Native American Culture and Heritage
Native American groups have inhabited the territory of New Mexico for thousands of years, many centuries before Europeans reached the Americas. Reminders of their ancient presence are throughout our state: cliff dwellings and pit houses, kivas (underground ceremonial chambers), abandoned cities along ancient trade routes, and symbols etched in rock. New Mexico is home to 22 tribes, which includes the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache, Mescalero Apache, and 19 pueblos.
The Navajo Nation is the largest American Indian tribe in North America and their reservation is located in northwest New Mexico, northern Arizona and southeast Utah. The Jicarilla Apaches live in northern New Mexico and the Mescalero Apaches reside in southern New Mexico. A majority of the 19 pueblos are located in northern New Mexico. Each tribe is unique and they have their own traditional language, customs, values, prayers, songs, ceremonies, traditional attire, and way of life. The centrally located Albuquerque area is the perfect starting point from which to explore our Native American heritage.
Most pueblos still celebrate and honor their Native American traditions
with feast day celebrations, which often include dances in brilliant attire and sacred rituals. Attending one of these events is an excellent way to experience pueblo culture; the corn, deer and buffalo dances are commonly open to the public. Each dance tells a different story and serves a different purpose. The ceremonial dress worn by the dancers are more than just decorative; the feathers, jewelry and beads all communicate part of the story. Every dance is considered a prayer, not a performance, and as such, outsiders are privileged to observe them. Drums beat with an insistent cadence and the air is filled with the fragrance of piñon smoke. The sights, sounds and smells of the pueblo celebrations are a feast for the senses.
Another way to learn about our Native American communities is to explore their many arts and crafts including silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery, drums, carvings, clothing and weavings. Or try traditional Indian food such as bread baked in an horno (outdoor oven) or fry bread, best consumed on the spot, hot and honey-drizzled straight from the pan. Visitors are fascinated to see that pueblo life is a window to another world and time. Not relegated to history books or museums, this is a living culture that carries on the centuries-old traditions of their ancestors.
Visitors are welcome at some of the reservations for dances and other special events related to Native American culture and traditions. Several hold regular tours and have excellent visitor centers with information about Native American culture and beliefs. Bear in mind that visitors are not allowed on certain days, when special observances are held in private. Call the pueblo or tribal office in advance of arrival to be sure that visitors are welcome on that day.
Honoring Native American Culture and Traditions
Always remember that when you visit a reservation, you are visiting someone’s home. Please observe all posted requests and regulations. When you are on Indian land, you are subject to Indian laws. Here are some Native American culture facts and key tips to remember regarding Native American culture and beliefs when visiting tribal land. It is important to understand that visitors must abide by the laws and rules of each tribe, and respect their customs and traditions. For example, some tribes have strict rules governing photography, sketching and tape recording. Those who take the time to visit a tribe will leave with a precious memory to add to their New Mexico experience.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque is a valuable resource for visitors interested in learning more about these tribes and Native American traditions in New Mexico. The Cultural Center offers information about visiting the pueblos and a calendar of feast days and other events. It also features exhibits of weaving, pottery, jewelry, clothing and photography from each of the 19 area pueblos.
To experience Native American culture also see Things To Do: Day Trips: Native American Tour or visit Petroglyph National Monument, Coronado State Monument, Chaco Canyon, Bandelier or the Mission Ruins.