It's a Mud, Mud, Mud, Mud World

A community digs up dirt on the Nateso Pueblo--and finds itself in the process.

Last week Richard Sharkey and Maurice Dominguez got a heater going outdoors and hoped the weather would hold, because there's no point in working with adobe in the snow or rain: The mud never stops being mud. The elements cause enough damage after an adobe structure is complete, as is evident inside the remaining buildings of the Nateso Pueblo.

"This structure we're standing in was almost destroyed," Sharkey says. "Rain poured down out of the roof, and at one point--one recent point--animals were living here."

The roof that was falling apart has been rebuilt with new, hand-peeled vigas, and the walls have been shored up with adobe bricks sent from New Mexico. The dirt floor and corner fireplace still look as though animals are in the neighborhood, but soon--maybe when the weather clears for good, maybe this summer--they'll be repaired, too. Restoration of the Nateso Pueblo is a never-ending project.

Its ongoing supervisor is Sharkey, a student of adobe construction for the past 22 years who describes himself as "a man on a constant quest for knowledge." He is also the kind of man who speaks earnestly of structures--as opposed to houses--and admits to getting hopelessly tangled in the arcane details of home repair.

"I give myself away too much," he says. "Before this job, I was building custom staircases for $3 million homes in Vail, and I got into big, big money problems. But I still think, I could put in a nice little curve right here--"

"And I have to say, Richard, no," says Dominguez, who describes himself as "a poor black child. Well, a Kiowa-Apache, okay? I grew up all over the Southwest." To learn adobe construction, he explains, "all I had to do was watch my family."

Like Sharkey, Dominguez spent much of his childhood in the Colorado foothills. But until recently, he had never heard of Indian Hills, the unincorporated mountain community thirty minutes from downtown Denver where the Nateso Pueblo is located, much less the Pueblo itself.

This is a common ignorance, if a relatively new one.
"You've never seen anything like it!" shouts a Nateso Pueblo brochure from 1953, a few years into a short-lived attempt to revive the circa-1925 tourist attraction. "See a real Indian pueblo! All roads lead to interesting, educational, historic INDIAN HILLS! At Indian Hills Pottery this summer you will see the famous team of Wo-Peen and his wife Juanita, internationally known potters!"

The brochure also promises native dances, "an unconquerable way of life, which persists today, in contrast to a tired, atomic world," and "many thousands of tourists," most of whom were imaginary even then.

For much of the past forty years, the Pueblo has been left to quietly crumble back into dust. If Dominguez has his way, though, the buildings will be back in business this summer. "There's a gentleman in Pennsylvania who might pay to have youths come here from reservations in South Dakota," he says. "I want to teach them about building adobe homes. We'll have a forge and a kiln, work custom doors and windows, peel vigas. It'll be a regular school--"

"And I'm not sure I agree with it," Sharkey interrupts. "Why should this school be for just one type of person? I think it should be open to everyone. Adobe is used all over the world--"

"All over the world," Dominguez agrees.
"It's cheap and efficient, and it has a high R value because the walls are so thick--"

"But the government doesn't want us using it because--"
"Uh, Maurice," Sharkey interrupts, a tone of mild exasperation in his voice. But it turns out that he, too, thinks adobe, flat roofs and all, has a rightful place in the Colorado mountains. "If we hadn't kicked the Spanish out, Denver would look like Santa Fe," he theorizes. "It all has to do with prejudice against the Spanish--"

"Uh, Richard." Dominguez's turn. "We've contacted the restaurants in Indian Hills," he offers. (There are two: Indian Hills Espresso and the Wild Man's Cabin.) "We're hoping they'll agree to provide lunches for the students."

"It's a vision, you see," Sharkey says. "It's all tentative."
"I want to build a prayer lodge," Dominguez says.
"But we'll ask the community first," Sharkey cautions. "The community is very important."

The most important members of that community, at least for Sharkey and Dominguez, are Judy McWilliams and Rosemary Aitkin, the Pueblo's current owners. They live in the already rebuilt half and are financing the rest of the restoration--one way or another. "I play the lottery a lot myself," Aitken quips.

McWilliams, until recently a systems engineer, is between jobs and spends much of her time enjoying her collection of Southwestern art and artifacts and puttering around and about the house, adjusting its big and small details: the stack of blue-glass plates, the straw hats on the wall, the woodsy trunk designed to hide the copy machine. Aitken, who is a carpenter at the Tattered Cover's LoDo branch and inherited McWilliams's father's tools after he died, prefers outside work. Most afternoons she gardens or patches cracks in the stuccoed walls, stopping every once in a while to exchange construction ideas with Sharkey and Dominguez.

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