Taos Pueblo Corn Dance, New Mexico Ablaze, and an Oral History from the Manhattan Project

Deep voices wove and echoed rhythmically through the sun-baked pueblo and as I walked closer into the main plaza the source of these foreign chants were finally revealed. On the North and South sides of the pueblo, Taos Pueblo men stood on adobe rooftops in ceremonial dress, calling out in their native Tiwa language. Thick, colorful blankets lay draped over each man’s shoulder, and there they stood, waiting for a sign. Today was a sacred day, a day to honor Corn Mothers.

I sat on a log amidst the blowing dust, and below a structure erected in the center of the pueblo from which meats and foodstuffs were dried: this was the only shelter from the sun’s blistering rays. The Taos pueblo dancers and musicians were out of sight, clustered deep underground in a ceremonial kiva from which a tall, pointed wooden ladder protruded into the blue sky. As these ceremonial calls continued, Stacey indulged me on the culture and history of the Taos Indians. In the eighties, Stacey spent several years living with the Taos Indians, participating in day to day life and also the few ritual ceremonies in which he was permitted. He forged meaningful relationships with some of the elders and his Taos pueblo family, the majority of whom have since passed away.


                          Taos Pueblo

Sacred Taos Mountain looms above the piled adobe structures that compose Taos Pueblo, the oldest continually inhabited Puebloan village, a vibrant community for over one thousand years. Still today there is no running water, no electricity, no internet, one of the reasons for which is their commitment to preserving their native culture. Stories and traditions are passed through generations orally, often by elders. According to Stacey, when a boy from a certain clan is ready to learn the ways and traditions of his people, he must live in a kiva for a full year. He is visited by elders in the kiva where he receives their wisdom, and only leaves for certain purposes. Taos pueblo girls participate in a similar rite, although they spend only several months in the kiva.

Glinting green in the sun like raven feathers, his long black hair bounced with every step. An eagle feather tied to the top of his head, and the pelt of a fox hanging off his waist this dancer sported a look of concentration in its purest form. His chest was painted white with clay, and colorful yellow and blue ribbons writhed from the nape of his neck with every rhythmic step he took. Each of the other male dancers were dressed in a similar fashion, mimicking each other’s movements and disturbing the high desert dust with their fur-lined moccasins. The women wore white leather boots folded in three places, and long colorful dresses hung off only one of their shoulders, synched at the waist by vivid multicolor belts. Hair partially pulled back, each woman wore eloquent stone and shell jewelry. Men and women alike clutched handfuls of Indian Paintbrushes in bloom, a flower which I’ve spotted in even the driest places on the mesa. The men also held white gourds filled with tiny stones, which they shook intermittently in response to the music.

A handful of elders sat on tiny stools, beating on the drum and emitting low-frequency chants. Their hair was pulled back in a bun and blankets draped over their shoulders despite the blistering heat. With each stroke of the drum the dancers snaked past each other, entranced and immune to the beating sun. As beads of sweat rolled from their hairlines and the dust blew into their eyes, they continued, un-phased. At the end of each dance, an elder would pray in Tiwa, before the ensemble moved to another house in the pueblo. The Dancers visited different homes recognizing the birthdays in their communities. Past ancient ash piles and struggling adobe houses we followed the dancers. This was rare, as visitors are strictly forbidden from accessing many parts of the pueblo, unless a ceremony offers the privilege.

Santuario de Taos Pueblo

Deeper into the pueblo we went, following the dancers. For two hours we did so, mesmerized by the movements and concentration of the ceremonial dancers, who, at this point were in a trance like state. A certain stillness in time settled over the pueblo. Here we were, off the grid, without cameras, or phones, or watches, partaking in a ceremony that has lived on for centuries and dozens of generations. I wished in my mind for this moment of raw expression to last forever, and as I stood watching the last of the dances in front of the church I painted this scene in my memory as best I could, knowing this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  .


Photo of the Taos Fire from my house

Like the strike of a match I watched the Sangre de Cristo Mountains burst into flame. A thick and threatening plume of smoke rose out of the mountains behind Taos. With a glance through my rear-view mirror, this grisly scene almost caused me to swerve off the road. Only hours beforehand I had been hiking in those very mountains, admiring slivers of light dancing on dirt trails through the pine. This is the third fire we’ve had within the last three weeks in the area, and in the last twenty-four hours it has grown from 75 to 800 acres, then nearly 2,000 acres. A little unnerved by this quasi-apocalyptic scene, I make my way North to Colorado for the night. By some slightly twisted act of nature, about an hour into my drive I am confronted by two large, writhing plumes of dark clouds. Is this for real? By the time I arrive at the state border these plumes all but consume the horizon. I run into a gas station to gain some clarity on the situation and am told to “Hurry before they close the road!” The Spring fire has consumed 4,000 acres already, and would go on to incinerate 78,000 acres. Nervously, I fly through Veta pass. Like driving into an active volcano, the scene is other-worldly. Wisps of pink and orange dance over the forest, and white smoke climbs down the mountain to my right not far from the road. An hour trickles by slowly as every possible scenario flashes through my young and uneasy mind, and these massive grey and threatening clouds continue to reach into the atmosphere. Only minutes after I make it through Veta pass the highway closed and an army of flashing lights, trucks, traffic cones are dispersed along the route. Feeling both awe and shock I pulled into a rest stop and watch the flames consume the forest. Looking around at the others who have joined the scene, I notice trucks overflowing with dogs, children, peoples’ worldly possessions- It had taken me a few moments to realize these poor folks are evacuating, prepared to leave their homes forever The grim reality would set in over the next few days as eighty-four square miles of fire ripped through over one hundred neighboring homes. The Southwest is literally on fire.

Smoke plumes from the Spring Fire, CO
Driving into the Spring Fire, CO









As early as May the state closed many of its National Forests: first Cibola, then Santa Fe, and now Carson. Worry among the local population is widespread. The riverbeds have dried to a trickle, the snow melted from the mountain tops months ahead of schedule, and the summer monsoons have yet to make an appearance. Several of those I have spoken to claim that the National Forest Service failed to properly “control burn” the forests. I am not educated enough in this matter to have an opinion, but it is interesting to hear peoples’ ideas nonetheless. Many point to climate change. Unusually hot temperatures and pervasive drought attest to a changing climate in a land where it is already difficult to adapt. Large portions of New Mexico’s populations depend on some form of cultivating the land or livestock, and increasing resources are needed to accommodate burgeoning urban populations. Water conflicts, as noted in an earlier blog, already make life here difficult. With little rain in the forecast and an unpredictable weather pattern this summer, most people have come to the same conclusion: more fires. Already ablaze, New Mexico, and now Colorado must soon face the inevitable reality of adapting to more unforgiving environmental conditions.

Spring Fire from the back


Earlier this week I met with Carlos who had agreed to share with me the stories of his father who worked in the Manhattan Project. Carlos was very young at the time of the Manhattan Project but his memories of his father are fresh. Responsible for driving trucks of employees from the Española valley surrounding Los Alamos every morning, Carlos’ father often told stories of people crying the first time they experienced the death-defying winding road to the Secret City. With no guardrails, passengers would peer hundreds of feet into the pink valley below. I can certainly relate to this, as even with guardrails, the first time I shot up this road I was in disbelief. Carlos’ father had also been responsible for cleaning and maintaining many trucks and buses. One July morning he arrived at work to find that all of these vehicles had disappeared. He would later learn that the buses had been taken to Trinity Site in the middle of the night, where many of the scientists on The Hill would go to witness the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb at 5am the following day. When the government brought irradiated cows from the area surrounding Trinity Test Site back to the lab for testing Carlos’ father became intrigued with these cows. The side facing the explosion looked different than the other. In the height of the war, Carlos’ father, thirty-three at the time with five children, expected to be drafted, but by the time they had gotten around to him, these powerful weapons had been used in Japan and the war had concluded, his family spared. Carlos’ family knew many other families in their area who had gone to war and lost somebody. After the Bataan Death March in which thousands of New Mexican soldiers were dragged through the Philippines in horrendous conditions, one of Carlos’ neighbors returned home alive. Carlos’ father was given permission by Los Alamos National Labs to drive his passenger truck to this friends return celebration.

The winding road to Los Alamos