Time Travel Santa Fe Style: Visit Native American Pueblos

One of the things I love most about Santa Fe is traveling back several centuries, and returning in time for a heaping bowl of green chile stew for lunch at a charming roadside market. I mean, this place just echoes with centuries-old cultures and sacred traditions. Nowhere will you see this on dramatic display more than the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos dotting the landscape between Santa Fe and Colorado. Each one of these quick jaunts from Santa Fe will transport you to another world.

First, let me set the stage for what you’ll experience: The term “pueblo” signifies both the Native American Puebloan People, as well as their physical communities — such as “The Taos Pueblo.” These communities typically feature a central plaza surrounded by residences constructed of adobe, and often a “kiva” — an underground room reserved for spiritual ceremonies. Sacred rituals, dances, and songs take place on the plaza, very few of which are open to the public. You can sometimes purchase truly amazing handcrafted works by Pueblo artisans, but you’ll need to make inquiries before your visit. For instance, these handiworks are NOT for sale during ceremonial dances. (I urge you to read and adhere to the etiquette required when visiting Pueblo communities. You’ll find that below.) The Pueblo people and cultures influence and define Santa Fe itself, and your visit here should definitely include a visit to these inspiring people and places. I’m talking bucket list material.

Members of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo perform their Vespers Dance.
Members of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo perform their Vespers Dance.

Experiencing a Feast Day Offers a Feast for the Soul

I can’t do justice to all of the unforgettable sights and sounds you’ll discover on a Holiday Feast Day visit to the Eight Northern Pueblos in close proximity to Santa Fe, but I’ll do my best to give you a hint of the experiences that await you. New Mexico is home to 19 pueblos in all, but I’ll focus on the eight northern locations that are a short drive from Santa Fe.

The Taos Pueblo is located 70 miles from Santa Fe in Taos, New Mexico.
The Taos Pueblo is located 70 miles from Santa Fe in Taos, New Mexico.

Each of the Eight Northern Pueblos celebrates “Feast Days” to honor their respective patron saints. Many of these remarkable celebrations are open to the public, and I urge you to avail yourself of the opportunity. The Eight Northern Pueblos are diverse communities, each uniquely their own in terms of culture, custom, and traditions. Nowhere are these colorful distinctions more evident than the Pojoaque Pueblo. I highly recommend that you mark December 12 on your calendar and make the short 15-mile drive from Santa Fe to be on hand as the Pojoaque Pueblo opens its doors for the Feast of Guadalupe — a special night honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe as the patroness of the Americas and the Patron Saint of Pojoaque Pueblo. This celebration features traditional dancing and feasts held in homes throughout the pueblo.

Other performances range from a sundown torchlight Procession of the Virgin on Christmas Eve at the Picuris, Nambe, and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos, to a turtle dance on December 26 at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. New Year’s Day brings a Turtle Dance to the Taos Pueblo, while King’s Day celebrations on January 6 feature a number of unforgettable dances at the Nambe, Picuris, and Taos Pueblos. Here’s another must-see: The San Ildefonso Pueblo celebrates its Feast Day on January 23 with a performance of its magic, majestic Buffalo Deer Dance. At all Feast Day events, there’s the possibility you can be invited to dine with tribal members. But please be advised: You are encouraged not to linger, so that other participants may find a place at the table.

My Pueblo Visit Feast Day: A Forever Memory

Just when I think there’s nothing more Santa Fe can do to blow my mind, The City Different springs a new surprise on me. A few weeks ago, I made a short trek outside of Santa Fe to meet up with an old friend. I’d read that a nearby Pueblo tribe was celebrating one of their annual Feast Days, so I thought I’d pay a visit to this centuries-old ceremony.

Take it from me, witnessing a Feast Day celebration affords you a rare, unforgettable glimpse of reverent, ancient dances, songs, and customs. What I beheld that morning at the pueblo still plays in an endless loop in my head: Tribe members solemnly drumming a haunting beat; dancers moving in graceful, tightly synchronized steps; and sacred chants accompanying each subtle movement of the dancers. A good 30-40 minutes later, when the drummers and dancers later flowed out of the plaza, I swear you could’ve heard a pin drop … on sand! We onlookers stood in awed silence at the ancient, soul-stirring ritual we were honored to witness. If you’re on a quest for tales to pass along to your grandkids and their kids, the Pueblos await.

Kivas are a central feature of Pueblo communities, used for ceremonial and/or political gatherings.
Kivas are a central feature of Pueblo communities, used for ceremonial and/or political gatherings.

Know Before You Go: Rules of Etiquette for Pueblo Visits

I cannot emphasize this enough: You must treat pueblos like the sacred, holy, cherished places they are. You are visiting both the homes and the cathedrals of the Pueblo people. Show your respect and abide by these rules to the letter.

  • The visitor center and tribal office are your first point of contact. (Remember: both are closed on Feast Days.)
  • Observe all rules and regulations of the pueblos. Obey all signs and don’t enter off-limit areas.
  • Homes are private. Don’t enter without an invitation.
  • Don’t climb walls or other structures. Many are hundreds of years old and easily damaged.
  • Never enter kivas and graveyards; access is granted to Pueblo inhabitants only.
  • Keep the kiddos under control and make sure they’re respectful.
  • Stay in the immediate village area; no wandering.
  • Don’t touch any artifacts or objects such as pieces of broken pottery, plants, rocks, or animals.
  • No alcohol, weapons, drugs, or pets. Ever.
  • In addition to the above, there are very specific guidelines for photography and recording equipment, as well as proper behavior on Feast Days. Please get all the facts here before your Pueblo visit.
Members of The Tesuque Pueblo perform their Turtle Dance. (Photo courtesy of The New Mexico Art Museum)
Members of The Tesuque Pueblo perform their Turtle Dance. (Photo courtesy of The New Mexico Art Museum)

Make the Distant Past Part of Your Immediate Future

Art, culture, humanity, spirituality — all completely envelope you on a single visit to any of the Eight Northern Pueblos in close proximity to Santa Fe. I assure you the experience will be a meaningful and a lasting one. So do a little homework, understand the do’s and don’ts by heart, bring your utmost respect, and get ready for a memory hundreds upon hundreds of years in the making.

Can’t-Miss Santa Fe Winter Experiences

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”  – John Steinbeck

While many towns lull into hibernation during the winter months, Santa Fe vibrates with life. Picturesque snowdrifts blanket adobe walls. Laughter and conversation surround crackling kiva fireplaces. The spicy aromas of piñon and cedar permeate the air. Deep relaxing pueblo drumming echoes northern New Mexico. And flavorful pots of posole and green chile stew transport you back to grandma’s cozy kitchen. Food & Wine proclaims, “Winter is the perfect time to explore Santa Fe and discover all of its wondrous offerings.” We locals couldn’t agree more!

Winter in The City Different is, well, different. In a city blessed with a gorgeous array of winter scenery, you’ll often find lunchtime temperatures 30 degrees warmer than our crisp mornings, and sunshine during a snowfall is not uncommon. Few things match the sublime sight of light rays dancing between giant snowflakes.

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