December 2015

Remembering Tewa Pueblo Houses and Spaces

Excerpt from The Multicultural Southwest: A Reader (1990), University of Arizona Press


Rina Swentzell


Santa Clara Pueblo was a wonderful place to grow up. I was a child there in the 1940s and remember the incredible sense of well-being and containment—both socially and physically. From the plaza or bupingeh (literally, the middle-heart place) of the pueblo, we could see far mountains encircle our lives—the growing of clouds and the bringing of that movement and water was initiated. We continually watched those mountains to see the clouds form out of them and to know on which of the valleys or summits the sun would rise or set. Those mountains, or world boundaries, were far away and were the province of the men and boys who went to visit the shrines there, and who would bring back the spirit and energies of the deer, bear, ram and evergreen plants to blend with ours in the dances and ceremonies of the middle-heart place.

The spaces between those mountains and the pueblo were shared by everyone (men and women, boys and girls). They included the low hills and small canyons where coyotes, rabbits and squirrels lived and where roots, herbs and other ground plants were found. There also were the fields and the large flowing water (the P’osongeh or Río Grande), which snaked along the base of the Black Mesa. The Black Mesa included the cave that went down into the center of the earth and was the home of the Tsavejo, or the masked whippers. There were dark areas, such as the cave, and light areas, such as the top of the low hills, from which we could see the far mountains of the four directions and a large part of the north-south valley within which lay the P’osongeh and the pueblo.

As the pueblo, or human space, was encircled by high mountains, low hills and flat fields, the center point (nansipu), from which the people emerged out of the underworld, was also girdled by different spaces within the pueblo. The nansipu, marked by an inconspicuous stone, was located within the middle-heart place, or the plaza. The plaza was bounded by house structures, which in turn were encircled by the corrals or places where horses, pigs and chickens lived. Beyond that, or sometimes overlapping, were the trash mounds. The trash mounds flowed into fields, and from there the energy moved into the hills and mountains where it entered those far shrines, moved through the underworld levels or existences and re-emerged through the nansipu.

The stories of the old people told us that we came to live on this fourth level of existence with the help of plants, birds and other animals. Once we emerged out of the underworld, we continued to need those other living beings. In order to find the center point, or the nansipu, the water spider and the rainbow were consulted. Water Spider spread its legs to the north, west, south and east and determined the middle of this world. Then, to make sure that Water Spider was right, Rainbow spread its arch of many colors to the north, west, south and east and confirmed Water Spider’s center point. There, the people placed a stone, and around that stone was defined the middle-heart place. Next, the living and sleeping structures were built in terraced forms, like mountains, with stepped tiers that enclosed and protected the plaza, or the valley of the human place.

The house and kiva structure also emulated the low hills and mountains in their connectedness to the earth. The adobe structures flowed out of the earth, and it was often difficult to see where the ground stopped and where the structures began. The house structures were, moreover, connected to each other, enclosing an outdoor space from which we could directly connect with the sky and focus on moving clouds. Connectedness was primary. The symbolic flowed into the physical world as at the nansipu, where the po-wa-ha (the breath of the cosmos) flowed out of the underworld into this world.

The kiva structure was totally symbolic. Its rooftop was like the pueblo plaza space from where we could connect with the sky, while the rooftop opening took us into the kiva structure, which was like going back into the earth via the nansipu in the plaza. Within the feminine dark interior, the plaza space configuration was repeated with the human activity area around the nansipu, the earth floor under the woven basket roof above, representing the sky. The connecting ladder made of tall spruce or pine trees stood in the middle near the nansipu. Everything was organized to remind us constantly of the primary connections with the earth, sky, other life forms and the cosmic movement. These primary connections were continually reiterated.

The materials used for construction were also symbolically important. In the Río Grande area, most of the building was adobe mud mixed with either ashes or dried plant material. In the Tewa language, the word for “us” is nung, and the word for “earth” or “dirt” is also nung. As we are synonymous with and born of the earth, so are we made of the same stuff as our houses.

As children, we tasted houses because of their varying textures and tastes. Not only could houses be tasted, they were also blessed, healed and fed periodically. Before the actual construction of a house, offerings were placed at its four corners. Later, during the house building, prayers would be said, and more offerings were placed within the walls and ceiling beams to bless and protect the completed whole. Thereafter, the structure was blessed and fed cornmeal during specific ceremonies. Houses were also given the ultimate respect of dying. During my childhood, when I walked back and forth between the pueblo and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ school, which was about one-half mile away, I would meander among the pueblo structures, tasting them. One day, I noticed a crack forming in the wall of a particularly good-tasting house. I watched the crack grow over several weeks until I became concerned about the house falling. I asked my great-grandmother why the people who lived in that house were doing nothing about fixing the crack. She shook her finger at me and said that it was not my business to be concerned about whether the house fell down or not: “It has been a good house, it has been taken care of, fed, blessed and healed many times during its life, and now it is time for it to go back to the earth.” Shortly afterward, the house collapsed and, in appropriate time, the same materials were reused to build a new structure in the same place. It was not always easy to tell if walls were going up or falling apart.

Not long after that house fell down, my great-grandmother and I stood and watched the house that we lived in slowly, and most elegantly, crumble into a pile. I had watched, again, a crack working its way down the wall as I washed my face in the washbowl. It was a few minutes before I had the presence of mind to grab my great-grandmother’s hand and pull her out the door before the house collapsed.

Building for permanence was not a priority and, as a result, the structures were interactive. We built them, tasted them, talked with them, climbed on them, lived with them and watched them die. They, in turn, would either be kind and warm or torment us with “not good” energies which they might embrace. Many different kinds of energies flowed through the structures because they shared in the energies of the people who lived and died in them, or sometimes they joined the “bad winds,” which blew through them. Periodically cleansing and healing them was, therefore, very important. Also important was that everybody—men, women and children—was involved in the building process. Building was not a specialized activity to be done only by men. Women and children shared equally in all but the heaviest part of the work. Maintenance was more often the responsibility of the women and children. I remember two weeks every August before our Santa Clara feast day as an exhilarating time, because everybody would be plastering houses and outdoor ovens and generally re-creating the entire pueblo house. Being knee deep in mud, carrying buckets of it or patting the heavy, gelatinous mixture into the wooden adobe-brick forms were very ordinary activities of our daily lives.

Through all the spaces that we created, our everyday lives flowed easily. The use of outdoor areas for cooking, eating and visiting was still common during my childhood years in Santa Clara. Communal activities such as husking corn, drying fruit and baking bread happened anywhere from the corral areas, where the animals were kept, to the main plaza area. The walls and structure defined those other very important outdoor community activity areas. The focus, then, was not only on what happened indoors—within structures—but also outdoors, where the community came together most often.

Indoors, the rooms were multifunctional. The kitchen was used for cooking, eating and receiving people. Sleeping areas also doubled as living and storage rooms. Rooms for food storage were an important part of the structure because farming was still an integral life activity. Again, there was little specialization of indoor areas or creation of spaces for decorative or image-promoting reasons. All areas were functional.

That straightforward approach applied both indoors and outdoors. Landscaping, or the beautification of outdoor spaces, was a foreign concept. The natural environment was primary, and the human structures were made to fit into the hills and around boulders or trees. In that setting, planting pretty flowers that need watering was ridiculous. Decoration for decoration’s sake was unnecessary. Sometimes, murals were painted on interior walls, but they were symbolically significant; they were explicit reminders of the meaningful connections in the world.

It was not until I was well into my adult years that I began to realize that the process of building and the interaction with the buildings and the materials that we used were very much an extension of our worldview as Pueblo people. It was at that time that an insatiable urge to see the ruins of the Old Ones (the Anasazi) came upon me. I was beside myself when I “discovered” shrines in mountains far from home, openings into the earth in the bedrock at Chaco Canyon, nansipus within kivas within plazas in Sand Canyon, south-facing cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, unbonded walls throughout the Southwest and handprints of the builders (women, men and children) on sandstone cliffs over falling walls in Hovenweep.

I began also to understand the value of our lifestyle, beliefs and architecture for ourselves, as well as for other people who have moved away from an intimate relationship with the land, clouds and all other life forms. I now appreciate the emphasis on the whole in that architecture. The entire community was the house, and the parts (house units) were important for their role as connectors to the other parts and to the earth. I see that the respect for the natural environment that was inherent in the style and process of building was special—and is crucial for the survival of the world. I value tremendously the unselfconsciousness and absence of aesthetic pretension, which led to doing everything straightforwardly, yet which still considered the context and the connection so that practical and symbolic function were never lost. Most important, I treasure the sense of sacredness which pervaded that old Pueblo world. All of life, including walls, rocks and people, was part of an exquisite, flowing unity.



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