Gallup, dancing at annual Indian Ceremonials in New Mexico
Gallup, dancing at annual Indian Ceremonials in New Mexico

by Lee Foster

New Mexico’s Indians hold a special fascination for travelers, even to this day. And well they might, for the Indians themselves strive to be sovereign people. When the king of Spain presented a silver cane to each of the governors of the pueblo tribes in the 17th century, he vowed that they would be treated as sovereign entities. Abraham Lincoln reaffirmed these rights in 1862 by re-presenting a cane to each of the Indian governors on behalf of the United States.

New Mexico Indians are so sensitive on this issue of sovereignty today that they will give up much to preserve it. If the state provided money to restore the Taos pueblo, a main tourism attraction, would accepting that money relinquish some control? On a more personal level, the Indian pueblos run tremendous risks as small foreign entities surrounded by a dominant white culture. A pueblo like San Ildefonso has less than 600 people. Only these people know their secret rituals and ceremonies, which is their legacy to the future. Pueblo language, religion, and culture is imperative to the survival of pueblo people.

Concerns common to all people also confront the Indians of New Mexico, especially education, health care, and housing. Revenues from tourism may help them achieve some practical goals in these areas, especially such partnerships as the Hyatt Tamaya Resort on pueblo land near Albuquerque. With such a partnership the 700 Indians of the pueblo improve their economic choices going forward.


Indian dances, Indian art objects, and the historic ruins of Southwest Indian culture lure many travelers to New Mexico. The best place for an orientation is at the Albuquerque Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

The Indian Cultural Center, run by Indians, prepares a visitor for forays into New Mexico Indian Country.

The Indians of New Mexico’s pueblos are represented, all 19 of them.

At the Indian Cultural Center you can walk through a museum depicting pueblo life. A guide can explain the nuances as each pueblo displays its material and spiritual culture. Thirteen murals at the Center capture some of the spiritual concerns of the Indian world. At the restaurant you can sample Indian culinary specialties, from fry bread, a deep-fried bread, to posole, a mix of broth, hominy, and chiles. Each day you can see Indian dances performed here, a special treat because ritual dances at the pueblos are often secretive affairs, where travelers are permitted, but not welcome to photograph or inquire about the dance’s meaning. A shop at the cultural center sells a wide spectrum of high-quality Indian silver and turquoise jewelry.

All considered, the texture of Indian cultural life in New Mexico is extremely rich.



After a visit to the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center, the best way to explore Indian Country in the field is to travel around the northern part of the state. Most of the Indian settlement is in the northern third of the state, following the Rio Grande River and its stream tributaries, as the river system proceeds from Taos in the northeast through Albuquerque in the north central part of the state.

A good exploratory plan would take you, first, to three sites near Albuquerque (Petroglyph National Monument, Coronado State Monument, and Isleta Pueblo). Then proceed west of Albuquerque to the Acoma “Sky City” pueblo and, if you are fortunate enough to travel here on a mid-summer weekend, continue west to the annual Indian ceremonial dances in Gallup.

Then retrace your steps to east of Albuquerque. Stop at Santa Fe to see two outstanding Indian museums, the Wheelwright and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. In Santa Fe, peruse the flourishing Indian arts around the Plaza. Then proceed north of Santa Fe to the San Ildefonso pueblo and nearby Bandelier National Monument. Your last stop, Taos pueblo, is, in many ways, the fitting climax to a look at New Mexico Indian Country.


At this park, on the west side of Albuquerque, you’ll find thousands of petroglyphs of various designs. Speculation among archaeologists is that hunters passing their time here left these scratchings in the weathered patina on the rocks. Designs of sheep, butterflies, warriors, and deer are numerous


The Coronado Monument, across the river from Albuquerque, lets you glimpse what Indian life was like before the Spanish explorer, Francesco Vasquez de Coronado, arrived in 1540. The size of these pueblo ruins, where Coronado overwintered that year, is impressive. The village rests on a rise alongside the Rio Grande River, with a view of the Sandia Mountains across the river. The site is still rather rural and unencumbered by urban trappings, so you can begin to imagine what life was like here.

A kiva, or ceremonial room, uncovered in the 1930s, contained more than 80 layers of drawings on thin plaster. The drawings were cleverly saved by archaeologists. Several are now on display in the museum adjacent to the pueblo site. Together, these murals represent one of the most important collections of Indian pictoral work in the United States prior to the Spanish arrival. The concerns in the drawings are for rain to grow crops. Most of the gods are involved in the water cycle of rain and fertility.


Just south of Albuquerque, you can visit an agricultural pueblo, famous for its white church of San Agustin. Isleta has been a pueblo of reserved Indians engaged in various agricultural efforts, so don’t anticipate an elaborate welcome. However, many modern members of the tribe function quite well in the urban world of Albuquerque. Walking in the pueblo to visit the church gives you a sense of the long time frame in which these peoples have farmed squash, beans, chili, and corn on this fertile valley floor of the Rio Grande.

Isleta lies 13 miles south of Albuquerque on Interstate 25 and consists of several Indian settlements strung out along the Rio Grande.


A more spectacular Indian setting lies west of Albuquerque at the Acoma pueblo.

Drive 40 miles west on Interstate 40 and turn south to the 400-foot sandstone mesa that has been inhabited since the 11th century. Acoma is an improbable sky city, situated high on a rock outcrop that is virtually impregnable against hostile forces.

At Acoma, which means “People of the White Rock,” visit the museum, noted for its collection of historic pottery. Then participate in the Indian-led tour of the sky city. You’ll see the historic church and the dwellings where some Indian families still live, selling fry bread or pottery to travelers. Most of the Acoma population now lives on the flatlands. The Church of San Estevan del Rey contains well-preserved art objects from the 17th century.

The participation in a tour of Acoma raises the important question of etiquette when visiting pueblo sites in New Mexico. Remember that these are communities of living cultures and travelers are guests. Fees to enter may be charged. Fees to photograph may be required. Photographs may or may not be taken of dances, ceremonial rooms called kivas, and individuals. Each pueblo establishes its own procedures. Be sure to inquire, rather than assume, when in doubt about expected traveler behavior, especially when photographing.

Gallup, dancing at annual Indian Ceremonials in New Mexico
Gallup, dancing at annual Indian Ceremonials in New Mexico


If you can possibly arrange a trip to New Mexico during the annual mid-summer Indian Ceremonials in Gallup, you will be rewarded with an extraordinary glimpse into New Mexico Indian culture. Gallup is a small border town west of Albuquerque near the Arizona border. At any time of the year the jewelry shops of Gallup display lavish selections of Navajo and Zuni work. The Ceremonials take place at Red Rock Park, near town.

During the ceremonials there are three main occurrences. Hour upon hour of dancing by many different tribes can inform a visitor. At these dances the public is welcome and photos are permitted. Indian dances are ritual efforts to relate to the great elements of nature, such as the Buffalo or Rain. The dances are not for the amusement of visitors or for erotic purposes. Besides the dances, a juried art show at the Ceremonials displays some of the finest Indian art creations in the state. Silver and turquoise jewelry, weavings, and ceramics are the main categories. A specialty of the Ceremonials is an all-Indian rodeo with the usual rodeo features, such as bronco riding and calf-roping.

Aside from the famous Gallup Ceremonials, there are over 50 lesser Indian dancing and celebrating events occurring at various pueblos throughout the year. New Mexico’s Tourism Office can send you a calendar of the festivals for the upcoming year.


Retrace your steps and proceed northeast from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, where you can immerse yourself further in the Indian world of New Mexico.

Santa Fe exhibits an extraordinary Indian artistic show in the central plaza under the porticos of the Palace of Governors. Recognized artisans gather there daily to display wares. Each August an Indian Market around the plaza brings out the best juried work of 1,200 top artisans. The major collectors and dealers pay about $40 million that weekend for Indian art in Santa Fe. The Indian art component helps make Santa Fe the third largest art market in the U.S., after New York and Los Angeles.

An example of artistic success here is Denise Wallace, who has won the annual design award at Indian Market. She happens to be an Athabascan Indian from Alaska who came to study at the noted Institute of American Indian Arts. Through this school, New Mexico nurtures Indian artisans from its own and other states.

Santa Fe also boasts two museums to Southwest Indian culture, the Wheelwright and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, both located near each other on a mesa two miles from the downtown.


The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian began as a wealthy New England woman’s collaboration with a Navajo medicine man to save the remaining artifacts of Navajo culture. Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Hosteen Klah were the principals.

The time was the 1920s. At that time Navajo culture was in disarray and the medicine men, repositories of lore and wisdom, were declining one by one. An effort was made to record legends, gather artifacts such as medicine man bundles, and do what could be done to turn around the situation. Eventually Navajos regained pride in their culture, so most of the artifacts were returned to sites on the tribal lands.

Today the Wheelwright serves a different purpose and includes strong representation of Indians on its board of directors. The upstairs of the building hosts a show of some kind, often of Indian art. The bottom of the building functions as an elaborate trading post with books, jewelry, ceramics, and many other objects for sale. At display cases in this store it is possible to see Indian designs from earlier decades.


The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture should be a top priority for all travelers. This museum serves as the display wing of the Laboratory of Anthropology, a Rockefeller-funded entity that has cataloged Indian materials for decades.

The Museum highlight is its Treasure Room, which displays 300 of the most important artifacts in the 42,000-object collection. The objects are dazzling. A turkey-feather blanket from the sixth century, a human hair net from the twelfth century for catching rabbits, spear points from the B.C. period, and pottery hundreds of years old are some of the wonders to behold.

Display rooms at the Museum describe how the Rio Grande River cultures developed and flourished. The Rio Grande bosque is the longest cottonwood-tree forest on earth. In these fertile bottomlands the Indians farmed corn, squash, peppers, and cotton, establishing sedentary cultures that allowed security and some time for artistic and religious thought. The arrival of the Spanish and the intrusion of marauding Indian tribes, such as the Apache, destroyed this well being.


North of Santa Fe, one of the hospitable pueblos to visit is San Ildefonso. There a guide can be contacted, for a modest fee, to lead you around the pueblo. At the Tribal Council room, you will also need to pay a fee for photographing. San Ildefonso is 25 miles north and west of Santa Fe.

The tour includes an introductory look at San Ildefonso life in the pueblo’s small museum. You learn how these people gradually drifted southeast from the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in western Colorado. The cause of their movement was prolonged drought in the 13th century. They eventually came to Bandelier and built a substantial culture, whose ruins can now be visited. Finally, a small band of these Tewa-speaking people came to San Ildefonso. At the Black Mesa, a rock monolith near the pueblo, the San Ildefonso people withstood, in 1692, a Spanish effort to destroy them. The collective tribes of New Mexico expelled the Spanish in 1680 in a massive revolt, but the Spanish returned via El Paso, Texas, and proceeded as far as San Ildefonso in their efforts to cajole or conquer their way back through New Mexico. San Ildefonso withstood the assault and held out on Black Mesa. The 1680 revolt and 1692 defense were examples of the times when European forces were defeated by Indians in the U.S.

The Indians of San Ildefonso, in their kivas, engage in religious rituals that have never been seen by outsiders. The tribe lives in some fear that these rituals will eventually die out unless young members of the tribe master the language.

The tour continues with a visit to the Church and then to a working potter. The pottery visit is crucial because it was here, in San Ildefonso, that a potter named Maria Martinez perfected a method of making black-on-black pottery of exquisite workmanship. Maria’s pots remain today the benchmark of pot making.

It’s worth noting that Indian pottery in New Mexico, to be eligible for some awards, must be made in the traditional manner. There are two main aspects. The pot must be built of coiled clay, rather than thrown on a wheel. And the pot must be fired by burning dried manure, rather than in a modern kiln. An oxygen-reduction process in the firing achieves the black-on-black design.

Pot-making in the traditional way and maintaining their Tewa language are crucial, in the eyes of the San Ildefonso people, for perpetuating the culture.

San Ildefonso ranks among the more vigorous pueblos in the Indian effort at economic self-direction. At the San Ildefonso pueblo there is a large art and craft fair each July that gives Indians complete control of the market. The Eight Northern Pueblos Indian Council Arts and Craft Fair, as it is called, indicates the alliance of pueblos in this common effort.


Bandelier is one of the extraordinary Indian ruins of the Southwest. Most of the Bandelier people lived in a large round pueblo city. They inhabited a fertile, small valley with a dependable water source. While walking the trails here, you can see some of their remaining art murals.

The Bandelier people came, it is said, from Mesa Verde, migrating in a time of drought around 1200-1300 A.D. The ruins are not as spectacular as those in the cliff at Mesa Verde, but they help to interpret the evolving pueblo culture.


Taos pueblo is a fitting finale for an initial glimpse of New Mexico Indian culture. The pueblo, north of Santa Fe, amounts to a tour de force of pueblo architecture. Taos boasts two five-story, multi-room edifices facing each other on the opposite banks of Taos Creek. The elaborate adobe and wood structures have remained unchanged since the day Coronado viewed them in 1540. Background for this setting is the purplish mountains that the Spanish named Blood of Christ, Sangre de Christo Mountains. The white-washed church and beige color of the pueblo remain imbued on a visitor’s mind.

Parking and photography fees are charged as you enter Taos pueblo. Photographs of people are prohibited. Be especially considerate of people entering and leaving the church. Religious and social conservatism is a hallmark of the Taos world as the people strive desperately to maintain their traditions.

In the city of Taos you can visit the gallery of one of the most celebrated New Mexico Indian artist, R. C. Gorman. Gorman’s inspiring drawings about the mystery of the Navajo woman can be seen in graphics and ceramics in galleries from here to Australia.

New Mexico’s Indian culture fascinates on several levels. The culture survived relatively intact while most other American Indian cultures were destroyed. This is partly a fortunate accident of geography. New Mexico was too remote and spare a territory to interest the hordes of settlers that wiped out California’s Indian cultures, for example. The New Mexico Indian culture continues to exert leadership in design of jewelry, ceramics, and fabrics. The Indian culture also lived within its means, especially as concerns water, for over a thousand years. The New Mexico Indians are Americans, of course, but they are also residents of sovereign enclaves, as they are the first to point out.



The overall state tourism office is New Mexico Department of Tourism,  491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 505/827-7400;

Albuquerque information is available from the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, 20 First Plaza NW, Suite 601, Albuquerque, NM 87102; 800/284-2282,

The major Indian country introduction comes at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, 2401 12th St. NW, Albuquerque, NM 87104; 866/855-7902;

Information on the Acoma Pueblo, the famous “Sky City,” comes from Pueblo of Acoma, P.O. Box 310, Acoma, NM 87034; 800/747-0181 or 505/552-7861;

Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum celebrates the Navajo culture. Contact the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 800/607-4636 or 505/982-4636;

Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is at 710 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/476-1250;

North of Santa Fe, visit the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Details: San Ildefonso Pueblo, Route 5, Box 315-A, San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM 87506; 505/455-2273.

For information on Taos pueblo, the major architectural monument of New Mexico pueblo Indian culture, contact Taos Pueblo Tourism, Pueblo of Taos, P.O. Box 1846, Taos, NM 87571; 575/758-1028;



  1. “The 1680 revolt and 1692 defense were the first and only time that European forces were defeated by Indians in the U.S.” WHAT!!!???***###%%% Please read the rest of the history of the Indian Wars in this country … there were hundreds of outstanding victories against the “Europeans” from the 1600s on into the late 1800’s by which time there were plenty of non-Spanish Europeans locked into the agenda of either placation or complete eradication of the American Indian presence on the continent. Needless to say we know who lost and who “won” but please no more statements like the one above … not if you want to have any credibility with the Indian communities or folk like me who are not Native but know my history and practice cultural sensitivity as best I can no matter what the culture I am engaging with. IC

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