The legacy of a Taos Pueblo poet traced through what she touched
Shaun Griswold/Source New Mexico
TAOS PUEBLO – Coral Dawn Bernal wrote on anything.
Her handwriting is found on empty cigarette packs, receipts, loose paper and dozens of notebooks filled front and back with her poetry.
Bernal’s family said they’ve discovered more than 800 poems she wrote in her brief life, cut short in part by debilitating medical issues.
Her words are now painted on the front of a home that will soon host artists and anyone from Taos Pueblo who want a place to stay while they visit or work at the brand new Coral Dawn and Paul J. Bernal Center for Arts & Literature.
Her father, Caprio Bernal, described her name.
“She’s from the Pacific Northwest and Taos Pueblo,” he said. “When I met my wife, we had a beautiful little girl named Coral, and we named her Coral Dawn because of coming from the Pacific Northwest and being born in the dawn.”
The property where the center will go is one of the first things you’ll notice driving from the main road in town, past the tribal checkpoint into Taos Pueblo.
A bright mural with three red coral flowers, each representing the Bernal kids, stands underneath her prose. Coral’s friend Lynnette Haozous painted the mural.
“The last time I saw her, she was getting ready to curate an exhibition of Taos Pueblo artists,” said Haozous (Chiricahua Apache / Diné / Taos). “She reached out to me, and she said she had this vision of creating an art exhibition that would lead to something bigger, like an art center.”
The public unveiling of the mural came on the two year anniversary of her death.
And with it, her vision for the art center is now real. An event Tuesday brought Coral’s aunts, uncles, the mayor of Taos, the Pueblo’s chief of police, and artists and advocates. Family on her mother’s side from the Skwah First Nation, in British Columbia Canada, tuned into a livestream to see the unveiling of the space, which will have an open-door policy and is expected to be complete next year.
It will be run by her parents and brothers, a tribute they say continues the legacy Coral strived to achieve: building art spaces for Native people, her relatives, and a place that can also help those who are struggling in ways she did.
“We have to continue her journey, her legacy, because she was one powerful young lady,” her father said.
A line from past to future
In naming the center, Coral Dawn’s name is followed by her grandfather’s. Paul Bernal famously continued a fight against the U.S. federal government to return a sacred site back to the Pueblo. He stood next to President Richard Nixon when he signed legislation returning Blue Lake to the stewardship of Taos Pueblo, a rare instance where the U.S. accepted defeat and returned land back to a tribal nation.
His legacy of resistance and upholding the values of traditional Pueblo lifestyle can be heard in the tone of his granddaughter’s poetry. It’s now a line that extends to a present day demand for reform in health and law enforcement.
Both, her family says, failed their daughter and contributed to her death.
“She had so much going for her,” Caprio Bernal said. “And it was taken away.”
Coral was a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence and suffered with a substance use disorder, according to her relatives. In July, she was ill and went to a medical appointment at the Taos-Picuris Indian Health Service center. She was sent home and given a followup date for a week later. On July 17, 2020, she went back. She was sent home again. The next day she was found dead inside the Taos County home where she lived.
She was 33.
An independent review of her condition at the time led to questions about why no one at the federally run IHS clinic intervened further.
The family released a 15-point call to action on Tuesday demanding reform of IHS, boosting mental health resources through the federal health agency, and calling on all levels of law enforcement — state, county, tribal and federal — to coordinate resources despite jurisdictional issues.
And the arts center in Coral Dawn’s honor is a necessary component of change, too, they said, because people in tribal communities need places where they can find support when life takes a tragic turn. The Bernals say they hope their resource, the first of its kind in Taos Pueblo, can help someone else before their circumstances take a deadly path.
The action plan and the center follows recommendations made by Native American leaders working with the state to address the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives.
Beata Tsosie is a co-chair of the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force. She said tribal communities need resources like the one the Bernals are building in Taos because historically there is a lack of access to these types of healing resources. “There is implicit and explicit bias against Native peoples in health care and justice systems,” said Tsosie (Santa Clara). “And we see it all the time.”
A key recommendation from a report the MMIWR task force released in May is for state, local and tribal governments to build resource centers that offer shelter for victims of domestic violence and greater investment into substance use treatment options.
Tsosie said there are issues with people from outside tribal communities giving substandard or negligent care for Native people, so the Bernals opening this resource for their home should be a model going forward.
“A lot of the systems in place, because they’re not from our communities, they’re not invested in loving care of our own people the way our own people care and love for their family and relatives,” Tsosie said. “It’s an example of why we need to have our own people caring for us and caring for each other.”
Coral’s hand in all things
The Bernals are elevating their healing to do what the U.S. government is not.
The entire family are skilled artists. They will bring their experience in painting, sculpture, silversmith work, carpentry, music and writing to the center for art lessons.
Coral’s mother Rose is bringing her experience as a grant manager with the local group Community Against Violence. Her brother C.J. has the vision of how the property will transform from a half-built Earthship into classrooms and a library highlighting work by Indigenous authors.
Her father talks about grunt work, moving stone, shoveling dirt, but he’ll bring his expertise in art to the center. A few structures are already in place for the future artist-in-residence to stay. A digital archive will be built on the property to preserve documents related to Indigenous history.
The rest of the extended family will fill other roles when and where they can.
As they clean up and prepare the property, Coral’s father continues to discover more of her work, penned across whatever blank sheet she could find.
“So today, I find napkins with her poetry on it. Encyclopedias books. She always wrote in everything,” Carpio Bernal said. “She’s bringing something to this community that our community does not have. And that’s love and sharing.”