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San Geronimo Feast Day at Taos Pueblo

San Geronimo Church on Taos Pueblo.

San Geronimo Church on Taos Pueblo.

Red Willow River (drinking water on the pueblo) with pueblo and Taos mountains in the background.

Red Willow River (drinking water on the pueblo) with pueblo and Taos mountains in the background.

The Rules of the Feast Day on Taos Pueblo

1. No cameras or recording devices

2. No cell phones. Strictly enforced and they will be confiscated.

3. Respect "restricted area" signs. They protect the privacy of residents and sites of Native religious practices.

4. Do not enter doors that are not marked as shops. Each home is privately owned and not a museum display

5. Do not enter the walls surrounding the ruins of the old church and cemetery.

6. Do not wade the river as it is the Pueblo's source of drinking water.

~ Taos Pueblo Chief and council


Remains of the original San Geronimo Church, built in the 17th century, and cemetery.  Today this is considered hallowed ground.

Remains of the original San Geronimo Church, built in the 17th century, and cemetery. Today this is considered hallowed ground.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the San Geronimo (St. Jerome) Feast Day at the Taos Pueblo. The Taos Puebloans put on a beautiful day full of a blend of Catholic and native religious activities. I was especially fortunate to see this day's activities because the Taos Puebloans are very conservative and secretive and usually don't share their holidays or feast days with the public. This is one of their exceptions and I was not going to miss it!

September 30 honors and celebrates St. Jerome the patron saint of Taos Pueblo. St. Jerome was a Roman Catholic scripture scholar who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew. He is recognized as the patron saint of translators, librarians, and encyclopedists. Since the Taos Puebloans are an oral society and do not write things down, they honor St. Jerome because many translated for the early colonists both Spanish and American.

His feast day also centers around the fall harvest at Taos Pueblo and historically it is important because it means survival through the winter. The Tiwa speaking pueblo people at Taos Pueblos invite the public to witness their celebration beginning on the evening of September 29 with a mass and vespers. It continues from midnight September 30 to midnight October 1.

It is also a celebration that is rooted in the ritual life of the Taos Pueblo people. It is about family, food and traditional dances that date back thousands of years.The Puebloans congregate in a renewal of their language, religion and culture, which is a blend of the Hispanic and native American cultures and religious beliefs.

After the Spanish conquered and subjugated the native Americans to Catholicism it is amazing that their own culture and religious beliefs have survived. It goes to the tenacity of the Puebloans who have survived all outside influences and have retained the essence of their culture. It is the mixture of the two religions that make this feast day special.

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Even the church, built in 1850, is a mixture of Catholicism and native religious beliefs, If you look closely at the photo of the inside of the San Geronimo Church, you will notice the statue over the altar is not Jesus Christ but the Corn Maiden, to some, or the Virgin Mary whom the puebloans equate with Mother Earth. Corn is central to the Puebloan religion and culture and symbolizes life and fertility. The Corn maiden/Virgin Mary takes central stage and you will find Jesus Christ over to the side.

Note: the original San Geronimo Church was built in the 17th century. In 1847 the Taos Puebloans revolted against the Taos Anglos and scalped and beheaded the Governor, Charles Bent. In retaliation the Anglos attacked the Pueblo and burned down the original church, desecrated the cemetery and killed many of the puebloans. Today, all that stands are the remains of the bell tower and the restored cemetery.

Inside of San Geronimo Church at Taos Pueblo.

Inside of San Geronimo Church at Taos Pueblo.

Puebloan women in their finery for the feast day.

Puebloan women in their finery for the feast day.

Off to the races

My day began early on Saturday, September 30. My companions and I left for Taos Pueblo at 6:30 am. It is only a two mile ride so we arrived about 6:45 am to learn that the pueblo didn't open until 8 am. We told our hosts we had come for the sunrise foot races only to be told by them the time had been changed to 8 am. Communication between the natives and the rest of us is not always the best.

We grabbed a cup of coffee and anxiously awaited the opening of the pueblo. Second surprise, absolutely no cameras, cell phones or recording devices. In fact, we were not even permitted to carry our cell phones onto the pueblo. A whole day without cell phones. Now this was going to be interesting. Back to the car to deposit our cell phones.

The Puebloans believe their religious ceremonies are spiritual and sacred and do not permit any photographing of their ceremonies. If any cell phones or cameras are out they are confiscated and not given back.

The Taos Puebloans are fiercely independent of spirit and mind. They continue to speak Tiwa, still an unwritten language, and strive to maintain a balance between their traditional way of life and the modern world.

One thing to remember about native American reservations, they are sovereign nations with their own government, which means the natives are in charge and we must live by their rules. They are a dignified and proud people and want to be respected along with their culture and religious beliefs.

The feast day begins with a Catholic mass and vespers on September 29 in the San Geronimo Church followed by a sundown dance. That we did not attend but it is interesting that Catholicism is included in their feast day.

The first event of the morning of September 30 is the tradition foot race conducted at 8am. The race is part of their religious beliefs and of great significance at Taos Pueblo. Only the men and boys race, and they are painted and wearing small feathers all over their bodies. They race east to west for a mile and then return west to east for a total of two miles.

Amazingly, in the crisp morning, temperatures in the mid 40's, these men raced in bare feet and bare chested, wearing only the loin cloths to cover them. With their long hair flying and swift legs stretching, they were a sight to behold. How they ran bare footed so swiftly over the ground, much of it full of rocks, is beyond me, but they did it.

I wish I could explain to you the total religious significance of the race, but the Puebloans don't explain it to us. I asked several questions about the religious significance of the race, but my questions were not answered. I guess they feel they don't have to explain anything to Anglos. But, I would love to know the ins and outs of their beliefs.

My guess is that the foot race celebrates the sun and its importance in their lives especially for the growing of corn, their main staple of food.

What was so beautiful as well were the women all dressed in clothing, boots and shawls in the colors of New Mexico standing atop the pueblos looking down on the race. Bright pinks, purples, turquoise, magenta, green, and chartruse stood out in the beautiful sunny day as they gave war cries to encourage their husbands, sons, and fathers to race swiftly.

Afterward we attended the arts and crafts fair in the plaza of the pueblo. This pays homage to the Pueblo native trade fairs of centuries ago. There were many native American items for sale from other pueblos and even the Navajos joined in at the fair. They sold native American items such as jewelry, pottery, paintings, sculptures, and drums just to name a few.

Taos pueblo with blue door similar to Henrietta's pueblo.

Taos pueblo with blue door similar to Henrietta's pueblo.

Horno (oven) outside the pueblo and what Henrietta used to bake her bread.

Horno (oven) outside the pueblo and what Henrietta used to bake her bread.

A true Taos Pueblo Experience

The Taos Pueblo is inhabited by about 1500 native Americans. Some live full time at the pueblo but most have houses outside the pueblo on the 105,000 acres of native land surrounding the pueblo. The Pueblo houses have been passed down from generation to generation of Puebloans since about 1350 CE or earlier. The houses must stay in the native American family only and Anglos or anyone else is not permitted to own them.

The Pueblo homes are private and not to be entered by tourists or those attending the feast day. Family and friends of the village residents are invited to private homes to sit down to a Pueblo feast of red and green chile, fry bread, horno baked bread, corn, beans and squash.

To my surprise one of my companions is friends with Henrietta Gomez, a native, who owns a house in the Pueblo. She was invited to the house for dinner and also took me along. What a wonderful experience. Henrietta is about seventy years old and cooked up a meal all day long. We were invited to sit down and eat but we both had eaten at the food vendors at the fair, so we ate dessert. Puddings, cookies and tortas were on display and served buffet style. Delicious!

Along with the traditional native foods of corn and squash etc., she also served chicken and ham along with everything else at a table setting. I was amazed at the line of people that streamed in and out of the pueblo all day long. We were invited to come back anytime during the day for more food.

Henrietta was such a gracious host and her grandchildren were adorable and they all spoke in Tiwa their native language. Henrietta also spoke English. I told her I was amazed she had cooked all the food on a wood stove (as my great-grandmother had done) and she laughed and said it was easy to do. She baked her bread in a horno, an outside oven, strictly for baking bread. Very tasty!

Finally, I asked why she invited so many of us non-natives to her house to eat. Finally, I got an answer. The pueblo people believe that because this feast day is at harvest time, they are obligated to feed as many people a they can. So Henrietta invited her non-native friends to eat along with her native friends and encouraged everyone to bring tag-a-longs like me.

It was a wonderful experience to meet Henrietta and her grandchildren and experience a feast at their pueblo. The inside was just a kitchen, and an eating area with a small bed. Henrietta told me she does not live there full time, but opens the pueblo when their are feast days and she likes to share her home with the public.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had this experience as not all non-natives are invited to their homes and feasts.

San Geronimo clowns climbing the pole.

San Geronimo clowns climbing the pole.

Clowns and pole climbing

One of the highlights of the feast day are the clowns, called Koshares. These are fierce clowns and the scariest clowns I have ever encountered. They are painted in black and white stripes from head to toe and wear only loin cloths. Hay or straw comes out of their hair crowning them. Their faces are painted completely black.

These are ceremonial clowns for the Pueblo culture. They make fun of themselves, human foibles and audience members. They follow us around and harass us, and when they came near to me I walked it the opposite direction. I was not anxious to have contact with these clowns.

One tradition the clowns have is to take small children, one or two years old, sometimes snatching them from their mother's arms, and running away with them to the river and wash their faces with the water from the Red Willow River.

Well, the children are terrified and screaming and crying, their mothers running after them to try to calm them. Looking at this from the Anglo perspective, this has a traumatizing effect on the children and I was appalled watching this unfold.

But, this must have some meaning or symbol to the puebloans but I don't know what that is as they don't explain themselves to us. This ordeal was not fun to watch.

Finally, after traumatizing children and harassing the adults for the afternoon, the clowns gather at a 75 foot greased poll in the center of the plaza at around 4pm. At the top of the pole are four objects hanging from the pole in the colors, red, white, yellow and black, which represent the four elements in the Pueblo world: wind, fire, water, and earth.

The clowns compete with one another climbing to the top and the two who make it first sit on perpendicular rods and release the four objects to the ground. They are full of treats for the audience. It is a harrowing experience and harrowing to watch. There is not a net underneath them should they fall.

The illustration to the right is of the clowns climbing the pole. Since photographs are not permitted on this day, we have no photos of the event.

San Geronimo Feast Day is something I wouldn't have wanted to miss, terrifying clowns and all. It was a wonderful day to experience their culture and religious beliefs with the tipping of the hat to Catholicism.

And, I didn't miss my cell phone for one minute that day.

© 2016 Suzette Walker

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