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Success Story: Taos Pueblo tour guide program

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Sharing the beauty and history of Taos Pueblo has a long tradition. Early on, there was a docent program and since the 1970s, there have been tours offered by guides. “The tour guide program was started by the late Tony Reyna and it continues to serve its original purposes: helping to educate visitors about our community and providing a stepping stone for students as they move toward their educational goals and dreams,” says Ilona Spruce, director of tourism at Taos Pueblo.

 An in-depth experience

For the visitor, touring the Pueblo with a guide provides an in-depth view of the history and traditions of the village, beyond the buildings. “It is a chance to interact with a tribal member and to understand that visiting the Pueblo is like coming into someone’s home. It brings a special fruitfulness to the experience of learning that this is a living community,” says Spruce.

 The tour guides have a chance to tell the story of the Pueblo people and also to clear up misconceptions and address stereotypes about Native people in general. “By sharing our history, we have a platform to educate visitors about Indian Country in general,” explains Spruce.

Some visitors come with preconceived notions about Native peoples that are based on the Plains Indians. “The tours make the community real,” Spruce says. “People may feel enlightened to learn about the real history of the Pueblo people and how we are different. Through the tours, visitors can see that the Native culture is very much alive. We all have different beliefs and are unique individuals.”

Tour guides

There is an orientation for the guides when they begin, but each one is free to add their own experiences. The guides are college students who are home for the summer or attending the University of New Mexico - Taos. As Spruce points out, students who are in environmental studies might know more about the geology and animals of the area. “One of the tour guides is a nursing student, and she knows more about the social aspects of the community,” says Spruce.

The money the guides earn through gratuities from leading the tours helps supplement other sources of funds to pay for higher education. There is a tribal scholarship, but that is not enough to cover all the costs. As Spruce points out, “There is a misconception that Native youth get to go to college for free. But unless there is an agreement in place that waives tuition, that is not the case.”

Some of the tour guides go to the UNM-Taos and so are able to lead tours year round. For some students, it makes sense to go to college in Taos for the first two years and then transfer to UNM-Albuquerque or another four-year college for their junior and senior years. Spruce says that several of the tour guides have recently earned their associate degrees. “That is part of the success of the program, helping students get an education that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible.”

The tours

During a recent weekend, the tour groups increased in size as the day went on, and a number of different languages could be heard among the participants. In addition to people from the United States, there are many visitors from Europe, particularly Italy and Germany. Over the years, visitors have come from Japan, and more recently there are more people from China, says Spruce.

During the tours, the guides explain that the Taos Pueblo has a dual belief system that encompasses their traditional practices, which are thousands of years old and have some elements of Catholicism introduced by the Spanish when they came here starting in the late 1500s. As Spruce says, “The Pueblo is conservative about sharing its traditional and religious beliefs and that has helped keep the beliefs sacred over time. The tour guides are able to share with visitors what is appropriate. It is all about having that grace to answer the questions and at the same time respect our traditional beliefs and keep them private.”

The guides tell the story of the Pueblo Revolt, organized in 1680, as a response to the harsh Spanish rule. They explain that when the Spanish returned 12 years later, there was a more equal relationship between the two peoples, and boundaries were drawn between the Pueblo and the town.

Through all the turmoil of history, the Pueblo people were never forced to leave their homeland. Spruce says, “Others endured being moved hundreds of miles from their homes and hunting grounds. We are thankful to our forefathers for maintaining the strength of our beliefs and our land. We have thousands of years of connection with our traditional homelands.”

Experience for the guides

Spruce was a tour guide for three summers and a winter season while she was in school. “It was a lot of fun,” she says. “You get to meet people from all over the world and to interact with them and learn, too. The guides have a chance to experience public speaking and build relationships. Some guides have kept in touch with visitors for years.”

Current guide Deanna Autumn Leaf Suazo has finished her freshman year at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she was on the president’s list in recognition of her good grades. She works with traditional art in oil on canvas and also explores more contemporary art using symbols from Native people. She hopes to study the traditional micaceous pottery as was made by her great-great-grandmother Maria Romero.

Suazo says that many people don’t know much about indigenous people and she welcomes the opportunity to help educate them. She says, “I want people to know that we are still here. I live in two different worlds, abiding by our traditional values and also being in the modern world.”

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