A Pandemic, a Pueblo, and a Difficult Choice

For a century, New Mexico’s Taos Pueblo community has grappled with its place in tourism. Then came COVID.

A Pandemic, a Pueblo, and a Difficult Choice

Ancient dwellings in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, built in the late 13th/early 14th century, are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photo by Nick Fox/Shutterstock

“I’ll start from the beginning,” says Ilona Spruce, head of tourism for the Taos Pueblo, one of the country’s oldest continuously inhabited Native communities. Adjacent to the town of Taos in Taos County, New Mexico, the pueblo is a traditional village where beautiful old adobe buildings house about 75 members of the Taos tribe (about 1,500 members live in Taos County). The pueblo, which differs from a reservation because the community is “non-removed,” meaning they live on their original land, was a popular tourist destination for more than a century until it closed to visitors at the beginning of COVID.

In 1906, after the federal government took 80 percent of the Taos people’s land, declaring it a “national park,” the community had to figure out how to survive. “We couldn’t hunt or grow corn the same way we could before,” Spruce says, “so we could no longer depend solely on trade. But artists were moving to [the town of] Taos. So we let them come into the village and we charged modeling fees.”

Like many stories about Indigenous communities, the origin of Taos Pueblo’s reliance on tourism is a tale of exploitation: girls and young women modeling in ceremonial garb for white painters from the Taos art colony in town; later, the Fred Harvey Company, which owned hospitality businesses along the railroad, promoting “Indian Detour” bus trips, suggesting that the lives and ceremonial practices of Native communities were touristy entertainment. “By the ’80s, we had to find overflow parking,” says Cornbringer Michaels, Taos Pueblo artist and business manager for the Millicent Rogers Museum.

In the ’90s, Michaels says, there were rumblings about putting a stop to it all—closing the pueblo to tourists, finding a way to self-sustain. “People don’t understand that when they walk into the village, that’s our home,” Spruce says. “Just because we decided to add a monetary component doesn’t mean we don’t identify with it.”

But without a clear alternative means of income to support not just the pueblo itself but also the artists and shopkeepers who sold their wares to visitors (“We’re remote,” Spruce says. “It’s expensive here. It’s a tourist town”), closing wasn’t an option for the Taos people—until COVID forced their hand. And so, in 2020, the community cut off the majority of its livelihood, closing the pueblo to outsiders and shuttering the casino.

Simultaneously, however, COVID has provided a rare opportunity—not just to the Taos people, but to many pueblos: This has been the first break in over a century from letting tourists into their homes and sacred spaces.

Tourism is one of those ideas that looks good on paper because ideally, it’s a symbiotic relationship: Visitors get the joy of experiencing novel places; locals get to make a living. Unfortunately, too often, that relationship is less symbiotic than parasitic—massive resorts killing natural habitats and depleting resources; tourists rejecting local eateries and street food in favor of familiar chains and imported ingredients; flagrant disrespect of customs and religious sites. Guests of Taos Pueblo have asked Spruce, “Where are the Indians?” Some visitors get drunk, separate from their tours, even lurk around the pueblo after hours.

Last summer, once the majority of Taos Pueblo had been vaccinated, the community found itself split down the middle: About half wanted to discuss reopening to tourism, while the other half wanted to remain closed indefinitely. “We didn’t want to take the risk of letting COVID into the community,” Spruce says. “Worldwide, there are only 2,800 of us, so each death is significant. It’s a piece of who we are.” She mentions the tragedy of the Navajo, who have already lost nearly 1,500 people to COVID. In September, Taos Pueblo’s Tribal Council voted to prolong the closure.

Today, many residents are enjoying the peace and quiet. “Now we have one manned entrance instead of four open ones,” Michaels says. “It’s safe for me to leave my gate open in front of my house. There are no social media alerts about strange vehicles driving around. I wave at everybody now because even if I don’t recognize someone, I can assume it’s a relative. Everyone here is supposed to be here. It is such a relief to have privacy.”

That said, the sudden change has been hard on the community. “My friends are struggling,” says Lyle Wright, a jewelry maker from the tribe who is in the process of opening a gallery and shop three miles from the pueblo in the touristy Taos Plaza. Ultimately, he will use the space to sell his own wares and the work of as many other Taos Pueblo artists as he can, but he’s also paying $1,500 a month in rent. (Artists who sold their works inside the pueblo had no overhead.) “It’s awful,” Wright says, about the plight of his fellow Taos Pueblo artists. “Their kids are coming to me and asking how long until my gallery opens because they’ve never seen their parents this broke.”

“We did a Taos Pueblo show [at the Millicent Rogers Museum] in the fall,” Michaels said. “But many artists had no money to get materials. They’re destitute. It’s heartbreaking. Their art is necessary for our culture. We’ll do a show in March and we’ll try to give them ample time to prepare. We want to encourage them to be creative: Maybe they can’t afford silver, but can they buy wood or shells? Clay beads?”

Though the pueblo will probably open back up to tourism next year, “it’s going to have to be different,” Spruce says. “We’ve already started making changes. We opened a gas station to bring in some money. We’re talking about adding an educational component to tours, so it’s not just ‘come see the Indians.’”

It’s long past time for tourists to make changes, too. As the world gradually opens back up to travel, we, like the Taos Pueblo community, have a chance to do things differently.

“Educate yourselves,” Spruce says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about who Native people are. Educate yourselves on tribal communities that you might come into contact with.” She suggests, for people planning to visit Taos, checking out the websites for the Taos Pueblo and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Tourism offers the potential for cross-cultural communication, education, and connection, so let’s start there: “Visitors love the exchange with the artists,” Michaels says. “They have questions. They want to know what inspired them.”

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