an excerpt from

Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order

by George Johnson

copyright 2010

San Ildefonso Interlude:

The Mystery of Other Minds

On a cold January morning, a little more than a month after the winter solstice, the time when the sun ends its journey southward and begins its slow return toward the lake of emergence in the north, the people of San Ildefonso gather in the hills near their pueblo and wait for the animals to come home. San Ildefonso sits at the foot of the Pajarito plateau, on which Los Alamos stands. As the first rays of sunlight come slanting over the Blood of Christ mountains, lighting the mesas that step their way from the pueblo in the lowlands to the laboratory in the sky, the morning silence is broken by the steady low-frequency beating of drums. As a plume of smoke rises from a nearby hilltop, a chorus of men, dressed in headbands and shirts of many colors, begins singing an ancient song. Then the Hunt Chief, wearing buckskins and carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows, calls out sharp and high, and the dancers, their faces painted black and their heads bristling with horns and antlers, begin their descent. Sprinkling corn meal on the ground before him, cutting a sacred trail, the Hunt Chief and the buffalo -- each with a gourd rattle in one hand and a small bow-and-arrow in the other -- lead the way to the North Plaza, where a day of thanksgiving begins. The deer, hunched over and holding canes in their hands for forelegs, dance nimbly on all fours. Rising above them, the buffalo, tall and erect, meander in slow, deliberate circles, sweating beneath their heavy costumes. Darting in and out of this tight choreography are the antelopes and the bighorn sheep. Alternating between fast songs and slow songs, the animals complete the cycle of the dance, then retire to the kiva to rest and engage in rituals not open to the uninitiated.

Before one has long to contemplate these mysteries, the quiet is broken again as the South Plaza is taken over by the Comanche dancers, dressed in the brilliant feathered headdresses worn by their old enemies from the eastern plains. And when the Comanche dancers have returned to their own kiva, the animals emerge onto the North Plaza again. And so it goes for the rest of the day, the Comanche dance alternating with the buffalo dance, much as it has every January 23 for as long as anyone can remember.

Like most of the native rituals in the southwest, the dances at San Ildefonso give a perfunctory nod to the religion of the conquerers, Roman Catholicism. Early in the evening before the annual feast, when the dark, unpaved streets of the pueblo are lit with bonfires, the Catholic priest assigned by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe celebrates mass at the adobe church built off to the side of the plaza. Then, to the sound of gunfire, an old Spanish custom meant to scare away evil spirits, he leads his own procession, carrying a statue of the pueblo's patron saint, Ildefonse of Spain, counterclockwise around the plaza and back to the chapel. Perhaps fifty people, a third of them tourists, follow behind him, singing hymns. Then, with the Catholic formalities dispensed with, the long wait for the dancers begins.

Before the Spanish conquerors brought the Gregorian calendar, laying its cycles over those of the moon, January was called the Ice Month. Once the sun has surfaced beneath the western lake, to spend the night in the underworld, temperatures drop quickly. Just when it seems that it is too cold to stay a minute longer, more bonfires are lit, and the Hunt Chief calls out with his distinctive cry. Illuminated by the firelight, the animals emerge from a kiva on the north side of the pueblo and parade slowly around the plaza, providing a preview of the drama to come the next morning.

Over the years, many of the men and a few of the women at San Ildefonso and the other Tewa pueblos of the northern Rio Grande have found work up the hill at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories. As electricians, carpenters, plumbers, secretaries, and laborers, they help provide the infrastructure that allows the scientists their long explorations and flights of speculation. A few of the scientists have befriended some of their Tewa neighbors, driving down the mesa to watch the dances. But on a deeper level there is little contact between these two adjacent worlds.

For the physicists who occasionally make the short journey to San Ildefonso, perhaps there is something comforting about descending from the stratospheres of abstraction to be among people commonly said to live closer to the earth. But the Tewa, too, have their system of abstractions, in some ways as lofty and intricate as those of the physicists. Over the centuries they have woven a tight web of concepts, invented imaginary spaces, laid a grid of geometry over the irregularities of the rough New Mexico terrain.

For those who wonder about the drive to find and impose pattern on the world around us, the Tewa might be seen, in retrospect, as participants in an unintentional experiment. We think of the science our civilization has developed as all but inevitable, an unearthing of pre-existing truths. But suppose you take an equally curious society and isolate it from the Western philosophical tradition stretching back through Europe and Asia to ancient Greece. As they sift their environment for patterns, what kind of system would these people come up with to explain their world?

As outsiders we find it hard to believe that a dance, no matter how beautiful and intricate, can bring a more successful hunt, more bounteous crops, or better weather. How is it then that the Tewa system of beliefs has endured invasion after invasion, by Catholic missionaries, anthropologists, and the physicists of the Manhattan Project? While science is always in constant flux, the finely etched universe of the Tewa has survived remarkably intact for centuries, its ideas so firmly lodged that no invader has been able to unseat them. It is one of the curiosities of New Mexico that the faith of these descendants of the Anasazi has become joined, however tenuously, with the faith of the church of Rome. In the Tewa world and throughout the Rio Grande, pueblos celebrate the day of their designated saint with dances. On Christmas they might dance the buffalo dance, the Comanche dance, or the turtle dance; on Easter, the corn dance, the basket dance, or the bow and arrow dance. Christmas itself was derived from celebrations of the winter solstice -- the celebration of the sun became the celebration of the Son. And Easter was adapted from celebrations of the spring equinox, when the day finally becomes as long as the night. When, through a strange series of historical coincidences, the Franciscan priests came to this corner of the New World and found the pueblos dancing to the rhythm of the star whose energy feeds the earth, Christianity was rediscovering its pagan roots. The friars didn't see it that way, of course, and tried to realign the pueblos' faith with their own. In the end, it was the pueblos that prevailed, appeasing the foreigners by absorbing some of their rituals, then going on much as they had before.

Small details of San Ildefonso's buffalo dance may vary from year to year, but more remarkable is how much has remained the same. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the ritual seems very much like the one described in 1945 in the journals of Edith Warner, who came from the East to live in a small house on the San Ildefonso reservation, where the road up to the Pajarito crosses the Rio Grande on what once was called Otowi Bridge. What Warner saw was very much like what the anthropologist William Whitman described in 1937 and his predecessor Elsie Clews Parsons in 1926. And there is little reason to suppose that what Warner, Whitman, and Parsons saw has changed much in the hundreds of years the pueblo has sat at the spot where the Nambe River, flowing down from Lake Peak in the Sangre de Cristo, joins the Rio Grande. Long before 1617, when the Spanish missionaries decided that the pueblo, called "Where the Water Cuts Down Through," in Tewa, should be renamed for a former Archbishop of Toledo, its inhabitants have gathered to celebrate a world in which animals are willing to lay down their lives so that people may live. Whatever the good and brave deeds Ildefonse was sainted for, on the day of his feast, his subjects' thoughts are more likely to be focused on a time long before there was a Vatican or even a Christ -- a time too long ago to remember, when people, animals, and spirits all lived together, in the underworld, and spoke the same language.

The exodus from this subterranean cosmos, where the sun, pale as the moon, shone all the time, began when beings called Blue Corn Woman and White Corn Maiden sent one of the men to explore the surface of the earth and see if it was fit for habitation. After refusing to go three times, upon the fourth request he emerged through a lake, somewhere around what we now know as the Colorado border, and walked north, west, south, and east, moving counterclockwise. Seeing only mist and haze in every direction, he returned to report that the world above was formless and chaotic -- green, unripe, not ready for intelligent beings.

Not willing to give up so easily, the Corn Mothers sent their explorer back for another reconnaissance. This time he was surprised along the way by a pack of wild animals and insects -- mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bears, foxes, vultures, crows, dragon flies, and bees. Because he was afraid, they attacked him. Then, persuaded that he had learned his lesson, they became his friends and confidantes. They gave him a bow and arrow and buckskins; they painted his face black and tied feathers in his hair. And he returned to his people as the Hunt Chief, the keeper of the magic bond between hunter and prey.

Summoning everyone in the underworld with a fox call, the Hunt Chief appointed two assistant chiefs, one to rule the people in the summer, one to rule in the winter. These chiefs then sent six pairs of brothers to explore the earth and map the terrain, to impose order on the world. The first pair, who were colored blue like the cold, headed north. They didn't make it very far because the ground was still so soft, but in the distance they saw a bluish shape which they named Hazy Mountain. And so it was that geography and cartography began. Having named the north, the exploration proceeded counterclockwise. The yellow brothers went west, the red ones south, and the white ones east. Each saw a mountain in the direction they were traveling and gave it a name. After that the only directions left to investigate were up and down. And so the brothers who were colored black were sent upward to the zenith to explore the darkness of space; instead of a mountain, they saw a large star in the eastern sky. The last pair of brothers, the multi-colored ones, explored the nadir of this new universe and saw a rainbow.

Having prepared the upper world for habitation, the people were eager to live in this newly charted land. But first they had to organize themselves as neatly as they had organized the land between the mountains. It was not an easy task. They made four ill-fated attempts to colonize the land above the lake, returning each time to the underworld. And each time, to help with the next expedition, new categories of people were created: the summer and winter clowns (called the Kossa and Kwirana) to keep the people happy on their journey, the hunt society to keep the people nourished, the medicine societies to keep the people well. Finally they were ready to try the exodus for the final time. Dividing themselves into two groups, led by the Summer Chief and the Winter Chief, they left the lake. Upon reaching a big river, the Rio Grande, they divided themselves into tribes. The Navajos, Utes, Apaches, Kiowa, and Comanches went off to live as nomads, in houses of deer and buffalo hide; the others headed downstream to build villages of adobe. The summer people proceeded south along the west side of the Rio Grande; the winter people along the east side. After each made twelve stops, forming pueblos like Taos and Picuris, the ancestors of the Tewa rendezvoused to start a village, called Posi, on a mesa above the site the Spanish later named Ojo Caliente, or Hot Springs. After an epidemic forced them to abandon the village, they moved to the canyons and mesas of the Pajarito plateau, at the edge of the Jemez mountains, and to the flatlands to form the Tewa villages, including those that exist today: Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, and Tesuque. According to their tradition, the San Ildefonso once lived in Otowi and Tsankawi, two fallen cities just up the road toward Los Alamos. The Santa Clara Tewa, who live just north of San Ildefonso, say their people came from the nearby Puye cliff dwellings. The San Juan Tewa consider Posi, by Ojo Caliente, their ancestral home.

To this day, the Tewa of Northern New Mexico divide themselves between summer people and winter people, each with separate ceremonial responsibilities. Until recent years, each pueblo had a Winter Chief and a Summer Chief. The twins who explored the horizontal directions are still said to live atop the four sacred mountains. Hazy Mountain to the north is Canjilon Peak (though some say it is San Antonio Peak, northwest of Taos); the west is marked by Obsidian Covered Mountain (Chicoma Peak in the Jemez); south is Turtle Mountain (the Sandias); and east is Stone Man Mountain, which, depending on whom you ask, is either Lake Peak or Truchas Peak, both in the Sangre de Cristo range. Within the domain of the four mountains, each pueblo has its own four sacred mesas (created when the twins threw handfuls of mud in each direction), and within the ring of mesas, four sacred shrines -- a field of overlapping, concentric tetrads each converging on plazas, which, to their people, have long been the center of the world.

Today, walking among the fallen walls of Tsankawi, the mesa-top ruins the San Ildefonso call home, one can't help but wonder: why did the Anasazi ancestors so often build their cities on the hot, dry mesa tops instead of in the shade of the canyons where water at least sometimes flowed? By day they would tend their crops down by the stream, then climb up the steep cliffsides to spend the night closer to the stars. Were they fortifying themselves against enemies, or just seeking a higher vantage point, a place to gaze out upon the world? Standing atop Tsankawi, the four sacred mountains rising majestically all around (the Sandias are stretched out so that they indeed look like a giant turtle), it is easy for one to pretend what it might have been like hundreds of years ago. The village filled with dancers imitating animals and the hunt. Artisans molding pots and painting them with the intricate black-and-white designs one now sees shattered in pieces all across the plateau. The priests sitting inside the kivas quietly recalling the story of the emergence from the underworld -- how the gods ascended to the surface and found disorder all around, and laid out the four directions, a bubble of lawfulness amid the chaos, and gave the people the job of keeping it from collapsing, of imposing the geometry of the dance onto the messiness of the world. Surrounded by the rough, eroded landscape of mesas and arroyos, one can imagine the Tewa longing for the pristine harmony of their heaven underground.

In their most basic form, the stories of the people of Tsankawi -- worn smooth with so many retellings in the never-ending effort to make sense of the world -- are reminiscent in spirit of those told by the people who would later fortify themselves atop a neighboring mesa in a city called Los Alamos. Like the gods beneath the earth, the laws of science were said to exist in a hidden realm -- the platonic world of pure mathematics -- their perfect symmetries shattered, like those carefully crafted pots, in giving birth to the world. While the keepers of the laws of physics spent billions of dollars on giant machinery, spinning unseeable particles around and around the sprawling plazas of their giant accelerators, crashing them together at higher and higher energies, trying to recreate for an instant the unified perfection of an ancient world -- the Tewa kept on dancing, as though the rhythm of their footsteps would awaken the hidden orders underground.

Like the keepers of the laws of physics, the Tewa's Anasazi ancestors were seeking their own compressions, a system to distill the essence of their variegated, capricious, often dangerous world. And so, in their attempt to explain the strange in terms of the familiar, they took what they knew and arranged it into a harmonious whole. Having no familiarity with concepts like mass and energy, they began with their own fundamentals: the six directions, the colors, the seasons, the creatures that inhabited their world. North, where the ice lingered, was associated with the color blue and the mountain lion. West, where the sun set, was yellow, the domain of the bear. South, where the air was hotter, was the red direction, the land of the badger. East, where the sun rose, was the white direction and the lair of the wolf. Each direction also had its own bird, snake, shell, and tree. Walking though this spiritual force field, generated by the poles of the four magic mountains, were the two kinds of people: summer and winter. And within each of these divisions were the clans. At San Ildefonso, most of the winter people were of the Turquoise Clan, while the summer people usually belonged to the Red Stone or Sun Clans.

And the system was still more complicated than that. Cutting vertically across the summer-winter duality, and across the concentric tetrads of mountains and mesas, the meridians with which the Tewa fixed themselves on the land, was a ladder of three levels used to assign each person a place in the universe. At the bottom level were the Dry Food People, the men and women not privy to the inner secrets of the religion. On the level above were the Towa é, the earthly representatives of the sacred twins who discovered the four magic mountains. The Towa é served in the various political roles necessary to keep the society functioning and acted as mediators between the Dry Food People and those on the top rung of the hierarchy, who were known as the Made People. Led by a high priest (usually known in recent times by the Spanish title Cacique) and by the summer and winter chiefs, the Made People were the keepers of the religion: the men who belonged to the Hunt Society, the Warrior Society, the Fire and Flint medicine societies, the Kossa and Kwirana clown societies, all meeting secretly in the kivas or communing with the spirits on private retreats. A few women sometimes belonged to the medicine and clown societies, and they had a society of their own: the Scalp Society, which was charged with caring for the trophies taken in war.

There were various ways a Dry Food Person might become initiated into a society and become a Made Person. A sick child might be bequeathed to a medicine society in return for being cured. Or someone might stumble upon a society on one of its secret retreats and be compelled to join to protect the knowledge. Curiosity was tempered by a deep fear of possessing unauthorized information: the societies guarded their secrets as jealously from each other as they did from the Franciscan spies. It was said that at Acoma and Santo Domingo betrayal of religious secrets could mean death.

Even the clowns, or Delight Makers, as the anthropologist Adolf Bandelier called them in his novel about prehistoric life on the Pajarito plateau, were believed to be possessors of powerful secrets. So important were they to the well-being of the pueblo that they were given a latitude of behavior no other Tewa would dare emulate. They would talk backwards, saying the opposite of what they meant, or make fun of the shortcomings and transgressions of even the highest officials. In the middle of the most solemn rituals, they would stumble onto the plaza, mocking the dancers and the singers. They would grab women from the audience and simulate intercourse. They would eat (or at least pretend to eat) human waste. Their purpose was apparently to show people how not to behave, and to provide some comic relief from the responsibilities the whole pueblo shared in keeping their world in resonance with the gods.

The three-part structure of Dry Food People, Towa é, and Made People was mirrored in the subterranean spirit world: the commoners were associated with the spirits of their dead ancestors, the Dry Food Who Are No Longer. The Towa é were associated with the twins who lived on top of the four sacred mountains. The Made People were associated with the spirits who stayed behind when the people emerged from the lake: the Dry Food Who Never Did Become. Though these spirits never walked on earth, some of them journeyed across the sky, ascending and descending through distant lakes that led to the underworld. The sun, the moon, the stars, the constellations, fire and wind -- all belonged to this highest form of being, as did the Oxua, or Cloud Beings, the Tewa counterpart of the Hopi's kachinas.

The star spirits congregated in constellations called Meal-Drying Bowl, Star House, Big Round Circle, Sandy Corner, Turkey Foot, the Hand. Ursa Major was called Seven Corners, Seven Tail, or sometimes just Dog Tail. But most of the heavens went unnamed. Rooted so closely to the earth and the underworld, the Tewa seemed to pay less attention to the arrangements of the stars. Far more important were the sun itself, whose excursions north and south determined the solstices, and the moon, whose phases marked the monthly cycles. Together they would tell the people when to plant, when to harvest, and when to dance. And the dances would ensure that the rhythms were maintained.

While much of the sky went uncharted, the Tewa categorized the world around them with a level of detail unmatched by the cartographers of Spain or the United States. When the anthropologist John Peabody Harrington explored the pueblos in 1910, he wrote of a land "thickly strewn" with names. Where a visitor might look out on a seemingly undifferentiated expanse of mesas, hills, and arroyos, the Tewa saw a map on which even the most unobtrusive features had been given a name -- information recorded nowhere but in the heads of the people who lived there, fragmented among many minds. Any one person's knowledge only extended so far beyond the pueblo, then another's memory took hold. In trying to commit it all to paper, Harrington ended up with a report some 600 pages long, filled with thousands of entries. vAt San Ildefonso there were, to cite but a handful of examples, deer tail mesa, red white-earth arroyo, mountain of the great canyon, arroyo of the fire gully gap, cave dwelling in which the meal Was placed, Place of the blue water man, red stone-strewn canyon, place of the two arroyos, down where the spider Was picked up, arroyo with chokecherry growing at its little bends, mesa where the donkey Was killed, hill where the snakes live, gap of sharp, round cactus. The Tewa's maps were drawn with the finest of grains. Next to a place called where the Comanche fell down, one would be sure to find the arroyo where the Comanche fell down.

Like the antics of the Kossa and Kwirana clowns, some of the names reflected an attitude toward sexuality far more relaxed than those of the Europeans. The Franciscans were trying to impose their curious notions of original sin on a people who thought nothing about assigning names like Loathsome Penis Mountain (the words probably lose something in the translation), little corner of the hard penis or vagina kiva spring. In his report Harrington proudly noted that he was the first non-Indian to be taken to a shrine called stone on which the giant rubbed his penis, which was by the arroyo of the stone on which the giant rubbed his penis. The giant was said to live atop Black Mesa, the volcanic monolith that is revered as the northern sacred mesa of San Ildefonso. Parents had long warned their children that this beast was so mighty it would stride into the pueblo with four giant steps and grab disobedient children to roast for dinner. Reading Harrington's report, one has to wonder whether the Tewa, confronted by a nosy Anglo anthropologist, pointing to every hill and dale and asking what they were called, sometimes amused themselves by engaging in a bit of improvisation. Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa of San Juan pueblo who became a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, said that when he told his father and uncle some of the names in Harrington's report they howled with laughter. Much of Harrington's information came from two young Santa Clara men, who may have had a passing familiarity with the names around their own pueblo. Encountering the terra incognita of nearby San Juan, they apparently decided to improvise, knowing that otherwise Harrington would stop handing out quarters. As Harrington conceded in his report to the Bureau of Ethnology in Washington: "The difficulties encountered have been many. The Tewa are reticent and secretive with regard to religious matters, and their cosmographical ideas and much of their knowledge about place names hard to obtain." Though the details may be unreliable, Harrington's report stands as evidence that the Tewa gathered information as assiduously as their later conquerers, mapping both the physical world around them and the imaginary mental spaces that they associated not with mathematics but with the gods.

The details of the Tewa creation story may strike an outsider as whimsical and arbitrary. But it is not always clear that the anthropologists have done much better in coming up with a story of how the pueblo people arrayed themselves across the land into the patchwork of cultures we find today. While the Navajos and other Apaches who live at the fringes of the Tewa world are Athabascans, relatives of the Inuit who migrated down from Canada hundreds of years ago, the many different groups of pueblo Indians are believed to have descended, one way or the other, from the Anasazi empires of Chaco Canyon, in western New Mexico, and Mesa Verde, in southern Colorado. The Tewa are indeed believed to have come from somewhere in the north, as their version of Genesis has it, around 1300, when Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon collapsed for reasons that are still obscure. The migration may not have been the continuous journey southward that is described in the myth. Similarities between the Tewa languages and Kiowa, spoken by a tribe on the western plains, suggests a bit of meandering. But the stories the Tewa tell survive a certain amount of scientific scrutiny. Before settling in pueblos along the Nambe River and the Rio Grande, the Tewa indeed built stone and mud villages in the flatlands around Ojo Caliente and on the mesa tops of the Pajarito plateau; they scooped dwellings from the soft volcanic tuft of the canyon walls. The Tewa are part of what linguists call the Tano language group. Northeast of the Tewa, the pueblos of Taos and Picuris speak a closely related dialect called Tiwa. Tiwa is also spoken by two isolated southern pueblos, Sandia (just north of Albuquerque) and Isleta (just south of Albuquerque). And there are the speakers of a third dialect, Towa, who live in Jemez pueblo, southwest of Santa Fe, joined by the remnants of the other great Towa pueblo, Pecos, decimated by Comanches and Spanish smallpox and abandoned in 1838.

If all the pueblos of the Southwest spoke dialects of the same language, the anthropologists' task would be much easier. But in between the northern and southern domains of people who communicate in Tano are speakers of a very different language called Keres. They live at Cochiti, Santo Domingo, and San Felipe pueblos, between present-day Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and to the west at Santa Ana, Zia, Laguna, and Acoma. Still farther west are two pueblos speaking languages completely unrelated to Tano or Keres and completely unrelated to each other: Zuni and Hopi.

On the basis of language alone, it would be tempting to think of the pueblo world as consisting of several different cultures. But again, the situation is more complicated than that. Though their languages are different (even two pueblos speaking Keres can find it difficult to communicate across the dialectic divide), the pueblos share a structure of beliefs that is remarkably similar. Each pueblo has its own tetrads of sacred mountains, its own stories about the emergence from the underworld; each celebrates the exploits of the hero twins. To ensure good hunting, people throughout the pueblo world don animal costumes and dance the buffalo dance. To ensure a good harvest, they dance the corn dance, the men with bare chests painted black, wearing white kilts and moccasins, shaking gourd rattles; the women barefoot in their black dresses and red sashes, with a pine bough in each hand and a turquoise-colored crown called a tablita strapped atop the head. And pueblos all over the Southwest have their sacred clowns to make sure that no one takes the intricate system so seriously that they confuse it with life itself.

Despite all the similarities, there is nothing like a monolithic pueblo religion. While the Tewa are divided between summer and winter people, the Keres have squash and turquoise people. While the Tewa say north is blue and west is yellow, the Keres reverse the designations. While the Tewa speak of a single underworld which they left after four tries, other pueblos talk of a four-level underworld. But the resemblances tantalize the anthropologists' need to find patterns.

In a culture without a written language, ideas leave little trace. There are no texts that can be examined for clues to the origins of pueblo religion. It is tempting to take the similarities among the pueblos' beliefs as signs of an ancient Anasazi religion, whose splinters developed in different ways. But it is impossible to tell how much of the resemblance came from later borrowing, ideas bartered back and forth with the invisible hand of the marketplace spreading the wealth around.

Today, anthropologists find a gradient of beliefs that flows across the southwest. The worhip of masked gods -- the kachinas, or Cloud Beings, as the Tewa call them -- seems strongest in the western pueblos of the Hopi and Zuni, fading as one heads east. The dualistic divisions are strongest in the east, with the Tewa's summer and winter people, a little weaker in the center, with the Keresans' squash and turquoise people, and weakest of all among the Zuni and Hopi. The medicine societies seem strongest among the Keres, fading as they radiate outward. Like pieces of a puzzle, these scraps of data are fitted together by scientists searching for an all-embracing order. But in many ways the pueblo people and their complex world have resisted explanation in terms other than their own.

For the Tewa, mythology left off and history began when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, marching up from Mexico, and began to write the Tewa into their own story. To the Spanish and their Franciscan priests, the spirits lived in the sky, not under the earth. Unaware or uninterested in such designations as Summer and Winter people, these European visitors imposed a different duality on the natives of the northern fringes. The Indios de los pueblos lived in villages like San Ildefonso and grew crops. Surrounding this civilized world were the Indios bárbaros, the Comanches and Apaches who moved from place to place and raided the pueblos for food. One group of Apaches, the Navajo, had only come into the area slightly before the Spanish.

It is not certain just when the people of San Ildefonso saw their first Spaniard. Coronado's troops rode into Tewa country in the early 1540s, but it was not until 1598 that Juan de OĖate, who led the first group of settlers to New Mexico, visited San Ildefonso. From then on, linear time proceeded with a vengeance. The Ice Month was renamed January, after the two-faced Roman god Janus; the Wind Month became February, after a Roman purification rite; the Month When the Leaves Break Forth became March, named for Mars, the god of war; the Month When the Leaves Open became April, after an Etruscan name for Aphrodite, Corn Planting Month became May, after another Roman goddess. Before long even the Tewa themselves were renamed. By the time the American anthropologist Elsie Parsons arrived in the early twentieth century, it was not unusual for a San Ildefonso man to be named both Star Mountain and Santiago Alarides; a man called Starbird was known outside the pueblo as Juan Jesús PiĖa. The changes were not simply a matter of laying new names on top of old ones. Time became divided with a finer and finer grain. While the Tewa had been content to segment the year into months, the Spanish gave every day a number and a name, and then the days themselves were mechanically sliced into horas, minutos, and segundos.

Before long, the Franciscans were trying to change the very names of the Cloud Beings to correspond with the Church's holy saints. Throughout the pueblo world, kivas were burned or filled with sand; masks and other sacred relics were destroyed. In 1675, forty-seven pueblo religious leaders were accused of witchcraft and idolatry and brought to Santa Fe for a public flogging. One of the leaders was Popé, the San Juan Indian who would lead the Pueblo Revolt five years later.

San Ildefonso was one of the strongest supporters of the revolution, killing two of its resident Franciscans. And, when De Vargas staged his Reconquest twelve years later, the pueblo was one of the last to succumb, fleeing to the top of Black Mesa, the lair of the legendary giant, to fight a worse monster. For two years after most of the pueblos had surrendered, San Ildefonso staved off De Vargas's men. But finally the Spanish prevailed. It is often said that the Spanish had learned their lesson in the Pueblo Revolt, that after the Reconquest, they were more tolerant of the Indians' religion. The Tewa didn't seem to see it that way. In a smaller uprising in 1696, four years after the Reconquest, San Ildefonso sealed the doors of the Catholic church that had replaced the one destroyed in the revolt, and set it on fire, burning the missionaries trapped inside.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to craft so carefully an inner world, a mobile of colors, spirits, animals, and mountains, all in such delicate balance, only to have it capsized by a people from far beyond -- a people who looked different from any ever seen, with far more riches, far more powerful weapons, and a religion that they insisted was the only true one. It was as though they had been invaded by creatures from another planet. Pueblo religion was not set in stone, or even written in a book. As they brushed up against other peoples -- the Keres pueblos to the south, the Hopis and Zunis in the far west -- the Tewa religious leaders seemed perfectly willing to learn about new gods and adopt them into their pantheon. And the borrowing goes beyond the pueblos. Buffalo dances often begin with songs from Plains tribes. Even the Tewa's old enemies, the Navajo, speak of four sacred mountains and six colored directions. No wonder the pueblos were pushed to violence when the Franciscans, bringing these kachinas they called saints, not only refused to reciprocate by respecting the Cloud Beings, but tried to stamp them out.

Catholicism tried to assimilate Tewa religion, but ultimately it was Tewa religion that assimilated Catholicism. At each pueblo, the church remained off to the side, away from the kivas and the plaza. At the corn dances, the pueblo's patron saint would sit on an altar in a tent at the edge of the plaza, bedecked perhaps with turquoise necklaces and beads -- a sideshow to the main attraction, the dancers who filled the pueblo with color and sound.

While Catholicism had been more or less defanged, in some ways the gods of Western science were more insistent, and harder to fathom. The Catholics, like the Tewa, had their mysteries; knowledge was something sacred, a means of connecting with the spirit world. And the most powerful knowledge of all was to be carefully guarded by a priesthood lest it fall into the wrong hands. What then was one to think of these anthropologists with their curious doctrine of knowledge for knowledge's sake? While the Spanish had come seeking gold and then converts, the anthropologists were plundering in their quiet but persistent way for information, not so they could join the Indians in harmony with the gods (or compel them to worship their own), but so they could explain them away, absorb their religion as a detail of their own growing belief system.

In 1879 the anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing came from the east to spend five years among the Zunis, whose villages the Spanish had mistaken for the golden cities of Cibola. Cushing moved into the governor's house and broke down the Zunis' resistance by learning to speak and dress like them. Then, in an anthropological coup unmatched before or since, he was initiated into the secret Bow Society. One of the membership requirements was to obtain a scalp for the society's collection. To this day it is unclear where and how he got it. Some Zunis insist that he scalped a Navajo. One likes to think that he purchased it on the black market or, as he implied in a vaguely worded letter, obtained it somehow in an area recently raided by Apaches. In any case, to gain initiation as a Bow Priest he apparently had to give the Zunis the impression that he had come by it in the traditional manner. Cushing seemed to genuinely care for the welfare of his subjects. He helped champion the land rights of pueblo against Anglo encroachers. But in the end the Zunis felt betrayed when he published their secrets for all the world to see. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Gradually the pueblos began to view the anthropologists as suspiciously as they had the Franciscans. The historian Marc Simmons tells how the anthropologist Adolf Bandelier's prying eyes and camera made him persona non grata at Santo Domingo in 1881. And Charles Lummis, a colleague of Bandelier's who lived at Isleta pueblo in the 1890s, was ostracized after he published a book of their stories. When Elsie Clews Parsons published her findings about Taos in the 1930s, some of her informants suffered reprisals.

Parsons, who moved to the Spanish village of Alcalde in 1923, north of San Juan pueblo, to try to penetrate the Tewa mysteries, seemed especially exasperated with her San Ildefonso informants. "The women were particularly timid and not well informed; the man was a three-fold liar, lying from secretiveness, from his sense of burlesque, and from sheer laziness," she wrote. "Curiously enough, this man, whose social position is of the best, but whose veracity is of the worst, according to both white and Indian standards, has probably been hitherto one of our sources of authority on the Tewa." It seems as though Parsons simply couldn't understand that the people she so assiduously studied had a different attitude toward knowledge; that they instinctively recognized that with dissemination came dilution. As they saw it, anthropology was a zero-sum game: knowledge gained by the scientists was knowledge lost by the Tewa.

As Cushing's experience with the Zunis showed, the anthropologists didn't always practice the scientific ideal of detached objectivity. As Maxwell's demon might have told them, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception: you cannot gather information without altering the object of your curiosity. Consider the story of the world reknowned potter of San Ildefonso, María Martinez, who got her start in 1908 when she camped in Frijoles canyon for the summer with her husband, Julian, who was hired by archeologists to help excavate the ruins there. One of the scientists brought Maria a potsherd decorated with a beautiful black pattern unlike any she had ever seen, and asked her if she could duplicate it. Pottery making had all but died out at San Ildefonso when factory-made cookware became available. The little that was still made was plain and utilitarian, but with help from Julian, who was something of an artist, Martinez made modern versions of the ancient pot. The archeologists purchased them to show at the state museum in Santa Fe, and before long a worldwide market developed for pots with stylized versions of the old designs used by the people who once lived on the Pajarito plateau. A link between the Anasazi and the Tewa, broken long ago, had been reestablished by these curious outsiders, whose temples were universities and museums. It was indeed a complicated new world. Only a Rousseauean romantic would insist that if it hadn't been for outsiders all would have been harmonious in the Tewa world. The pueblos had their own internal fractures, though these were no doubt widened by the pressure of Spanish and then American occupation. When Bandelier visited Northern New Mexico in 1883, he found that not all of the pueblos' decline could be blamed on exotic European diseases. At Nambe he was told that the pueblo's dwindling population had been caused in part by the custom of executing "witches," who seemed to have included many of the most intelligent citizens.

In the early twentieth century, San Ildefonso split in half when most of the pueblo refused to obey an order from the head religious leader, the Cacique. Sometime after the Reconquest (some say the late nineteenth century, others say after the destruction wrought by the 1696 uprising), the pueblo was moved slightly northward, closer to Black Mesa. Some were worried that they were moving against the grain, that migration should always be to the south, just as it had been since the first people left the lake of emergence. After years of pestilence, the worries grew that the pueblo was seriously out of alignment with the spiritual energies. Early in the twentieth century (some say 1923, others say 1910, 1918, or 1921), the Cacique persuaded six families to move slightly southward and reestablish their own village. For most of the people, practicality outweighed religious concerns: they stayed where they were, and so San Ildefonso became divided into a North Plaza and a South Plaza. By this time most of the Winter people, all but two families, had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. With the Winter people all but gone, San Ildefonso divided into north and south, as though compelled to maintain the old duality. But this wasn't the harmonious polarity that existed before. In 1930, some of the North Plaza men raided the South Plaza, retaking religious paraphernalia and beating the Cacique. The South Plaza retaliated by burning the North Plaza's kiva. A split also occurred along religious and secular lines. The Spanish had imposed a new layer of hierarchy on the pueblos, making them choose a governor and other civil administrators to deal with the conquerors. The arrangement continued with the American overseers. One year when the governor's term was over, he refused to follow tradition and surrender to the Cacique the ceremonial cane given to all pueblo leaders by Abraham Lincoln. He passed the cane on himself. A new governor was elected by the North Plaza alone and the South refused to recognize him. And so, for years, the religious leader, the Cacique, lived in the South Plaza, while the political leader, the governor, lived in the North Plaza.

In 1935, when a movie crew paid the governor to shoot scenes of the pueblo, they parked their trucks in the South Plaza while they filmed in the North Plaza. When it came time to divide the fee, the governor gave it only to North Plaza families. Some of the disputes were even more petty. A South Plaza man built an outhouse blocking a corridor used by the North Plaza to get to a kiva that was shared by the two factions. After an argument, he moved the outhouse out of the way but left it so that it faced the North Plaza and was visible to people watching the dances.

Though the move south was supposed to realign the pueblo more favorably with the spiritual force field, it was the North Plaza that seemed to prosper. The most famous of all the Tewa lived there, the potter María Martinez. She became so successful that she was able to hire local Spanish women as housekeepers. And when she became distressed that a local Hispanic man was giving homemade wine to her husband and other pueblo men, she went over with a roll of hundred dollar bills and bought his house simply so he would go away. Before long, pottery making became such a big business that many of the women refused to speak to one another, afraid that someone would steal their designs. The split is still obvious in the feast day ceremonies: the Buffalo dance in the North Plaza alternating with the Comanche dance in the South Plaza. Ask a South Plaza man how to find the home of a North Plaza family and you might be confronted with a blank stare, this in a pueblo with 350 inhabitants.

As the twentieth century progressed, the closed system of the Tewa was becoming open to an environment voracious for information. As news about the pueblos spread, the road from Santa Fe to San Ildefonso became more widely traveled. One of the early visitors was the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who as a young visitor from the east had taken a pack trip in 1922 from Frijoles Canyon to the Valle Grande, the vast, high meadow that had been created a million years ago when the Jemez volcano blew its top. On another trip in 1937, he met Edith Warner, the woman who lived at Otowi bridge, near San Ildefonso, and whose journals document the changes that came to the land. Oppenheimer would remember the beauty and isolation of the land several years later, when the federal government was looking for a site for the Manhattan Project. In 1942 Oppenheimer returned to introduce his new wife to Warner, who now ran a small tea room at the bridge. Within a year a weapons laboratory was being built on a mesa top a few miles away, and Warner's journals tell of visits to her rustic salon by Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and her favorite, a kind, softspoken man named Niels Bohr.

After the explosion of the Hiroshima bomb developed on the New Mexican mesas, the laboratory of Los Alamos quickly grew into a city and became the single largest employer for the pueblos and villages between the eastern slope of the Jemez and the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo. Before long physicists from Los Alamos were sitting at the table with families from San Ildefonso for their annual feast days. But all was not congenial between the pueblos and the laboratory. Land the Tewa considered sacred was now behind fences marked with No Trespassing signs. Decades later, when stories began to surface about radioactive waste left in the canyons, the governor's office at San Ildefonso calculated that since Los Alamos had moved in above them, 10 percent of the pueblo people had been victims of cancer. With only 350 people living at the pueblo, it was hard for statisticians to evaluate the significance of the claim. But to the people of San Ildefonso it was almost impossible not to suspect a pattern and consider nuclear research the worst kind of witchcraft.

And what, in turn, did the physicists think of the Tewa's magic? For many, the dances were little more than a local curiosity to share with visitors. Others were struck perhaps by the mystery. What was the meaning of this dance step, that song, that symbol? What was going on inside the kivas, or in the plaza on days when the whole pueblo was closed to outsiders? What was going on in the minds of the Tewa? How did the world look through these other eyes? In the true Baconian spirit, some of the scientists gathered scraps of knowledge here and there. East is white, north is blue. But without a field to charge them with meaning, the pieces themselves were of little value. Anyone was free to learn group theory and penetrate the priesthood of particle physics, but with the Tewa one was always on the outside looking in.

No individual Tewa could be expected to hold the entire intricate system of colors, directions, stars, and animals in his head. Like the maps of the Northern New Mexican terrain that Harrington uncovered, the knowledge was fragmented among many minds. Alfonso Ortiz, the Tewa anthropologist, put it like this: you cannot expect to stop a Tewa on the street and ask him to unfold his people's world view anymore than you can expect most Europeans to be conversant in Western philosophy. The most basic assumptions run deeper than our awareness; they are the epistemological air we breath.

The unspoken assumptions that sat at the foundation of the Tewa's grand architecture bore little resemblance to those that science had built upon. The separation of subject and object, the value-free nature of knowledge, the power of mathematics to reflect nature, the existence of a platonic realm of pure idea where the laws of the universe reside -- all this was ground into the lenses through which the scientists focused the data streaming in from whatever it is that lies beyond our narrow windows.

Confronted with an alien system, the best we can do is to lay our own conceptual grid over it and explain it in our own terms -- to build models of their models. But there will always be a gap between our theories and the phenomena we are trying to formalize. Even if so much of the Tewa religion wasn't secret, there would still be no way to think with the brain of a Tewa, to erase our own network of beliefs and immerse ourselves in another. In the end, two different world views can be as immiscible as oil and water: their very structure holds them apart.

But perhaps there is a level below culture, a commonality that extends back before the ancestors of the Anasazi and the other natives of the Americas left the Asian continent, migrating across the Bering strait -- and even earlier, before there were Caucasians and Africans and Orientals, when there were just homo sapiens. At the deepest level we are all information gatherers -- Iguses, as Gell-Mann calls them. Dig deep enough through the layers of the mind and surely you will reach rock bottom, an impenetrable floor: the architecture of the brain as it was molded by evolution to find patterns, even if they are not always there. We all find ourselves in a world of randomness, where some seasons are wet while others are dry, where bad things happen to good people, and enemies prosper. Surely the world isn't meant to be this way. We all share this belief in symmetries, and finding ourselves in a world where the symmetries have broken, we imagine a time before the fall from perfection, whether we call it Eden, the underworld, or the big bang.

And so we all seem to share this obsession with imposing number on the world. The four fundamental forces. The fourteen stations of the cross. The concentric tetrads of mountains and mesas. The three levels of people mirrored by the three levels of the supernatural world. Even mythology is rendered with precision: The giant of Black Mesa takes four steps to get to San Ildefonso. It took four tries to leave the lake of emergence, and then twelve stops to reach the first settlement of Posi. Along with this drive to enumerate, we seem to share a compulsion to divide the world into dualities: positive and negative, matter and antimatter, good and evil, summer and winter, north and south. Scientists will insist that their own numbers and dualities are testable hypotheses, while others are articles of faith; that there are true and false compressions. As Murray Gell-Mann once put it: when you don't see compressions that are there, that is denial; when you see compressions that don't exist, that is superstition. Among his many other interests, Gell-Mann has developed a fascination with Tewa religion and language. But he has no doubt that the patterns he and his colleagues in theoretical physics are finding are the ones that are real.

For a scientist, knowledge is something to be discovered. It might remain secret until a paper is published, but after that it is free to anyone who can understand its hieroglyphs. The Tewa are not trying to use the powers of induction to zero-in on causal relationships, to unbury platonic truth. To them, the most powerful truths have been known since the beginning. The burden is to protect them and pass them undiluted down the line.

Undiluted, but also untested a scientist might say. For some of the denizens of Los Alamos the overriding question was, how could their neighbors down the hill possibly believe these things? How did a system with so many seemingly arbitrary components remain so remarkably intact, throughout the domination by the Catholics, the scrutiny of the anthropologists, the invasion of the physicists? Part of the reason is that the Tewa's world, like that of science, is not static. It absorbed new gods along the way. But were gods or dances ever abandoned when they didn't prove effective?

Some parts of the system were tested everyday. East is white each time the sun comes up; to the north is the bluish haze of the distant mountains. The pueblo dances in the spring and before long it usually rains. In so precarious a world, people are not tempted to experiment, to try foregoing the dance one year and see if it rains anyway. After all, one could always blame a particularly dry summer on any number of things: a dance not done correctly, the thoughts of the dancers unpure. Failure of a ritual would make them dance all the harder. The system's very resilience makes it resistant to falsification. If questioned by the people, the priests can always hide behind the veil of secrecy. They have a vested interest in maintaining their power.

But is science always so different? Few people, even with college educations, are in a position to evaluate the intricacies of particle physics or cosmology. We accept them on faith, stories told by the high priests and priestesses. We are provided with the warranty that the speculations are grounded in observation and that even the most beautiful tower can be toppled by a single observation. But the relationship between the observable world and the theories we build is subtle to say the least. In practice, we are more likely to add filigrees to our models than to see them overturned.

When confronted with an observation that stubbornly resists the reigning theory, a scientist is tempted to dismiss it as experimental error. Or the theory can be supplemented with what are politely called "auxiliary hypotheses." Beta decay violates the law of conservation of energy, so there must be invisible neutrinos. Galaxies spin in contradiction of Newton's laws, so there must be invisible dark matter. Science too builds self-sustaining systems, a tissue of concepts that, as the philosopher Willard Quine put it, "impinges on experience only along the edges."

How then can one avoid a retreat into relativism, concluding that one people's system is as good as another? There is good reason to argue that physics has provided the more powerful set of tools. Where is the Tewa equivalent of television or the atom bomb? It is hard to imagine that given any amount of time the Tewa's way of explaining reality would have led to the digital computer or laser holography. And yet, if their way of carving up the world didn't provide levers powerful enough to move the earth, it gave them the inner strength to weather invasion after invasion -- by Navajos, by Spanish soliders and missionaries, by inquiring anthropologists and finally by the physicists of Los Alamos. For the Tewa, the purpose of building mental orders seems less to control the environment than to control the world within. And in that way they have been successful.

The system created by the Tewa provided enough comfort that, left on its own, it probably would have continued to thrive. But some reality-testing was inevitable. It became clear, case by case, that the doctors from the Indian Health Service were often more successful than the pueblo healers in curing sickness. And so inevitably the medicine societies began to die. Other sacred societies succumbed to the expediencies of modern times. In a world where one can take a paycheck from Los Alamos and cash it to buy groceries at a supermarket in EspaĖola or Santa Fe, there is little need for a Hunt Society, and so these too have faded. In the 1960s Alfonso Ortiz interviewed the last Hunt Chief at San Juan pueblo. Feeling that his knowledge was no longer valued, the chief died without naming a successor. The chain was broken, except for the information Ortiz was able to record in his field notes.

This membrane the pueblos have erected around themselves keeps information from flowing out, but the protection is mostly one way. Nothing can be done to block television waves. And the sheer force of the American marketplace has been all but impossible to resist. Absorbed into the economy that surrounds them, the pueblos have had to find ways to turn resources into cash. Even a religiously conservative pueblo like Tesuque finds itself opening a bingo hall. Many of the billboards that obstruct the view from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and beyond stand on rented patches of pueblo land.

Some pueblos have succumbed more completely than others. At Pojoaque, which lies between Tesuque and San Ildefonso, the adobe houses have been largely replaced by trailers. The only thing resembling a plaza is the asphalt parking lot of the Pueblo Plaza shopping center. Taking full advantage of its main resource -- the Y-shaped intersection that connects the Santa Fe highway to Los Alamos and Taos -- the pueblo has developed a strip of chain restaurants, gasoline stations, a gambling hall equipped with video slot machines, and a liquor store that includes the finest wine collection in Northern New Mexico. At Po suwae geh Restaurant (from the original Tewa name for the pueblo) one can order sandwiches called Tesuque Tuna, Taos Turkey, San Ildefonso Ham and Swiss, and Picuris BLT.

In recent years, Pojoaque has tried to restore its lost traditions, relearning dances from other pueblos and opening a museum, which acts as both a cultural resource and a way to divert the flow of tourists traveling along Highway 285. Perhaps what is most surprising is that Pojoaque is an exception, that most of the Rio Grande pueblos look much as they have for as long as there are photographs to compare. A picture taken around the turn of the century of the corn dance at San Ildefonso might have been taken in 1993: the same costumes, the same low skyline of adobe houses, the same old cottonwood tree in the North Plaza. We stare at these unchanging images, catching photons bouncing off the surface of the page, but we are all but powerless to penetrate inside. Anthropologists distinguish between the exoteric part of a religion, that which is open to outsiders, and the esoteric, that which is secret and held within. In the Tewa world, the esoteric core is withering, leaving the exoteric shell. The dances seem as vibrant as ever. To the older pueblo people, they are an invoking of magic, to the younger a way of preserving a tradition, keeping an identity intact. But even those who take the religion metaphorically -- and the dances more as a cultural celebration than an appeasing of the gods -- they too are shaped by this world view, as much as even agnostics and atheists are shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Each year, the trappings of the world beyond the mountains become harder to resist. Even at some of the most traditional pueblos, like Santo Domingo, the feast day dances are accompanied by a traveling carnival with a midway and ferris wheel. Recent Christmas festivities included a parody of the corn dance. Made up in black face -- not like the animals in the Buffalo dance but like members of a minstrel troupe -- the dancers, some of them wearing Afro wigs, some of them dressed in drag, performed what they billed as the Alabama Corn Dance. The racist undertones were only softened by the knowledge that the pueblo clowns make fun of everyone regardless of race, color, or creed, including themselves. In a traditional corn dance, male and female dancers form facing parallel lines. In the Alabama Corn Dance, this configuration quickly degenerated into the childhood game called Red Rover.

Following the antics of the Alabama corn dancers was a march by a corps of pueblo firefighters, wearing yellow hardhats and singing a marching song in English: "In her hair she wore a yellow ribbon. She wore it for that firefighter far, far away." When it came time for the head firefighter to review the troops, he opened a briefcase and pulled out a giant rubber penis. Carrying it like a baton, he walked down the line shaking it at the troops as he asked each man his name.

Though the pueblos have managed to resist the puritanical ways of their Catholic and American overseers, their sense of humor has become more subdued than it was in the past. Throughout the pueblo world the clowns have cleaned up their act, though they still put on hilarious performances. At Picuris pueblo, up near Taos, they storm the plaza during fiesta, disrupting the chorus and mimicking the dancers. Dressed in colored jogging shorts, which clash loudly with their traditional black-and-white striped head pieces, the clowns perform a traditional pantomime in which they try to figure out how to get a watermelon and a bundle of food down from the top of a tall pole. They still grab women from the audience to hug and spin around, but the sexual undertones are muted. The clowns seem to be having so much fun that it is easy to forget that the dances are not put on for the amusement of outsiders. When a Hispanic man tried to photograph the clowns at Picuris as they tried to climb the pole, a young pueblo man who was in charge of security angrily seized the camera, only returning it after confiscating the film.

Many pueblos ban photography (those that don't charge a fee). It is not that the people fear having their souls captured by the camera, as in that old white man's cliche. Some no doubt are photographers themselves. What they fear is assimilation. They know what happens when a closed system is opened to the world, how information dissipates across the barrier and order turns to entropy. None of the pueblos allow significant anthropological inquiries anymore. As Ortiz, the Tewa anthropologist, put it, "The attitude is, Why don't you go study yourselves?"

They are equally leery of the New Age seekers coming from Santa Fe, seeking spiritual knowledge. A recent governor of Tesuque pueblo, which is the closest to the city, was disturbed to pick up a weekly alternative newspaper and see an advertisement for Indian shaman lessons. On a visit to Trader Jack's Flea Market, a weekend bazaar on the highway near Tesuque and the Santa Fe Opera, he saw a crowd gathered around a man selling crystals that supposedly had healing powers. The governor picked up a rock from the ground and called out, "I'll sell you this one for half as much." The magic isn't in the object, he said, but in what you believe. He seemed to find the whole New Age movement pathetic -- these people without a religion trying to invent or steal one.

"Our beliefs are one of the few things that are still our own," he said. "There is always the chance that this knowledge will be what saves the world." He drew a circle representing the earth, then a line to represent its axis. Around the circumference he placed the various native peoples: North American Indians -- the pueblos, Navajos, Apaches, Utes -- as well as the tribes of Africa and the Australian aborigines. Their purpose, he said, was to keep the earth in balance. If their cultures were destroyed, the axis would tilt and the planet would fall into the sun. "We knew there was an axis before science did," he said. "We don't worry about what makes it go around. If we are meant to know that, it will be revealed."

One of the most radical proponents of the notion that different peoples carve up reality in very different ways was the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. For Whorf even such seemingly ingrained notions as time and space were culturally determined. The Tewa have not let themselves or their language be studied closely enough for anyone but them to know how differently they might conceive of such basic concepts. Whorf studied the language of the Tewa's distant cousins, the Hopi, concluding that they have no words for time. For that matter, he discovered, they do not even have verb tenses or any other constructions that would distinguish present, past, and future. Whorf insisted that they got along fine without them.

"Just as it is possible to have any number of geometries other than the Euclidean which give an equally perfect account of space configurations," he wrote, "so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrasts of time and space." Though the mathematics of relativity treats time and space more fluidly, we instinctively think of ourselves existing in a rigid lattice of three dimensions, with time flowing through it -- a steady, unidirectional wind from a dark, unknown future. Strained to roughly translate Hopi metaphysics into an approximation Westerners could understand, Whorf concluded that, in place of time and space or past and future, the Hopi divided everything into what he called the Manifest and the Manifesting (or, alternately, the Unmanifest). For lack of more precise concepts we might call these the objective and the subjective, or adopt the names Descartes used when he split the universe into res extensa, things with extension, and res cogitans, things of the mind. Everything that can be registered by the senses, whether in the present or the past, belongs to the Manifest realm, that which has already become. The future, along with everything else that is invisible to the senses -- that which has not yet become -- belongs to the realm of the Manifesting. The future is not out there flowing toward us, but hidden inside of things, striving to come forth. Included in this category of the Manifesting is everything we would call mental: thoughts, hopes, feelings, desires, intentions. All are striving to make themselves manifest. Likewise, the seed's striving to become a plant belongs to this subjective realm.

The Unmanifest is "subjective from our viewpoint," Whorf wrote, "but intensely real and quivering with life, power, and potency to the Hopi." A better term, he proposed, might be the realm of hoping. The world is divided into the things that are and the things that are hoping to become real. The rituals in the kiva and the dances on the plaza are a means to make the hopes, the future become manifest.

As Whorf describes it, the implications of this world view seem almost Einsteinian. To the Hopi on First Mesa it would be meaningless to speak of something happening simultaneously on Second Mesa. One can only imagine. To find out what is going on, one would have to travel there or wait for a message to arrive. Only then does what happens elsewhere become real. Until then, it belongs to the realm of the Manifesting, the subjective.

As an aid to thinking, like the mathematicians' imaginary spaces, the Hopi think of the universe as vertically structured. The world mankind inhabits stands halfway between the starry sky and the spiritual underworld. It is not that the gods literally live underground. They are just so removed from the realm of the objective, the things accessible to the senses, that one can only imagine what they are like. And the same is true of the distant stars.

It is hard to know how accurately Whorf carved up the inner world of the Hopi. His theories of their language lapse in and out of favor. The very notion of abstract concepts -- these mental constructs that exist somehow on their own -- may be a concept (pardon the circularity) that other cultures do not necessarily share. To us, Tewa religion will probably always belong to the Unmanifest, standing as a reminder that even here on earth, among fellow humans, not everything is knowable. But there is one thing we share: we are all people struggling against the limits of our mental powers, the computational power of the brain to compress and understand. We grasp at images and tell stories, trying to build ourselves a place in the world, but always with this uneasy feeling that we are skating on a thin crust of ice over a seemingly bottomless lake.

continued in Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order