SANTA CLARA PUEBLO – Atop the mesa above the Puye Cliff Dwellings, ancient volcanic rock-wall ruins have been painstakingly rebuilt. Native mud made much the way it was a millennium ago is hand-plastered onto the walls.
This is the work that numerous tribal teens have willingly accepted for longer than the past decade, often working beneath a relentless sun with no shade.
Here, the teens are forging a link to their past while helping develop their culture for the future.
Because of the success of the program under the auspices of the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps, Santa Clara has been recognized by the state as a Heritage Preservation Award honoree for Tribal Heritage Preservation.
“Selected projects in cultural and natural resource preservation were designed to create temporary youth employment, learning and mentoring opportunities,” according to the awards brochure.
“Project goals were meant to inspire youth to embrace nature and pueblo culture, while encouraging healthy lifestyles, and preparing them to become effective, contributing citizens through character development and community action.”
The old pueblo, in the cliffs and on the mesa top, is the largest ancestral native settlement on the Pajarito Plateau, once supporting a population of 1,500 people. It was inhabited from the 900s to about 1580.
Ben Chavarria, Santa Clara director of rights protection and the tribal historic preservation officer, helped institute the rebuilding program in 2007 and it has been going strong every year since, except when wildfires interfered and when Santa Clara missed a grant for this year.
“The whole goal was to teach the importance of our culture and survival, our sustainability and how we were able to endure,” he said. “We look at our ancestors and what they went through. It teaches our children nothing is impossible and not to give up, and the importance of looking at your future and continuance.”
Indeed, for the program participants, the work was for more than just a paycheck.
Lenaiya Chavarria, 21, who will study psychology, indigenous studies and early childhood education at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, was a crew boss last year and enjoyed the experience, despite having to rough it some.
“I wanted to be challenged,” she said. “I’ve always done office jobs, and I know people from home do this every year. I was kind of afraid of the heat and I’m not good with snakes, but I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and I did, and I’m glad I did because I enjoyed every single day that I came up here.”
Kyleigh Dasheno, 16, who is a Santa Fe Indian School junior, has worked on the project for two years.
“I like to be outside, so it was in my interests,” she said. “It seemed fun. You can meet a lot of people, and I wanted to spend my time somewhere different. It was pretty hot, but it was fun and I made a lot of friends.”
They got right in there with the guys, and hauled sand and mixed mud and poured water and glopped the mixture onto the walls.
“We had to carry big wheelbarrows filled with mud from this side to the other side, where we filled them up at,” Lenaiya Chavarria said. “That was hard, because they were heavy and they weren’t sturdy, so sometimes they would break in the middle and we’d have to transfer the mud to another wheelbarrow. It would give us strength, but it was a struggle sometimes.”
From the struggle, however, lessons were learned.
“My favorite was making mud,” Dasheno said. “It was hard because you had to get it to a certain consistency. And we had to plaster the walls. There were tools, but most of the time we used our hands.”
Jareth Baca, 20, an information technology student at Northern New Mexico College, has been working at the job for six years, both as a crew member and as a crew boss.
“To me, it brings forth one of our core values of the pueblo, which is giving back,” he said. “Rebuilding the walls. Our main mission was to complete one full section, so that was our main responsibility and we had until the end of the summer. Sometimes, we would get done early and we would start on another section.”
For 16-year-old Aaron Duran, a junior at Santa Fe Indian School who is also part Tesuque, the experience helped him get in touch with a side of his past with which he had little contact.
“I grew up in Tesuque,” he said. “Working here was good because I never really was in my Santa Clara side before. It was interesting seeing different places and experiences.
“At first it didn’t mean too much, I was kind of taking it for granted, but since the project is over, I was thankful that I got to work up here. It’s an enlightening feeling and you know you don’t have to do so much work any more. But, also, it’s a good feeling, you did accomplish something.”
Interacting with the other workers was also a big part of the experience, Lenaiya Chavarilla and Dasheno said.
“I got to hear a lot of stories and different perspectives everyone had,” Dasheno said. “It’s different because every day you learn something new.”
Chavarria added: “When we would start in the houses, and building stuff, they would tell stories. It was stuff I never even knew about. My mom is a Tewa language teacher. She would me tell me stories. But these were stories I never heard before. It was good to hear from other people, and their perspectives and their experiences. There was a lot of sharing. Different kinds of things that others didn’t know about.”
And all of that helps make the program a triumph, Ben Chavarria said.
“This is their ancestral home, and they’re still here,” he said of the pueblo’s ancestral spirits.
“They didn’t leave. Even though this is a ruin, they’re still here. It’s been a good success.”