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Religion has always been a central, defining element in the life of the Pueblo people. Within the cosmos, which they view as a single whole, all living creatures are mutually dependent. Thus, every relationship a human being may have, whether with a person, animal, or even plant, has spiritual significance. A hunter prays before killing a deer, asking the creature to sacrifice itself to the tribe. A slain deer is treated as a guest of honor, and the hunter performs a ritual in which he sends the animal's soul back to its community, so that it may be reborn. Even the harvesting of plants requires prayer, thanks, and ritual.

The Pueblo people believe that their ancestors originally lived under the ground, which, as the place from which plants spring, is the source of all life. According to their beliefs, the original Pueblos, encouraged by burrowing animals, entered the world of humans--the so-called "fourth" world--through a hole, a sipapu. The ways in which this came about and the deities that the Pueblo people revere vary from tribe to tribe. Most, however, believe this world is enclosed by four sacred mountains, where four sacred colors--coral, black, turquoise, and yellow or white--predominate.

No single great spirit rules over this world; instead, it is watched over by a number of spiritual elements. Most common are Mother Earth and Father Sun. In this desert land, the sun is an element of both life and death. The tribes watch the skies closely, tracking solstices and planetary movements, to determine the optimal time for crop planting.

Ritualistic dances are occasions of great symbolic importance. Usually held in conjunction with the feast days of Catholic saints (including Christmas Eve), Pueblo ceremonies demonstrate the parallel absorption of Christian elements without the surrendering of traditional beliefs. To this day, communities enact medicine dances, fertility rites, and prayers for rain and for good harvests. The spring and summer corn, or tablita, dances are among the most impressive. Ceremonies begin with an early-morning mass and procession to the Plaza; the image of the saint is honored at the forefront. The rest of the day is devoted to song, dance, and feasting, with performers masked and clad as deer, buffalo, eagles, or other creatures.

Visitors are usually welcome to attend Pueblo dances, but they should respect the tribe's requests not to be photographed or recorded. It was exactly this lack of respect that led the Zunis to ban outsiders from attending many of their famous Shalako ceremonies.

Navajos believe in a hierarchy of supernatural beings, the Holy Ones, who can travel on a sunbeam, a thunderbolt, or the wind. At their head is Changing Woman, the earth mother, who vigilantly assures humans' well-being by teaching them to live in harmony with nature. Her children, the Hero Twins, ward off our enemies--all but Old Age and Death. Religious symbolism, which pervades art and music, underscores the Navajo belief that their homeland was created by the Holy Ones for them to live in. Typical of Navajo dancing are the yeibichai rituals, curative ceremonies marked by circular social dances with long song cycles.

The Apaches have a similar creation belief. They were created by Father Sun and Mother Earth ("the White Painted Lady") to live in the Southwest region, and the Holy Ones' twin sons helped them ward off wicked creatures by teaching them how to ride horses and use a bow and arrow. The most important ceremony among the Apaches today, including the Mescaleros, is the 4-day puberty ritual for young girls. The colorful masked gahans, or mountain spirits, perform to celebrate the subject's womanhood, when the White Painted Lady resides within her body.

Catholicism, imposed by the Spaniards, has infused New Mexico with an elaborate set of beliefs. This is a Catholicism heavy with iconography, expressed in carved santos (statues) and beautiful retablos (paintings) that adorn the altars of many cathedrals. Catholic churches are the focal point of most New Mexico villages. When you take the high road to Taos, be sure to note the church in Las Trampas as well as the one in Ranchos de Taos; both have 3- to 4-foot-thick walls sculpted from adobe and inside have an old-world charm, with beautiful retablos decorating the walls and vigas (roof beams) supporting the ceiling.

Hispanics in New Mexico maintain strong family and Catholic ties, and they continue to honor traditions associated with both. Communities plan elaborate celebrations such as the quinciniera for young girls reaching womanhood, and weddings with big feasts and dances in which well-wishers pin money to the bride's elaborately laced gown.

If you happen to be in the area during a holiday, you may even get to see a religious procession or pilgrimage. Most notable is the pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo, an hour's drive north of the state capital. Constructed in 1816, the sanctuary has long been a pilgrimage site for Catholics who attribute miraculous healing powers to the earth found in the chapel's anteroom. Several days before Easter, fervent believers begin walking the highway headed north or south to Chimayo, some carrying large crosses, others carrying nothing but a small bottle of water, most praying for a miracle.

In recent years, New Mexico has become known (and in some circles, ridiculed) for New Age pilgrims and celebrations. The roots of the local movement are hard to trace. It may have something to do with New Mexico's centuries-old reputation as a place where rebel thinkers come to enjoy the freedom to believe what they want. Pueblo spirituality and deeply felt connection to the land are also factors that have drawn New Agers. At any rate, the liberated atmosphere here has given rise to a thriving New Age network, one that now includes alternative churches, healing centers, and healing schools. You'll find all sorts of alternative medicine and fringe practices here, from aromatherapy to rolfing--a form of massage that realigns the muscles and bones in the body--and chelation therapy, in which an IV drips ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid into your blood to remove heavy metals. If those sound too invasive, you can always try psychic surgery.

New Age practices and beliefs have given rise to a great deal of local humor targeting their supposed pyschobabble. One pointed joke asks: "How many New Agers does it take to change a lightbulb?" Answer: "None. They just form a support group and learn to live in the dark." For many, however, there's much good to be found in the movement. The Dalai Lama visited Santa Fe because the city is seen as a healing center and has become a refuge for Tibetans. Notable speakers such as Ram Dass and Thomas Moore have also come to the area. Many practitioners find the alternatives--healing resources and spiritual paths--they are looking for in the receptive New Mexico desert and mountains.

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