Ellie S. Thomas
© Copyright 2012 by Ellie S. Thomas
We were traveling along route 40 just west of Albuquerque, N. Mexico and the heat, the sands, and the tumbled white cubes in the distance contrived to lend reality to my dreams. If I hadn't been looking for the warriors, I would never have noticed the sign; it was very small. We wound closer and the buildings became a shade somewhere between pink, grey, and white. We parked near the church and started through the courtyard.
There was no one about to ask if it was all right to enter and we were in a hurry to get in out of the wind that sandblasted buildings and vehicles, and stung exposed skin. We pulled open the ancient, carved doors and stepped into the sanctified quiet. As our eyes adjusted to the shadows, we began to pick out the highly individualized art forms that ran along the wall. There were entrancing Indian motifs in terracotta, black, green, melon, tangerine, and blue; quite a lot of blue. Two dolls wearing Indian clothing and long loops of silver and turquoise beads stood before the statue of the Virgin Mary, while that of an Indian maiden, Kateri Tekakwitha, most likely, was placed in front of the one of St. Joseph. Beneath her feet was a lovely Navajo runner, or small carpet.
Elaborate paintings of the Holy Trinity graced the highpoint over the main altar and above that was another splendid rug worked with the sun, moon, stars, and rainbow, the sign of God's covenant with man, and the symbols of some of the elements that formed much of the ancient Indian beliefs.
The altar itself was adorned with curlicues and motifs; across the front more rainbows, and the green bird which appeared every little way along the sidewalls. Crisp white linens lay over the altar table and there were fresh flowers in all the places of honor. Where the sidewalls ended, towards the altar end of the church, there were two large figures which I took to be warriors, or maybe hunters. If only there was someone about who could explain the symbolism of all these beautiful signs and drawings!
The original settlement at Laguna is supposed to date to the early 1500's and the tribe itself, to the 1300's, and back on to Mesa Verde. There are 18 Pueblo cultures in a several hundred mile crescent in New Mexico along the drainage of the Rio Grande and opening south on to the desert. Their ceremonies are based on the sun-rain cycle necessary to the harvest of corn, beans, melons, and other life forms vital to desert living. The Pueblo Indians see themselves as part of the greater scheme of things; they share a mystic oneness with the sun, moon, and wind...all the elements of nature. They were, and are a deeply spiritual people- people who were forced to conform with the organized church brought to the area by the Spaniards and the Catholic priests who accompanied them. Theirs was a great period of suffering and slavery under the Spanish lash, and later changes in the area and it's government did little to bring surcease to their persecution until 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a halt to all interference with their religion. Today, when one sees an Indian church, adorned with bright colors and artistically embellished statues, supplied with valuable rugs, dolls, and fresh flowers, one knows it is a labor of love and not a mandate. The 50 churches of the Pueblos were beautiful, lavishly decorated missions built by the women and children of the curacy because, among these nations, it is the custom for the women to build the walls.
Laguna is a transitional pueblo, the people having intermarried with the other 'four-language' families. It was the hub of much mining activity; the Jackpile open-pit uranium mine was said to be the largest in the country. It is debatable how much benefit the Indians derived from the mines because they lacked unions and strong labor organizations.
New Mexico is an arid, desert land and for a long time people avoided it as an inhospitable place. Living there was unthinkable; the Indians managed by living along the rivers and providing extensive irrigation. Now, a reverse is in order and Hispanics and Indians account for only a small part of the 1.3 million people of New Mexico because the snowbirds have discovered the benefits of living in the sunbelt. Huge wood and glass solar homes climb the mountainsides and the affluent are taking these picturesque sites while many of the Indians still live below poverty levels. Health care and social services are still inadequate...and the encroaching settlements of the rich and famous are threatening the Native American culture. There's a great increase in pollution and traffic problems, real estate has soared in cost, and the desert ecology is threatened...but most of all, water. The supply may soon be inadequate for the greatly increased number of people are a great strain on an already pressed supply.
Traditionally, Pueblo Indians have been the finest artisans, THE artists of all American Indians. They have created large engineering projects, they are fine architects, they are tanners and weavers, and shrewd and enterprising traders. Their shops and cultural centers are filled with remarkable displays of silver and turquoise jewelry, leather work, paintings, shell work, etc.
As one stands in the small chapel at Pueblo Laguna, there is a strong sense of the continuity of life. It is the same life force that emanates from the megaliths at Stonehenge and Easter Island; there is a feeling of awe at the power and resources of an ancient people who seemed determined to ACCOMPLISH against all odds. These people all had different ancestors, different cultures, but they had a oneness of spirit. Surviving against formidable obstacles, they not only lived their daily routines but they also left behind definite statements about themselves. There is something admirable about those who consider there are aspects of life beyond the basics of eating, sleeping, procreating...that they must also have something for the spirit. The small chapel at Pueblo Laguna says something of that to me.
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