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Sunday, January 7, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ancient Spirits -- With Its Layers Of Culture And Mystical Land, Santa Fe Keeps Luring Visitors

SANTA FE, N.M. - All of us who visit Santa Fe and its people enter a circle of sacred mountains. Within that circle lies everything given the Pueblo Indian people by their creator to make life good. Within that circle lie four centuries of multicultural history, as Hispanics and then Anglos joined the Pueblo people and found life in northern New Mexico good.

Each year, more people delight in the inspirational light that colors the clear, dry air over this small city at 7,000 feet. Drawn by the warm adobe, the magic of the landscape, the rich layering of cultures, and the lure of Southwestern art, travelers have flocked to those pinon- and juniper-covered hills. Retirees seeking adobe hideaways and other newcomers from faraway urban areas have made land prices soar.

Real-estate developers describe the land as ``a prestigious investment opportunity.'' Pueblo Indians still call the place ``the dancing ground of the sun.''

As Santa Fe has hit boom times, it has become more a resort and less a place where people live together in a community. Most Indian people simply cannot afford to live here; many others prefer to live in their home pueblo. A few families still farm. But art - painting, silverwork, weaving and particularly pottery - provides the best way to live in the old village and earn a living.

Though the demand for Indian art and skyrocketing prices have been an economic bonanza, success brings change that worries many Pueblo people.

Rina Swentzell, a Santa Clara Pueblo member and architectural historian, says, ``The relationship that the Pueblo people established here with the land, clouds and mountains was unique because it was so strong, developed over thousands of years.''

But with the growing popularity of Santa Fe, Swentzell worries about too much change. ``If that continuity gets broken, you lose your sense of connectedness to the world around you. You lose a sense of balance.''

Perhaps the best way to experience that connection to the mountains and sky is to travel to northern New Mexico when the crowds do not. Holding a hand-coiled pot, watching a ceremonial dance, visiting a Pueblo village - any of these can open the door to this world that still gives Santa Fe its Indian spirit.

The tourist season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day; the Santa Fe Opera, Chamber Music Festival and Indian Market keep the city thronged. Feast Days at the pueblos attract huge crowds. Brief busy seasons come at Christmas and spring break when ski vacationers fill the lodges.

In the off-season, however, the locals reclaim their town. Without the crowds, Indian artists have more time to talk to the occasional visitor to their studios. And the ceremonial cycle of dances at the pueblos feels sacred again.

Walk through Santa Fe's plaza on a still January day when your tracks are the first in a foot of fresh snow. Come in autumn when aspens blaze gold on the Sangre de Cristo mountains above town. Come in the spring when the pueblos make the transition from animal dances to corn dances, marking spring planting, a time of growth and hope.

For this is a Pueblo landscape. Each village believes its location to be ``the center of the universe.'' Watch the sun and moon rise and set at horizons formed by their holy mountains - the Jemez to the west, and to the east the Sangre de Cristo range - and you just may agree.

Northern New Mexico has been home to Pueblo Indians and their ancestors for thousands of years. Archaeologists call the prehistoric residents of the Four Corners area - the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado - the Anasazi Indians, a people often dismissed as ``vanished by 1300 A.D.''

But they did not all vanish; they simply moved, many of them to villages along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Today's Pueblo Indians are the direct descendants of the ``disappeared'' Anasazi, and are spread from Taos to the Hopi mesas of Arizona.

In the 1500s, Spain came to stay, imposing Christianity on native cultures. But by creatively combining their religion with Spanish Catholicism and, later, 20th-century Anglo values, Pueblo people have kept their traditions alive.

Since 1609, the political heart of Pueblo country has been Santa Fe, where the Spaniards built their capital on the ruins of an abandoned pueblo. And this remains a Hispanic community. Local descendants of the conquistadores are quick to point out they are not Mexican in heritage, but Spanish.

A humble one-story adobe structure on the north side of the plaza symbolizes the history of this town: the Palace of the Governors, used as a seat of government under four flags, for nearly four centuries.

Today, the palace is a museum, a memorial to Spanish influence in the Southwest. Yet under its portal, facing the plaza, sit Indian artists, selling silverwork, beadwork, carvings and pottery. While the city offers salaried jobs for Indian people who commute to town from the pueblos, the palace portal may be the only place visitors to Santa Fe will see and talk with an entire group of Indian people.

It was Pueblo artists who created the original version of ``Santa Fe Style,'' now a trendy term for everything from restaurants to shades of lipstick. While the artists continue to work with age-old techniques, they keep a sharp eye on the galleries, searching for new ways to reshape their work for the marketplace. Potters, for instance, are now stone-polishing black and red pottery to a new standard of high gloss.

``We are living museum pieces,'' says Navajo silversmith Rodey Lee Guerro with pride. Bears, frogs, and weaving designs mark his pieces - old designs modified by contemporary creativity. Every day, Guerro and some 70 other artists from many tribes sell their wares from the flagstones underneath the stout vigas, the beams that support the roof of the palace porch.

With the boom, the artists under the portal must draw lots for spaces in summer.

For the August Santa Fe Indian market, 150,000 people pack the town (which normally numbers 50,000), spending $23 million in a single week. Those dollars constitute two-thirds of many Indians' annual income, sufficient to support entire extended families.

This rush of visitors has its problems. A few collectors become so frenzied in their passion to buy prize-winning pieces that fistfights break out, reducing the artists to tears.

Gallery owner Michael Hamilton says, ``You can't educate someone buying a $1,900 pot in 15 minutes.''

Pottery comes right out of the ancient culture, and ceremonial dances have the same ancestral connection.

You can feel this on a feast day, when poetry, myth, song and ritual come alive in a world of Pueblo art and architecture.

Feast Day at San Ildefonso Pueblo: As a winter night turns slowly to day, smoke rises from behind two small hills at the edge of the village. The animal dancers have gathered there, preparing to enter the village.

Below, the San Ildefonso people stand at the edge of the pueblo, to welcome and greet the animal spirits. Visitors stand with them; everyone's breath mingles in puffs of steam.

Calls begin to sound through the still, cold air, a caw-cawing made by the hunting priests guarding the dancers. Suddenly, the first dancers appear in silhouette against the gray-blue pre-dawn sky just on the edge of turning gold - a ram on the crest of one hill, a deer on the other.

Men representing buffalo, antelope, mountain sheep and deer wind down toward the village, walking with the rhythm of an animal's gait.

Drummers welcome them; the women of the village dust their path with blessings of cornmeal. They wind through the gathering of earthly people and dance their way around the plaza.

The dancers circle the plaza in austere rounds throughout the day. Their steps vibrate with compressed energy - the energy of game animals, recreated here in the village to ensure good hunting for the winter.

Pueblo people learn to dance ``from the heart up.'' They begin young, dance until they are old, and take their religious responsibilities seriously.

The dances may seem repetitive. And the plazas are dusty and hot in summer, numbingly cold in winter. But let the rhythm of the moccasined feet and the boom of the hide-covered drums reach you through the earth, setting up sympathetic vibrations in your bones.

Farther north, Taos Pueblo has its grand celebrations, as well, such as San Geronimo's Feast Day on Sept. 30.

The day's feasting and trading fair climax when the koshares, the sacred clowns, ascend a tall cottonwood log and bring down a freshly killed sheep and bags of food, gifts from the heavens and Earth for the people.

The outsiders at the lively San Geronimo trading fair include other Indians: Navajos and Apaches from elsewhere in New Mexico and from Arizona. These tribes arrived late, barely beating the Spanish to the Southwest.

Each culture that comes here brings new ideas that generate creative energy as well as conflict, competition and a need for understanding and reconciliation.

And underneath the newly applied glitz and ballyhoo, the talented people of Santa Fe continue to offer us their gifts of art and craft.

They say goodbye to their pieces before they consign them to galleries, wishing them on their way with emotion. Each piece carries a part of their lives and, by extension, the spirit and culture of their ancestors.

``All the things that affect me come out in my work,'' says Nora Naranjo-Morse. ``It's a circle, the connection between me and the finished product. People that react to my pieces enter the circle.''

Those intrigued by an aspect of this place and its people enter that same circle - whether the spark that attracts them is landscape, art or ritual.

Within lie new meanings, new connections. Within lies the spirit of Santa Fe.

Writer and photographer Stephen Trimble lived for 10 years in the Southwest. He now lives in Salt Lake City.

(Copyright by Stephen Trimble, distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.)

CUTLINE: TWO PUEBLO ELDERS WATCH THE DAY GO BY IN THE VILLAGE OF SANTA CLARA.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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