My first visit to Albuquerque was in the early ‘90s. I remember stepping off the plane onto the tarmac and feeling at peace, like I was home, even though I was an Indiana girl living in western Virginia and this high desert was completely different from anywhere I had ever been. The dry air, the beige landscape leading to brown, hazy mountains in the distance - you’d think this Midwestern gal would have longed for the emerald of my childhood, but instead I was endlessly fascinated.
That visit was my first glimpse of the Rio Grande. It seemed so narrow, comparatively speaking, to the expanse it divided, so shallow, so brown, so not grand. I think I’d pictured something like the sprawling Mississippi or the lush green of the Ohio. This Southwestern artery was the stuff of legend. It had drawn inhabitants and explorers for centuries and in my mind it was gigantic.
It fit, though, with this alien landscape. It was my first concrete representation of a river as a giver of life: the only trees in sight were the cottonwoods at its banks. Now, much older and a little wiser, I know that anytime I see a line of trees it means that at their roots there’s a river or a creek or a dry streambed that fills up in the spring. They crowd the banks like teenagers at a concert wanting to be as close to the stage as they can without falling into the photo pit.
We were headed to the Coronado Historic Site, following the reverse route of the Spaniards who founded Albuquerque. As we exited I-25 in Bernalillo and headed west I saw that line of cottonwoods and felt the same fascination I had a quarter of a century before. It was February so there were no leaves, just a bunch of branches tangled and marching to the north and to the south along the still shallow, still brown, Rio Grande.
There isn’t much mention of Coronado at the Coronado Historic Site. The sign at the entrance from the parking lot reads “Welcome to the Ancient Ruins of Kuaua Pueblo.” Below that in really small type is “Coronado Historic Site - Established March 7, 1935.” The address is Kuaua Road. The Friends of Coronado Historic Site website is kuaua.com. The path to the Visitor Center has a sign in both English and Spanish that gives a little background on Coronado’s two year venture into the area and beyond, and there’s quite a bit of information inside the museum about the Spaniards, but the focus is most assuredly on the people who were around long before Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his like arrived.
The Spaniards came because they were hunting for gold. Cortez and Pizarro had found some; Coronado wanted some, too. Francisco had heard about an amazing place called the Seven Cities of Cibola that was supposed to be just stinking blinding with gold and it was going to be his.
The Entrada, as it was called, was an armor-clad swarm of locusts. This bunch of soldiers (mercenaries, basically) and slaves was accompanied by Mexican-Indian allies, a total numbering anywhere from 1,350 to 2,500 people. They brought their own livestock. Cattle, sheep, goats, swine. All of those people and animals needed to eat and sleep and who cares that there were already people living there. There was gold in them there hills. (Somewhere. Maybe. Except there wasn't.)
Kuaua (pronounced kwah-wah) must have been an impressive site in 1540. The village, inhabited by members of the Tiwa tribe, was a compound of nearly 2000 rooms that had been around for about two centuries. With just two entrances, it probably appeared like a fortress. It was surrounded by fields of corn irrigated by the Rio Grande and the explorers would have heard the warbling turkeys that provided much of the Tiwa’s clothing. (Woven turkey feathers make awesome cloaks and last longer than rabbit skin, we learned at the museum.)
Maybe it was too impressive, because Coronado and his troupe didn’t stay there.
“What???” I hear you asking. “Then why in the Seven Cities of Cibola is it called the Coronado Historic Site?”
Hope, timing, and marketing.
In the 1930s Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, founder of the Museum of New Mexico and enabler of the Antiquities Act, directed a team that excavated Kuaua. In anticipation of the approaching Cuarto Centenario, which would celebrate the 400th anniversary of Coronado’s arrival, they were hoping to prove that’s where he and his band of merry marauders had camped.
Everything changed when, instead of proof of Coronado, they found kivas. From that point on Hewett and his group focused on excavating the village of Kuaua, but kept the Coronado name to capitalize on the quadricentennial. The Coronado State Monument, the first state monument in New Mexico, was dedicated in 1935 and opened to the public in 1940.
The discovery of kivas was important because kivas are chambers, either partially or completely underground, that represent the Pueblo Indians’ origin from the underworld. They are sacred. In fact, the kiva at Kuaua is one of the few that a non-tribal member can see.
Kivas are painted with murals that depict, as a member of the San Domingo Pueblo said, “everything that we believe. They show us how to live. To us, these paintings are everything we live for.” The murals that Hewett and his team unearthed at Kuaua are some of the best examples of Pre-Columbian art in the country. They weren’t easy to get to, though. According to our guide Kathy, there were 85 layers of plaster, 17 with murals, and they had to use cheesecloth and chemicals to peel them away. The murals seen today were painstakingly restored, and while they’re technically not the original works, they are technically sacred. You can only view these amazing depictions with a guide, and no photographs are allowed.
On the altar of public living, where everything from magnificent vistas to your breakfast burrito is posted for all the world to see, it may seem sacrilegious to prohibit a post to Instagram or that Facebook live video, but some things aren’t meant for the world. Some things are meant only for a few, and for a specific time.
Knowing that you can’t just take a picture or a video means that when you’re there, when we were there, we were present and could soak in the privilege of being in that sacred room. Centuries before, for centuries, rituals were performed right where we were standing that defined a people. Kathy, our guide, led us through the painted figures and their meanings. The importance of water is visceral, and the ceremonies and traditional garb are the same today as they were when these were painted. Like the kivas themselves, however, those ceremonies are sacred and for tribal eyes only.
This is important to remember when you’re in New Mexico. The pueblos are not tourist attractions; they are homes and schools and people and life. Despite being lumped as one homogenous group of Pueblo Indians, the native peoples of the Southwest are separate nations. That nineteen survive today is due in part to their insistence on keeping their private rituals private, to prevent them from being appropriated and assimilated by other cultures.
We emerged from the kiva and explored a small footprint of what had been a massive edifice. Our time was, once again, limited. When we had arrived at Coronado Historic Site we met Matthew Barbour. He’s the Regional Manager of both the Coronado and the Jemez Historic Sites, and when we told him why we were there he asked us to visit Jemez as well. It would add about two hours of driving to our day, but we’d already come this far; what was another 120 minutes, especially when it would aid our understanding of the peoples and the history of the area?
We took the photos that we could and left the Rio Grande for the San Diego Canyon.
Jemez Historic Site is located northwest of Albuquerque and Bernalillo. To get there you head towards the peaks and mesas in the distance through hills dotted with juniper. The closer you get, the redder the landscape. We passed through Jemez Pueblo, which, as non-tribal members, is all we could or should do. This is a closed village; for those wanting to learn more the Walatowa Visitor Center is a few miles north and offers a museum and a reconstructed traditional field house.
The Jemez have been in the area since the 1200s, when they migrated from the Four Corners region. When Coronado arrived they numbered around 30,000, making them the largest of the Pueblo nations. Whether they were too far away or simply too intimidating with their giant four-story pueblos, the Spaniards didn’t bother them too much - yet. That happened when Don Juan de Onate (we’ll hear more about him later) sent Father Alonzo de Lugo to the village of Guisewa in 1598. After twenty-three years, shortly after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, another friar arrived to build a church - or rather, have the Jemez build a church.
The ruins of that church and the village that surrounded it are now the Jemez Historic Site.
The visitor center tells the story of the site from the perspective of the Jemez, and as you can probably imagine, it is not flattering to the Spaniards. The Franciscans believed that the native religions were evil - “demonic” is the word used on the New Mexico Historic Sites’ website - and they tried to wipe them out. When that church was built, the decimation of their population and their culture truly began, so it’s no wonder that those rituals, and even their language, have been kept private for the past four hundred-plus years. Because of that protection they’ve kept their culture alive in a way that many indigenous peoples have been unable. It’s also due, even more so, to the fact that they and the Apaches and the Navajo fought back so vigorously in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 that the Spaniards didn’t return for several years. When they did, the persecution of their religion was not reinstated. At least, not to the extent it had been, enabling them to preserve many parts of their way of life.
Albuquerque, the Rio Grande, and the surrounding area are living history and we tried to experience as much as we could in our short time there. We had two days, and in the first we’d visited the birthplace of Old Town and two sites that taught us about the original inhabitants. In the next we would stay on a parcel of the Atrisco Land Grant, drink wine made with the only wooden press in the state, and explore one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America.