—are called Hlauuma and Hlaukwima, respectively.
The pueblo is made entirely of adobe—or dirt mixed with water and straw—and maintenance is “intense,” Spruce said. Residents pack more adobe onto the walls every year to maintain the pueblo’s appearance.
“Upkeep happens every year, at least,” Spruce said. “Because it is so iconic, tribal members redo the walls, make the mud mixture and pack on the adobe. This means the walls are several feet thick sometimes, and we have to knock down previous layers before packing more on.”
The pueblo consists of many individual homes, built side-by-side in layers and accessible by ladder. Originally, homes were entered from holes in the ceilings, but Spanish explorers introduced doors that still exist today.
In accordance with pueblo traditional laws, Taos Indians who live inside the ancient village do not have running water or electricity. They rely on skylights or kerosene lamps for light, and use outhouses that are hidden from public view. Modern homes are built outside the ancient walls.
Spanish explorers stumbled on Taos Pueblo in 1540 as they searched for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. According to Taos legend, Taos women rubbed mica on pueblo walls to make them shine.
“The walls looked like they were covered in specks of gold,” Spruce said. “The whole Taos valley was irrigated, and when the Spanish arrived they saw the shimmering pueblo surrounded by fields of corn. They thought there was wealth here.”
In 1619, Spanish Jesuits built the first Catholic church in Taos Pueblo and established the mission of San Geronimo, or Saint Jerome. The Spanish forcibly introduced Christianity to the pueblo, Spruce said. Pueblo Indians converted to Christianity or were killed.
“The Spanish brought the church and a new way of thinking,” Spruce said. “They didn’t come with women of their own, so they started having children with Taos women—children that came from sexual assault. The Spanish changed the dynamics within the pueblo; they introduced violence.”
During the revolt of 1680, Taos Indians destroyed the original St. Jerome’s Chapel. The revolt lasted 12 years, after which the Taos rebuilt the chapel, symbolically accepting Catholicism, Spruce said.
That chapel was destroyed in 1847 during the war with Mexico, but its ruins still sit inside the pueblo. The present-day St. Jerome’s Chapel was built in 1850.
Religion at Taos Pueblo still is complicated, however. St. Jerome’s Chapel may dominate the pueblo’s landscape, but residents also use traditional kivas for religious practices.
Taos Indians survived two different attempts at assimilation: the Spanish conquest of the 17th century and, later, the United States’ efforts to absorb Native Americans.
“We persevered both times,” Spruce said. “I think this speaks volumes about our strengths. We were able to hold on to our land and our traditions.”
Although the Taos claim 100,000 acres in northern New Mexico, the people were never removed from their homeland.
“Technically, we’re not removed,” Spruce said. “We’re not a reservation.”
Taos Pueblo was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1992. St. Jerome’s Chapel is also considered a National Historic Landmark.
“Taos Pueblo is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region,” the official UNESCO designation states. It is also “one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day.”
Taos Indians still cook with traditional outdoor ovens. Called horno ovens, these adobe, domelike structures are heated with coal and can bake as many as 30 loaves of bread at a time.
In 1970, Taos Pueblo won a landmark case against the federal government over its sacred Blue Lake. President Theodore Roosevelt snatched 48,000 acres of mountain land, including Blue Lake, in 1906 and designated it as a national forest.
“In the 1920s, we started fighting for our religious rights,” Suazo said. “The government was trying to suppress our rights, and it took decades to get the land back.”
Blue Lake, considered the pueblo’s place of origin, is a ritual site open only to tribal members. President Richard M. Nixon returned all 48,000 acres, including the lake, to the pueblo in 1970.
Tourism is the biggest economic driver at Taos Pueblo, introduced in the early 20th century to entice Taos Indians to return to the village, Spruce said. This coincided with the rise of the arts community in the nearby city of Taos.
As many as 10,000 people visit on Feast Day alone. Feast Day is an annual celebration held September 30 and open to the public.
“On Feast Day, we have foot races, traditional clowns that run along the rooftops and vending in the courtyard,” Spruce said. “We also have generations of shop owners and artisans who sell from their homes. That is our time to show off our traditions, who we are.”