Taos Pueblo, NM: 2014 Culture of Health Prize Winner

    • June 17, 2014

Native American town of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Self-governance and culturally sensitive planning have allowed Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, to envision a healthier future for its children and for people of all ages and generations.
Self-governance and culturally sensitive planning have allowed Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, to envision a healthier future for its children and for people of all ages and generations.
Self-governance and culturally sensitive planning have allowed Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, to envision a healthier future for its children and for people of all ages and generations.

“We’re Taking Responsibility for Our Destiny”

Taos Pueblo, a World Heritage Site, is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. This American Indian community is unique in that the people have been on this land for over a thousand years—and still carries on many of its original traditions including farming, continued use of Tiwa, the tribe’s language, and respect for tribe’s elders and its rich culture.  

As a sovereign nation within the United States, the tribe has 2,500 members, many of them young, and is led by a traditional tribal government structure consisting of the Tribal Council, which appoints the Governor and the War Chief annually. The Tribal Governor and his staff are concerned with civil and business issues within the village and relations with the community outside Taos Pueblo. The War Chief and staff deal with the protection of natural resources.

In 2007, the Taos Pueblo Tribal Council took steps toward self-governance to give the tribe stronger, more independent control in setting its own goals and priorities. “We’ve taken on even more responsibility and are taking on the programs, functions and services to serve our people. We’re finding solutions that we’re familiar with and turning that into programs that work for our people,” said Shawn Duran, Tribal Programs Administrator for Taos Pueblo.

“We’re working to build a Culture of Health in our community by being inclusive, by sharing information with everyone that needs to have it and by seeking input...really looking at it holistically,” said Duran.


Agricultural Roots as a Path to Heaven

Formally incorporated in early 2010, the Red Willow Community Growers Cooperative’s mission is to revitalize the community’s agricultural-based heritage, which includes food production in fields, gardens, raised beds and greenhouses, as well as grassroots economic development through the Red Willow Farmers Market. The goal of the Farmers Market and Co-op is to produce fresh and organic fruits and vegetables for families in the community, as well as the schools and senior programs. The Market also employs a number of high school students, reconnecting a younger generation with the cycles of planning, preparing the fields and the art of growing crops to supply markets with produce.

Self-sufficiency is an important goal for Taos Pueblo. Community members say the demand for pueblo-grown produce from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other parts of New Mexico is on the rise. The entrepreneurial skills that are being developed are an added bonus. Six years ago, the Red Willow Center invested in the construction of two large wood-furnace heated greenhouses to create fresh produce year-round for community members.


Giving All Kids a Healthy Start

Taos Pueblo Head Start/My First School is a newly renovated building, serving children ages 1 to 5. It is a welcoming community—not only for students, but their families as well. “Traditional Tiwa values of welcoming family and community members and showing respect and appreciation for them is really at the heart of the Head Start success,” explained Bernadette Mirabal, Family Service and Health Coordinator at the school.  

A highlight of the structure is the indoor organic garden room, where students, parents and staff grow fresh produce. “Our garden teaches our children about where food comes from, the necessity to be good stewards of living plants and animals, and the effort needed to produce healthy food for our bodies,” explains Nutrition Director Yvonne Valdez. In addition to the garden room, the Head Start now purchases all of their food from a local organic grocery store or the Pueblo’s own Red Willow Farmers Market.

According to a 2010 New Mexico Department of Health report, nearly 30 percent of entering kindergarteners in the state were overweight or obese. Among these 5 year olds, about 37 percent are American Indian. The report was a key impetus in making healthy changes in the Head Start program. Since then, Taos Pueblo Head Start has been recognized in the state of New Mexico by the Healthy Kids Healthy Childcare Initiative as a model because of its innovative teaching strategies that incorporate healthy eating and active living lessons into the daily classroom routine.

A strong tribal identity is instilled in the Pueblo’s youngest children, as English and Tiwa—the community’s native oral language—are taught side by side as part of the Head Start program.

The building used for Head Start also has a parent lounge, with a kitchen and two computer stations, furthering their mission to support families at all stages of life. These resources make a statement to parents that they have a place in the school and that their work and educational goals are supported by the school leadership. Creating a community- and health-oriented school didn’t happen by chance. It is the result of the type of governance and community interaction instituted after the tribe moved to self-governance. Community meetings were established in 2007 to create dialogue between the tribal staff and community members. As a result of these meetings, the Tiwa language program was established and a Parent Policy Council was named to lead the implementation of the healthy foods strategies and creation of the parents lounge.


Exercise for All Ages

Taos Pueblo doesn’t just encourage physical activity among the youngest in the community—all are encouraged to exercise. “We need to do whatever it takes to keep elders healthy, and to keep them active” says Duran, and the Taos Pueblo Fitness Program (TPFP) provides a variety of opportunities for tribal elders and all community members to become more physically fit and enjoy the benefits of regular exercise. From Enhanced Fitness classes for the elders to Zumba, Yoga and Spinning classes for adults to fun and inclusive recreational events for the youth, TPFP promotes and encourages people to take charge of their personal fitness. Physical fitness is a critical component to overall health and wellness and TPFP is helping to ensure everyone knows it is never too late—or too early—to begin exercising and having fun.


Better Access to Health, With Prevention in Mind

Up until the last several years, if there was a medical emergency, Taos Pueblo residents had to wait 24 minutes or longer for first responders from the Town of Taos to arrive at the Pueblo to transport them to the nearest hospital. Three years ago, however, the Pueblo Health and Community Services created the Public Health Nursing Department in Taos Pueblo to address immediate community health needs. Now, the Pueblo’s public health nurse or two lay health workers provide first responder services when emergencies arise.

In addition to this important service, the full staff meets many needs, including comprehensive case management services for community members with chronic diseases; school-based nursing; workplace diabetes prevention training; prescription delivery; transportation and senior housing assistance; and enrollment for the community fitness program—all with a community health approach. The public health nurse also serves an important linking function with the non-Native community and regularly provides training and consultation to help others understand Taos Pueblo culture and traditional health practices.

According to Duran, having the authority to design and implement programs tailored to their needs has been tremendously liberating for community leaders, allowing them “to break down silos and build connections to address population health.” And with an eye on measuring progress towards their goals, the Taos Pueblo are poised for future success.