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Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Big Thunder Dance Group (Pojoauque)

New Mexico

An Insider's Guide to Native New Mexico

By: Eli Ellison

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  • States:
    New Mexico

Pueblo Indians and their ancestors have inhabited the high-desert land that is now the Southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico for five centuries.

And though nowadays you’ll find several of the state’s 19 Pueblo communities flush with modern homes and fancy resorts, a select few also retain ancient adobe dwellings in wonderfully scenic settings. Many of the Pueblos, or communal villages, lie in and around the Rio Grande River Valley, which is in the northern half of New Mexico and encompasses the popular cities of Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Several Pueblos allow visitors, which give you a look at native history and stunning scenery, as well as the chance to buy Native American pottery and jewelry from the artisans themselves. Here are three of the most popular Pueblos, plus an excellent museum to get your journey started.

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

This museum in Albuquerque, jointly operated by New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos, has exhibits focusing on each tribe’s history, culture and art. The museum store carries a fine selection of handmade crafts and is a great place to gather information on visiting the Pueblos. On weekends the museum hosts live, traditional native dances.

Taos Pueblo

Spend a few peaceful hours at this 1,000-year-old Pueblo, just outside the town of Taos, and you may begin to understand why some Taos Indians choose to live as their ancestors did—inhabiting ancient adobe buildings lacking electricity or running water. The apartment-like structures rise up to five stories in height, and their stacked, layered look is meant to harmonize with the surrounding mountains.

Drinking water is drawn from a stream running through the central plaza, past the whitewashed-adobe San Geronimo Chapel. Many ground-floor homes have become shops where Taos artisans sell handmade pottery and jewelry. Twenty-minute guided tours are included in the Pueblo admission price and provide a nice overview of Taos culture and history.

Explore the ancient adobe buildings of the Taos Pueblo.

Explore the ancient adobe buildings of the Taos Pueblo.
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Elisa.rolle/Wiki Commons

Acoma Pueblo (Sky City)

About 104 kilometers west of Albuquerque off Interstate 40, Acoma Pueblo’s “Sky City” adobe village sits atop a 112-meter-high sandstone mesa spectacularly perched above the desert. Continuously occupied since the mid-12th century, the Pueblo is only accessible on guided tours that depart by bus from the nearby modern cultural center and museum complex.

In Sky City you’ll walk past adobe homes and multistory structures whose basic appearance has changed little over the centuries. The main tour stop is the San Estevan del Rey Mission, an adobe Catholic church built in 1642. Around the village, artisans set up tables to sell handmade Acoma-style pottery decorated with intricate geometric designs.

The Acoma Pueblo is perched high above the desert.

The Acoma Pueblo is perched high above the desert.
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Ethan/Wiki Commons

Santa Clara Pueblo (Puye Cliff Dwellings)

One of the largest Pueblos, Santa Clara lies about 43 kilometers northwest of Santa Fe and is home to the spectacular Puye Cliff Dwellings. In ancient times this Pueblo’s ancestors built their homes into the rugged Santa Clara Canyon rock face, where the structures remain today. Tours are a preferred way to visit the area and can include guided visits to cave-like dwellings and journeys to the top of the mesa, where well-preserved ruins of free-standing adobe structures date to the 10th century.

Pueblo Etiquette

Most Pueblos welcome visitors, but some do not, so make sure to do advance research. A few tribes charge a small fee of $5-$15 to photograph structures and surrounding landscapes. You shouldn’t photograph Native Americans themselves unless granted permission.

Where to Sleep in Northern New Mexico

Several Pueblos have modern hotels and casinos on their land. Most visitors exploring northern New Mexico choose to stay in Albuquerque, Santa Fe or Taos, all of which offer a range from budget motels to luxury resorts.

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