Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

January 1, 2015

It Takes a Village: The Story of Ohkay Owingeh

The Native American pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh in New Mexico unites to save ancient dwellings that help form the foundation of its cultural traditions.

  • By: Reed Karaim
  • Photography: Minesh Bacrania

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Owe’neh Bupingeh is the same color as the arid New Mexico land that surrounds it. But then, it was created out of that earth. The historic, 25-acre village’s flat-roofed homes and ceremonial kivas have been fashioned out of adobe mixed from the local soil for so many generations that its origins disappear into the past. It is at least 700 years old, existing more than three centuries before the Mayflower arrived on American shores.

The earliest photographs of the village, taken in 1877, show a place still recognizable today. The one- and two-story buildings surround four unpaved plazas used for dances and feast days that regularly attract crowds of visitors. Owe’neh Bupingeh, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, isn’t a museum piece; it’s a living village. It serves as the historic core and spiritual center of Ohkay Owingeh, one of 19 federally recognized pueblos, or tribal communities, in New Mexico.

A decade ago, however, it looked as if Owe’neh Bupingeh might return to the earth from which it came. The number of inhabited homes had fallen to about 25, from a peak of roughly 200. Visiting families stayed in some of the other residences during ceremonies, for which tribal members return from all over. Many, though, had been abandoned or had slipped into such disrepair that they were unfit for regular habitation.

The American Southwest contains many deserted (or nearly deserted) pueblos that only fill with people during tribal gatherings. They remain central to native spiritual practices, but they too often carry the haunted air of halfabandoned ruins. Owe’neh Bupingeh could have followed that path.

It did not because the tribe decided it would not. And because tribal officials, the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and other parties embraced a project that stretched the established strictures of architectural preservation, while embodying the truest sense of the philosophy behind it.

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

Local children play in the public areas at sunset.

One day in 2004, Tomasita Duran, executive director of the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority, was walking through Owe’neh Bupingeh with architect Jamie Blosser. Blosser, who moved to New Mexico from Philadelphia, had received a prestigious Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship to work with the tribe for three years.

The two women had already collaborated on a lowincome apartment complex built in the pueblo style for the tribe, outside the historic core. They started as colleagues but had become good friends, sharing a passionate commitment to their work. “You never know how it’s going to work out when you bring someone in from outside,” Duran says. “Honestly, we’ve had bad experiences in the past. But Jamie just got it.”

Blosser remembers, “My first meeting with Tomasita, she laid it out by saying that she wanted to leave the pueblo a better place for her two young sons. That really set the tone for what I felt I needed to do while I was there.”

Now, they were considering which part of Ohkay Owingeh the housing authority should take on next. The historic core was part of the tribe’s master land use plan, but the idea of a preservation project there was daunting. Still, walking through Owe’neh Bupingeh, Duran says she knew. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is next.’ And Jamie said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

With a quick smile, Duran adds, “It was really just aconversation. Then the hard work began.”

“What we were really trying to preserve is our culture.”

Tomasita Duran

What would turn into a very big project began with a $7,500 grant from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division to hire six tribal high school students interested in architecture and preservation. Their task was to map the pueblo core. “We really had no documentation,” Duran says.

Through further grants, the students ended up working four more summers. Their job expanded to helping the housing authority identify homeowners and correct addresses throughout the pueblo.

This was a particularly important step, as formal deeds were largely nonexistent. Property was passed down by word of mouth, and it was customary to give separate rooms to different family members—for example, one child might inherit the kitchen and another the living room.

Following her fellowship, Blosser opened a Santa Fe office for Philadelphia firm Atkin Olshin Schade (AOS) Architects. “Up front, AOS did a lot of pro bono work for us,” says Duran. Another AOS architect, Shawn Evans, scoured archives to gather 400 old photographs of Owe’neh Bupingeh. A laborious inventory of the condition and occupancy of the homes followed. “It took five years to see what we were really dealing with,” Duran says.

None of that, though, would be the principal challenge the project faced.

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

Avanyu General Contracting’s Tony Marquez, a member of a nearby pueblo, puts the finishing touches on a door for a rehabbed dwelling.

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

The Honorable Marcelino Aguino, governor of Ohkay Owingeh, left, with Tomasita Duran, executive director of the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority, and architect Shawn Evans.

Every community is the center of a world. No matter how far people wander, there is often a part of them that locates the place they started out from at the heart of their existence. This is as true for the people of Ohkay Owingeh as it is for anyone on Earth.

Tribal leaders knew they wanted to control the project to make sure their beliefs and needs were respected. “We’re talking about a place that is one of the most sacred places to these people. It’s literally the center of their universe,” Evans says. “Symbolically, the place is timeless, but these are fully contemporary people, and it was paramount to the leaders of Ohkay Owingeh that it be fully living again.”

That meant the renovation of the homes had to include modern amenities. “Balancing an ancient understanding of this place with refrigerators and gas and cable television and satellite dishes; that was a specific directive of this tribe,” Evans says.


The pueblo established a 14-member advisory committee of tribal officials, elders, and homeowners in the historic core to see that the project honored Ohkay Owingeh culture and had the support of the residents. Duran organized public meetings to make sure tribal members, particularly families with homes in Owe’neh Bupingeh, understood the project. The high school students even played a role. “The kids went home every night and talked to their families about it. That was one of the key elements in building consensus,” Evans remembers.

Tribal leaders established a cultural advisory team “consisting of our highest spiritual leaders,” Duran says. This group played a critical role in determining how artifacts would be treated when unearthed during construction. The tribe selected AOS as the project’s architect, and Duran and her staff applied for HUD grants. However, a fundamental hurdle remained.

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

HUD requirements, historic preservation standards, and tribal beliefs and needs all needed to be taken into account if the project were to proceed. Yet in many ways these elements were at odds. The perspective in U.S. preservation law “is European thinking about buildings designed by architects, where authenticity is very objective, and there is a specific period of historic significance,” Evans says.

But the very idea of the pueblo having a period of significance seemed inappropriate to tribal leaders. In their view, the place is timeless.

Rather than constructions of inanimate materials reflecting a point in time, buildings are seen as living, breathing things that evolve with those who occupy them, explains John Cruz, a tribal spiritual leader and Ohkay Owingeh’s cultural preservationist. “They have a life,” he says.

The differences in perspective were serious enough that they could have derailed the effort. But Duran was not to be stopped. During meetings of all of the parties involved, she delivered a straightforward message: “This wasn’t going to be a typical rehabilitation.” But preservation would be of fundamental importance. “What we were really trying to preserve,” she says, “is our culture.

In the end, the significance of that charge led to compromise all around. Tribal members stepped aside from tradition to specify the owners of homes in the project. HUD was accommodating about schedules and deadlines, says Duran, showing patience as the tribe and the state historic preservation division worked out a mutually acceptable preservation plan.

That plan “met the intent of Section 106 [of the Historic Preservation Act],” says Pilar Medina Cannizzaro, who served as the architectural project reviewer for the state preservation division, but “we were a little more flexible in doing this review.”

The state was less strict than usual about identifying a particular period of significance for the pueblo core. It also granted waivers on some archaeological inventory requirements in recognition of tribal beliefs. “We had to be flexible,” says Evans, “but I think anybody coming to this place would see that it is preserved in the largest sense of the word.”

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

Children from the community play among renovated dwellings in one of the four plazas.

All architectural preservation, of course, is in essence an act of cultural preservation. We preserve old buildings not simply because they are beautiful artifacts, but because they tell us who we are by showing us where we have been. To walk through Owe’neh Bupingeh today is to experience the tribe’s past and present simultaneously, and to see clearly the connection between the two.

Thirty-four homes had been renovated by the end of this past summer and are now inhabited full-time. When the Owe’neh Bupingeh Preservation Project is complete, at least 46 families will be living in rehabilitated homes. At least a dozen more will occupy new homes on the footprints of dwellings that are no preservation | Winter 2015 longer there, built to guidelines and standards in the preservation plan. To the Hon. Marcelino Aguino, governor of Ohkay Owingeh, the changes are already apparent. “You can see it coming alive the last couple of years. It’s coming alive with kids playing in the plazas and running around out of doors,” he says. “It’s gratifying to see how far we’ve come.”

Through HUD funding, money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (commonly known as the stimulus bill), and other grants, the tribal housing authority has raised more than $9 million for the project. Duran estimates finishing it could take another five to seven years and an additional $7 million. “We’re going to see it through,” she vows.

Many of the homes had been covered in cement stucco in the 1960s and '70s, which led to serious deterioration of the adobe when moisture became trapped inside. After careful consideration, tribal leaders decided traditional mud plaster would be restored on all the exteriors, allowing the adobe to properly breathe. “Within their tradition, the buildings themselves have life and are breathing entities,” Evans says, “so there was a beautiful convergence between building science and traditional understanding.” The original adobe walls, too, have been restored. Historic elements such as wood vigas—exposed roof beams—have been refurbished and reintegrated whenever possible.

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

Local children gather in the pueblo's public areas.

In contrast, modern membrane roofs with metal parapet copings replaced traditional earthen roofs, helping protect the mud plaster walls. “This is an affordable housing project,” Evans says, “and that compromise was truly necessary.” Additional space was also required for many of the homes to meet HUD standards based on family size. Old photographs indicated many homes originally had second floors, so they were added again in some places.

Window sizes were altered to meet safety requirements. Modern heating, plumbing, and wiring were essential, and new kitchen cabinets were standard. But these changes seem small compared to the essential truth of the place. Strolling through the village, it feels like what it is, a timeless Native American pueblo.

The relationship between public and private space, home and plaza, has been carefully maintained. The closeness of pueblo life, the importance of familial and tribal connections, becomes clear as one contemplates homes often sharing common walls, tightly gathered around the plazas.

Blosser believes the process Ohkay Owingeh and its partners went through can serve as a template for other pueblos. To her, the effort was about “self-determination... the chance for the pueblo to re-imagine its own future.” Delegations from New Mexico’s other pueblos have toured the project, and several are contemplating or initiating preservation efforts, but on terms that reflect their own priorities and beliefs.

The project also strengthened the connection between residents and their dwellings. Roughly 75 percent of the workers hired by Liana Sanchez, the main contractor, were from Ohkay Owingeh. Mud plastering, Evans says, had largely been a lost art, but all of the residents are now learning how to do it, which will allow the village to handle much of its own maintenance.

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

Tribal member and artist Jeff Aguino and his wife and granddaughter prepare for dinner in the family’s newly rehabbed house.

Most important, the rehabbed houses provided a chance for tribal members to come home. Cruz, the cultural preservationist, moved away earlier in his adult life, but had never reconciled himself to being gone. “My body was there,” he says, “but my soul was here.” He kept his family home, but money was tight and he couldn’t get there as often as he wanted. “My home was slowly deteriorating,” he says.

Today, he lives again in that house in the pueblo core. “I’m grateful,” he says. “I pray to the spirits to give thanks for this help.” With his return, Cruz began teaching the native Tewa language to children in the community. “This is the mother pueblo for the Tewa language,” he says. “In the majority of the other pueblos, the language is dying out. We’re trying to keep it alive here.” As families move back into other renovated homes, he is hopeful more young tribal members will feel connected to their traditions.

To Duran, this was always the point. “That’s what we’re preserving,” she says. “Not just the buildings. It’s everything that ties to those buildings.”

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: The Owe'neh Bupingeh Preservation Project in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico, recieved a 2014 National Preservation Award. Read more and watch the video.

Reed Karaim, who grew up in North Dakota, is a freelance writer now living in Tucson, Ariz. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Architect, and U.S. News and World Report, among others.

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