The first Spaniards to explore what’s now New Mexico encountered 100,000 so-called Pueblo Indians, living in a hundred villages and towns (pueblo is Spanish for “village”). Resenting the imposition of Catholicism and their virtual enslavement, the various tribes banded together in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and ousted the entire colonial regime, killing scores of priests and soldiers and sending hundreds more south to Mexico. After the Spanish returned in 1693, the Pueblos showed little further resistance and they have coexisted ever since, accepting aspects of Catholicism without giving up their traditional beliefs and practices. New Mexico is now home to around forty thousand Pueblo Indians; each of its nineteen autonomous pueblos has its own laws and system of government.
The Pueblos celebrate Saints’ days, major Catholic holidays such as Easter and the Epiphany and even the Fourth of July with a combination of Native American traditions and Catholic rituals, featuring elaborately costumed dances and massive communal feasts. The spectacle of hundreds of costumed, body-painted tribal members of all ages, performing elaborate dances in such timeless surroundings, is hugely impressive.
However, few pueblos are quite the tourist attractions they’re touted to be. While the best known, Taos and Ácoma, retain their ancient defensive architecture, the rest tend to be dusty adobe hamlets scattered around a windblown plaza. Unless you arrive on a feast day or are a knowledgeable shopper in search of Pueblo crafts, visits are liable to prove disappointing. In addition, you’ll be made very unwelcome if you fail to behave respectfully – don’t “explore” places that are off-limits to outsiders, such as shrines, kivas or private homes.
Fifteen of the pueblos are concentrated along the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque, with a long-standing division between the seven southern pueblos, south of Santa Fe, most of which speak Keresan and the group to the north, which mostly speak Tewa (pronounced tay-wah). Visitors to each are required to register at a visitor centre; some charge an admission fee of $3–10 and those that permit such activities typically charge additional fees of $5 for still photography, $10–15 for video cameras and up to $100 for sketching. There’s no extra charge for feast days or dances, but photography is usually forbidden on special occasions.