Beyond the Itinerary- Pueblo Women: Strong and Stronger
Pueblo Women: Strong and Stronger
When I was a child growing up in the North Valley of Albuquerque, our family was blessed to have a woman from San Felipe Pueblo, Lupe Valencia, in our lives. She would come once a week or so to assist my mother, who was raising five kids, with the household chores.
Lupe had a long mane of thick black hair streaked with gray. The gray, I realized years later, came from the fact that she was raising her own flock of at least 10 kids, and some grandchildren, largely on her own. Her husband, a heavy drinker, was often missing or in jail. Despite that, Lupe always showed up with a cheerful disposition, and she and my mother became life-long friends. Lupe worked with my mother, not for her. And she worked hard. Her favored way to clean floors was on her hands and knees, a process I follow today when I “mop” floors. No task was too coarse or difficult for her. It was a real treat when, occasionally, she would spend a Friday night with us so my parents could go out. She’d make stacked enchiladas with red chile that we all loved. I liked helping in the kitchen and she patiently taught me the trick to frying a perfect corn tortilla.
Another treat was when a few sisters or aunts would gather at our house. I can still hear their gales of laughter and burble of giggles as they recounted stories of the day. Some afternoons, we’d drive her out to the corner of North 4th Street and Alameda, where she would meet up with dozens of other women from Sandia, San Felipe and Santo Domingo pueblos who’d worked that day in the city. They would climb into the open beds of pickup trucks for the ride back home—in snow, wind and sun. There would be more peals of laughter and warm greetings as the men motored the vehicles onto the highway heading north.
Marian and Nizhoni Denipah lay a little love on one of their sheep on their property at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Marian, along with her husband—Steve LaRance, behind her—is a highly regarded jeweler as well as beloved mother. Nizhoni is an ophthalmologist in Santa Fe.
© PHOTO BY KITTY LEAKEN
Then we left New Mexico for several years and when we returned, it was to Santa Fe, so we lost touch with Lupe. But my mother returned to the North Valley in her later years, and once again Lupe would come to help, now only perhaps once a month. She looked almost exactly the same. She’d aged prematurely, it seems, then cruised along robustly for decades. She still had her characteristic giggle and joy of life.
She passed away about a decade ago, but I often think of her, and have come to realize how representative she was of most Pueblo women, who are great mothers, creative homemakers, wage earners, diplomats. A guide at Acoma Pueblo once told me, “When my wife says ‘Jump!,’ I respond, ‘How high?'”
The first Native American to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo, bows her head along with Wilfred Herrera, Jr., chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council (in front) at a political event held in April 2021 in Albuquerque.
© PHOTO BY KITTY LEAKEN
Today Pueblo women are assuming far larger roles in their cultures and the world as a whole. I think of Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the far-reaching U.S. Department of Interior; Ilona Spruce, who directs Taos Pueblo’s tourism programs; Cynthia Chavez, the newly-appointed director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; Dr. Corrine Sanchez, executive director of Tewa Women United; and dozens of successful artists.