About New Mexico

Native Americans

Native American drummers at feast day.Long before the first Spaniards ever arrived in what they eventually called New Mexico, other people had made this region an ancient homeland, attracted, perhaps, by New Mexico’s unique environment that contains six of the world’s seven life zones. In fact, human presence here dates at least as far back as 25,000 B.C., according to a 1936 discovery by Dr. Frank C. Hibben in a cave in the Sandia Mountains. Clovis Man, which dates back to 9,500 B. C., is believed to have emigrated across the Bering Strait from Siberia thousands of years ago to follow the migrations of now extinct mammoth, bison, and early forms of camel and horses, his principal sources of food. Other prehistoric sites such as those found at Folsom and Burnett Cave, west of Carlsbad, all document the precarious character of early man’s nomadic life. As the most recent ice age retreated north, these prehistoric peoples began to adapt to a greater dependence on plant foods to supplement their hunting.

During the first few centuries A.D., growing populations and increased competition for plant and animal resources led to increased development of societies and economies designed to cultivate and nurture plants, corn in particular, which had only recently been introduced from Mexico but which soon became well established as the basis for subsistence in the Southwest. By 400 A.D. most of the population in western New Mexico had begun to settle into semi-permanent or permanent villages located along cultivated river drainages. The people who settled in the southwestern part of the state are known as Mogollon; those in the northwestern part as Anasazi. Despite their increasing agricultural skills, most of these settlements still depended heavily on hunting and gathering of wild food stuffs to supplement their diets. Many of these communities also began to develop distinctive styles of baskets and pottery, crafts continued today by Pueblo artisans.

Dramatic change in New Mexico began to occur around 500 A.D. In the western two-thirds of the state, settlements became increasingly restricted to smaller, more densely populated areas. Housing became more complex, characterized by the construction of above-ground pueblos consisting of hundreds of rooms with specialized ceremonial structures known as kivas. Regional differences in architecture and ceramics developed, the size of settlements increased, and reliance on agriculture intensified. In addition, elaborate trade networks developed throughout the Southwest. Between about 1050 and 1300 A.D., the Anasazi had developed so thoroughly and spread so far that this period is known today as the Golden Age or Classic Pueblo Period. This progress notwithstanding, between 1200 and 1400 A.D., vast areas of New Mexico, like other parts of the Southwest, were inexplicably abandoned. Not even Chaco Canyon, once a prosperous pueblo and the hub of an elaborate civilization, was spared from this enigmatic decline. Probably each pueblo was abandoned for a particular reason, but it is generally believed that subtle but prolonged climactic changes (especially a severe drought in the late 1200s), increasing demographic pressures on the environment, and attacks by nomadic tribes contributed substantially to this calamity.

Indications are these peoples relocated among the populations of the Rio Grande and Ácoma and Zuñi regions, leaving descendants who may be found there even today. The peoples of the eastern one-third of New Mexico maintained their nomadic ways on the plains, as they had for the past several centuries. It was these consolidated agricultural pueblos and nomadic tribes that the Spanish explorers encountered during their expeditions into the northern frontier of New Spain.

New Mexico’s 50,000 Native Americans comprise a major attraction for visitors from other states and other countries. Navajos and Jicarilla Apaches live on reservations in northwestern New Mexico, and 19 other Native American groups reside elsewhere in this State. Many of these groups are famous for their handcraft products and for their ceremonial dances.

Jicarilla Apache: A Native American Jicarilla Apache man and his bride; shows the seated woman wearing a buckskin dress, moccasins, and wrapped in blankets; the standing man holds a quiver and leans on a buffalo robe. Photo by T.H. O’Sullivan 1840-1882. “Expedition of 1874 series, 1st Lt. Geo. M. Wheeler, Corps of Engineers Commanding.” Library of Congress.

Studio portrait of Hastiin Ch’il Haajini, and wife, Asdzaa tl Ogi in 1881. He was an early, important Navajo chief. In the picture he wears boot moccasins, leggings, a bead necklace, cloth headband and a top hat. She is wearing a bil dress and a blanket. Print in Rose Collection, San Antonio, TX and Western History/Genealogy Department., Denver Public Library.

“A Native American (possibly Apache) man, woman and two girls pose in front of a tepee frame at a fair in New Mexico. The man wears a feather headdress, a print shirt with an embroidered yoke and cuffs, a George Washington Peace Medal, beaded leggings, and moccasins. The woman and girls wear dresses and shawls. One girl holds a doll in a cradleboard.” Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library, reproduction #X-32164.

The Pueblo at Taos is one of New Mexico’s authentic examples of the survival of Pueblo Indian life, literally unchanged since 1540 when Coronado saw buildings and customs closely resembling those which can be seen today. Perhaps its inaccessibility as the most northerly of all of the Rio Grande pueblos made it more difficult for the Spanish, and later the Anglo-Americans, to transform its ancient ways. Perhaps the intense independence and the strong sense of community of the Taos people helped to maintain their cultural integrity.

The tradition of secrecy forbids the disclosure of many of the rituals and ceremonies of the Indian heritage to outsiders, but visitors may still enjoy the charm and hospitality of the pueblo and marvel at the superb architecture and the fine crafts of this fascinating world.

Because excavations in the precincts of the Taos Pueblo are forbidden, little is known of the Taos ancestors, but it is thought that they could have been either of the extinct tribes, Chaco or Anasazi. They speak the Tiwa language, as well as English. In the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the plains beyond, game was plentiful, including buffalo, elk, deer, bear and many birds. With an abundance of animal hides, the Taos people became skilled artisans in the working of leather, fashioning of boots, moccasins and various garments, as well as drums, from this versatile material.

Various festivals are held throughout the year. Pole climbing is one of the skills of the Taos Pueblo and is featured in some of the feasts, as well as races, a trade fair and War Dances. Area of Taos Pueblo : 95,343 acres Population: 1166

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