Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico – Home of the Kawaik People


Laguna Pueblo, 1879

Laguna Pueblo, 1879

Located about 45 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico is the Pueblo of Laguna. The largest of the Keresan pueblos, it is comprised of six small villages including Laguna, Paguate, Encinal, Mesita, Seuma, and Paraje. Nestled below scenic Mount Taylor, ancestors of these Puebloan Indians are thought to have occupied these same lands since 1300 A.D. However, the area surrounding the villages indicates a longer history, as archeological evidence has been dated back as far as 3000 B.C.

Pueblo tradition says that their people have always been there. The Spanish name, Laguna, translates to lagoon and is derived from a lake that was once located on the pueblo lands. The people refer to themselves as Ka-Waikah or Ka-waik, meaning “lake people,” though the lake has long since transitioned into meadowlands. Prior to Spanish incursions in the region in the 1500s, Kawaik residents lived in a border region between the Ancestral Pueblo people to the north and the Mogollon people to the south.

In 1539 a Franciscan friar, Marcos de Niza, claimed the Pueblo region for Spain and by 1616, there were nine missions that had been built at various pueblos. When the Spanish arrived in Laguna, they found a self-governing, agricultural society. The pueblo we see today was established after the Pueblo Revolt in 1699 by a group of Kawaik people and other refugees from Cienguilla, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, and Zia Pueblos. Built under the supervision of Franciscan Friars utilizing Laguna labor, it was the last mission built during this period. During Spanish rule, the Laguna people were not treated well but adapted to colonial rule by adopting and incorporating those aspects necessary for survival while maintaining their traditional beliefs.

St. Joseph Church at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico

St. Joseph Church at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico

The pueblo expanded rapidly, growing to the north, east, and west, with the main village of Laguna built into the soft, light-yellow sandstone slope on the west side of the San Jose River. The original buildings were built of stone and adobe, and the St. Joseph Church, which dates from 1701, continues to dominate the skyline.

The Pueblo continued to thrive moving from Spanish rule to Mexican rule to American rule in the 1800s, although the changes brought more new challenges as the peoples’ traditional values and beliefs came into conflict with new governments. But, the Kawaik continued to endure. Agriculture continued to be a way of life, and Pueblo visitors often remarked on the quality of their crops. Starting with a Baptist presence in the 1850s and a Presbyterian presence in the 1870s, Protestant Christianity gained strength in the community and resulted in a split and the establishment of Mesita late in the 1800s.

In 1880 the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad began to be built through New Mexico and the pueblo allowed the company to lay track on the Laguna Reservation only if the railroad agreed to employ tribal members, setting a precedent for other tribes.

The railroad comes throught the Pueblo Laguna, Detroit Publishing, 1899

The railroad comes through the Pueblo Laguna, Detroit Publishing, 1899

In 1935, the historic mission in Laguna was fully restored and today’s visitors are invited to visit the picturesque adobe mission perched atop a hill.

Prior to the 1950s, livestock grazing and other agricultural practices were the basis of Laguna’s economy. However, when uranium was discovered in 1951, mining would soon become the mainstay for the villages. The tribe leased 7,868 acres to a mining company who operated a uranium mine from 1953 through March 1982. One of the world’s richest uranium fields and the site of what was once the world’s largest open-pit mine was located near the village of Paguate. During this time, many of the men became miners, learned many mechanical skills, and the mines provided a revenue stream for the Pueblo. These were prosperous years for the mining company and the area residents. However, when the price of uranium ore dropped, the mines were closed in 1982. Afterward, the Pueblo faced hard years and high unemployment. The mining also left behind huge scars in the land and contamination requiring EPA cleanup.

However, with strong leadership and community support, the Pueblo created new economic opportunities, including the revival of the traditional craft of pottery making and other handcrafts, a tribal casino, tourism, a large construction company that does business all over the world, and numerous other businesses. Local feast days and festivals bring crowds of people to the villages and the pueblo has five semi-pro baseball teams.

Though each village has its own church, the most prominent landmark of the Pueblo is the whitewashed St. Joseph Church in Old Laguna, which is readily visible from I-40 and Route 66. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, the mission, built in 1699, is constructed of fieldstone, adobe, mortar, and plaster. The only openings in the fortress-like structure are the doorway and a small window in the upper front below the twin bells, which are set in the parapet. The mission is famous for its interior decoration, which displays original Laguna art and rare early Spanish paintings along the walls and the altar, and the woodwork in the mission is elaborately carved. St. Joseph Church is located at 1 Friar Road in Laguna and is generally open to visitors 9:00 am to 3:00 pm Monday-Friday.

Mesita, New Mexico, 1937

Mesita, New Mexico, 1937

Today, the reservation consists of approximately 500,000 acres of land situated in Cibola, Valencia, Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties and is the second largest in New Mexico. The tribe includes about 7,000 members. The pueblo also offers excellent fishing at Paguate Reservoir. Permits are required and can be purchased by contacting the Laguna Natural Resources office. A scenic view of the pueblo can be seen on Interstate 40 at mile marker 114. The pueblo-operated Dancing Eagle Casino and Travel Center are located at I-40 mile marker 108.