By Renee Fajardo -- Today correspondent
PICURIS PUEBLO, N.M. - It is one of the smallest of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, with barely 200 residents and a mere 17,000 acres as compared with larger reservations that boast 55,000 acres and more. But as they say, big surprises come in small packages - and Picuris Pueblo is no exception.
Nestled on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains 45 minutes southeast of Taos, this remote pueblo is ''picture perfect.'' Surrounded by pine, aspen and cottonwood forest, gurgling streams and a pristine landscape, the area is a paradise of tranquility and beauty.
This pueblo, known for its artists and unique mica clay pottery, has been shrouded in mystery since the earliest of times. It was part of the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when its population is estimated to have been about 3,000. In subsequent years they would abandon their pueblo for long periods of time, living with the Apache, Navajos and other pueblos rather than submit to foreign rule by the Spanish. They speak a dialect of Northern Tiwa that is only spoken on the Taos and Isleta pueblos today. With only 52 children under 21 living on the pueblo, tribal officials and educators face a challenge that even larger tribes find daunting: how to ensure the cultural and economic survival of the tribe.
Tribal member and traditional speaker Nancy Salazar teaches Tiwa in the Penasco Public School District, where most of the Picuris attend school. She said, ''Our first challenge is to ensure that our language survives. This is difficult because we are a small tribe and the children need to hear it on a daily basis. There are several generations that do not speak our language fluently now; we must make sure this next one has a grasp of the language.''
John Fast Wolf, tribal program administrator, was responsible for bringing a writing and art summer camp to the children in August. He dreams that one day the pueblo will have its own charter school where the focus can be on traditional language and arts, and on academics.
''The future of our pueblo surviving is educating our young people. They must go to college to learn new skills and keep up with what is happening in the world. But we need them to come home and help us build a stable economic base here on the pueblo,'' said Cody All Runner, who at 21 is the youngest member of the eight-man council that governs the pueblo.
Craig Quanchello, the pueblo's newly appointed governor, is a man with a vision.
''Because the pueblo is off the beaten track, we have never attempted to become a gaming tribe. It would not make sense. We own controlling interest in the Santa Fe Hotel in Santa Fe, but again, this is very far from where we live and we need resources here on the pueblo to ensure not only our cultural heritage survives, but that our economy is stable. We need to provide jobs and a means of earning a livelihood for the future generations.''
To ensure this future, Quanchello, too, is adamant that all the children need to get a college education. In the meantime, to enable the young people who leave to attend college a stable economic environment to come home, the tribal council is hard at work building a bright future.
The tribe knows that diversity is the key to its survival. ''The tribe is involved in many pursuits,'' added Lt. Gov. T.J. Knitter. ''We have a biomass project where we are taking the forest scrub, dead and dying timber, and turning it into earth-friendly mulch and charcoal. We also have an organic mushroom-growing facility and hope to sell to whole food stores in the near future. Our mica mine will hopefully be open again so our potters can produce commercially. We have a bison herd, fishing pond, hiking and camping and Frisbee golf course. We want to appeal to tourism in a different way, a more hands-on way.''
Quanchello smiled as he painted a picture of a reservation with a gas station, stores, a wilderness eco-lodge, restaurants and more housing.
''We need to build more houses for our tribal members; we need to get our artifacts back from SMU [Southern Methodist University] and build a facility where they can be housed safely. I would like to see a cultural center where all of our artifacts can be housed and our artist can sell their work. I want to see our children becoming doctors, teachers, business entrepreneurs, biologists and game management professionals who can preserve this beautiful home we have.''
These are big dreams for a little pueblo, but as Quanchello pointed out, ''We live in two worlds and we must grasp and aspire to the best of both worlds. Our future is our children, and by offering them the best we have, we can ensure they will pass on the best also.''