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Indian Country - New Mexico's Native Places

Valerie Schneider

New Mexico is home to more than twenty Native American Tribes, including nineteen Pueblos, two Apache tribes and the extensive Navajo Nation. Their long history and rich cultural traditions have influenced the architecture, food, and rhythm of life here through the years, which, combined, have given New Mexico an atmosphere that is unique from the other states.

A visit to one of the Indian reservations instills a deeper sense of America's history - from time immemorial, before the arrival of Europeans. There are many locations easily accessible for visitors to the state. Others are more remote, but no less rewarding to see. Here is a sampling of sights you may want to consider during your New Mexican vacation.


Petroglyph National Monument

The jagged, black escarpment of volcanic rocks delineating Albuquerque's western horizon is rife with ancient rock etchings. Ceremonial pictorials dating from about 1200AD were engraved by the Anasazi, the Ancient Ones, ancestors of the modern Pueblos who migrated to the Rio Grande Valley from the Four Corners region. Stone chisels were used on the black basalt rock to expose the lighter rock beneath. The petroglyphs depict birds, snakes, plants, and kokopelli (the fertility symbol). Thousands of petroglyphs are contained along the miles of escarpment. The entire escarpment is now administered by the National Park Service.

Best viewing is in the early morning or late afternoon, as the high-noon sunlight glares on the black rock and washes out the shallow etchings. While walking the trails, beware of snakes!

Directions: To reach Petroglyph National Monument, exit 1-40 at Unser Blvd. and go north until you see the sign for the Visitors Center. They will direct you to the three areas that have developed trails.

Hours: 8:00am to 5:00pm daily. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

The remnants of the volcanic cinder cones visible on top of the mesa are accessible from Paseo del Vulcan.

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

In the heart of Albuquerque on land that had formerly belonged to the Albuquerque Indian School, the cultural center houses a museum, a vast gift ship, a library and research center, and a restaurant serving traditional Indian and New Mexican dishes. Better, each weekend they hold artist demonstrations and dances free to the public. Owned by the All Indian Pueblo Council, the museum collection tells the story of the Pueblo people and gives information on each of New Mexico's nineteen pueblo tribes.

The edifice was built to mimic the shape of the largest housing ruin at Chaco Canyon. The huge gift shop showcases high-quality works in pottery, jewelry, kachinas, weavings and more.

Directions: Exit 1-40 at 12th Street and go north one block.

Hours: Open Daily. Museum: 9:00am to 4:30pm - Gift Shop: 9:00am to 5:00pm
Pueblo Harvest Restaurant: 8:00am to 3:00pm weekends (opens at 7:00am weekdays)
Indian Dance Performances every weekend at 12:00 noon winter months; at 11:00am and 2:00pm April through November.

Northern New Mexico

Bandelier National Monument

Ruins of the ancient Anasazi culture are perched precariously in the sheer cliffs and scattered in the narrow valley of Frijoles Canyon. Cave-like homes, inhabited from the 1100s to the 1500s, were dug out of the soft volcanic tuffa cliffs with access provided by log ladders. A ceremonial kiva sits high above the valley floor and outlying ruins are strewn in the back country, offering scenic, more extensive hikes. Historically and culturally significant, Bandelier is almost like an educational playground, making it a good introduction to the Anasazi and Pueblo culture for kids because they're allowed to climb all the ladders and crawl inside the stabilized dwellings.

The basic trail follows the Frijoles River among the ruins of large "apartment block" type of buildings on the valley floor, then ascends to the dwelling spaces in the cliff wall. The trail is easy though very narrow in spots. It can be quite scorching in the summer so be sure to bring along water. A portion of the trail follows the river and is protected by shady trees.

The Visitor Center provides an interpretive display, a gift shop and snack bar, and restrooms. There is a very nice picnic area in the trees. To park beside the picnic tables, drive through the parking lot, across the river and turn right to the picnic area.

Directions: Bandelier is located nine miles from Los Alamos on NM 4. A few miles further west on NM 4 you can see the Valle Grande, a 180 acre caldera encompassing what had been the large volcano which formed this area.

Admission and Hours: $10 per car. Open 8:00am to 6:00pm in the summer, 8:00am to 4:30pm in the winter. The parking lot is small and when it is full, you cannot enter until someone leaves. The line to get in can be long in the summer months.

Looking down at the remains of the village, Bandelier National Monument, Oct 2005, photo by Pauline Kenny

Looking down at the remains of the "apartment block" village, Bandelier National Monument

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo, perhaps the most picturesque of the nineteen pueblos, is nestled at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 7200 feet elevation. The three- and four-storied adobe buildings sit prettily, layered like mocha-colored sandcastles under dazzling blue skies, looking almost mythical. Inhabited for over a thousand years, the pueblo is deemed a U.N. World Heritage Site, and provides a good historical view of pueblo life. Artistic traditions include high-quality pottery, jewelry, moccasins and leather crafts, ceremonial drums, and a few flute-makers, including those handcrafted by critically-acclaimed Robert Mirabal.

While you can wander the pueblo fairly free, tours can be arranged at the visitor center when you arrive, and this is the best way to make the most of your visit.

Directions: Taos Pueblo is located just a couple miles north of the city of Taos.

Admission and Hours: Taos Pueblo is open daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm. Note that it is closed to visitors from mid-February through early April, however. Cost is $10.00 per person, $5.00 for students and children under 13 are free. Camera fee is $5.00 and must be purchased when you arrive.

There is no photography allowed in the church or the cemetery, and no wading allowed in the stream.

Website: www.taospueblo.com The website offers a walking tour map and a calendar of events.

Taos Pueblo, September 2003, photo by Chris Coburn

Taos Pueblo

Western New Mexico

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo is the most dramatic of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico. Situated atop a 360 foot mesa, it is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. (Yes, St. Augustine, Florida tries to claim that title, but it was established in 1565 and the city's website then qualifies the "Oldest City" claim with "oldest continually occupied settlement of European origin in the United States". Ah. Evidence places Acoma in existence since at least 1150.)

While Acoma's population numbers more than 6,000, only about 30 people still reside on the mesa top full-time, without indoor plumbing or electricity. They are the keepers of Acoma's cultural heritage.

Acoma is noted for its fine, intricate geometrically-patterned pottery, usually black-on-white, the designs painted on with a yucca strand.

Visitors are required to take a guided tour to see the pueblo. Tickets are purchased at the visitor center, where the buses depart from. Narratives are informative and are peppered with the characteristic dry wit of the pueblo people. Tours last one hour, after which visitors are allowed to wander the mesa top and peruse the home art studios. You can take the bus back, or return to the visitor center by way of the ancient trail down the steep cliff of the mesa, using the time-worn hand and food holds that are carved into the sandstone (highly recommended, if you are in decent physical condition).

Directions: Acoma is accessible from I-40.

Admission and Hours: Open 8:00am to 7:00pm May through October; 8:00am to 4:00pm November through April. Cost is $10.00 per person, $6.00 for children. A camera permit costs $10.00.

The pueblo is open daily, but closes for some ceremonies, so call first to be sure it will be open - 800-747-0181.

Website: www.skycity.com

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo

Zuni Pueblo

Zuni Pueblo, while the most traditional of the pueblos, is also one of the most open to visitors. Stop at the Visitor Center to obtain a map and a photo permit. Visitors are permitted to wander the pueblo with a few restrictions, including no entry into the church or cemetery. Zuni is the largest Pueblo, in land area and population. The surrounding landscape is picturesque, the striped mesas and turquoise skies are magnificent and timeless.

Zuni is still very much a community of artisans with cottage industry making up the bulk of the residents' livelihoods. 80% of the pueblo population is involved in artistic endeavors. Zuni is famous for its amazingly beautiful and intricate jewelry designs, especially the mosaic and channel inlay, and "needle point" cut turquoise. They are equally famed for their hand-carved stone fetishes, each animal representing a particular characteristic, such as the bear which denotes strength.

Guided tours can be arranged in advance to see archeological sites or to go on an artists' studio tour. The pueblo also maintains a small museum and heritage center. Camera permits can be purchased at the visitor center.

Directions: Zuni is accessible from I-40 by taking Route 602 South from Gallup, then turning west on Rt. 53. A longer scenic route from I-40 and Route 53 near Acoma takes you past the forbidding black volcanic flow of El Malpais, through pretty mesa-dotted country and by El Morro National Monument (also known as Inscription Rock). This drive is worth the detour if you have the time.

Website: www.experiencezuni.com

Zuni Mission, Valerie Schneider

Zuni Mission

Navajo Nation/Four Corners

Desolate, forbidding, isolated; this is how Navajo country is frequently described, yet there is beauty and majesty in the starkness. Endless vistas stretch out under infinite skies; atmospheric conditions can be easily seen here, weather fronts visible as they march eastward.

The vast Navajo Nation, known as the Big Rez, stretches across three state boundaries, encompassing about 27,000 square miles of land and 180,000 people. It is one of the most recognized reservations; its monuments and rock formations have featured prominently in countless postcards, calendars and films.

Shiprock Peak

Called Tse Bit'a'i, meaning "a rock with wings", the peak is actually an eroded volcanic remnant which rises 1800 feet above the arid ground like a massive, ghostly schooner marooned in the desert. Readily identifiable from western films and its sheer size, Shiprock is sacred to the Navajo people and is off-limits to climbers and hikers. It can be viewed only from a distance unless special permission is obtained from tribal authorities.

Located off US 491 and Scenic Indian Route 33, this massive peak provides a wonderful photo-op if you're in the area. When viewed close to sunset, the light plays dramatically on the formation making it shimmer.

Four Corners Monument

A hokey marker delineates the only spot in the country where four states intersect. This out-of-the-way detour provides a remote return-to-childhood-car-trips type of pleasure. Fanciful photos are taken of tourists at this unique landmark, squatting down placing all appendages onto the monument, smiling upward with glee at this geographic roadside kitsch. Distant mountains, surrounding mesas, and Navajo hogans dotting the landscape ensure a scenic drive.

Vendors sell arts and crafts as well as food, but there is no running water available.

Admission and Hours: There is a fee of $3.00 to enter the Monument. Open 8:00am to 5:00pm daily most of the year; 7:00am to 8:00pm from May through September. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.

Red Rock State Park

Actually administered by the Navajo Nation rather than the State of New Mexico, this dramatic 640 acre park is circled by red sandstone cliffs. Trails wind through the embracing formations, availing photographers with fantastic photo-ops. The park boasts a rodeo arena set into a natural rock amphitheatre, a museum with interpretative displays on the surrounding tribes, and a campground.

Hours and Directions: Open from 8:00am to 4:30pm daily, Red Rock is located about 6 miles east of Gallup and is easily accessed from I-40.

Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon has been called "the Stonehenge of the Southwest". Roads and buildings hewn out of stone punctuate the desert and mystery shrouds the ancient dwellers, the Anasazi. They were skilled architects and engineers, constructing enormous public and ceremonial buildings in a distinctive style. The largest ruins include Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Casa Rinconada. Why the people left is not known; they dispersed and founded or were absorbed by the surrounding pueblos. Why they built a system of roads is equally mysterious; they had no horses or pack animals or wheels. It was apparently a ceremonial center with a population of about 7,000 at its peak, and the occupants were accomplished craftsmen, fashioning distinctive jewelry, pottery and basketry.

Directions: Chaco is also the least accessible site. The closest hotel rooms are in Farmington, about two hours distant. The access roads are 20 miles of dirt and frequently wash-boarded, making progress slow and bumpy. Easiest access is via "the northern route", off NM 550, turning off near Nageezi onto Tribal Road 7900, following the well-marked signage. Chaco, while a National Monument, is located on Navajo tribal land.

Call before you set out to check road conditions, as inclement weather can sometimes make them impassable. (1-505-786-7014; www.nps.gov/chcu).

Hours: Visitors Center is open 8:00am to 5:00pm daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day). Trails are open until sunset. Remote sites are accessible by back country trails, but you must obtain a free hiking permit before setting out.

Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon

Visitor Guidelines for Visiting Tribal Lands

When visiting tribal lands, there are a few guidelines and courtesies to keep in mind.

Tribal lands are sovereign entities, governed by an elected governor or president and ruled by a tribal council. The tribal governors and presidents hold positions that are the equivalent to a state's governor. Each tribe has their own police force and laws, which must be respected.

  • Remember first and foremost that Pueblos and Reservations are communities, not merely open-air museums or amusement parks. Visitors are guests and should respect the customs of the tribe.
  • Photography is usually allowed, but inquire at the tribal office or visitor center first.
    - Photography almost always requires the purchase of a camera permit. These permits are for personal photographs. Commercial photography requires special permission.
    - Visitors are almost always forbidden to photograph kivas and church interiors.
    - Photography is strictly forbidden during ceremonies.
    - Always ask before photographing people.
  • Do not enter houses without an invitation. Some residences are also art studios, though, and signs will indicate if this is the case.
  • Visitors are forbidden to enter kivas and cemeteries.
  • Alcohol is prohibited.
  • Do not bring pets along.
  • Don't climb on walls or structures.
  • Always ask before venturing beyond the main village center, as some areas may be deemed off limits to visitors.
  • During ceremonies, refrain from talking and asking questions. These ceremonies are akin to high holy days in a church. Seats are for elders and tribal members.


Slow Travel Photos: Some of Valerie's photos of Indian country, and Pauline's.

Valerie Schneider (Valerie) is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read about her Italian adventures in her monthly Slow Travel column, Living Slow in Italy, and on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2005

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