RAICES 2016 Tradiciones â€¢ The Taos News
Miles Ritchie throws dead grass out of the Acequia de Atalaya in Arroyo Hondo duirng an annual ditch cleaning in 2015.
Ramone Garcia dances and plays the mandolin during the Izcalli In Nanantzin’s yearly July celebration held at San Francisco de Asís church in Ranchos de Taos.
HEART AND SOUL
D' eep roots are not reached by the frost'
e all come from somewhere and while the cultures we were raised in may share similarities, no two are identical. But the Raíces (Roots) planted for us by our ancestors, immediate family and the role models who came before us, laid a
foundation — a system of learning and rules of nurturing. From our raíces rise dance, music, art, food, clothing and language. In Northern New Mexico, culture is upfront. Taos’ mixture of roots reside in the hearts and souls of its striking, resourceful people.
This edition of Raíces delves into the sense of belonging to a culture and of understanding roots in a historical way through stories about the lowrider community, the Dawson migration, new findings and revelations about the Pot Creek area, family farming, Native drum groups and local Aztec dancers.
While some communities in other parts of the country seem to be in need of replanting their roots, our Raíces are as strong as ever. As author J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” — Scott Gerdes, special sections editor
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We’re honored to serve this community for 34 years. My team and I look forward to many more with you. Thank you for your continued support and business. Get to a better State®. Get State Farm. CALL ME TODAY. “Eloisa and Saint Theresa,” photograph of Eloisa Montoya (101 years old when picture was taken) of Tecolote, New Mexico, by Bob MacDougall.
CONTENTS 4 NATIVE DRUMS
12 AZTECA DANCERS
6 A WAY OF LIFE
14 DITCH BOSS
8 THE DAWSON BLUES
16 SURVIVING THE CHAOS
By M. Elwell Romancito By Jordan Miera
By Teresa Dovalpage By Andy Dennison
By Cody Hooks
By J.R. Logan
STAFF Robin Martin, owner • Chris Baker, publisher • Damon Scott, editor • Chris Wood,
advertising manager • Scott Gerdes, special sections editor • Michelle M. Gutierrez, lead editorial designer • Jordan Miera, copy editor • Karin Eberhardt, production manager • Katharine Egli, photographer • Staff writers: Cody Hooks, J.R. Logan, Jordan Miera • Contributing writers: Andy Dennison, Teresa Dovalpage, M. Elwell Romancito
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They dance because they hear the music BY M. ELWELL ROMANCITO
hey say sometimes it is quiet enough in Taos at night that, if you listen real hard, you can hear the sound of your own heartbeat. That steady rhythm is the thread that sews us together on the face of the Earth. If there was one sound that traces those threads through time, it would be the steady beat of the heart, the drum, the earth. The annual Taos Pueblo Pow Wow happens in July, but during the year there are many opportunities to attend fundraising powwows and special celebrations where there is singing and drumming and dancing. For many the sound of the drum, the songs and the dance are sacred and part of the Creator’s language. So says Howard Badhand of the drum group Heartbeat. He began singing when he was just a toddler in South Dakota, Oglala Nation. “My first cousins were sons of a very famous family of singers. One time during a powwow they asked us to take a big hand drum — to us, it was a big drum because we were little guys — and go out to the center and sing an honor song for one of the Black Elk family members wounded in World War II.” Badhand said, remembering his first time singing. “We ran through the song four times recounting the exploits of the warrior. Everyone danced around us while we stood in the center. When it was all done people gave us candy, Cokes and things and I thought it was good pay,” he said, chuckling. “At Rosebud [South Dakota], people call us Sioux, but we are Lakota. In my tribe, music is the language of the Creator and it’s how we celebrate. I was born to a family of singers. In my memory, I have always been singing. Growing up, it was always in my life. I grew up listening to my dad and uncles. They were called the Red Leaf Singers. When I turned about 12 or 13 my oldest uncle took us around to all the little celebrations,” he said.
Because his family had access to so many of the social songs and warrior songs, Badhand explained, becoming a singer was second nature. “We started making our own music. We kept singing beside our parents' group as well.” About age 20, Badhand went to Dartmouth, a Massachusetts prep school. During that time, he said he sang, and said he even taught some white kids how to sing. “Mostly so I would keep singing,” he said. So it was about that time Badhand met the man he calls his “singing buddy,” Tom Teegarden. It should be noted that Teegarden was one of the white boys Badhand was talking about. “When Tom asked me if I could teach him how to sing when he first asked I said ‘no’ and closed the door,” Badhand said, laughing as he recalled. “But he was persistent. And eventually, I said ‘OK.’ So after many bottles of beer and wine, and stuff like that, he learned how to sing. And he’s still doing it. So then we revived Red Leaf Takoja when I moved to Denver and we became popular in Indian Country. Then in 1990, Badhand says, he gave the name Red Leaf Takoja back to his family in South Dakota.
Native drum groups are described as creative, cultural and spiritual expressions to strengthen ancestral roots and in reverence to Mother Nature.
“We were at the March powwow, but we were still singing as the grandchildren of the Red Leaf singers, but now the Red Leaf singers were younger than us, so it was time to have a new name.” Their new name became Heartbeat and they have been singing with that name ever since. “Tom and I have been singing together since 1971. We say ‘since the rocks were soft.’” Badhand said. “The music is truly the Creator’s language. So when I sing I am not only expressing the Creator, but I am helping others. Because when I sing, I see people get up and dance, and that makes me feel good. It’s not that I’m making them dance. They dance because they hear the music,” he explained. “To me, I see myself, all bad, with a drumstick in my hand and singing a song as I go. I try to pass that on with the kids to help them learn the music as an expression. To help them reconnect with their reality, release tension and express joy and celebration,” he said.
This universal pulse is at the heart of this music. The drum and the singers’ voices rise up and share songs old and new, traditional and improvised. The art form is a living tradition. Just because it’s a tradition, that doesn’t mean it’s a fixed expression. It is constantly changing and evolving. When asked how it makes him feel to sing a song, he revealed that it is not so much a feeling as giving people a way to get in touch with their joy. “I help people express their joy so they can reconnect with their reality. Basically, I sing so people can dance. Also, I can sing for our people so they can carry on the traditions of the music. I see myself as helping them to do that. As a singer, you are part of creating traditions. These traditions are not laws. They are things that we agree to keep order in our different settings,” he said. Tempo Editor Rick Romancito also contributed to this article.
Taos Pueblo drum group Heart Beat plays during drum roll at last year's powwow.
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Norbert Vigil poses for a portrait with his dogs at his Corazon Ranch in Ranchitos on July 29.
A WAY OF LIFE
Carrying on the family ranch BY JORDAN MIERA
orbert “Norbie” Vigil Jr., 50, and his ancestors have been ranching and farming for a while now.
“My dad had me with him in diapers on the horse,” Vigil said. His ancestors have been ranching in Northern New Mexico since the early 1900s. Vigil owns 18 acres in the Taos area, which he calls “Corazón Ranch” (or “Heart Ranch”). Vigil’s grandfather used the name, and his dad continued using it. Vigil also owns and leases property in Black Lake, which is in the Angel Fire area. He alternates livestock — about 30 head of cattle — between the two areas. He also cuts hay in the areas closer to home in Taos, which he uses to feed the cattle during the winter.
THE WILD WEST
Vigil recounted that his great-grandfather, Rafael L. Vigil, who used to run cattle, lost his
life at the age of 26 in 1914 at the hands of family members in the Black Lake area. The young cattle runner’s nephews ran sheep. Rafael was with his brother when they discovered the nephews’ sheep grazing on the property when they shouldn’t have been, which led to an argument. After leaving, Rafael returned to pick up camp while his brother left with the cattle. When he returned, his nephews killed him. Family members formed a search party after the cattle and their driver returned. They eventually found his body underneath a rotten log. One or more of the nephews confessed years after.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Back in the 1970s, Vigil recalled, he and his family used to drive the cattle to Black Lake without trailers for spring and summer grazing. Many family members participated,
including children. With the exception of flagging vehicles to assure people knew about the cattle on the road, vehicles were not involved in the two-day-long operations. The cattle would also go to Tierra Amarilla, near Chama, sometimes — a five-day trip. Nowadays, trailers and trucks are frequently used tools of the trade, along with balers, swathers, tractors and other things. However, some other tools have helped Vigil carry on his ranch-related duties, especially with hiprelated problems he’s developed. “The whole thing is having the tools to make life easier on you,” Vigil said. Other tools that have helped Vigil include calf cradles, which make it easier to brand calves without having to wrestle them as much. A bale wagon, which picks bales off a field and helps in the stacking process, has also proven to be an invaluable tool for Vigil, which he
says allows him to pick up about 2,000 bales in a day if the equipment runs correctly. “I can do [with a bale wagon] what five guys can do [without one],” Vigil said. One irreplaceable tool of the trade: a person’s mind. “Pay attention to how you do things. If it’s not working the way you’d like, try something else,” he said.
The animals always need to eat, which can be a challenge during the winter. “It gets tough sometimes, especially if you’re by yourself,” Vigil said, noting it was easier when his father, who passed away two years ago, was still alive. However, neighbors and family members still help Vigil out, which lightens his load. Money is a concern for smaller ranch operations, like Vigil’s. “You have to have two jobs if you’re running a ranch,” said Vigil, who also takes on some small projects
RAICES ‘People look at wealth different ways. A lot of people think wealth is money. Quality of life, the way you live I think is where the wealth is.’ —Norbert Vigil as a contractor, which helps support the ranch. “I have to have that to be able to get ahead. Ranching — yeah, you could live off of it, but you don’t have that room to build yourself up. If you need to replace a tractor, a farm implement, ranching ain’t gonna do it.” Budgeting and prioritizing are also important aspects of maintaining a ranch budget. Vigil also views the cost of beef as a concern. “[I] sold 20 calves, and it turned out to be a big profit loss. … The middleman [beef buyers for large organizations, for example] is the one that makes the most money out of the whole thing. … But that’s corporate America.” Recently, Vigil has faced a legal situation in Angel Fire involving trespassing cattle. He said four years ago, many elk went through fences. People would go near the elk with their dogs, and the dogs began chasing the elk. Long story short, Vigil’s cattle ended up in people’s yards after the elk tore the fences up. “We’re a fence-out state [meaning it is not the legal duty of a livestock owner to prevent animals from getting onto roadways and private properties], and I went to court believing that that was true. I found out that we’re a fence-out state, but corporations and municipalities are exempt from that, and Angel Fire is a municipality. “ … They have a law on the municipality side that any cattle that are on municipalities are automatically — the owners [of the cattle] are automatically found guilty for trespassing cattle. And that’s the way the law’s already set.” Vigil believes the law’s set up that way
Following in his ancestor’s footsteps, Taos rancher Norbert Vigil surveys his ranch in Ranchitos.
because of the influence and lobbyists of large corporations. Vigil said he’s working with the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association to amend laws so municipalities or corporations would have to prove there was intent to keep cattle on their land.
“[Ranching is] a way of life,” Vigil said. “It gets in your blood, and it’s actually rewarding. At the end of the day, you can see what you’ve done. … There is more than money that rewards you in ranching.” For instance, Vigil pointed out: “Having a
“A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic legacies - all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.” – S. Berry
Questa Mine thanks the generations of families in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado who have been a part of the mining heritage for nearly a century.
relationship between you and your animals — they know who you are. You’re the one who feeds them, and they understand that.” Vigil sees the connection he’s developed with nature over the course of his work as a great reward. Vigil also sees the ranching community as a big plus. “That’s the way it is: Your family members, your neighbors — they help out each other, and they still do. That’s the good part about the ranching community. You still have that neighborly help, get along with your neighbors.” He later said, “People look at wealth different ways. A lot of people think wealth is money. Quality of life, the way you live I think is
where the wealth is.”
“Younger kids aren’t getting into [ranching] — very few,” Vigil said. “I can’t blame them — go get a college degree and work half as much and make three times as much. … I hope the younger generation will get into ranching. There is a reward in it.” As for the future of Corazón Ranch, Vigil hopes to see his son, who currently studies exercise science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, come back to Taos and help with the ranch at least on a part-time basis after graduating next year.
THE DAWSON BLUES
A mine closed and families scattered, but they keep coming back BY CODY HOOKS
he basketball team from Dawson, the coal mining town about 20 miles down the road from Cimmarón, was in the heat of an away game in Ratón. Players were still passing the ball back and fourth across the court when the whispers grew to murmurs that were audible over the hubbub of the game. It was 1950, what turned out to be the last year for the team. And the school. And the town. Dawson was a rarity in Northern New Mexico — a coal mining town with jobs to be had. Founded in the very early 20th century, Dawson was one of nine mining towns in that stretch of land where the Plains meet the Rockies. Nearly 10,000 people called the company town home at its height. But changes were afoot and the whole area began to suffer the exaggerated consequences of
international affairs. Men were called off to fight in World War II, leaving mines empty and primed to shutter. York Canyon, Brilliant, Yankee, Koehler, Sugarite and Swastika didn’t hang on as long as Dawson.
Everything in Dawson was owned by the corporation. Even the houses. In fact, the corporation built all of the town’s houses to attract workers to the cramped shafts of Dawson’s 10 mines.
many mountain villages of Northern New Mexico, too. A sheep herder from Mora and farmers from this side of the Sangres joined the men from Italy, Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico and many other countries.
Dawson wasn’t a parade of money or urbanity, but still had a line of “great big beautiful buildings,” said Roger Sanchez, curator at the Ratón Museum. The basketball team played in a gorgeous brick high school. The town had a swimming pool and gymnasium. The main store was cavernous at three stories tall. It even had an elevator, which used gravity from a water tank on the roof to drive its hydraulics.
The plan must of succeeded, because people came from all over the world to work in the mines. The company sent a recruiter to rustle up could-be miners from the small Italian town of Agnone, the oldest community of bell makers in Italy. The village is home to the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, which for nearly 1,000 years cast bells for church towers throughout Europe and the world. And it was home to about 80 miners that took off after Phelps Dodge sponsored their travel to America with the promise of good money.
They came for the money, but not everyone got it. Two mining disasters befell Dawson in only a decade. The first, in 1913, killed 263 people in the mining shafts 2 miles outside the town. The second came in 1923, when a rail car jumped its tracks and ignited coal dust within the mine, killing 123.
The store is a good allegory for the town itself, mostly because it was owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation.
But people also came to Dawson from the
Dawson’s other tragedy was economic and shared with most other coal mining communities — it was a company town. The corporation doled out script and garnished wages for rent and food and the other basics. No miner got rich.
Palace of the Governors Archives
View from Reservoir Hill in Dawson, New Mexico, ca. 1920s.
Still, Dawson is most often remembered fondly as a not-so-small small town. There was a chapter of the Boy Scouts of America who met just as regularly as the congregation in the Catholic church, where an organ brought an added sense of majesty to the town and its music. A slew of reasons meant the downfall of Dawson and the other mining towns. Beyond the war effort syphoning off young men who didn’t return, technology was quickly making coal obsolete. More and more, trains were powered by diesel instead of coal. So the contracts started to dwindle. And workers — who had every right to be worried about working conditions, especially in Dawson — started to demand more from Phelps Dodge. “The coal miners went on strike for better wages and better benefits,” said Sanchez. “The company flat out told them they could not afford to pay higher wages and if they continued with the strike they’d shut the mine down. The miners didn’t believe it and they went on with their strike for about four months.” That’s when they heard. Dawson’s done. Closing down. The people of Dawson were given only a month to vacate. What followed wasn’t easy. Sanchez heard from one of the old timers from Dawson that he was one of seven kids in his family. Their dad, like the rest of the
...people also came to Dawson from the many mountain villages of Northern New Mexico, too. A sheep herder from Mora and farmers from this side of the Sangres joined the men from Italy, Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico and many other countries. miners, didn’t have money, especially after months of a strike. They didn’t own a car, either, so his dad had to sell all the furniture and everything in the house to buy enough bus tickets for the family. When Phelps Dodge decided to leave town,
Palace of the Governors Archives
View of J.B. Dawson Ranch with people walking along a dry river bed, ca. 1910-1920s.
they took the town with them. What homes could be moved were moved to mines in other states. Six months after telling miners to get out, the corporation sold the whole town to a
salvage company. Power was cut. And the rest of Dawson was leveled. DAWSON continues on page 10
DAWSON continues from page 9
When the mine closed, residents of Dawson had no option but to migrate. The older miners stuck with the trade and searched out employment in mines elsewhere. But the younger generation was more likely to take a bigger variety of jobs across the state and region. More than half of the Dawson workforce relocated to California — where plane manufactures were ramping up domestic production following the end of the war, said Sanchez. “They’re scattered all over,” he said. Other miners moved themselves and their families to new digs or the family’s land throughout New Mexico. Many went to Santa Fe and Albuquerque — like Pat Reza’s family. Reza was born just two years before the mine shuttered. Surely, he thinks, one of the last few babies to be born in the town. His dad moved the family to Albuquerque when the mine closed. Reza was so young that he doesn’t remember much of the move, only the strangeness of it, he said. Though Reza was born in Dawson, family ties eventually brought him home to Taos. His grandparents — including the renowned wood carver Jose Marcos Garcia — also lived and worked in Dawson. They came back to the family land in Valdez when the time came. Reza’s story rings familiar even now. He’d come to spend summers with his grandparents. He’d fish, help fix up the house and lend a hand in his granddad’s orchard of 90 perfectly planted fruit trees. After a career in the Navy and some other work in Albuquerque, Reza came back, too. Reza, who owns Santos y Mas in Arroyo Seco, now lives and works in the home not of his birth, but of his roots.
Reza and his folks, like so many others, make the journey across the mountains for reunions of the old community at the place where the town once stood. It’s a chance to see relatives who went far and wide, to walk the mountains and visit the cemetery, to recall each other’s houses and the roads and memories
Palace of the Governors Archives
Conveyors at Dawson Mine, New Mexico, ca. 1900.
between them. The main event is a picnic every other year on Labor Day. People park in a big circle for a picnic at Dawson, now just a cemetery and fields with a few bricks and crumbling foundations. Some bring home-made goods and wares or copies of old photographs to sell. There’s a raffle. One could rightly call it a homecoming.
Sanchez curates dozens of old photographs for an exhibit at the Raton Museum. He reckons about 700 to 800 people will show up this year. The community of Dawson outlived its town. There’s those like Reza — just babies in the mining town, but now getting older themselves — who don’t remember too much first-hand. Then there’s those who are even
younger and know Dawson only from stories. Slowly but surely, the older generation has ridden on, as Reza says. “It’s bittersweet, those reunions.” Stories might change a little over time, but they won’t die. And the folks of Dawson keep coming back.
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Young girl Adrina Ransome, to her left Toplitzin Garcia and on the right, Jacob Dimas perform in the yearly Izcalli In Nanantzin July celebration held at San Francisco de AsĂs church in Ranchos de Taos.
Izcalli In Nanantzin dancer Gabriel Gomez partcipates in the yearly July celebration held at San Francisco de AsĂs church in Ranchos de Taos.
Centuries-old tradition alive in Taos BY TERESA DOVALPAGE
very July, right at the start of the Fiestas, a group of Aztec dancers perform in front of the St. Francis de Assisi Church in Ranchos de Taos. A symphony of color, music and movement, la danza is a memorable event. In preparation for it, dancers and other members of the community take part in a vigil the night before, when they spend hours singing hymns (alabanzas), praying and spiritual cleansing (limpias) around an altar that has been covered in flowers, candles and mementos for the occasion. “During the vigil, we offer prayers and blessings not only for our friends and relatives, but also on a global level,” said Aztec dancer Deborah Gonzalez-Anglada. The next morning, after participating in Mass and receiving the priest’s blessing, the dancers go outside the church and begin a ceremony that is as much performance as it is prayer. “The Aztec dance is a prayer in action,” explains Tanya Vigil, the capitana or leader of the group. “It integrates the elements of cuicatl and xochitl (song and flower in Nahuatl). These two elements represent the connection that the Aztecs had with nature and the importance of music and rhythm in their culture.” The dance is quite elaborate and each movement has a particular meaning. “When the dancer imitates a serpent, that’s a reference to fertility as well as Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent worshipped by the Aztecs,” Vigil said. “The zigzag steps are reminiscent of water. Everything is highly symbolic.” The group, called Izcalli In Nanantzin, also
dances in other public and private events throughout the year.
IN FULL REGALIA
When they perform, the dancers wear elaborate outfits made of colorful cloth or, in some cases, animal skins. The women’s tunics are embroidered and ornamented with shells, seeds and sequins. Some dresses also have small, delicately crafted pieces of mirrors sewn into the fabric. They represent the life force of the sun. “As it happens with the dance movements, many of the ornaments have a particular meaning,” Vigil said. “The outfits are not costumes like those that people wear in Halloween, but ceremonial clothing. They can be expensive and dancers often make sacrifices to get the best attire they can afford.” The headdresses are made from the feathers of peacocks, pheasants, macaws and other birds. They move in time to beating drums and create a hypnotic effect on dancers and spectators. “The ankle rattles are also very important,” said Vigil. “They are covered with seeds and their cloc-cloc sound helps us keep the rhythm.”
The first group of Aztec dancers in the state of New Mexico was formed in Taos in 1981. Vigil was one of its founders and she called it “Grupo Taoseño.” “At that time, I really didn’t know much about Aztec traditions,” she admits. “The idea of the group came to me like an inspiration, a sincere desire that I, and other dancers, had to practice these rituals that are part of our heritage. But we lacked real knowledge of the
ceremonies and their meaning.”
symbol of their links to the Mexican culture.
That changed in 1986, when the group attended a traditional dance event at the Pima reservation in Phoenix, Arizona. It was there where Vigil met Capitan Moises Gonzalez Barrios, who became the group’s teacher and spiritual guide.
The banner depicts Señor Santiago de los Cuatro Vientos, the Spanish equivalent of St. James. (Interestingly enough, Santiago is also the patron saint of Taos.) Next to him are portrayed “the four winds.” They correspond to the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Señor de Chalma, the Virgin of Remedies and the Christ of Sacromonte.
Gonzalez Barrios was from Mexico City. His family had practiced Aztec ceremonies for generations and he was well versed in them. For that reason, he was often invited to teach and dance in the United States. Yet he felt “very disappointed” by the fact that many dance groups here didn’t follow the correct protocol for ceremonies. “I explained to him that we did the best we could,” Vigil said. “We weren’t fakes, but we needed schooling. He was very understanding and took Grupo Taoseño under his wing. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.” A few months later, he invited the Taos dancers to the city of Queretaro, so they could learn the dances and traditions in a place where they had been preserved for hundreds of years. “With that trip, we began a journey of faith that continues today,” Vigil said. The association of the group with the Mesa Central de Queretaro (the local headquarters of the Aztec dancers in that region) was a crucial step for the further development of the Taoseño dancers. Upon receiving instruction from the Mesa Central de Queretaro, which included many of the songs and steps they use today, their leaders gave “Grupo Taoseño” an estandarte, a banner that they have kept all these years as a
“Our group was the first one, of all the American Aztec dancers, to receive an estandarte from a Mexican mesa,” Vigil said. But that was only the beginning. Gonzalez Barrios also the changed their name from “Grupo Taoseño” to “Izcalli In Nanantzin,” which means “Resurgence of Our Mother Earth.” He made Vigil a capitana, the official leader of the group. “The traditional Aztec dance groups function like military units,” she said. “We are considered spiritual warriors. Hierarchy is respected and discipline is also very important, from the rehearsals to the actual moment of the dance.” Two years later, she invited Gonzalez to visit the group in Taos. His arrival in New Mexico marked the beginning of a new stage for “Izcalli In Nanantzin,” which continued growing and attracting new members every year. “In the end, the dance as a spiritual performance is all about honoring our roots and ancestors,” Vigil said. “By sharing these traditions, we make sure they are passed along to our children and continue to be a part of our collective heritage and faith.”
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ain of Youth
Tree of Life image courtesy of Nina Anthony
Top: Mike Musialowski and Ronny Mondragon talk before moving from one segment of the Francisco Martinez acequia to another last April. Left from top: Miles Ritchie throws dead grass out of the Acequia de Atalaya in Arroyo Hondo duirng an annual ditch cleaning in 2015; Jose Deluvino Casias Jr. decides where he will dig next in a thicket of willow on the Acequia de Atalaya in Arroyo Hondo; Nick Morgas uses an adze to pull organic material out of the Acequia de Atalaya in Arroyo Hondo in 2015.
mayordomo may • or • do • mo noun
an overseer of an irrigation system
Courtesy Taos Valley Acequia Association
A map of the acequia system around Taos.
The Law of Thirst, cultural change and the mayordomo BY ANDY DENNISON
rom Arroyo Hondo to Llano Quemado, snowmelt flows out of the Sangre de Cristo mountains onto the valley floor. Some of that runoff is diverted into systems of ditches, called acequias, that further reroute the water into pastures, fields, orchards, gardens and lawns. There are 55 acequias in the Taos Valley. And each one has a mayordomo at the helm. Hand in hand, the concepts of the acequia and the mayordomo are as old as human settlement in dry climates worldwide. As far back as 12,000 years, archeologists have found evidence of irrigation ditch systems in the hot-and-dry settlements of North Africa, the Middle East and the highlands of Asia. The inhabitants of pueblos along the Río Grande in New Mexico developed their own ditch systems centuries ago. In the late 16th century, the King of Spain established a dozen Spanish land grants in the Taos valley — and ordered them settled. One of the first tasks for the newcomers was to construct systems of ditches to deliver water out of the mountain-fed streams to feeds their fields in the valley. (The other essential tasks of settlement were defining a plaza and building a church.) The apportionment of water, or repartimiento de agua, on an equitable basis derives from the Moorish tradition in Spain called equidad. As was the case then, today’s Taoseños on a ditch are allotted water according to the size of their irrigated lands and the amount of water available in the stream. According to this tradition — called the Law of Thirst — everyone has a right to some water, even in the driest of years. Making that happen relies heavily upon the talents, knowledge and integrity of the mayordomo
‘The mayordomos were called los hombres buenos in Spain,’ says Santistevan. ‘They were real upstanding, honest people who were respected by all and connected with the community.’ — and the continued cooperation of all the parcientes who irrigate according to the decisions of the mayordomo. “Right from the start, there had to be a someone who was the go-to person for the water,” says acequia scholar Miguel Santistevan, who lives in Cañon. “He had to be the person who knew what each parciente is growing, who understood their personalities and could organize people to maintain the ditch.” As the “ditch boss” of an acequia, he or she works for a three-person acequia comisión as the day-to-day watchdog of the structure and efficiency of an irrigation system. That starts at the presa diversion at the top of the system and ends with the desagüe return flow at the bottom — and all the elements in between. Each mayordomo has his or her own way of doing things, but they each refer back to the idea that water is to be shared by all — no matter how much there is in the stream. “The mayordomos were called los hombres buenos in Spain,” says Santistevan. “They
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were real upstanding, honest people who were respected by all and connected with the community.” Many things complicate the job. Beaver dams alter flow in the stream or, sometimes, in the ditch itself. Weeds drop seeds into the stream, and then deposits them downstream where they can take over whole pastures. A high-flow year can mean too much “head,” or pressure, in the ditch that can cause overflowing or flooding. A low-flow season sometimes means water won’t make it all the way across a pasture. The mayordomo has to be soothsayer, as well. As the growing season approaches, he or she must make an educated guess as to the depth of the snowpack in the mountains and how quickly it will flow in the streams. Santistevan notes that the Picuris Pueblo waits for a rock outcropping on the shoulder of Jicarita Peak to expose itself, thus signaling the beginning of the spring runoff. Other mayordomos regularly walk the watershed to get a hint what’s to come. In plentiful water years, all parcientes get what they need — sometimes as many as four, even five irrigations in a season — and their fields, orchards and gardens can yield bountifully. But, in the arid West, drought always looms, complicating matters for the acequia and the man in charge. “When I was growing up in San Cristóbal, the fields were full of grain, corn and beans,” says Fabi Romero, the mayordomo on the San Cristóbal acequia. “Apportionment was highly structured. The mayordomo patrolled every day, he ‘stayed with the water.’ There were more conflicts then over the length of time for irrigating, but no one contradicted his decisions and the rules of the acequia were followed religiously.”
That world has changed. Few food crops are grown in pastures, replaced by hay and alfalfa for livestock feed. Family-owned fields have been divided up either for homes for family members or newcomers to Taos, meaning agricultural acreage continues to decline in the county. These days, what acequias feed mostly are small orchards and gardens. Many acequias have instituted a dedicated day of the week for irrigating these areas. “The Taos acequia culture changed when the locals became aware of the rest of the world, and they felt poor in comparison,” say Santistevan. “So the young kids were encouraged to leave Taos and get an education. Don’t work the land, they were told. There’s a shortage now, that’s for sure.” But, despite changing demographics and declining ag land, the traditions of the mayordomo continue strongly on today in Taos. In Ranchos de Taos, paricientes meet the mayordomo at the Talpa Community Center every Sunday and Wednesday. There, they make requests for water in the coming week. In the next watershed, the mayordomo of the Río Chiquito meets at the acequia’s reservoir on Maestas Road. Seeing how much water in the reservoir serves to illustrate how the water season is going. As part of the tradition, there certainly are still disagreements, disputes and arguments in most acequias. Ultimately, neighbors bring their case to the mayordomo, who decides what’s best for all — as it should be. “In the end,” says Gael Minton, a former board member of the Taos Valley Acequia Association and Río Chiquito parciente, “the parcientes have to be ready to take the water when the mayordomo gives it to them. “It’s the mayordomo’s decision and we all have to respect it,” she says.
AQuÍ En TAos It’s not just a slogan. It’s a way of life.
Since 1908, our family has kept New Mexicans on the road. You could say our roots run deep around here.
Pot Creek Pueblo site map
SURVIVING THE CHAOS
Pot Creek Pueblo and life on the Taos frontier circa 1250 BY J.R. LOGAN
efore the hippies, the stranded artists, the fur trappers, the bootleggers, and even before the arrival of the first Hispano settlers, Taos had already been a frontier for centuries.
By the late 1200s, archaeologists believe pueblo villages at Taos, Picuris and Pot Creek were something of a melting pot, where people with different worldviews and customers coalesced during an especially bloody period in the Southwest. Nearly a millennium later, the link between current pueblo peoples and their pioneering ancestors remains a part of everyday life. Archeologists believe the first people to establish permanent settlements in the Taos Valley popped up between 950 and 1150 AD — a
period known as the Valdez Phase. Severin Fowles, an archaeologist who’s done extensive research and field work in the Taos area, has written that these settlers likely came from the Chimney Rock area of Colorado, between present day Durango and Pagosa Springs. According to Fowles, Tiwa (the cultural of modern day Taos and Picuris pueblo) oral traditions recognize these ancestors as the Winter People. The settlement patterns across the Taos Valley at that time suggest small family groups were living in little ranchitos spread out in the valleys and rims. The green valleys offered water and good land for crops. The bounty of animals and wild plants meant the earliest farmers still probably spent a fair amount of time hunting
and gathering to get by. It was a simple life compared to the empire building that was happening 140 miles to the west. At Chaco Canyon, hundreds of people were building massive structures — Great Houses and ceremonial kivas that showed a sophisticated understanding of celestial patterns. At the height of the Chacoan empire, residents of the Taos area were still living in pit houses — homes dug part way into the ground that predated the iconic pueblo-style villages. Like today, Taos was way off in the boondocks. Early 20th century archaeologists interpreted this rustic lifestyle to mean the first settlers at Taos were culturally backward
or unsophisticated. But Mike Adler, an archaeologist with Southern Methodist University in Taos, wonders if folks on the fringe of the pueblo world preferred the simple country life to the bustle of city life. What may have been a relatively peaceful lifestyle during the Valdez phase was shook by the collapse of the Chacoan Empire around 1125. Whatever caused the great Chaco complex to crumble, a diaspora of refugees fled north and south. In turn, communities at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado saw a huge spike in population, which was hard to sustain in the midst of a brutal, 50-year drought. By the mid-1200s, most people at Mesa Verde split for greener pastures as well. POT CREEK continues on page 18
Professor Mike Adler leads students through the Pot Creek historic site on July 19.
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Professor Mike Adler shows students the Pot Room at SMU-in-Taos on July 19.
POT CREEK continues from page 16 drought. By the mid-1200s, most people at Mesa Verde split for greener pastures as well. The Pueblo region at the time was a very violent and very uncertain place. Adler calls the century the “terrible 1200s.” Imagine hundreds of people leaving their homes after decades of drought, desperate to find a place to start again. No doubt, they probably showed up in small communities that were struggling themselves, and probably not eager to share what little resources they had. The circumstances were ripe for trouble. In the Taos Valley, there is evidence that immigrants were coming in droves. Populations appear to have grown much faster than residents could have possibly procreated. Fowles writes that the pottery and architecture from the late 1100s suggest that many new arrivals came from the Santa Fe/Española area. Studies suggest the meetings weren’t exactly cordial. Oral histories cited by Fowles describe these southerns as the Summer People, who essentially conquered the Winter people. Evidence of violent encounters between the locals and the newcomers is widespread.
Fowles points out that there is a notable rise in “traumatic deaths” discovered at Valdez Phase sites. But it didn’t end there. Oral histories describe more waves of immigrants who found their way up the Río Grande to the high mesa and Taos Valley. Cue Taos, Picuris and Pot Creek pueblos. Around the mid-1200s, all three pueblo villages were founded. Adler says it was clearly a defensive response to survive the chaos. People abandoned their little farmsteads and agreed to live close together and in greater numbers. Adler points to the sites and designs: All three pueblos are backed up against the mountains. All three have easy access to water. And all three were built as pseudo fortresses. But the people living at the three villages were hardly homogenous, Adler says. Immigrants and conquerors were living in the same condo complex as conquered locals. Those divisions are still evident in the artifacts found on one side of the ruins compared to the other. While Picuris Pueblo and Taos Pueblo survived to the modern era, Pot Creek Pueblo was deserted almost as quickly as it went up.
After 6 generations in Taos, you could say our roots run deep.
Archaeologists believe construction at Pot Creek began in 1260. The location sits on a rise just above the banks of tiny Pot Creek and a stone’s throw from the Río Grande del Rancho. Pit houses from an early era dot the landscape from the village site down to modern-day Talpa and Llano Quemado. At its full build out, Adler says about 500 people probably lived at Pot Creek. But by 1320, things clearly weren’t working out. Scientists have been excavating at Pot Creek since the ‘50s. Because the pueblo is made of mud, archaeologists dig the ruins out from under mounds of dirt, do their work, then rebury the building to protect it from the elements. If you tour the site today, it doesn’t look like much more than a few dirt piles. But beneath the soil is evidence of friction. In fact, most rooms on the south side of the village appear to have been intentionally burned. But there’s no evidence of an all out war. Adler thinks it’s more likely that one group may have been forced out, and those who stayed felt strongly that they needed to leave. “Something was going on here that was so difficult, and so egregious in terms of social
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Buy why? Theories abound. Adler wonders if hardships — things like a poor harvest and disease — could have been blamed on witchcraft. With so many people from so many backgrounds forced into a small space, he doesn’t think it’s far fetched that you might blame some trouble on someone else’s odd appearance or behavior. One theory Adler has been investigating has to do with a fatal toxin that could have made its way into the corn stores, tainting the food supply. Whatever the reason, Pot Creek’s run as a vibrant village ended. Most likely, its residents divided and went south to Picuris or north to Taos. But that doesn’t mean Pot Creek was abandoned. Adler says modern day pueblo people regularly visit the site and leave offerings. In his writing, Fowles draws connections between the various groups that merged 900 years ago, and the modern day clans and kiva groups at Taos Pueblo. The multi-ethnic history of Pot Creek isn’t that of a distant people. It’s of a people still living in the valley today.
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mores, and so unmanageable, that some part of this village was told or told themselves they had to leave,” Adler says.
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Taos Pueblo War Chief, Richard Archuleta