RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Rules of Taos Pueblo

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

TAOS PUEBLO, N.M. – A couple of things about this 1,000-year-old community seem unlikely, counterintuitive.

First of all, you’re not supposed to pet the dogs. And dogs, meant to be petted, are everywhere. Sleeping in front of doorways, their yellow lids sealed against the blue New Mexico sky. Trotting across the bridge over trout-filled Red Willow

Creek, the Pueblo’s drinking water. Begging for a hand-out near the bakery where bread is made in a horno, Spanish for the outdoor adobe oven.

Second anomaly: Richard Nixon is a hero.

A guide named Flower explains. Flower is a mother and college student who grew up here and makes it clear along the short tour that written history, in her opinion, is about as reliable as a grocery-store tabloid.

The dog rule? Most of the dogs don’t really live here full time and conveniently show up each day when the pueblo gates open for tourists. The photogenic dogs present a sanitation problem and are not all that welcome. Only clueless visitors encourage them.

Nixon? Well, another Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, took from the Native Americans about 48,000 acres of land and added it to a national forest named for Kit Carson. Nixon, in 1970, gave it back, starting a legal trend for the recuperation of Indian lands. So to these Pueblos, Nixon rules.

There are other prohibitions besides the one against petting dogs. You aren’t supposed to climb on any structure, or enter the Pueblo cemetery. You don’t photograph residents without asking their permission, and only if you’ve paid the $10 photo fee that’s proven by a pink tag on your camera. Even then, you’re not to take pictures inside the Catholic church, at 163 years old, it’s the newest structure, by far, at the site.

Perhaps most importantly, you can’t just wander into homes not clearly marked as businesses. About 150 people live here full time, without electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. This is their home. Sweet home.

As interesting as that is, you can’t just belly up to the cook pot and make chitchat about what it feels like to be part of the World Heritage site called “an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement which is representative of a culture and which has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change …”

You’d be shunned.

The Taos Pueblo has survived that Spanish obsession with making it Catholic and thereby “civilized.” It has survived merciless attacks by the U.S. government, including one in 1847 that killed women, children and tribal elders.

So far, it has survived the tourism that also sustains it.

You don’t get to be the oldest continually inhabited community in the U.S. without a few reasonable rules.

Flower says she’s bringing her children back to live at Taos Pueblo so they can experience the kind of childhood she had. If there was no food in the house when Flower was a child, she speared a fish and added wild ginger and cooked it over the fire and had a feast. She was never bored because of the nearby mountains and forests. Stories told by elders in her unwritten native language were more reliable than written history.

She will return next year; there is no waiting list.

Syndicated columnist RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com, or a local bookstore.