Pueblo mosaic; Crafting Indian paths to an Indian future

Jimmy Morningtalk has linoleum sheets laid over the earthen floor of his little shop. He stands behind the jewelry case and deflates the price of a pot from $225 to $120 in increments while a visitor looks at it. The pinon pine burning in the rounded corner fireplace by the door on this sunny but brisk spring morning smells richer than a loaf of fresh sourdough.

Outside, Taos elders with blankets over their heads trundle purposefully across the windy center of this ancient pueblo complex at Taos, the northernmost of the Pueblo tribes. A few tourists wander around the edges of the big circle, looking at the terraced mud apartments as if they were museum pieces.

This is a conservative tribe: the only holdout among the Pueblos against electricity and plumbing within the walls of the old compound, the center of the village.

It has secrets. Paid informants among the Taos have been beaten and disenfranchised by the tribe for leaking details of the religious culture to anthropologists. But not even the tribal elders know more than an allotted piece of the society's ceremonial mosaic. The language, too, full of strange sounds virtually unrenderable in the Roman alphabet, is kept private.

This is their advantage as they grope for a path--an Indian path, a Taos path--toward a modern economy. Is there a distinctly Indian way to take part in the industrial world? Many in the 19 Pueblo reservations of the American Southwest think there is, that there has to be. The Zuni, with their house-to-house surveys and comprehensive plans, have moved most boldly. All the Pueblos move slowly, cautiously, sometimes awkwardly, with great respect for the past.

A sign at the Taos entrance welcomes visitors between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Cars pull up to a window to pay parking and camera fees. Kids with blond hair and striped T-shirts run in and out of the old adobe chapel.

Everything else--the old corrals and livestock sheds of long-dried, rough-hewn cedar crowding around the pueblo, the grassy mud of the camel-colored adobe walls--appears to be fading with time into the color of the earth itself.

Jimmy Morningtalk once lived in Santa Monica, Calif., and worked for Douglas Aircraft. Before that he had a shop in Albuquerque. Altogether he lived away from Taos Pueblo for 18 years. He has been back now for 20. Last year he was war chief. Now he raises cattle, he lives just outside the pueblo where the tribe allows running water and electricity, and he has managed to wrest permission from the tribal bureaucracy for one of the few shops inside the pueblo.

While in Los Angeles, he became eager to get back to a ''big place,'' so he returned to Taos Pueblo.

Farther from the pueblo, on the road into the town of Taos, Mike Reyna and his son make drums. His son has spent the morning around the side of the house hollowing out spruce logs of different lengths and diameters. He has carpeted the area in wood chips and surrounded himself with perhaps a hundred hollow stumps.

In back Mike Reyna leans over a cowhide draped on a propane bottle resting against a tree. It has been treated with something making brownish puddles at his feet. The traditional bleaching agent is sheep brains. He scrapes the hide with a two-handed tool and the hair comes off readily enough.

His black hair is tucked back in a ponytail, and in his striped overalls and cap he looks like a train engineer in a children's book. Drums are made here in the traditional way, he says, cutting his vowels short. And he doesn't want to talk about it.

''I'm not interested in exposing the traditional ways of the Taos to the world.'' Writers are always coming here, he says, from Europe, from either coast , writing for magazines, writing books. His son is inside scraping the hides to snowy cleanness and regular thickness.

Mr. Reyna is not interested in fame, he points out, and he is not interested in fortune. ''Famous Taos Indian drum maker? Naw, psht. I don't want to make a million dollars,'' he says. He just wants to be left alone. He wants nothing to do with white man's ways.

''L.A.?'' he laughs. ''I ran away from there.''

There are more Indians in Los Angeles than in any other city in the country--about 50,000--and those who work with them there find many of them are unhappy with city life. Most young leave the reservation here at some point, notes Jimmy Morningtalk, and most come back.

Reyna was a tool designer with Hughes Air West. For 121/2 years he worked in Los Angeles-area aerospace plants. His life, he says, ''became a chase.''

He came back to live in the traditional way of the Taos. Making drums the Taos way is a dying craft, he says. He wants to preserve it. ''I have a son. I want to teach him.''

Taos drums are the flat variety. It's the tribes farther south, says Reyna, that use the longer drums, which also line the walls of his shop. They are all double-headed drums with leather thongs fastening the water-treated rawhide heads. A big one on hand has been commissioned by the Navajo Community College. Another, he suggests, could make a telephone stand.

''We don't mass-produce here; we're not a factory,'' he puts forth oratorically. ''I'm gonna scrape that hide today; tomorrow we're gonna tie some drums.''

One reason he's got to finish scraping this hide today, he concedes, is that a Denver TV crew is coming tomorrow to film the whole traditional process.Soon Reyna hopes to hire on several experienced drum makers so that the rising and falling of the sun each day will see more drums tied.

In the sleek new tribal headquarters, just outside the pueblo wall, Tony Martinez says the anthropologists are wrong about the Taos; they are in fact competitive.Mr. Martinez is tribal administrator. (''Oh him,'' said Jimmy Morningtalk, not recognizing the name at first. ''He's new.'')

He's new since November, when he took a three-year leave of absence from his Dallas-based management consulting firm to come back to his native pueblo and set the tribe's business on course. He was selected by the tribal governor and war chief and empowered to run the tribe by the tribal council.

So he has set out in pursuit of a 20-year plan. Tourists spent $40 million in Taos County last year, he points out, and the pueblo only cornered 2 percent of it.

Unemployment on the reservation is between 55 and 60 percent, so Mr. Martinez has his work to do. He hopes for the tribe to begin to tap the tourism market, first with mom-and-pop shops like Mike Reyna's, and eventually with information centers, slide shows, even restaurants and hotels.

The offices here are crisp and modern, with the rounded white fireplaces of the pueblo in the anteroom. There are some clean-cut ponytails among the young men here in corduroy Levi's, open collars, and cowboy boots.

''I believe in private enterprise,'' Martinez avows. ''Tribal enterprises don't work. I've done an analysis and it doesn't work without surrogate management.'' Surrogate, in this case, means non-Indian.

The premise behind these ambitious economic plans--anathema to some in a conservative pueblo like Taos--is that Taos Pueblo is going to have to become self-sufficient.

''The premise is that we can't be wards of the federal government forever. Someday we're going to be on our own like everybody else.''

The handwriting, in Martinez's view, is on the wall:

Class 1 tribes like Taos--meaning tribes whose governments are comparable in sophistication to municipal governments--have been offered block grants, like states, by the Reagan administration. Discounting inflation, Bureau of Indian Affairs budgets have shrunk by around 10 percent a year in the last few years, by Martinez's reckoning.

He sees these things as signals of a fading federal responsibility for Indians.

And as long as Indians are active in state politics, state taxes are likely to make their way onto the reservations. A bill was recently defeated in New Mexico to disenfranchise Indians at the state level. Martinez doesn't think the Indians are ever likely to lose the vote, but they may gain the tax, he says. ''It's coming.''

''We are very traditional. But we have to realize we will be snowed under by the dominant society. We have to be prepared for the time when we will no longer be recognized as Indians by the federal government.''

Outside, cars and station wagons, ski racks on top, cameras and maps inside, sporadically roll by to the ticket window.

Two young men of the tribe, Tom Gomez and Jack Trujillo, are hitchhiking the other way, into the town of Taos. They shake hands by gripping the base of the thumb, the countercultural way. Like Reyna, they call a stranger ''Bro.''

Tom Gomez is on his way into town to turn in an application for a government surveyor's job. He has had 10 months' surveying experience. His sister is a sophomore studying journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

''It takes money to go to school, man,'' Jack Trujillo says forebodingly. He dons a pair of aviator sunglasses from the pocket of his jean jacket. He says he would like to go to college.

But mostly Tom and Jack would like to get out of Taos and see the world. ''It's a beautiful place to live but it's too small,'' says Jack. Too much backbiting and gossip, says Tom. And they begin to talk about the cities they would like to see.

Let them go, says Delfin Lovato, chairman of the All-Indian Pueblo Council down in Albuquerque. ''I think it's healthy,'' he says. To the young, he says: ''Go out there, learn!''

He is especially keen on young Pueblos going to college and becoming adept at the ways of the white man. There may not be anything now for young geologists or engineers on the reservations, he says. ''But one day the call will come.''

This kind of know-how, says Mr. Lovato, is ''another weapon for our arsenal.''

The All-Indian Pueblo Council is an association of 19 Pueblo tribal governments. The past 20 years, according to Lovato, have seen tremendous strides in the socioeconomic condition of the Pueblos. Tribal governments are stronger, more sophisticated. Some, like the Laguna Pueblo west of Albuquerque, are computerized.

But in the past year their work has grown tougher. Together, the tribes have lost 60 to 70 percent of their job-training money as the US government pares programs. ''Unemployment on all of our reservations has reached crisis proportions.'' He puts it at between 60 and 70 percent, compared with 25 to 30 percent a few years ago.

But there will be no headlong rush for development on the reservations. ''As Indian tribes progress into the future, you will see more development,'' Lovato says. But very cautious, very slow. ''The one thing that the Pueblo are unified on is a deep, abiding respect for the land.''

Indeed, this is the one thing that all Indian traditions have in common in this country. Their hold on the land will grow more crucial and complicated as more Anglos crowd into this western expanse of the Sunbelt.

The traditional life of the Pueblos has only grown stronger over the past couple of decades, according to Lovato. It has been a way of life here a long time. Long after the other governments and cultures in New Mexico have lost track of where they came from, Lovato insists, ''we will remain.''

The Zuni have been settled amid the clay and sandstone of their present reservation near the Arizona border since the 12th century.

Much has come and gone and much has stayed the same.

The Spaniards brought silver, and now between 75 and 90 percent of the Zuni are skilled as fine jewelers, a tribal councilman estimates. The Anglos brought machines, and this has become the land of the propane bottle and the pickup truck.

But unlike the pueblos along the Rio Grande, Zuni names are in the Zuni, not Spanish, languages. There are very few Roman Catholics, according to Councilman Pesancio Lasiloo, although there may have been more in the past, and very few Mormons. Tribe, town, language, religion, and center of the earth in the Zuni cosmology all bear the same name: Zuni. Zuni culture has held its own.

The Zuni have made a sophisticated effort to channel the course of their history. They have become accomplished planners. This tribe of 7,000 has drawn up more vigorous and thorough plans for how to face the future--what to keep, what to change--than any other in the Southwest, including the populous and oil-rich and politically entangled Navajos.

It began in 1965 with a house-to-house survey of what kind of society the Zuni citizenry wanted. Since, the old storytellers--the keepers of the cultural flame--have been recorded on tape, their stories translated into English and published in book form. Zuni schoolchildren--and schools dominate the Zuni village landscape the way government buildings dominate Washington, D.C.--learn to read and write Zuni along with English. An archaeology program was founded for preserving and restoring cultural relics. Scores of studies, buildings, corporations, and industrial and social projects were begun which an adept bureaucratic hand can get government funds for.

The Zuni planning staff is willing to help other governments as well, which might get ideas from their plan. ''We're very proud of it,'' confesses Cal Seciwa, economic development program director.

The third Zuni comprehensive plan has just been completed, presented to the White House, and passed out to any federal and New Mexico state agencies it could conceivably apply to. The Zuni are covering their options as the Reagan administration shifts funding sources around.

But the real competition is in luring outside industry to the reservation. The Zuni's practiced jeweler's fingers make for efficient electronics assembly. But the lone such factory moved to Mexico around 1972, Lasiloo recalls, for labor still cheaper.

Juan Tafoya sits on the sidewalk off the plaza in Santa Fe in a cowboy hat and boot-cut jeans and sells his own pottery. He learned the craft from his mother at the San Ildefonso Pueblo, where he still lives. And ever since one of their pots won a prize at the New Mexico state fair, he has decided to bypass the dealers and shops to sell his own work.

He has won at more fairs and shows since, including Santa Fe's Indian Market, the biggest in the country. He has traveled to southern California fairs and met dealers and collectors there.

Though he works without a potter's wheel, his smooth, black, etched pots are as symmetrical as machine-made work. He builds them from coils, smokes the red clay black in horse dung and leaves, and fires them in tin cans over an open fire.

The prayer bowls he sells he changes slightly in design so that they are not real prayer bowls. He has begun experimenting with turquoise stones inlaid in his mostly very traditional patterns. He drives from San Ildefonso Pueblo to Santa Fe every day in a brown, custom-painted van--late-model.

While someone watches his pots, he walks off to a bookstore laughing with his pueblo priest, a casually dressed Anglo. But the first religion among the young in the pueblo, he maintains, is the kiva, the traditional place of worship of the Pueblo tribes.

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