New Mexico’s alien nation
The road from Albuquerque to Taos runs through Santa Fe, the oldest state capital in the USA. It is New Mexico’s cultural centre, a beautiful city packed with art galleries and studios. Its high altitude, sharp light and mountains have provided artistic inspiration for thousands of painters and sculptors ever since Georgia O’Keeffe, one of America’s most revered painters, moved to the area in 1949. The town is built almost entirely with adobe – desert clay mixed with straw, sticks and water – and the buildings are low-lying, with rounded corners. Adobe is true desert architecture; the buildings look as if they have arisen out of the earth of their own accord, strong and hardy like yucca trees, but with a childlike naivety that makes a stroll around town feel like you’re entering a cartoon world.
An ancient example of adobe architecture exists at Taos Pueblo, a Native American settlement on the edge of Taos, in the north of the state. The Pueblo peoples are one of the oldest groups of Native Americans, and there has been a community living in the multi-tiered adobe buildings in Taos for some 1,000 years. Small, boxy, yet surprisingly spacious rooms are stacked up on each other, with ladders between the levels. When they were first built, the only way into each apartment was through holes in the roofs – the lack of ground-level entry points meant that the Pueblo could draw up the ladders in defence when attacked by groups such as the Spanish conquistadors or rival Native American nations.
Cameron Martinez, or New Eagle to give his Pueblo name, is a 29-year-old film student who grew up in a second-floor ‘apartment’ on the north side building. ‘I feel lucky to have lived somewhere with such a historic link to our ancestors. Unlike other Native nations, we’ve never been relocated – our people have lived in this place for centuries,’ he says. ‘There is no electricity or running water within the Pueblo. Most people have a modern house elsewhere on the reservation, and so the time spent living in the Pueblo is for intense religious rituals, for learning how to live in the traditional ways, to become selfsufficient.’ The Pueblo people are avid hunters and Cameron says that he still uses a handmade bow and arrow to shoot down birds from the sky.
As for so many people in New Mexico, that blindingly blue firmament plays a significant role in Pueblo culture. Indeed, the Pueblo people here believe that they actually come from the skies or, to put it another way, that they are extraterrestrial. ‘Our stories tell us that we originated in the cosmos,’ says Cameron, scanning the 360-degree mountain horizon that wraps around the settlement. ‘We don’t believe we are from this planet; we are forces of energy that came from somewhere else, but took human shape. And when we die, our bodies will return to this Earth, but if we have lived according to the traditional ways, our souls will flow back to the sky as energy’.
Much of the northern swathe of the state belongs to Native peoples – Pueblo, Apache, Navajo. Each nation has its own creation stories, its own legends that help to explain how the environment in which they live came to be, and how they as people arrived in these lands. But for all the differences, there is a common thread – and it’s no surprise that the sky is the overarching link.
Shiprock is a roadside town and administrative centre in the Navajo reservation. It takes its name from the huge, red rock that stands aloof in the desert, towering above a narrow ridge that points towards it like an arrow. In Navajo language, this rock is called Tsé Bit’a’í, the rock with wings. Legends about its origin vary from it being a flying rock that brought the Navajo people to this area, to being the home of two huge bird monsters who occasionally swoop down from the sky and feast upon any Natives they find below.