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Friday, 16 October 2015

A Visit to Taos Pueblo for the San Geronimo Feast Day

There are no pictures from our visit to Taos Pueblo for the Feast Day of San Geronimo, which was celebrated on 30th September. The residents bar the use of cameras, and you can see why. A lot of what goes on is very special to these people, and they have a lot to preserve. All the same, it’s a public event: anybody can go and enjoy it.

We were, however, privileged visitors, being guests of the retired Wurlitzer Foundation director, Michael Knight. Way back in February he promised me he’d take us up there, and I had no hesitation in calling him to say we were on our way to New Mexico. He went way beyond the call of duty, inviting us to use the Foundation’s guest accommodation while we were in town, and arranging to pick us up around sun-up on the day itself. Michael knows everybody, or so it seems. Whoever you bump into, around town or up at the Pueblo, he either went to school with them or with their parents. So it was no real surprise that we were invited into a number of houses to feast over the course of the day.

We started our tour a little after seven, standing by the side of the dusty road along which the foot-race was run. Men of all ages, dressed in little more than breech-clouts, moccasins, turkey feathers and a lot of body-paint, ran a relay over a course of abut 500 yards. There must have been a hundred participants, maybe more. It lasted well over an hour, closer to two, and it wasn’t clear to us who had won. Indeed, it seemed that taking part was more important than coming first. The runners came in all sizes and ran at all speeds. As one grey-haired fellow came by at a decent lick we learned that he was the retired post-master, aged 77. It was a picturesque scene, as the travellers out West used to say in those nineteenth century reports from Indian Territory. On either side of the trail stood clusters of women wrapped in colourful blankets and clutching infants in their arms, laughing and joking, occasionally encouraging a passing runner, especially the stragglers. Others lined the roofs of the multi-storey pueblo buildings like figures from some Alfred Jacob Miller sketch, and, when the race finished, showered the participants with gifts – mostly bags of candy.

We had our first invitation to eat shortly after the race finished. We had no idea what to expect, nor how we were expected to behave. You don’t breeze into the house of a complete stranger in England, clear several plates of chile, posole, rice and pulled pork, then say goodbye and thanks. But in Taos, on San Geronimo’s day, that’s exactly what you do. The house we entered was a true adobe: a beaten earth floor, walls of dried mud and straw, a ceiling made of vigas (fat pine beams) and latillas (thin juniper branches), plus an open fireplace burning sweet-scented cedar wood. There is no electricity on the pueblo.

After eating we wandered around the plaza to look at, and buy, some beautiful native jewellery, and a small Acoma pot for this year’s Christmas tree. Then we settled down for a short nap under a tree beside the creek that runs through the settlement, dividing it into two distinct parts.

We were awoken by the arrival of the clowns, all white body paint and black spots, who rampaged around the stalls threatening to upset the displays and steal things. Some grabbed small children and took them to the creek. It was an almighty fright for some of the younger ones, but a dunking is considered an honour and a rite of passage, so there were no parental complaints. The traders had sensibly covered up their wares and arranged small gift packages for the mischief-makers.

It was now time to eat again, at the home of 99-year-old Tony Reyna, twice Governor of the Pueblo and formerly on the Board of the Wurlitzer Foundation. He greeted us at his fireside, then told us to take a seat in the yard and feast – for the second, but not the last time.

It was soon time for the major event of the day, the delivery of goods from the tree of life. This is, I believe, an ancient ritual, and seems to be an echo of one we were told about when we visited the abandoned plaza at Chaco Canyon, where remnants of a centuries-old pine tree had been unearthed by archaeologists. It’s an annual event, with an eighty-foot pole, set in the centre of the plaza, representing the traditional pine tree. On top, tied to a pair of thin cross-members, were a sack of grain (or corn) a sack of some other foodstuff, and a recently slaughtered sheep. The task was for one of the people to climb to the top and release the supplies. There was a lengthy build-up, a lot of horsing around by the clowns as they acted out a band of wanderers tracking a sheep around the dusty square before finally realising that it was at the top of the pole. At that point two of their number set about climbing it, aided by nothing more than a rope that dangled from the top. After more deliberation, a few gymnastics across and around the lateral timbers, some haranguing of the onlookers, and an elaborate play with the ropes, they lowered the goods to the ground. That’s when one of the climbers – I was hardly able to watch this part – climbed up to the very top of the pole and stood there, the equivalent of eight floors above the ground, arms akimbo, addressing us, the mountains and/or the gods.

We feasted one more time before setting off to town with a bag of home-made cookies, pressed on us by one of our hosts for the day. If you get a chance, do visit Taos at the end of September and take this in. It is, I suspect, unique.