The city of Albuquerque is set in a valley surrounded by the famed Rio Grande to the west and the Sandia Mountains to the east (Sandia -- meaning watermelon -- was named for the pinkish hue that the mountain range gives off at sunset). This area has long been sacred to Native American people and when the Spanish colonists arrived here between the 16th and 18th centuries, they found dozens of small villages, or pueblos, inhabited by various Amerindian tribes. Today, the land around Albuquerque is still home to these pueblos, some 19 in total, most within an hour's drive of the city and several dating back centuries, making the city a perfect starting point and gateway for exploring Native American heritage.
American Amerindian cultural influences are evident in everything in Albuquerque, from its architecture to its cuisine. As the original inhabitants of this land, Native American presence is part of the rich cultural diversity of New Mexico and reminders of their thousands of years of history and profound connection to the land is found in ancient cliff dwellings, pit houses, underground ceremonial chambers, abandoned villages, and extensive rock carvings.
Although some pueblos are now known more for their resorts and casinos rather than their traditional communities, many pueblos still retain much of their authentic environment and rely on a combination of tourism, farming, and craft production to support resident families. Other pueblos discourage visitation and may only be open to the public on feast days or by invitation. Architecturally, visiting a pueblo gives you an opportunity to see traditional adobe houses, historic mission-style churches, and ruins of more ancient structures such as cliff dwellings. Alongside distinctly Amerindian construction, you are also likely to see modern buildings and pre-fabricated homes as communities embrace their history but adapt to contemporary living conditions. Some pueblos still do not have running water but almost all have electricity or generators so satellite dishes are juxtaposed with the red packed-earth facades in a bizarre mix of old and new. Pueblos aren't museums or curiosities, they are real communities and people live and work here so you need to keep this in mind. When on tribal land, visitors are subject to local laws, but more importantly, they should respect Native American traditions and beliefs by adhering to requests and rules. Despite their obvious photogenic qualities, some pueblos do not allow photography, while others charge a photo fee (often only $10 and well worth it). Also, cellphones are generally prohibited and pueblos prohibit the drinking of alcohol during visits. It is considered impolite to refuse an invitation to eat in someone's home, so even if you have already eaten or are not hungry, try to eat something. Do not remove pottery shards, rocks or any other objects from Amerindian lands. If you are on a guided tour, stay on the trail and do not wander off to look at something that may interest you. Do not look into or go inside kivas as these underground ceremonial chambers are holy sites. If you are fortunate enough to attend a pueblo dance, keep in mind that they are religious ceremonies, not theatrical performances put on for your benefit -- so applauding is not appropriate. Try not to ask questions regarding the meaning of a ceremony and do not talk to participants unless spoken to.
An hour's drive west of Albuquerque, Acoma Pueblo (tel. 800/747-0181; www.acomaskycity.org) is stunningly situated atop a 367-foot high red sandstone mesa with towering monoliths. Settled in the 12th century, it is considered the oldest continually inhabited settlement in North America and several families still occupy the old homes on the mesa (known as "Sky City"). Acoma Pueblo is the only Native American site on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list. The pueblo is known for its impressive Haaku Museum, the early 17th century San Esteban del Rey Mission, its rich culture and its delicately decorated pottery. Visitors may attend several festivals during the year, guided tours are offered daily, and tribal-operated gaming is available at Sky City Casino. In summer the pueblo is open from 8am to 7pm and in winter from 8am to 4pm. Admission for hour-long tours is $12 for adults, $9 for children five to 17 and under fives are admitted free. The photography fee is $10 but videotaping is prohibited.
Jemez Pueblo (tel. 575/834-7235; www.jemezpueblo.com), or the village of Walatowa, is set against a dramatic backdrop of red hued rock formations and cliffs an hour northwest of the city. A visitor center is open daily from 8am to 5pm and provides information about the pueblo and the Jemez Mountain Trail (a National Scenic and Historic Byway) plus there is a gift shop, small museum and interpretive tours. The Hua-na-tota ancestors of the Jemez Nation, migrated to this area in the late 13th century and at the time of the first European contact in 1541, it was one of the largest and most powerful of the puebloan cultures, occupying numerous villages that were located on the high mountain mesas and canyons that surround the present pueblo site.
Stone fortresses, often up to four stories high and containing as many as 3,000 rooms were situated on these mesas and the remains of these structures now constitute some of the largest archaeological ruins in the country. The pueblo is open to the public for traditional dances and events including New Year's Day Matachine Dances; Easter Sunday Corn Dances; Tribal food vendors at Red Rocks (most weekends and some weekdays, weather permitting April through October); Annual Red Rocks Arts & Crafts Show and Star Feather Pow-Wow (Memorial Day Weekend); St Persingula Feast Day Corn Dances (August 2); an open air market (October 11 and 12, 2008), featuring traditional dances, bread baking demonstrations, as well artists selling their goods; San Diego Feast Day Corn Dances (November 12); and Our Lady of Guadalupe Matachine Dances (December 12). Cameras, video camcorders, and sketchpads are strictly forbidden at all times.
Sandia Pueblo (tel. 505/867-3317; www.sandiapueblo.nsn.us) is the closest pueblo to Albuquerque, right near the scenic Sandia Peak Tramway (tel. 505/856-7325; www.sandiapeak.com) and about a 15-minute drive from the city center. The pueblo has been in its present site since at least the beginning of the 14th century. Visitors are welcome to visit and take part in Sandia Pueblo's annual feast day on June 13 each year. The Pueblo owns and operates a 107 acre Buffalo Preserve established to promote the resurgence of the American bison; the Sandia Lakes Recreation Area (tel. 505/897-3971) offering fishing and nature trails; the Bien Mur Amerindian Market Center (tel. 800/365-5400; www.bienmur.com), considered one of the highest quality of Amerindian arts and crafts centers; and the Sandia Resort & Casino (tel. 800/526-9366; www.sandiacasino.com), one of the largest gaming facilities in the Southwest. In addition to Bien Mur's huge inventory of arts and crafts they also feature regular artist workshops and demonstrations with silversmiths, potters, weavers and carvers. They have several special events each year, including a large sale during the month of October to coincide with the International Balloon Fiesta.
If you can't make it out to a pueblo, you can still get an introduction to Native American life, both in the past and present, by visiting The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (tel. 866/855-7902; www.indianpueblo.org). It features exhibits of pottery, weaving, jewelry, clothing and photography from each of the 19 area pueblos plus has an extensive gift shop of Amerindian-made products and crafts like jewelry, sculpture, books, pottery, rugs, kachinas, and drums. Every weekend traditional Amerindian dance performances take place in the central plaza at 11am and 2pm and art demonstrations are held from 10am to 3pm. There is also a restaurant, museum and hands-on activities like bread baking. They also arrange day trips out to both the Acoma and Zuni pueblos with their "Into the Sunset Western Pueblo" day tours. Acoma tours are on Tuesdays and Thursdays for $80 for person and $60 for children aged three to five years, and Zuni trips are Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays for $90 and $70 respectively. Prices include transportation, lunch and guided tours.
Native American history is also on show at Petroglyph National Monument (www.nps.gov/petr/index.htmwww.nps.gov/petr/index.htm), a sacred site featuring over 20,000 rock etchings depicting animals, people, and symbols carved into lava rock escarpments. Three easily accessible walking trails wind through the petroglyphs and there is no entry fee. The Coronado State Monument (www.nmmonuments.org/inst.php?inst=4) is home to the ruins of the abandoned Kuaua Pueblo and a restored kiva with murals representing some of the finest examples of Pre-Columbian mural art in the United States. It was named after the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado who is thought to have spent the winter of 1540 here. The site is open 8:30am to 5pm Wednesday through Monday and the admission price is $3 per person. No photography of the kiva is permitted.
You can also experience indigenous culture through the prolific artistic production of the pueblo people. Apart from the mass produced pieces of pottery, dream catchers and Amerindian dolls available at souvenir and trinket stores throughout Albuquerque, there are several galleries and craft stores that specialize in quality, hand made arts and crafts including silver and turquoise jewelry, ceramics, drums, carvings, clothing, and weavings. The Pueblo Loft (tel. 505/268-8764) on Route 66 in Nob Hill offers a small but interesting collection of Amerindian crafts with masks, bowls, woodwork and artifacts. Agape Southwest Pueblo Pottery (tel. 505/243-2366; www.agapesw.com) in Old Town features an extensive collection of fine arts and crafts of 17 of the 19 local pueblo communities plus the ceramic works of a number of Navajo and Apache artists from New Mexico and Arizona. Skip Maisels (tel. 505/242-6526; www.skip-maisels.com) in the downtown area has a huge showroom where you can pick up everything from pottery to animal skin drums, dolls to arrows. It also has the largest selection of Amerindian jewelry in the southwest.
Note: The author traveled to Albuquerque as a guest of the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.itsatrip.org).