Anyone driving through west-central New Mexico on Route 66 will eventually spot a white adobe church high atop a hill to the north, situated in the middle of Laguna Pueblo. Considering the history of the area, the paved interstate and its travelers are relative newcomers, while the church, San Jose de la Laguna, has stood for 315 years.
The Pueblo itself is older, settled in proximity to a lake, now gone. Linguistic-minded readers may note that the word laguna itself means “lake”. Spain and its conquistadors had already begun to colonize this part of New Mexico, and history commonly holds that San Jose was constructed in 1699.
Although the Franciscans established the church at Laguna some 19 years after the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the village was not without its own share of religious and cultural unrest. At one point San Jose was used as a stable, remaining that way until some Catholics in the Pueblo were able to restore it.
The adherents of both Christianity and traditional Laguna beliefs now enjoy life in the village together, and earlier this summer, a special anniversary Mass to celebrate the 315th anniversary of San Jose was celebrated by Bishop James Wall. Various Laguna dignitaries were also in attendance for the day, including Pueblo Governor Richard Luarkie.
To Luarkie, the Mass and anniversary celebration was a testament to the endurance of the Laguna way of life.
“There’s an incredible perseverance and resilience to overcome an inquisition or imposition on our Pueblo way of life,” Luarkie said. “To have the compassion and gentleness in spirit and heart to still embrace – regardless of all those elements that led to things like the Pueblo Revolt – to still at some point say ‘let’s sit down and eat together.’ On a community level it’s a little more challenging because you have variant views of community members about the church. It’s also demonstrated at a community level the ability to bring camaraderie, to demonstrate forgiveness, and to perpetuate the life and responsibility that we’ve been given to take care of this part of the world.”
According to Luarkie, historically Catholicism in the Pueblo was not always a positive influence, imposing on the traditional Laguna notions of spirituality, with later efforts from various Protestant branches all vying to gain a foothold in the area.
Despite the events of the past, the influence of the two groups on each other is not always negative.
“I think that religion has played a role in helping to bring some sense of acknowledgment that there is a higher authority, regardless of how you pray,” said Luarkie. “I think religion has also brought an opportunity for reflection, not only on who we are as a Laguna people, but what we represent as participants and co-existors in this society.”
The melding of both cultures can be seen today. Various patron saints have their own special feast days and Masses at the Pueblo. A choir of Laguna drummers and singers performs at San Jose, and even travels to the Cathedral in Gallup to provide music for the feast day Mass of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the saint beloved by so many Native people.
Governor Luarkie hopes the relationship between Catholicism and Laguna culture continues to provide strength for the Pueblo as a whole.
“The lesson that can be given is that even if you’re the Church, you’re not perfect. Even if you’re a pueblo, we’re not perfect. But that does not excuse us from pursuing perfection. We should chase it every day. And in this pursuit of perfection, we’re going to be doing our best…it’s going to bring a stronger element of resurgence back to our own traditional way of life.”
Pictures by Liz and Xavier Allison