Thursday, September 29, 2016
The Puye Cliff Dwellings
An amazing and rich day—I set out to do some hiking and it became much more. It was a physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual day.
The Puye Cliff Dwellings and Mesa are the ancestral home of the people we know today as the Santa Clara People. Today they live along the Rio Grande River in the valley below the cliffs in the Santa Clara Pueblo. Anyone who spends time in this special area knows about Santa Clara pottery. It is famous now and very expensive. But this isn’t about pottery.
Once I turned off of highway 30 near Espanola, I traveled about seven miles to the Puye Cliff Dwellings visitor center along a winding, uphill road. The Jemez Mountains, cumulus white clouds against a brilliant blue sky, and the quiet, took away all my usual internal noise—all was well with the world and with me.
Elijah greeted me at the small visitor center. Elijah is a resident of the Santa Clara Pueblo. He is a warm and gentle man whose love for his people, their history and culture is very apparent. His mother lives in the house that goes back many generations in his family; at least 500 years. As it turned out he would also be the guide on our tour to the mesa and cliff dwellings. Five tourists signed up for the tour. Little did we know, and that included Elijah, that something special would happen. Several vans pulled up from an area senior citizens center. About 25 people—older adults and a few of their grandchildren—exited the vans and climbed the steps to the visitor center. They were all native people, most of them from the Santa Clara Pueblo. They had come for the tour. Elijah knew most of them. He asked them if it would be ok if the rest of us asked them questions and if they would help him with the stories about their history and culture. It was wonderful to observe his interactions with “the Elders.” His respect and reverence for them didn’t require words. They rode up to the mesa, as we did, but they returned by van. The rest of us were led on a hike down a narrow (sometimes 12” wide) rocky path and tall ladders to the cliff dwellings and finally back to the visitor center by Elijah. Our group walked around the mesa, listened to stories about the Tewa-speaking people who had lived here for at least 15 centuries, saw artifacts from their time here, and tried to imagine what this pueblo community would have looked like in 1500. The elders added small pieces of their stories to Elijah’s. Several of them were speaking their native language—Tewa. Words fail—but being with the elders and their grandchildren in this setting made me very still. Their sense of the sacredness of this place and everything in it touched something in my center. I just breathed it in and knew I was in the presence.
Before we said goodbye to the elders, we gathered around Elijah for his concluding thoughts. I noticed a man standing next to me that I hadn’t seen earlier. He was probably in his 40’s so clearly wasn’t one of the elders. He had come to make a few comments to our group. His name is James Naranjo. He is the Lt. Governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo. He wanted to thank all of us for coming to this special place, and especially the elders. Again, the sense of genuine respect was so apparent. After talking about the Santa Clara people and this place, he talked about the importance of teaching our children about love, respect, community and equality. He also talked about the importance of prayer and how we need to pray every day about these things so that someday we will all live in peace together. And then he said he wanted to offer a prayer for us as we all go our separate ways. He then began his prayer. He spoke in Tewa. I didn’t understand a word he said, but at a deep level I understood completely. When I began to tear up I knew I was part of something special—I didn’t see this coming! Now I understand what John Woolman, an 18th century Quaker from New Jersey, meant when he said—“I love to feel where words come from.” He said this after meeting with a group of native people in Pennsylvania and the chief offered a prayer in his native language.
We said goodbye to the elders and to James. Elijah then led the rest of us down the face of the cliff on a narrow, rocky path to the cliff dwellings. We entered one of the caves, Elijah took our photos and then we descended down a very long ladder to a lower level to return to where we started.
As I drove away, I knew I had just been a witness to, and part of, a transformational experience. As I write this, the experience is still percolating within me—something happened, and my life has been enriched. How blessed I am to recognize that.