Santo Domingo Pueblo, NM: Santo Domingo Cultural District

Small group of people making their way down a rural road
Photo courtesy of Olin Studio

How can art and culture help create a framework for a larger tribal community planning process?

To lay the groundwork for a long-term community masterplan, the Santo Domingo Tribal Planning Department decided to connect two distinct historic areas on the Santo Domingo reservation into a single cultural district. As part of the planning process for the district, they worked to address the tribe’s pressing need for affordable housing development while at the same time supported the culture and artistic entrepreneurship that are the defining elements of the community.


Located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the pueblo of Santo Domingo is sited along historic and contemporary roads of commerce and was a trade center in the early 1920s. Today Santo Domingo (also known as the Kewa Pueblo - Santo Domingo was the name was given by the Spanish in 1600) is renowned for their heishi (shell jewelry), turquoise jewelry, pottery, and sacred communal dances. The central portion of the old Pueblo is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still occupied by over 3,600 tribal members who actively use its plazas, historic church, and sacred kiva spaces. Today, however, the area faces many challenges. Its once well-known trading post was destroyed in 2001 by a fire, and a severe housing shortage means multiple families are sometimes living in over crowded situations. Fortunately the area is also known for its resilience. Unlike many Native American tribes, the Kewa people were never physically displaced so the area has been their tribal homeland for thousands of years.


Though exact numbers are not yet known, the tribe is currently undergoing a community census and tribal membership is estimated to be about 5000-6000 individuals. It is a community that faces many challenges, with more than 25% of tribal members living below the poverty level, a similar unemployment rate, and median income being much lower than both county and federal levels. It is also a community tightly linked to its heritage. While many tribal nations are facing the loss of indigenous language among their youth, well over 80 percent of Santo Domingo’s children still speak their native Keresan. Today, a large percentage of the population are self-employed artisans working as jewelry makers, potters, silver smiths, bead worker, and shell workers. This arts-based entrepreneurship has historic roots dating back to the 50s-70s, when local artisans created works out of found objects and marketed them to people riding along Route 66.


In 2008, a new commuter rail system was established between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and a stop at Domingo (which is the only stop located on a tribal reservation) opened in March 2010. The Domingo development area near the depot was sited about two miles east of the traditional boundary of the core plaza area, and there was no planned pedestrian or transit connection back to the central plaza. Project managers saw a large potential for Domingo to become a more livable, accessible, mixed-use area next to transit, especially since the old Pueblo is unable to expand due to geographic boundaries. There was also an urgent need for long term planning that could promote both housing affordability and the cultural life of the Pueblo, since new housing developments were typically located far from the Pueblo’s center. At the heart of the project was a desire to address the fact that traditional planning efforts often divided issues of culture from standard planning issues such as housing and transportation. In Santo Domingo, where the local culture is so much a part of everyday life, it is impossible to divide the two. Community planners and designers knew that to be successful in meeting the community’s needs they were going to have to find a way to link culture, planning, and design goals.


The larger project brought the issues of culture, community planning, and architecture together by focusing on two new housing developments about 2 miles apart and one mile from the Pueblo’s core. Between both areas, architects and planners saw the potential for developing 100 units of affordable housing and being able to include other amenities such as open spaces and walking trails. Always in the back of their minds, project planners and designers knew they would need to be looking at traditional dense, linear settlement patterns of the original village, but also make sure not to copy it directly, thus leaving open the potential to respond to both traditional forms and contemporary needs for different kinds of site infrastructure and housing strategies. “This is a unique opportunity for us to go beyond land use planning, to create a deep, grassroots community engagement process specific to Santo Domingo that promotes a more affordable and higher quality of life while ensuring the growth of the community remains tied to its unique culture and sense of place,” said project manager Kenny Pin. In this context, the Santo Domingo Pueblo cultural district would be less about a collection of arts organizations and their buildings, and more about a place in which this ancient culture could be preserved and sustained with the appropriate balance of economic development related to the arts and the privacy that cultural practices demand.


The primary project partner was the Santo Domingo Tribal Planning Department. Their office was officially created in May 2005 with the primary mission of creating and developing of a Community Master Plan that would carry an emphasis on the cultural and historical aspects of the community and integrate tribal values into the plan. Enterprise Community Partners was thier partner and the non-profit lead. Their mission was to create opportunity for low- and moderate-income people through fit, affordable housing and diverse, thriving communities. For the Santo Domingo project, Enterprise was able to locate an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow (Joseph Kunkel) in the community to directly help with the planning and design of the culturally sensitive affordable housing units.


When the project first began there was some pushback. Community members weren’t used to being asked directly what they thoughtthe area’s planning priorities should be, as those types of decisions were traditionally made by tribal elders. There was also some resistance to thinking about planning strategies that would affect things seven to ten years in the future. With so many immediate and pressing needs around the issues of housing and employment, spending time and energy thinking about the far off future seemed like a luxury that most community members thought they could not afford. Project planners and designers thus had to carefully mediate between talking about immediate needs and making longer range plans as well. Many times they had to step back and explain what the planning process itself was all about and why it was important. After a series of community stakeholder meetings, the project eventually lead to a larger community-wide event where the participants talked about cultural history of the area and also about how such an understanding would help to direct decisions about future developments.

. - Project Manger, Kennnny Pinn


Overall, project managers were able to succeed in reaching their goals of helping the community take ownership of future growth in a thoughtful manner that had the community’s culture at its core. One of the major project successes project managers cite was the heritage walk, a day where community members walked from one development to another. It was a major highlight of the planning process and project planners felt it was so successful they are now looking to make it an annual event.


Getting to a final point of project success was not always easy. “It’s a time intense process, something you just have to keep going at it,” said Rose Fellow Joseph Kunkle. “You’re in a process where you have to rebuild relationships that have been hurt historically, and that’s not something you can deal with indirectly. You have to deal with it directly, and get it out in front of it from the beginning.” Because historically tribal members had been promised many things that were not delivered upon, project managers had to be as transparent as possible, particularly since the planners themselves were viewed as outsiders (even though they have worked with native communities for many years). Eventually community members did open up. In fact, “the frankness of people speaking their mind was surprising,” said project manager Kenny Pin, “it’s been a good exchange of having people speak their minds and having meaningful exchanges.”


Santo Domingo Heritage Walk
Project summary document

Santo Domingo Pueblo
Online home of the Pueblo

  • An Oral History program focused on knowledge of tribal elders regarding the Pueblo’s housing and material culture;
  • A Youth Education Curriculum including supervised fieldwork of Santo Domingo high school students, using GPS technology, archival photographic research and audiovisual documentation;
  • A Cultural Advisory Team to advise on treatment of cultural resources;
  • A Needs and Resources Assessment to include asset mapping and walking the District with community members;
  • Workshops to help identity local artists’ business skills and needs, and concerns related to tourism-based economic development;
  • Multiple community workshops and presentation that will shape the final Santo Domingo Community Masterplan.