The canyons and cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument are telling a story, and this time it's through the voices and artwork of the American Indian tribes whose ancestors inhabited this sliver of northern New Mexico.
After nearly a decade of careful consultation with neighboring pueblos and a year of construction, the monument unveiled its $4 million renovated visitors' center, museum and high-definition documentary with the help of pueblo dancers and artists in a celebration Wednesday.
The renovation was done with the hope that visitors will better understand the wilds of Bandelier and the pueblo people's enduring connection to the place, said Rod Torrez, the monument's chief of interpretation.
"There really are few places where you have such a strong integrated viewpoint from the local tribes in an exhibit," he said. "A lot of places just hang on to what they've had, and they might refresh their cases and things, but they've never gone that extra step. Here, I can walk through this museum and feel confident that what I'm looking at is something that's accurate and true to the heart of the people who are around here."
Nestled among pine trees and canyons made of welded volcanic tuff just south of Los Alamos, Bandelier was inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, back in the days of nomadic hunters. More permanent settlements began to pop up nearly 1,000 years ago, the remnants of which line the floor of Frijoles Canyon and are carved into its walls.
Floyd Pecos, a former governor at Cochiti Pueblo, said the connection early Native Americans had with Bandelier still resonates deeply with his people, and it's important for visitors to understand the people of Bandelier have not disappeared.
"We're still here, you know," he said. "That's where we originated from. Those were our ancestors and whatever we picked up and was passed on to us and other generations before us came from there. We still make journeys back out to some of our sites at Bandelier."
Cochiti and the pueblos of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, San Felipe, Santo Domingo and Zuni worked with the National Park Service to develop exhibits that included more details about life at Bandelier. Part of that revolved around the pueblos' native languages and the words they use for describing places and things within the monument.
"We worked really hard to make sure it was always about the pueblo perspective, not just what the Park Service wants to tell the public," said Lynne Dominy, the former chief of interpretation who spearheaded the project and now works at Acadia National Park in Maine. "It's a blended story ... about the meaning of this place."
Dominy remembers spending more than a year learning to say words in Tewa, Keres and Zuni. Over and over again, she would say them until getting them just right so their phonetic translations could be shared as part of the museum exhibits.
"The languages are so complex," she said. "We found there were like 16 different words for corn, and so none of it was simple."
Prehistoric and modern examples of pottery fill some of the display cases. Arrowheads and stone axes line drawers, and a colorful canvas tells Zuni's migration story. Among the favorites is a series of paintings depicting traditional pueblo culture that were done for the museum during the 1930s by Pablita Velarde, who went on to become the most prominent female Indian easel painter in the nation.
Until now, the pieces had been kept in a vault. The museum had no space to show them.
"This is the first time in decades we've been able to exhibit her work," Torrez said.
Monument employees worked long hours over the last week to put the final touches on the museum. They've carried in truckloads of pottery, fragile artwork and archaeological artifacts, hoping not to drop anything onto the stone floor.
"I've never worn out so many pairs of white gloves," Torrez said, explaining that each item is a treasure.
For Dominy, it's been unreal to be back in New Mexico and see everything come together.
"It's this way because of so many people's efforts, their words, their pictures, their artwork," she said. "That's what makes it so neat is so many people had a part in it."
If you go:
Bandelier National Monument is one hour from Santa Fe via Highway 8 4/2 85 north toward Los Alamos. From Los Alamos, the monument is 30 minutes, via New Mexico 4.
The Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. spring and fall; until 4:30 in the winter and until 6 p.m. in summer. Backpacking permits must be obtained for any overnight stays in the park's backcountry.
A seven-day automobile/vehicle permit is $12.
Lodging is available in nearby communities including Los Alamos, White Rock, Espanola, and Santa Fe. To contact the Chambers of Commerce for these communities, call: Los Alamos/White Rock: (505) 662-8105 Espanola: (505) 753-2831 Santa Fe: (505) 983-7317.