Christmas Eve at the Taos Pueblo is punctuated with bonfires large and small, hand-built pyres of aged ponderosa pine called ekote. In Oaxaca, we call it the same but it’s spelled differently: ocote. This wood is infused with sap that makes it easy to ignite, and it burns hot and fast. I use it to start my wood-fired barbecue in Teotitlan del Valle. The magic of people congregating, the fires burning, the smoke curling, the ashes flying, the posada with the palanquin of the Virgin Mary carried by elders, with Taos Pueblo men holding stanchions of burning wood out front, reminds of me of Teotitlan del Valle. Behind the young men holding the stanchions are others with rifles shooting blanks. Those of us in proximity have our fingers in our ears. The sound is deafening and punctuates the atmosphere. It is shocking and alarming. Next come small children dressed in Native American attire. They are dancing, chanting, and shaking rattles. But this is different.
I am wondering where this tradition comes from, so I ask a Pueblo man who was responsible for lighting the pyre I was standing next to. Oh, it’s an ancient tradition, he says. Then, he goes on to explain that it is a re-enactment of the invasion of the U.S. Cavalry at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1867, when the Taos Pueblo was the last hold-out to succumb to territorial occupation. Roots here go deep into Mexican, American, and Indigenous history.
This is a history fraught with battle and confrontation and territorial expansion when the U.S. government sought to control Hispano and Pueblo people. The original adobe church was burned; clerics, military and locals lost their lives.
Here we are in the 21st century participating in a display of pyrotechnics. Many see it as entertainment on Christmas Eve with little understanding or knowledge of the history of indigenous survival in the Americas. We know a similar history in Mexico.
So, here’s the question: Which country treats its indigenous people better … now and in the past … Mexico or the USA?
Happiest Holidays to All of You!