Taos Pueblo Former Governor Tony Reyna: 'Respected Universally by All'
My aunt dated Tony Reyna, Taos Pueblo's former two-term governor and local living legend, in the 1990s. Upon her suggestion, I picked up two pieces of strawberry rhubarb pie at Michael's Cafe in Taos, New Mexico, on my way to interview him. "She brought us pie," Reyna pointed at the container, alerting Phillip Reyna, his son who manages the family store.
Reyna has held a multitude of positions of leadership within the town of Taos and with the state, including serving as police commissioner and as a regent on museum boards. For the Taos Pueblo, Reyna was the secretary of governor's office in 1975, lieutenant governor in 1977, and governor in 1982 and 1992.
"His story is really one that needs to be told," said Rick Romancito (Taos, Zuni), arts and entertainment editor for more than 20 years with the Taos News. "Tony's is a story of a pueblo boy who went to war and how that changed him and how he came back to serve his Pueblo and his community. He is respected universally by all."
Reyna, now 97 years old, was raised at Taos Pueblo in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. The multi-storied adobe pueblo, continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years, is currently home to about 150 full-time residents. Known to strongly protect its tribal heritage, Taos Pueblo council often leans toward conservative views on progress and only introduced electricity, plumbing and telephone service to the Pueblo in the 1960s.
Taos Pueblo was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992, when Reyna was in his second term as governor. "That year (1992), we were considered for World Heritage status with all kinds of conditions, and I said, 'nothing doing, not for the privacy of my people,'" Reyna recounted. "So they finally gave in and they granted us that recognition with new conditions. That was a victory for us."
"Traditionally, Taos Pueblo doesn't allow photography or recording of any kind during Native religious ceremonials and they don't teach the Tiwa language to anyone out of the tribe," Romancito said. "It's all related to what is special about Taos Pueblo, the language and Native religion, and to communicate aspects of that for interpretation and judgment by a people outside the tribe would be to diminish its importance and its value."
Reyna maintains a home on the pueblo where the family congregates for pueblo ceremonies. He also owns a primary residence besides his store where we met.
Reyna's son led me through a door connecting the shop to an open living room with views of the mountains beyond the simple backyard. One of his grandchildren was cooking in the kitchen and yelled for me to speak loudly as Reyna's hearing is faltering. After settling in a patch of sun on his living room couch, he showed me his American Legion garrison hat honoring his time with the Army during World War II. "This feather represents all the Indian veterans, men and women," he indicated an aged eagle feather in its band.
"I was born February 1, 1916, and I'm a survivor of the Bataan Death March. I'm the last of 11 [survivors] from Taos Pueblo," Reyna started. "And I'm the last of the family—all of my brothers and sisters are gone, and my father and mother are gone."
In 1941, Reyna joined the Army and was shipped to the Philippines. The young soldier spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war after the 80-mile death march from Mariveles along the Bataan Peninsula of the Philippines. Thousands of Filipino and hundreds of American prisoners of war died from starvation, exhaustion and abuse during the forcible transfer by the Japanese Army in April of 1942. The rare survivors are honored with ceremonies even today.
At Camp O'Donnell, Reyna was assigned to burial detail where he interred several of his Taos friends. "I was raised a farm boy from sunrise to sundown, so I was tough enough to survive starvation," Reyna said. The resourceful young soldiers used bayonets to open rare cans of food, he said, recalling in particular some corn meal mush. "The way we suffered over there was lack of food and lack of medicine, but I was in pretty good shape. I was very fortunate in a way." Reyna contracted beriberi disease caused by vitamin deficiency, and after the prisoners were released, he was one of only five surviving soldiers from Taos.
After some recovery time in military hospitals in San Francisco and Santa Fe, Reyna returned to Taos to settle. "I went to the bank, but they weren't interested in loans to Indians because they had nothing in the way of security," he said. "But there were two men who had a hardware store—they didn't know me, but they offered me anything I wanted to build the house. I paid them back in two years' time." Romancito noted that during that time there was the common prejudice that Natives were dependent on the government and shouldn't be helped by banks. "Tony proved them wrong, and that's what Native people had to do, especially returning servicemen," Romancito said. "Having proved themselves in the military, after fighting for their country, it was a shock that people would still confront them with that."
In 1950, the Tony Reyna Indian Shop opened with his home attached. He pointed out where a room had been extended from the original house, the thick adobe doorway made into a window.
Reyna's shop at Taos Pueblo was the only Indian-owned store at the time, and still deals strictly in Indian-made crafts. Turquoise and silver jewelry fill the glass-topped cases and pottery made from New Mexico clay composites line the shelves on the walls. A newly built room showcases famous and aspiring fine artists oils and watercolors. "I have a good relationship with my crafts people, and [recently] a lady brought some pottery from Hopi, made an 800-mile round trip."
The walls of Reyna's home are covered floor-to-ceiling with paintings and photographs, many featuring the former pueblo governor in formal Native dress. He showed me a black and white photograph of himself, young and tall behind his parents. Between the many landscapes and portraits, wooden kachina dolls decorated with feathers are mounted, one of many collections of Indian art that Reyna has amassed over the 60 years in business.
"I also like to pick up wood and rocks," he said. "I put them in front of the shop, on the walls." Moving slowly toward the fireplace, he took down a black stone displayed on the mantel shaped like a shrouded figure. I guessed a resemblance to the Virgin Mary, and he conferred. According to my Aunt Sadie, Reyna is a regular at the Pueblo chapel. "He's become very devout in his later years, and when the Pueblo is closed during 'quiet time' his daughter, or granddaughter drives him to Our Lady of Guadalupe (in Taos) for Mass," she said.
When asked his thoughts on Indian gaming, he repeatedly said, "The casino is a good enterprise and it brings good income for the tribe that you can do a lot of tribal projects with." Taos Pueblo intentionally built the Taos Mountain Casino the smallest in the state, hoping to protect their privacy while still bringing in a modest income. "It started out as a bingo pull tab operation and for a long time proceeds have been used to pay for a buffer zone of several acres to prevent development around the tribal land," Romancito said.
Situated a good distance from the plaza of the Pueblo and along a minor roadway, there is some discussion about building a larger and more accessible casino, but opinions vary on that issue. "People here want to keep it a manageable size, but it also goes with the conservative attitude of the tribal council here," Romancito said. "They want to be able to make decisions about progress on their own terms." Reyna said he was the only council member who voted against the casino, and he believes the existing operation could be updated and enlarged, but a new one is not needed.
He showed me an aerial photograph of Blue Lake, saying he was chairman of the 20th anniversary celebration of the recovery of the pueblo's sacred headwaters. Appropriated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, Blue Lake was part of 48,000 acres named public land. In 1970, the area was returned to Taos Pueblo under the Nixon administration. "We got the Blue Lake with no money, just heart." Reyna said he missed walking to the lake, 25 miles each way from the pueblo, an annual pilgrimage for many from the Pueblo.
Romancito expressed gratitude for Reyna's commitment to the Pueblo and the town of Taos, saying he was part of a group of returning servicemen who brought progress to Taos in post-WWII times. "One of the things I've always found remarkable about Tony is that when he came back he wasn't one to rest on his laurels. Tony was one of those people who it didn't matter whether he was Native American or anglo or what, he had certain skills people looked up to."
Still active as a Pueblo council member, Reyna said he feels he's made some important contributions during his long life. "I served in the Army, I served the state of New Mexico, and I served the city of Taos, but the most important of all was serving my people as governor," he said. "It was hard work over the years, but I made a lot of friends, like your aunt. I have a little great-grandson here that is the joy of my life. I'm 97 now, and intend to make 100."