On my first trip to New Mexico, I wanted to visit a Native American reservation (or pueblo as they are known in that area). I chose San Ildefonso because it was recommended in a guide book as the “most visually appealing” of the 19 New Mexican pueblos and because it was the home of Maria Martinez, who rediscovered and popularized traditional techniques for making pottery with striking black matte and gloss designs. Unfortunately, San Ildefonso was very disappointing. The long list of rules presented to visitors creates an intimidating, rather than welcoming, atmosphere. The pueblo village resembled a hamlet in Appalachia, with many dilapidated homes and scrawny dogs running loose. Most of the home-based crafts shops had ugly security bars on the doors and windows, and, on the day I visited, many of them were closed. In summary, San Ildefonso was a big disappointment.
The San Ildefonso pueblo is located about 25 miles north of Santa Fe, on Route 502 about 7 miles west of US-84/285. If you’re driving from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, the Puye Cliff Dwellings, or Bandelier National Monument, you will drive right by San Ildefonso. The pueblo village is located about one mile north of Route 502 at the end of a paved road (Povi Kaa Drive). (Caution: Watch out for poorly marked speed bumps!) All visitors must register at the visitors center at the entrance to the village. A friendly, but firm, woman reviewed the village map, which has many areas marked “keep out”, and the long list of pueblo rules (disingenuously entitled “Visiting Etiquette”). The rules are preceded by “We acknowledge that not all visitors understand respect or courtesy…” (really???), which struck me as very off-putting. Basically, I felt unwelcome in the pueblo.
The entry fee is $10 per group plus $10 for a camera permit. Visitors are not allowed to drive into the village. The streets are not paved, but were mostly dry despite rain the previous night. The walk from the visitors center to the furthest point open to visitors is about ¼ mile. There’s a picturesque church and cemetery near the center of the village. Neither is open to visitors, but they can be viewed and photographed (if you purchased a camera permit, of course) from outside the low perimeter wall. The Maria Martinez museum is located in a building that also houses tribal government offices, a pre-school, and public restrooms. The sparsely furnished museum contains two display cases featuring examples of her pottery and her life story briefly told in photos and other documents. The Martinez display in the Museum of Indian Art and Culture in Santa Fe is much better.
During my walk through the village, I did not see any residents, other than a few who drove by in their vehicles. There were about four other groups of visitors. I also encountered about five or six scrawny dogs running loose. The dogs were neither friendly nor hostile, which was OK with me. The church and government buildings were built in the adobe style common in New Mexico. The homes were a mix of adobe and wood construction, with some trailers. Many of the homes were in poor repair. Some of the homes, and most of the shops, had security bars on the doors and windows. The overall appearance of the village was depressing.
The first (and, as it turned out, only) shop that I visited had a small collection of pottery and other craft items for sale. The prices were exorbitant; for example, $195 for a small bowl about 3” across. Shops in Santa Fe have much larger collections of native-made handicrafts at lower prices. I tried to visit two other shops that displayed large “Open” signs, but their doors were locked and no one answered my knocking. Note: I visited San Ildefonso on a Monday morning in late September. Perhaps there is more activity and more shops are open on weekends and/or during the July-August tourist season.
On my way back the visitors center, I tried to visit the Martinez family shop, where I hoped to have a better experience, but the street was blocked by a large puddle. Walking around the puddle would have required me to trespass through the yard of a private home, an “etiquette” violation. But a bigger deterrent was a large and unfriendly dog standing beyond the puddle. So, I walked back to my car and happily left San Ildefonso.
I feel badly about posting a negative review of what is basically the tribe’s hometown, but they do solicit visitors, and my review reflects my experience there. We all understand that Native Americans have suffered from 400 years of mistreatment and misguided attempts to impose other cultures on them, which has directly lead to the poverty so visible in San Ildefonso and elsewhere. But surely the pueblo could try harder to provide a better experience for visitors. Are the security bars and the long list of rules really necessary? Are there no resources to make basic repairs to the homes and shops? Why aren’t more of the shops open? And why are the shop prices so high?
Fortunately, New Mexico offers many alternative ways to experience Native American art and culture. In Santa Fe, the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, operated by the State of New Mexico on Museum Hill, has an entire gallery devoted to Maria Martinez. The gallery includes a large display of her pottery, her life story, and a 30-minute video in which she demonstrates her skills. It was fascinating to watch this 80-year old woman transform a pile of clay into a beautiful bowl using only her hands and a few primitive tools. Without a potter’s wheel, she was able to fashion a perfectly round and symmetric bowl. I can’t understand why the San Ildefonso “museum” doesn’t also display this video.
In Albuquerque, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which is operated by the New Mexican tribes, displays art objects from each of the 19 pueblos, including, of course, Martinez pottery in the San Ildefonso section. The Center also has a large display explaining how the tribes were victimized by Spain, Mexico and the United States over the past 400 years.
Another view of New Mexican Native American life can be found at the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum in the Pojoaque pueblo, about 16 miles north of Santa Fe on US-84/285. This small facility contains a series of walk-through dioramas depicting the four seasons of tribal life prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Each diorama features artfully crafted partial life-size figures of people engaged in their daily life activities, along with animals, trees, plant, crops, houses, etc. The autumn diorama ends ominously with the arrival of the Spaniards.
If you want to purchase New Mexican native pottery or other handicrafts, there are many shops in Santa Fe that sell locally produced items with the artist and his/her pueblo identified. The selection was much larger, and the prices much more reasonable, that in San Ildefonso. If you prefer to purchase directly from the artisan, many Native Americans display their handicrafts in front of the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe, across the street from the Plaza.
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