Experience Pueblo Feast Days in Santa Fe

Mesa view at Tsankawi in Bandelier National Monument, Santa Fe
Mesa view at Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument, Santa Fe ©Priscilla Willis

The sun god blessed us on our first day as we ventured into the arid desert landscape on a spiritual journey into the life of the Ancient Pueblo people who once lived in the sacred Bandelier Monument. After the hike, we visited San Ildefonso pueblo, where we watched a pottery demonstration and gathered around the communal table for a traditional Feast Day meal with our esteemed hosts. What an honor!

Ancient Native American dwelling at Bandelier Monument, Santa Fe
An ancient Native American dwelling at Bandelier Monument ©Priscilla Willis

Earliest Pueblo Life in Bandelier

The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in Bandelier from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They built homes carved from the volcanic tuff and planted crops of corn, beans, and squash in mesa-top fields. Called the “three sisters,” these staples of their diet were supplemented by native plants and meat from deer, rabbit, and squirrel.

By 1550, the Ancestral Pueblo people had moved from this area to pueblos along the Rio Grande. For over 400 years, they lived here until a severe drought ravaged the land, making it impossible to feed their people during already difficult times. Oral traditions tell us where the people migrated and who their descendants are. The people of Cochiti Pueblo, located just south and east along the Rio Grande, are the most direct descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in Frijoles Canyon. Likewise, San Ildefonso is most closely linked to Tsankawi. {Source: National Park Service}

Tsankawi area of Bandelier Monument, Santa Fe
Hike to an ancient pueblo site at Tsankawi, Bandelier Monument, Santa Fe ©Priscilla Willis

Tsankawi at Bandelier Monument

The Tsankawi section of the park offers a 1.5-mile mesa-top walk, viewing cavates (caves), petroglyphs, the large unexcavated Ancestral Pueblo village, and sweeping vistas. This trail includes scaling four ladders and navigating narrow trenches formed on the volcanic slopes. Remnants of the village of Tsankawi, located on top of the mesa, offers magnificent 360-degree views of the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos.

Petroglyphs at Badelier Monument, Santa Fe
Guide Elmer Torres points out petroglyphs, Bandelier Monument, Santa Fe ©Priscilla Willis

Pueblo Feast Day Meal at San Ildefonso

Being invited into the humble home of Elmer Torres, our expert trail guide and historian was an honor. Torres, former four-time governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, and his wife Deborah are the founders of Passport to Pueblo Country.

Tamales at a pueblo Feast Day
Tamales at a San Ildefonso Pueblo Feast Day meal ©Priscilla Willis

Traditional Feast Day Food

While we dig into the flavorful Feast Day meal, Deborah tells us a little about the preparations leading up to Feast Day:

“During feast days you see tons and tons of people sitting outside watching the dances and people eating, kitchen packed with wife and family cooking. Preparations begin days in advance.

“The Torres family Feast Day meal is a bit of a mix as I am from the South where they prepare special dishes they don’t usually have, and Elmer is from the North where they serve more of the traditional stews.

Pueblo Feast Days, Green Chile stew
Pueblo Feast Day meal: Green Chile Stew ©Priscilla Willis

“Feast day dishes include posole, lasagna, green chile chicken enchiladas, green chile (ground beef), red chile (pork), tamales, salad, and usually, fresh-baked oven bread. (I cheated and made green chile cheese rolls.) The first dance performed in the plaza is the blessing for the day and for everyone who comes.”

Pottery demonstration by Madeline Narango
Pottery demonstration by Madeline Narango of Santa Clara Pueblo ©Priscilla Willis

Pueblo Pottery Demonstration

Pottery plays an essential role in the life and culture of Pueblo people. The pottery demonstration by Madeline Narango from Santa Clara Pueblo was fascinating. Madeline explained that pottery began as utilitarian and, as time has gone by, has become a collector’s item valued for its spiritual significance and each artist’s distinctive style.

Potters respect the volcanic clay as a living thing; as she works, Madeline told us she talks to the clay, but the clay has its own mind, which is what shapes the finished piece, not her. Madeline learned from her grandmother and has made a living as a potter for thirty years. This year, she will be among the 35 artists selected to exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. in December. She has applied three times and was chosen this year to display her pottery along with six other potters from different areas.

Ladders to a mesa top in Tsankawi, Bandelier Monument, Santa Fe
Hiking in Tsankawi includes ladders up to the mesa tops ©Priscilla Willis

Passport to Pueblo Country Cultural Tours

If touring the Southwest is on your bucket list, I urge you to travel deeper into the Native American culture of New Mexico by experiencing a Passport to Pueblo Country Feast Day Tour. Whether it be an afternoon visit to the Pueblo or a week-long immersive experience, Passport to Pueblo Country provides guests with an authentic New Mexico Native American cultural awakening.

Their guided tours range from a scenic walk of San Ildefonso Pueblo, including an artist demonstration and traditional Feast Day Meal to a 6-day/5-night immersive experience. Guests on the week-long tours are fully immersed in Northern New Mexico culture with visits to several pueblos, as well as experiencing the food, dance, and traditions of an annual pueblo Feast Day celebration.

The author with Deborah Torres in the kitchen at San Ildefonso Pueblo ©Priscilla Willis

Feast Day Etiquette

Feast days are a celebration of Native American traditions and heritage, which include traditional dances, cultural activities, and a beautifully prepared meal for visitors/guests at the family home. Keep in mind that every dance is considered a prayer, not entertainment, and, as such, is a privilege to observe. Etiquette tips are discussed on opening night, but, in general, there is no photography or applause, silence is mandatory during all dances and ceremonies, and publicly sharing should be limited to appropriate cultural activities only.{Source: Passport to Pueblo Country}

Feast Day meal: enchiladas prepared casserole style ©Priscilla Willis

Cochiti Pueblo Feast Day Tour

The most comprehensive Passport to Pueblo Country tour is the 6-days, 5-nights Feast day at Cochiti Pueblo where you’ll experience a Pueblo feast day and Northern New Mexico culture with visits to San Ildefonso Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, Santa Fe, Chimayo, and hiking. The tour includes:

• Tsankawi – Tewa Language meaning “village between two canyons,” is a section of Bandelier National Monument. At Tsankawi, you will take a mile and a half walk along a mesa, viewing caves, petroglyphs, and the Ancestral Pueblo village. Tsankawi was built by ancient Pueblo people.

• Learn more about the Pueblo of Pojoaque bison herd and enjoy a meal of bison and other crops grown by the pueblo.

• El Santuario De Chimayo, a famous pilgrimage, offers nearly 200 years of holy dirt, “Terra Bendita,” which is believed to have miraculous healing powers.

• Visit Museum Hill with four world-class museums presenting the art, history, and culture of Native Americans of the Southwest, the Spanish colonial past, and folk traditions from around the world.

• Shopping in the downtown plaza, artsy Canyon Road, galleries, and Native American vendors under the portal offer a variety of jewelry, home decor, and more, featuring the style of the Southwest.

Ladder to the mesa top, hiking in Bandelier National Monument
Climbing the ladder to the mesa top ©Priscilla Willis

It’s not every day that a media trip leaves you feeling enlightened. Yet, the “Taste of Santa Fe” post-IFWTWA conference tour, did just that. I was excited to delve deeper into the Native American culture that Santa Fe is renowned for and came away with so much more! Thank you to the city of Santa Fe for hosting us on this incredible experience.

Hungry for more about Santa Fe and New Mexico? Check out:

Native Flavors and Santa Fe Cuisine 

Expect the Unexpected in Albuquerque

Taos, New Mexico, USA: A Small Town with Tri-Cultural Heritage 

Priscilla Willis

Priscilla Willis is a freelance writer and author of the popular Orange County blog, She’s Cookin’ | food and travel. Priscilla specializes in culinary travel and soft adventure to burn those calories. She divides her time between Southern California and NW Arkansas.