I saw the Spanish Peaks from a distance, emerging from the flat yellow plains, shrouded in clouds and blanketed in snow. Soon I was driving through them, on the road to Taos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America.
I arrived at the Taos Pubelo a little after 11am. After checking in at the front entrance, I drove to the Day School where I was greeted by Marie Martinez. A teacher at the Day School for more than 30 years, she was there with her husband Martin to spend time with their granddaughters, Butterfly and Hummingbird.
It was lunchtime. Pepperoni and cheese pizza. Ice cream for dessert.
Principal Andy Haimowitz met me in the cafeteria, shook my hand and asked me to introduce myself to the children. Classes ranged from kindergarten to 7th grade. Along with the students and teachers there were also parents, grandparents and members of the community – sheriff’s deputies, administrators from the Pueblo. There was clearly a lot of community pride and ownership in the school. The school cafeteria was a place where the community could come together on a daily basis.
I told them a little bit about where I’m from on the U.S. Mexico border and about my kids who are in 2nd, 5th and 6th grades. But I said I’m really here to learn about you. I hope you’ll tell me what’s exciting to you, tell me about your lives, and tell me about your community.
I then sat down at the different tables, finding out about life in the Taos Pueblo. A number of the men I spoke to knew El Paso well from their service in the Army, many of them having been stationed at Fort Bliss. Matthew said from his experience the fastest way to El Paso was the back roads that would link me up to 54 again. “I used to be able to do it in 5 hours” he told me.
I sat down at Tina’s table. She knew the drive to El Paso as well, having lived there with her husband when he was stationed at White Sands Missile Range. She has taught special education for 26 years at the Day School, also teaching sewing and bead work as well as dance. Dancing, I could tell as I got to know her over the course of the day, is her real passion. How often do you dance? I asked. Whenever I get the chance, she told me.
Mildred was sitting next to Tina. She teaches Tiwa, the language native to the Taos Pueblo and she’s the only Tiwa teacher for the more than 90 children in the school. Many kids are taught at home as well, she told me, but ideally there would be more teachers for a language that has no written form and must be transmitted orally, from one generation to the next.
Mildred told me what it was like for her to live in the Pueblo (or village, as many referred to it) and attend the Day School in the early 1960s. Back then, children were punished for speaking Tiwa in school. She remembers the teacher who traumatized her for speaking Tiwa in the first grade. What’s amazing, she told me, is that the teacher was a native speaker herself.
She told me about movie nights back then. Since the village had no electricity (and still doesn’t), movies were shown in the school gym. She said it’s hard to believe this now, but they’d often show Westerns, cowboys and Indians movies. And she said all of us kids, not knowing any better, would be cheering for the cowboys! She made the point that back then, the school suppressed the culture of the Pueblo, confusing children about their identity and roots. How dangerous for their development, their sense of self and their possibilities. And yet, that didn’t stop Mildred. Not only is she now teaching Tiwa at the school, she also opens her home in the summer for language classes and as the point of departure for nature walks with the children of the community.
It made me think of the evolution of dual language education in El Paso. In the same schools where kids were punished for speaking Spanish in the 1960s, they are now being encouraged to speak Spanish, in fact to learn throughout the day in every subject in both English and Spanish.
A girl in the 5th grade at our table said, I speak Tiwa and Navajo. One set of grandparents lives in Arizona and has been teaching her Navajo when she visits during summer vacations. And back in Taos she learns Tiwa with Mildred at school and then at home with her parents. Is it something you feel like you have to do or that you want to do? I asked her. I want to do it, she said. It’s my language.
Mildred said with more teachers and greater investment we can improve the level of Tiwa comprehension. It’s not bad now, she said, but the fluency is lower than it should be. We need more time to focus on it and more teachers.
I got to meet more of the staff at the school, got to listen to more of the kids tell me about the big things they wanted to do in life, future astronauts, firefighters, teachers, scientists. Principal Haimowitz walked me out of the cafeteria for a brief tour of the nearly 140-year old school building. As we walked down hallways framed with beautiful hand-hewn vigas, decorated in art from the school children, he shared with me both the joys and frustrations of his position. He first came to New Mexico to work at the San Felipe del Rio orphanage where he learned about the school and agreed to a 6-month commitment as an interim teacher. Now, more than 35 years later, after a career as a special education teacher, he is the interim principal and doing his best to deliver for the community that has given him the opportunity.
He was excited to tell me about public STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) sessions that he holds in the evening, open to the whole community. He also told me about an intercultural exchange program with a school in Juarez, Chihuahua. He showed me the buffalo hide drying racks and adobe bread ovens (hornos) that the school children made with guidance from village elders.
He’s in the process of adding more sports and after school activities to attract more students. They are competing with other schools in the region, and student population affects their funding and the viability of the school as a whole. The good news is that since he’s been principal the student body has grown from 71 students to 94. They recently added a 7th grade, and next year they will add 8th grade.
The bad news is the frustrating bureaucracy through which he must work. The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) controls the Day School’s destiny. The school’s funding, key positions, technology, all come through the BIE. Unlike an elected, accountable school board, the BIE makes decisions at a distance and without much urgency. The computers are still running Windows 7. There are only a dozen Ipads for the school, so they are carted from one classroom to the next. There is no dedicated IT position at the school, so if teachers can acquire the skills to install and service the hardware and software, great. If they can’t, they’re out of luck.
I wondered – how can this country not meet its commitment in this, of all places? What could it possibly cost to outfit this school with technology that is at least on par with neighboring schools in Santa Fe and Albuquerque? After everything native people have suffered at the hands of this country, why do we continue to exacerbate problems with a stinginess and bureaucratic indifference that borders on neglect?
Tina, the special education teacher I had met earlier, was waiting for us when we returned to the principal’s office. The pueblo had been closed to outside visitors earlier in the day due to a funeral. It was now open again and she offered to give me a tour.
We started at the remains of the San Geronmio Mission Church. As the United States took possession of New Mexico and Taos in 1846 during the Mexican-American war, many Mexicans and members of the Taos Pueblo resisted. The U.S. governor, Charles Bent, was killed in an uprising. The reprisal from the U.S. government in February of ‘47 was merciless. As Taos was besieged by the U.S. Army, members of the Taos community along with Mexican resistors sought safety inside the adobe mission’s thick walls. The American forces bombarded the church, set fire to the roof, and then through a breach in the church wall, fired grape shot directly at the men, women and children huddled inside. More than 150 were killed in one of the most brutal displays of U.S. power against Native Americans in the newly acquired territory. The site is now a cemetery.
We walked further into the village where I was struck by the magnificent beauty of the adobe homes, built next to and on top of one another. The Pueblo was established in the 15th century, had these homes been here that long? Men were shoveling snow off of the roofs against the backdrop of the breathtaking Taos mountains in the distance. As we walked, Tina shared with me history, of the Taos people and of her family. She talked about the role of the Catholic church and of the religion of the Taos pueblo. We talked about family, the village home she had just inherited from her mother, about the role of dance in her life, about her hopes for her community and her children.
We ran into Debbie who was cleaning the porch that led into her home, a home that also doubled as a shop selling her photography, jewelry, blankets and other works of art. She had friends in El Paso and so we talked about our common connections. She then opened up about her family and life in Taos. While her base is in the village, she travels often, showing her photography and documenting life around the southwest. She is also an accomplished violinist, playing with the Roswell symphony. She invited me past the shop and into her home, upstairs and out onto the roof, a real privilege and rare honor.
Debbie, Tina and I sat on a ledge on her roof looking at the mountains in silence.
In my grandparents’ time, Debbie said after a long while, we were not allowed to go into those mountains. When Teddy Roosevelt created the national forest, he took those mountains away from us. They are sacred mountains, so you can imagine what that felt like. We had to get special permission, a pass, to go beyond the fence line into what had been our home for centuries. It was only until Richard Nixon’s administration that those lands were opened up to us again. So, she said with a laugh, while most people admire Roosevelt and detest Nixon, we feel just the opposite.
Debbie spoke of the importance of continuing the traditions of her family, of maintaining this centuries-old community. Looking out at the pueblo homes and the mountains beyond, she said, “a lot of tribal people have a museum to tell them who they are. We have this.”
After a while we went back downstairs, and I said goodbye to Debbie. She gave me a copy of one of her photographs and wished me luck. I wished her good luck as well and Tina and I began walking again.
We walked past the stream that runs through the village. Members of the community drink it untreated, I was told earlier in the day by Principal Haimowitz. Some of the purest water anywhere. We saw the San Geronimo church which was built after the previous one was destroyed. We walked inside. I admired the craftsmanship, the beauty, the history of this sanctuary. I wondered how the two traditions of faith, Catholicism and the Pueblo religion, co-exist within the Pueblo.
We eventually made our way back to the entrance of the village where there is a memorial to those from Taos Pueblo who served in the U.S. military. I thought about the brutal massacre of 1847. And much like in the church, wondered how the fierce independence of the Taos Pueblo, including from the United States, exists with the long legacy of service to the United States. Next to a memorial marker with the names of the Taos Puebloans who suffered in the Bataan Death March in World War II was another commemorating the Taos Pueblo Revolt of 1847. “In 1847, Taos Pueblo Indians revolted against the occupation of the United States military. United States troops destroyed the original San Geronimo mission… The Taos Pueblo people were never conquered and have maintained their culture and tradition.”
I asked Tina about how the tension between these two stories – of resistance to the U.S. military and service in the U.S. military – has resolved. It’s complicated, she said. Some Taos veterans didn’t want their names added to the memorial of service in the U.S. military. Others insisted on it, and wear their history of service with pride.
As I was getting ready to leave, Tina insisted on buying me a loaf of bread from a young man who was selling homemade loaves on a street corner across from the Pueblo entrance. She also gave me a chocolate bar that she’d bought from a fellow teacher who was selling them for a booster club. I thanked her, I hadn’t eaten all day and was hungry.
Tina really made an impression on me, as did everyone I met in Taos Pueblo. There was such a strong sense of community, and a strong devotion to protecting and strengthening the community, especially through the education of the children who are its future. I was grateful to know her story and to begin to understand the story of the people of Taos Pueblo.
I left the Pueblo heading south toward Chimayo, aiming to be back in El Paso by bedtime. Snow was starting to fall. I thought about all of the places I’d seen over the last week, all of the people I’d met. Communities within communities. Nations within nations.
As I drove through the small town of Talpa eating the bread and candybar, I was caught behind a school bus that would stop every hundred yards or so, lights flashing, red stop sign swinging out from the side of the bus. At one of the stops a child loaded down with a big backpack stepped off the bus and was met by a waiting dog with a wagging tail. As the bus and the cars and trucks like mine continued down the road, the child and dog trudged through the snow and the fading light back to their home.
My mind wandered to all the people I’d met over the last week, thought about how generous and kind everyone was, no matter where I traveled throughout the five states I’d visited. Villages, towns, cities. How inspiring, and funny, and strong people are. Kids and college students looking forward. Older people reflecting on where they’d been and how they got there. Over the course of the trip I’d gone from thinking about myself and how stuck I was, to being moved by the people I’d met. Forgot myself in being with others.
We’re all connected, related, part of one another’s lives through the stories we tell ourselves and each other. For good and for bad. Our long memories hold the stories of what our people accomplished, but they also hold the prejudices, the injustices, the harm that we’ve received from others. Our short term memories can forget the kindness most recently rendered, our vision can become focused on the divisions and lose sight of the way up and out. And there is always someone, usually on cable TV or Twitter, to remind you how small or stupid you’re supposed to feel. Our side is truly American. Yours, not so much.
In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
To the idea that those who think differently than the majority, those who come to different conclusions on the issues we care most about, are somehow un-American, or “outsiders” he writes: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
So – at this moment that the government is shutdown for its longest period ever, over a wall, with a President who warns of immigrants coming to get us, with every possible division among us exploited by every unscrupulous politician, with the United States as divided as we can remember – how do we come together? How do we stop seeing each other as outsiders? How do we reconcile our differences, account for the injustices visited upon so many, understand the pride that each of us feels for ourselves, our families, our point of view – and respond to the urgent needs of this great democracy at its moment of truth? As the country literally begins to shut down, how can we come together to revive her?
I know we can do it. I can’t prove it, but I feel it and hear it and see it in the people I meet and talk with. I saw it all over Texas these last two years, I see it every day in El Paso. It’s in Kansas and Oklahoma. Colorado and New Mexico too. It’s not going to be easy to take the decency and kindness we find in our lives and our communities and apply it to our politics, to all the very real challenges we face. And as Tina says, it’s complicated. But a big part of it has got to be just listening to one another, learning each other’s stories, thinking “whatever affects this person, affects me.”
We’re in this together, like it or not. The alternative is to be in this apart, and that would be hell.