New Mexico’s timeless Pueblo culture is felt throughout Santa Fe and is reflected in the art, design, and architecture of the city. However, a visit to one of the Indian Pueblos in the region can also be a transformative experience, especially on the occasion of a “Feast Day,” where the culture is celebrated and the public is welcome to watch and partake in an authentic and enriching Native American experience.
Throughout the calendar year, 18 Pueblos in New Mexico celebrate annual Feast Days to honor and preserve their cultural traditions and their respective Catholic Patron Saint, a reflection of the integration of the Spanish influence that originated centuries ago. Each Pueblo village has its own church and Feast Days begin with a mass. The time of year the annual Feast Day occurs determines what type of dances are held. For community members, this is one of the most important days of the year, and dancers of all ages take part. Regardless of the type of dance, elaborate and beautiful regalia are worn, along with the finest of Native American hand-made jewelry, embroidered clothing, furs, and moccasins.
Some dances express reverence for sacred animals, such as the Buffalo, Deer, and Eagle. Others, like as the Corn Dance, honor the seasonal planting and growing cycles, and encompass prayer for a plentiful rain and a bountiful harvest.
Along with the dancers, there are the male Pueblo drummers, singers, and religious leaders who lead the Feast Day activities. Their songs express gratitude for the well-being of the community, and are a way that time-honored traditions, language, and stories are passed on from the elders to the younger generations. While many Pueblo people live very contemporary lives, they take great pride in their resilience, history and the survival and continuation of their culture and traditions. The sound of the drum beat is symbolic of heart beat, and the community comes together to open hearts and homes to share in the feast.
A large part of Feast Days involves enjoyment of traditional food dishes. Pueblo families spend days ahead preparing a variety of traditional stews, sure to warm the heart and soul of Pueblo members and their guests. Breads and pies are baked in the outdoor horno ovens, so that they might appear on the feast tables — fresh, irresistible, and in abundance. Pueblo hospitality is never in short supply, and if you don’t already have an invitation to a home, it is likely you will be invited to eat while there. Sharing of the beautiful culture and delicious foods is the hallmark of a Feast Day, and visitors are encouraged to “eat good.”
Many Feast Days also include arts and crafts fairs, where you can buy direct from local Native American artists at reasonable prices. Some Pueblos have cultural centers and galleries that have their doors open on Feast Days as well. Some of the larger Feast Days even offer a carnival with rides and food vendors going on simultaneously with the traditional activities. It is appropriate to ask tribal officials for information, but it is not polite to talk to dancers.
The sights and sounds of a Feast Day can be intoxicatingly beautiful, and will stay with you long after you return home. However, generally photography is not permitted. Since the dances are part of ceremony that happens to be open to the public on these special days, it is important to observe the tribal protocols. Religious activities that include the dances do not occur on a specific schedule and are not a performance, but instead a community celebration to respectfully immerse oneself in. The essence of the Native American culture is to uphold and protect the natural world, and these traditions are the cornerstone of Pueblo life.
From bright-colored regalia to glistening jewelry, featuring plentiful turquoise and coral (symbolizing sky and earth), the sound of bells and shells worn by the dancers, and the smell of burning wood fire, visitors will take home sweet memories of a place and people like no other. As you wander through the Pueblo center plaza you will notice the origin of Pueblo-influenced architecture, with warm adobe red homes against the backdrop of clouds and blue sky, a mainstay of New Mexico’s iconic imagery. Leave your umbrella at home because, if it rains, it is considered a blessing and a gift!
Click here for a complete schedule of Pueblo Feast Days and other Tribal Celebrations. Then, start planning your trip to Santa Fe by ordering the 2016 Santa Fe travel guide. Be sure to check out all the current deals and specials.
This blog was written in partnership with TOURISM Santa Fe and Rima Krisst, Native American Tribal Liaison for the City of Santa Fe. Special thanks to Pueblo of Pojoaque, San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Ohkay Owingeh. Rima Krisst photos.
View more beautiful photography in the slideshow below.