“Old Style Organic” – Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico

Current day view of Santa Clara with Rio Grande river and Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance.

Since childhood, when my parents took me along with them to visit Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico during summer vacations, my life has been connected to that place in one way or another.  Most recently it has been because of my marriage to Athena whose mother was born there, lives there as well as much of her extended family.

After I posted my last blog contribution about organic growers in Mexico, I got a marvelous comment from Athena’s uncle Tito Naranjo, who recounted how similar my descriptions were to his childhood years in the pueblo.  It was a very moving short paragraph, but it inspired me to ask him to write something in more detail about his experiences.  He was most gracious contributing the beautiful story I have posted below.

Location of Santa Clara Pueblo north of Santa Fe.

Whenever I make a post to this blog, it is usually accompanied by photos I have taken, in fact, my writing is often mostly motivated by the need to provide background and explanation to the photos.  In this case, it’s a historical account of life at Santa Clara photo and consequently I don’t have any photos to offer, there aren’t many in existence, however, I photographed a few old ones while visiting the Puye museum several years ago.  And since these are not presented her for any kind of monetary profit, I don’t think anyone will mind.  I initially sent a number of these to Tito suggesting we use them with his piece, he thought they would necessitate a lot more writing, but I think they at least give some feeling of the pueblo during those years, I hope he agrees.

The one thing I am sadly missing is a portrait of Athena’s uncle Tito, who is a rather remarkable and beautiful person with striking features, handsome to say the least, and who really deserves a really great portrait.  So with no further introduction is Tito’s writing.

My Boyhood in Kha:P’o Pueblo

Gia Khuunʼs, Mother Corn Tasselʼs, adobe house was on the south side of Kha:pʼo Owingeh, Santa Clara Pueblo plaza of the 1930s. Gia

Khuun owned all the lands that we used for planting corn, beans, squash in the fields at Aangeh, along the Rio Grande River. She kept knowledge of plots of ground behind Puye, in the Jemez mountains, where extended family planted beans by dry farming. Giaʼs house had one room, Aahkon:pieh Eveh, her “west room”, where all important items were stored, including seeds for the next yearʼs planting. These seeds, Gia guarded as treasures. Pueblo life centered around farming, gathering and hunting. All our foods came from the earth, we didnʼt know money in my boyhood.

Santa Clara Plaza with fall harvest.

All children create dreams of their grown-up life.  My dream as Tewa boy was to own a team of horses, to plow the ground like Tata, Uncle, and to see the ground turn a rich brown as the plow turned rows for planting corn. Long harness traces around his shoulders, Tataʼs right arm held the plow with one hand, as he cracked “Hup, hup, hup” to the horses as their shoulders and rumps rippled with muscle while pulling the plow. Tata and Ta (father) were my boyhood heroes, one a farmer, the other a hunter farmer, taught me early how to work the ground diligently and how to hunt to get food from the earth. I havenʼt forgotten them.

One spring day, Ta loaded the wagon with plow, farming implements, beans and food. Rina and I (ages 8 and 9) accompanied Ta to the bean fields eight miles away beyond Puye, behind ancestral homes, to plant beans. The eight miles required one full day by horse and wagon to get there. We reached a one room log cabin with stove and two beds. Children, like us, went to the ancient fields to work. The arroyo to the south by 200 yards provided blue-green pools of water from winter snow melt. We used the water for drinking and cooking. The horses were taken, after a day of work, down a trail into Pʼo:hu to drink from the creek. Rina and I were responsible for gathering pinon wood for fires, getting water from the draw, getting lunch and following Ta and the horses to drop bean seeds into the furrows. After a week of work we finished planting beans. On the last day, Rina and I were told to clean camp and wash camp dishes, We hid utensils into cabin holes, difficult dishes behind shovels, hoes and wood. We got our punishment when Ta discovered our misdeeds.

View of Puy Cliff Dwellings

Wild plants and animals were found in the fields, canyon, plateaus and mountains. We collected edible plants and seeds to use for food. Wild plant foods were an important part of our diets. And planting beans on the plateaus required protecting the shoots and growing plants from turkey, raccoons, rats, rabbits, deer, bear, coyote, fox, and bobcat. Turkey, rabbits, rats and crow were common. Raccoons, nocturnal thieves, were fond of bean shoots. While planting beans on the Pajarito Plateau, we killed and ate many of the above animals for food. The high plateau provided pinon nuts, acorns, wild onion, juniper berries, choke cherries for food and medicine. In the stream we caught Cutthroat trout by hand, either by blocking the stream or with hook and worm.

Gia Khuunʼs children and grand children prepared to plant corn along the Rio Grande, soon after Spring Solstice. I enjoyed days in spring before the fields were planted, when we set Sehfeʼ snares for blue birds. I found sunflower stalks over two feet tall. Tata cut hair off the horses tails, while I found springy, willow sprigs and dried twigs. Tata cut holes into the hollow stalks, made a loop of horse hair to set on the twig atop the opening. The willow sprig acted as a spring onto which the horsehair was tied. The dry twig that rested on the stalk held a loop and below the loop was a knot.

One of the entrances to Santa Clara as of a few years ago.

When Blue Birds sat on the twig, their weight triggered the horse hair noose to close on their legs. Weʼd set up to 15 snares. Gia Khuun enjoyed eating Blue Birds and so did we. The feathers were used for ceremonial regalia. We ate beans every day, so any meat was welcome. Interesting how money, stores and outsiderʼs views of Pueblo foods changed our thinking in one lifetime.

By mid-summer, we worked from dawn to dark irrigating rows of blue corn and sweet corn. We made sure they were in different fields because the corn cross pollinated. We hoed weeds in the hot sun fighting off shungo or mosquitos. Corn required mounds of dirt at the base of the roots to grow tall to bear the weight of developing ears. We knew when corn pollen was collected as tassels formed. There were names for every stage of the cornʼs growth. Mid-afternoon, weʼd sit in the shade of large cottonwood trees eating tortillas and beans from jars, sometimes drank cheap Garden Deluxe wine, and drank water from the ditch. Poma, Piin;Tse , So:oʼ and other friends came to visit us on horseback to exchange talk about which girl was an easy lay or about happenings in the Pueblo.

Near to homes, chile plants, melons and orchards grew in gardens. I hated gardens near our own home. The ground was rocky, weeds incessant, and the work with hoes had to be done prior to work in the fields along the river. We got whipped, if we didnʼt irrigate and hoe gardens near the Pueblo. Pueblo people invented the work ethic unequaled by other peoples. We ate meals of beans and stews before and after work. Travel to and from the fields, far and near, was like a stream of ants going to and from the fields, morning and evening. Evenings the movement slowed with welcome visiting and talking.

We considered young men lucky who were sent to the mountains to care for the bean fields. The mountain air up at Whe: Sapo, behind Puye was cooler by 20 degrees, the wildlife interesting, the water pure. And at dusk Aaga:pae or night hawks swooped to eat insects; sometimes men went down to Po:hu to catch a meal of delicious trout from the stream. This broke the monotony of work. Even there, men toiled incessantly. A simple fact of life was that Tuʼ, beans or beans with dried corn, Tsi:kho, boiled together provided over 90% of Pueblo meals. If our bean crops failed, our winters and springs verged on starvation for all the Pueblo. Cooperation was common when others needed help with horses, wagons or fields.  Generosity was a virtue practiced daily in sharing food, work implements, and in religious ceremonies within the Pueblo.

Harvest times verged on celebration in the entire Pueblo. Joyous times came when we experienced how our work brought the bounty of food. The religious calendar changed and harvest dances brought a change in seasons around fall solstice. Beans, dried on the stalk, were brought down from the plateaus in wagon loads ready for thrashing. Corn came from the fields as Pʼeeh, sweetcorn, to eat or to dry on roof tops to become Tsi:kho. Corn was shucked and saved in many ways. Loads of hay came to the corrals for horses. Fruits of plums, choke cherries, apples, melons and pumpkin were gathered and dried. All foods were eaten fresh or dried immediately. There was no electricity. Then, we hungered for fresh meat.

Fall harvest in Santa Clara with corn and squash.

Snows came and Ta traded a Jicarilla Apache, sinew-backed bow for a Winchester 1886, 40-82 with bullets. I inherited the little, pump 25-20, our under-rated deer killer. We drove 19 miles up to Pʼo:piiknu, Springs End, in Taʼs old Chevy, with the family dog. Ta climbed through thick spruce timber, above 10,000, before sunrise, where we found and tracked a large mule deer buck all morning ʻtil mid-afternoon. Without notice as we rested, the dog took up the tracks, caught up with the buck. We heard the dog barking below us, deer at bay. Brownie came running back to us with tongue lapping against his muzzle, irate buck chasing retreating dog. The deer saw Ta and I; the expected happened. Suddenly, the huge buck lowered his head charged the dog now cowering behind me. In the next instant, Ta threw me against the bole of spruce tree, aimed the 40-82 at the charging buck and shot. A thunderous boom bellowed through the silence of the snowy mountainside. The buck in a tangle of legs and horns slid by by us at five yards. Ta kept his aim on the buck thrashing six yards away, deer lunging to get up. Brownie, jumped on the deer, tearing out chunks of hair. Later, we carried down back strap, liver, and one back leg. We had meat for frying and more for jerky. Tata and I returned the next day to drag the buck down to the canyon road.

Gia Khuun placed the deer head in a flat basket, two ears of corn on the side of the deer head, proffered corn meal, uttered prayers. She said in Tewa, “This we do now so we may be favored by Pʼo:kanuʼ (sacred animals).”

Our Puebloʼs quiet world, rich with family relationships, where we knew hunger, but where we never felt poor, was on the verge of great disruption with the coming of World War II and the explosion at Los Alamos, eighteen miles Southwest. Kha:Pʼo would never be the same culturally, nor would we as Tewa children.

Children with fall harvest of corn and chiles.


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  1. Thank you for writing such a lovely story. It allowed me to view into another world so different from my own as a child. I was left wanting more. Please share the journey of the changes with us!
    Thank you, again,

  2. Tito- Many thanks for your story. I am still thankful that I had you as my professor and advisor at NMHU in 1981. Together with you, Margaret Vasquez and John Geofroy, it was a very good year. You gave me advice toward choosing the hogan as my master’s thesis. We never did get to those mountain tops!

  3. Tito- Many thanks for your story. I am still thankful that I had you as my professor and advisor at NMHU in 1981. Together with you, Margaret Vasquez and John Geofroy, it was a very good year. You gave me advice toward choosing the hogan as my master’s thesis. We never did get to those mountain tops!

  4. Thanks for the great story i hope to go to Kha o p Owingeh as that is part of my ancestral home i’m recently learning ,this is a piece of my culture too.

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