Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo
* Acoma, New Mexico *

I’m not sure how I forgot about this mysterious and heavenly city, “City in the Clouds” as I had studied it extensively in Archaeology and Anthropology courses in University. It took a good travel mate to attract my attention to it as we were travelling across New Mexico. “Aa’ku”, “Hakukya”, “Haak’oh” and “Acoma” are various Native American language names for the Cloud City located 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This Mesa-top City, is three Puebloan culture villages combined into one – (1) Old Acoma or “Sky City”, (2) Acomita, and (3) McCartys. “Acoma” is a Spanish (as well as the Keresan language group Acoma) word for “the place that always was” or “People of the White Rock”. “Pueblo” is Spanish for “village”. A Federally recognized tribe, the Acoma are a Pueblo Native American group who are believed to be descendants from the Anasazi and/or Mogollon peoples of the Four Corners Region (Home to Mesa Verde, Salmon, Aztec, and Chaco Canyon culture groups) as are most of the Pueblo peoples. There are approximately just under 5,000 registered Acoma people existing today as most of their populations were decimated by the Spanish, Catholicism, and Euro-American settlers. They have occupied this area for over 800 years as of this writing making their village one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States. The Acoma believe they have been inhabiting the village for over 2,000 years. Archaeologists believe that the Mogollon/Anasazi peoples who gave birth to the Puebloans of the Four Corners region who evacuated the area due to severe droughts, and Sky City believed to be one of the locations they relocated to. This mesa that they moved to is a 365 foot high natural mesa, isolated with built-in natural fortifications. This helped the Acoma defend against Plains, Navajo, and Apache Indians because they were a peaceful non-warring society. However they suffered once falling in contact with the Spanish and Europeans. Spanish explorers in search of the 7 cities of Gold, came to them peacefull at first, trying to locate the legends of gold they were told about. The expedition’s leader, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado noted in his journals during their 1540 visit that this Pueblo was one of the strongest places they had encountered. At the time of their initial visit, the only method to access the top of the Mesa, was via an almost vertical set of stairs cut into the rock face. It took roughly 18 years for the Acoma to realize the Spanish had ulterior motives and relations between the two peoples began to disintegrate. The Acoma discovered that the Spanish had wanted to colonize their lands, so in turn ambused Juan de Onate’s men, killing 11 of them to defend their acreage. The Spanish came back to enforce penalty on the attack, burning most of their village and slaughtering over 600 of their people. They imprisoned the rest forcing them into slavery. They amputated the right foot of all men 25 years or older so they could not leave the Mesa. After the Massacre, the Acoma recovered and rebuilt their community, even though they had to pay taxes and tithing to Onate and his Catholic Missionaries. Churches were constructed and Western ways were taught to the Acoma. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 took its toll on the Spanish, bringing in refugees from other Pueblos, and pushing many Spanish out. Those Acoma that left the Mesa, formed the Laguna Pueblo not too far away. The Acoma then suffered through Westerner diseases brought over such as smallpox and raids from the Ute, Comanche, and Apache. They had to adopt Catholic faith, although also practicing their indigenous faiths in secret.

From 1629-1641 C.E. A Catholic Priest named Father Juan Ramirez was stationed at the Acoma Pueblo constructing the San Esteven Del Rey Mission Church atop the Mesa. The Acoma was forced to build this colossal palace for God moving over 20,000 tons of stone, mud, and straw to the Mesa, making Adobe for the construction. Giant ponderosa pine timber was also hand-carried up to the Mesa from over 40 miles away as 60 foot high wooden pillars hand carved in red and white designs.

The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 appropriate much of their stolen lands back to them. Protestant missionaries invaded the area bringing alternative faiths to Catholicism as well as Christian influenced schools. The Burea of Indian Affairs forced many of the Acoma children to attend boarding schools, taking the kids from their parents. Much of the ancient ways were lost in process since many elders passed away before the children returned. What children returned often chose Western ways and was no longer interested in ancient traditions. The Church and Acoma village was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and by 2007 became a National Trust for Historic Preservation Site. There are roughly 300 two-three story adobe buildings atop the Mesa with exterior ladders accessing the upper levels where residents live. The Mesa is now accessed by a road built in the 1950’s for Hollywood Film sets needing to bring in studio equipment for movie productions. There are less than 30 Acoma who live atop the Mesa today. There are roughly 60,000 tourists each year visiting the site. The village is not permitted to have running water, electricity, nor sewage disposal atop the Mesa in order to preserve ancient traditions. There is a reservation that surrounds the Mesa, roughly 600 square miles, where most tribal members live while the others live in modern day local cities hosting casinos, restaurants, gas stations, and shops. Today, it is believed that many of their ancestral beliefs and traditions are still practiced in secret from Westerners while also practicing Catholicism, the faith that was forced upon them since Euro-American and Spanish contact. They believe in creating harmony between their people and nature. The sun is seen as their creator Deity. Their world is balanced by the mountains, their community, the sun above, and the earth below. Their religious ceremonies revolve around the weather. They utilize kachinas in their rituals. They would worship in their kivas. The Acoma speak both English and Acoma, while their elders may also speak Spanish. There are less than 5,000 Acoma left today. The government is managed by the cacique (head of the Pueblo) and the war captain who manage the tribe until they die. These individuals maintain strong religious connections to all the work they do as tradition dictates. There is also the All Indian Pueblo Council that began in 1598 and helps manage Indian affairs. They manage over 500,000 acres of traditional Acoma lands consisting of valleys, hills, arroyos, and mesas. Tribal councils, staff, and the governor is appointed by the cacique. Besides Government subsidies, their major income is Tourism.

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