Searching for Native Roots in New Mexico

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Retracing the migratory paths of her Native American ancestors, photographer Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer patches together her multicultural past and future self. Words and Photos by Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer and Nate Francis

We stood where it seemed to have begun, at least as far back as I know. The same space that once held our ancestors, now holds us: her, him, and me. We stood there as my distant cousin Nate Francis taught us how he thanks the land for the experience we are preparing to have. Then we all thanked it for welcoming us and for what it has to offer during our visit.

For the first time, I was learning Native American history standing amongst beautiful ancestral sites and with people whom I share DNA. It wasn’t through an (what I believe to be somewhat flawed) educational system, making this journey unavoidably real and raw for me. Learning from family brought more depth to the teachings: I could see the physical connection in their faces, through the deep knowledge that Nate possesses and my mom’s eagerness to know more.

petroglyphs in New Mexico

“The La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs is an ancestral site of pictures and stories etched in the volcanic rock by the native Pueblo people. As always, respect this space, do not tamper with these meaningful petroglyphs.”

Ember Collection

“Ancient pottery pieces we found and returned while walking the land our ancestors once walked and lived.” Wearing the Ember Collection.

I’m raised culturally Hispanic. Mis abuelos’ [my grandparents] first language is Spanish. While the aroma of green chili always filled their kitchen, Spanish music played in the background. Little did we know there was a piece of us missing from our culture. I used to tell my mom that she spent more time with the dead than the living because she was always running around graveyards (sounds creepy, but it’s actually kind of cool) looking for distant relatives. She would often meet with people connected to our family (relatives and/or friends) to learn more about our history. One year, my mom did a DNA test and found out that her DNA contains 36% Native American blood.

Why didn’t we know? Why wasn’t that a piece of us, culturally? Suddenly, I felt torn, I felt as if there was a tug-of-war going on inside of me. Through a series of talks with those that come from a similar background, learning more about Native American history and self-reflection, I’ve discovered that parts of our culture were kept from us intentionally. My mom’s discovery of this new piece of ourselves brought me here: standing in the Galisteo Basin in New Mexico, home of the Pueblo people, with my mom and our distant cousin Nate.

Abi LaFleur and family

From left, photographer Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer, her cousin Nate Francis and mother Louise Shaffer. 

I asked my mom and Nate how they felt being here:

Louise: “There is a word in Spanish that describes how I feel, ‘querencia,’ ‘a place where one feels at home.’ Although I was not born nor raised in New Mexico, I feel as though I have always belonged here. When Nate took us to the Galisteo Basin, I felt that querencia once again. It brought tears to my eyes. My heart is here. I am so grateful to Nate and so blessed to take this journey with my daughter.”

Nate: “Like I am home.” Nate continued to express that while he feels at home here, he also recognizes the hurt he feels that Spanish settlers took their homes, their land and now mansions lie among the cholla cactus and upon ancestral sites, while the people who came before were left without their homes.

Galisteo Basin

The Galisteo Basin.

The Galisteo Basin sits in north-central New Mexico, decorated in cane cholla cactus and sun, framed by the Ortiz, the Sangre de Cristo, the Cerrillos Hills, and the Jemez mountains. My cousin, Nate shared that the native tribes migrated north into Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, a rebellion of the Pueblo people against Spanish colonization.

“After the reconquest ‘2nd Pueblo Revolt’ when the Spanish returned, [the] Tanos [tribes] left, going to Hopi and establishing the Hano Village at First Mesa in 1700. The Pueblo Revolt in 1680 has a big history to why we left Galisteo and the Reconquest. That is something you have to read to understand,” Nate writes.

Ember Mid

“I imagined the people that once lived on this land.”

Ember Mid

Standing in the Galisteo Basin. Pictured: Ember Mid in Deep Taupe.

We followed our ancestor’s movement the best we could and found ourselves standing among broken pieces of pottery in the Arroyo Hondo Pueblo near Galisteo. The yellow foliage of the land grows over the ruins of ancient brick Pueblo walls, the grass decorated in pottery shards once molded by Native hands.

In silence, I imagined the people that once lived on this land. I imagined them grinding corn with their rock mortars. I imagined the conversations they had in their native tongue. I imagined what the land looked like when it was untouched by today’s structures. What creatures must have run in these fields and climbed these mountains—creatures that we no longer see today? What was it like the day their land and their culture was threatened, then taken? The questions I have about the two pieces of myself felt like a sinking rock.

New Mexico pottery

“Pottery remains from Arroyo Hondo Pueblo near Galisteo. These pieces belong to these ancestral sites, ALWAYS leave meaningful and precious artifacts where they are found.”

Ember Moc in Black

Pictured: Ember Moc in Black. 

After discovering that we have Native American heritage, suddenly my Spanish and Native American identity was at odds. How can I embrace one side of myself that hurt and stole from the other side of myself?

Next, we walked through the town of Abiquiu, taking in the dirt roads where branches of our family tree diverged. Our lineage isn’t easily traceable but Abiquiu was built on the ruins of a prehistoric Tewa Pueblo and became the home of Hispanic settlers. Inside the Abiquiu library, I spoke with a local woman who educates visitors on the history of the people who’ve resided, and still do, in the area. She shared that they hold two feasts every year: one to celebrate their Spanish culture, the Santa Rosa Feast, and another to celebrate their Native American heritage, the Santo Tomas Feast. Somehow, learning about these two celebrations helped patch a small piece of the tear within myself—the tear between my Hispanic cultural upbringing and the newly discovered Native American piece.

New Mexico

Abiquiu New Mexico

Exploring the Pueblo of Abiquiu.

Ember Moc in Rooibos Tea

Pictured: Ember Moc in Rooibos Tea. 

I can’t help but be all of those things. It left me wondering if that is something we can all do moving forward: find a deep sense of respect and honor for what our ancestors walked through, the pain they endured, while also searching for a way to celebrate all aspects of who we are today. Is there a way for us to see the good in our family history and find the peace within ourselves, the peace that was impossible to have back then? I never want to take away the pain, and I believe reparations are still to be made. How can we use that to launch us forward to ensure that nothing of the sort happens again, into acceptance of each other and ourselves, and into celebrating the good we all bring to the cultural table?

New Mexico

Louise Shaffer

Being here, I felt a deeper respect for my mom and her love of family history. I feel a deeper connection with her and a deeper sense of pride for who I am. But more importantly, this has given me a new respect for this culture and those who have endured so much, for those who are are fighting to take back their culture while moving through forgiveness and celebration.

The history of Native Americans is rich and can be painful up-close. But we can’t move forward and accept ourselves and others until we really look at our history—until we sit in it, learn from it and do something about it when opportunities arise. I’m so proud of my mom, my cousin Nate, and my ancestors that came before me; I am so proud to be of American Indian descent. They are a people of strength, endurance, and deep connection to the land. Despite the attempt to wipe away their culture, here it still stands even in the small pieces of pottery left behind. May we return to those pieces of ourselves and remember to persist.

Ember Mid

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