With help from $1 million grant, Kewa Pueblo looks to turn iconic landmark into economic boon

Kate Nash | The New Mexican

KEWA PUEBLO — Ray Tafoya’s mind races with all kinds of ideas about how his pueblo can turn an old trading post into the cornerstone of a redevelopment that could bring jobs, business and tourists to this enclave west of Interstate 25.

As he drives from the center of the village here north toward the burned-out 1920s adobe building that will be rebuilt with a $1 million federal grant, he rattles them off.

Horseback tours. Guided hiking and fishing in the Rio Galisteo. A traditional restaurant. Tours of the homes or studios of the pueblo’s artists.

All he needs is money, time, some planning and, of course tourists.

No sooner does he stop his car in front of the ruins of the trading post than two arrive.

The couple, Alan and Bonnie Lurie, are on vacation from New Jersey and a little lost. They are looking for a place to buy jewelry.

These visitors are months too early to buy any handicrafts at this location, but Tafoya chats them up about the pueblo’s plans.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Alan Lurie said. The couple drives back toward the village, in hopes of finding a roadside vendor or home-based jewelry shop.

The federal government also liked the trading post idea and last month decided to give Kewa, formerly known as Santo Domingo, funds to rebuild it.

The grant from the Economic Development Administration means a lot in this dusty and largely unpaved village of about 5,000.

It means economic development, which really means hope in a place where the median household income is roughly $33,000.

Rebuilding the post is probably at least a year away, as community members meet to try and decide what they want to do with the space, and how they want it to look.

That challenge is a tough one, because many history buffs recognize the post as an icon. Travelers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway stopped in after a small railroad town grew up in 1880 with the arrival of the tracks. The original trading post opened in 1881 and was replaced in 1922.

According to a column in The New Mexican by historian Marc Simmons, “after World War II the trading post began catering more to tourists who were looking for reminders of the Old West. One prominent visitor who got off the train for a quick tour Dec. 7, 1962, was President John F. Kennedy.”

The trading post closed in 1995. In 2001, fire ruined the building, and like the freeway six miles to the east, time zipped by before plans to rebuild surfaced.

Tafoya, the administrator of tribal programs, said the out-of-the-way community needs to think beyond just a new trading post to attract new visitors.

That’s where his tour idea comes in. He pictures people making a whole day out of their time at the pueblo, enjoying a mix of the outdoors and the Native culture.

“Ultimately we want to make this a tourist stop again,” he said. “It’s not just arts and crafts. There’s more to do.”

Visions of a transformation

As a tribal planner, Kenneth Pin dreams big, too.

Standing in front of the former trading post, just feet from the pueblo’s Rail Runner Express passenger-train stop, Pin has the Jemez Mountains over his shoulder and the grassy, plained outskirts of the pueblo in front of him.

He describes what he envisions the area will look like in a year or two.

The trading post will be bustling, with artisans selling pottery, jewelry, weavings and more. Chefs in the restaurant will be cooking up traditional foods including red chile stew, green chile laden dishes, baked bread. Tourists will deboard the Rail Runner and walk over.

But first things are first in this outpost — a wastewater system.

“I see a bathroom,” he says, half laughing.

Those are the types of things the community here needs to think about as it prepares for such a project. Officials are also thinking about road improvements to handle the increased traffic, and maybe a sidewalk or a walking path for the area.

Nearby, Pin envisions that a former manufactured housing construction site can be turned into something new as well. Maybe a place where local potters can share a kiln. Or do soldering that they can’t do at home. Maybe a center for green manufacturing of some kind. Located right on a rail spur, the area easily could receive heavy goods as well.

Those train tracks, in fact, are a key part of the plan. The pueblo is banking in large part on train service to bring visitors.

“We’re using a modern twist on an old idea,” Tafoya said.

A shop just down the street

Mary Louise Tafoya has had her jewelry displayed in museums from Phoenix to Indianapolis to the Smithsonian.

She sells her necklaces, pendants and pins — made from corral, turquoise, serpentine and other stones — at shows including the annual Santa Fe Indian Market.

She’d like to be able to sell more of her work just miles from home as well — a real possibility with the plans for the trading post.

Tafoya said the project could significantly help local artists, some of whom try to make a living selling their artwork at the pueblo’s gas station next to the freeway, or under the portal at the Palace of the Governors on the Santa Fe Plaza.

The 52-year-old, who learned jewelry making from her parents, said the trading post brings memories of when her dad would take her there.

“I saw the two gas pumps in front and those were the coolest things,” she said, smiling shyly while sitting at her kitchen table. “It was a big thing to see.”

Published July 30, 2010.