Travel can teach children respect as well as lessons about different cultures

January 02, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The men -- even the young boys -- were bare-chested despite the cold, their torsos painted turquoise. Their shell necklaces jingled as they moved in time to the drum beats in the pueblo plaza. The women and small girls were ornately costumed -- from their square headdresses to their traditional black dresses, jewelry and soft white boots.

As the sun began to set, we felt as if we'd stumbled into another century. In the shadow of adobe buildings dating back more than 300 years in Jemez, N.M., we watched hundreds of dancers -- from children barely kindergarten age to those old enough to be their great-grandparents -- perform the measured steps of the Corn Dance, moving from one end of the plaza to the other.

Because this is a sacred religious ceremony, we were not permitted to take photographs, or even notes. "Please observe them as you would a church service, with respect and quiet attention," we'd been told.

On the outskirts of the plaza, table after table was laden with fine pottery and jewelry. American Indian artists had come from all over the area to display their work.

It was at the same time solemn and festive -- like a Christmas Eve service.

"We give thanks for the harvest and for good health," Stuart Gachupin, until recently a Pueblo official, explained later. This year's feast was especially significant, he noted, because the 3,300 people who live in Jemez were celebrating the return after 100 years of 86 sacred objects from the Smithsonian.

Throughout the dance, 7-year-old Reggie's eyes were riveted on the children in the plaza as they struggled to follow the dance steps. She was mesmerized by the sight of kids who at the same time seemed just like her but so much a part of a different world.

New Mexico, we discovered, is a wonderful place for children to learn about American Indian life in a hands-on way. We climbed around cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument and Puye, trying to imagine what life would have been like for the Anasazi children who lived high up on the cliffs nearly 1,000 years ago. Reggie especially loved climbing 140 feet up the steep wooden ladders to visit the Ceremonial Cave at Bandelier. (For more information about summer ranger programs for children at Bandelier, near Los Alamos, call [505] 672-3861.)

And, of course, we shopped, comparing the styles of the artists from different pueblos. One favorite spot was the Case Trading Post in the basement of the Wheelright Museum in Santa Fe, a bona fide replica of a turn-of-the-century Navajo trading post. Reggie bought colored corn necklaces for $3. We had fun chatting with the artisans in Albuquerque's Old Town and outside the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe.

During August, Santa Fe boasts the world's largest Indian market, drawing some 1,200 artisans and 200,000 tourists. (For more information about Indian Market and the Memorial Weekend Pow-Wow at the Pojaque pueblo, especially geared to families, call [505] 983-5220.)

A great place to start any child's tour is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, owned and operated by the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. The permanent museum traces the history of the Pueblo culture from their Anasazi ancestors to contemporary crafts. The Pueblo House Children's Museum brings it all to life.

The morning we were there, school kids were busy trying on XTC native costumes, grinding corn and doing puzzles of pottery design.

"The majority of kids come saying they want to see an Indian. Then they'll stand right by one and don't even know it," observes curator Pat Reck. The center helps combat that type of ignorance by doing everything from serving meals at the pueblo restaurant, where we enjoyed piping hot Indian fry bread, to offering dance performances and art demonstrations each weekend. (For a schedule, call [505] 843-7270.)

But be forewarned: It's not uncommon to encounter a less-than-friendly reception in many of the Indian communities of the Southwest. At the Taos pueblo, for example, we felt that we were intruding -- despite having paid $5 to enter the complex of adobe dwellings that date back nearly 1,000 years.

One woman who lives there acknowledged the chill. "A lot of tourists don't respect the privacy of the people who live here," she explained, adding that they even allow their children to splash in the creek that provides the pueblo's only fresh water, open closed doors or climb ladders to upper-level living quarters.

"You don't just go into strangers' homes in your neighborhood," she said. "Remember this is a community, too."

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