Dotted around the pueblo you will see these ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread, which until the comin gof the Spanish had been baked on hot stones.
A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough :-) You can sample this in the café at the Cultural Centre as well as various other places in the area.
The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word “Haak’u” which means “a place prepared”. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits “at the time of emergence”, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out “Haak’u”. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their “place prepared”.
But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in photo two. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.
In this photo of a typical street in the pueblo you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder in photo two illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.
These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the main photo carefully and you will see near the drainpipe on the left the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.
No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. Please respect this and don’t push your guide for information he/she is unable to provide.
To those of us used to “all mod cons” it may at first seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator. Water is hauled up the steep road, and Portaloos for communal use are clustered at the village’s outskirts.
Admittedly many Acoma choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that this resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.
One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.
The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.
And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.
On our tour, we were very lucky. Our guide, Dale, is the matriarch of her clan.
She explained to us that women of Acoma hold the power: they own the land, make the decisions, bear and raise the children, and maintain the traditions of the pueblo.
Traditions are passed on from the matriarch to her youngest daughter to prevent misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Children are raised understanding that this is just the way it is .... and the youngest daughter is afforded the same respect and deference that the matriarch receives.
At the time the matriarch determines, she may pass on her role to her successor. At that point she moves from the mesa, and relinguishes all claims on the family property and belongings. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If the matriarch dies before succession, the title of matriarch is automatically bestowed upon her youngest daughter. If there is no daughter, the role passes to the youngest grand-daughter.
In this manner, the traditions and language of Acoma have been kept alive for centuries ... and will live for centuries more.
Although I can't remember any of the Keresan phrases I heard this day ..... I do remember certain aspects of their greeting that I found unusual.
Instead of saying 'Hello', they state whatever the person is doing at that time ........ 'You're taking a picture there', or 'You're standing there'. This is accompanied with a smile, and at times, grasping of hands. In their worldview, it is important to acknowledge the person in what they are doing at that moment - to recognize their individuality.
Now, a single Acoma boy, looking for a mate may have three questions/statements for a girl he fanices ......
"You're standing there"
"Are you the youngest daughter?"
"Will you marry me?"
At various points in the tour, we noticed both round, and rectangular, indentations. We were informed that these are old grinding stones. Most are placed directly outside of the doors of various residences .... for ease of access. The most common uses of these grinding stones was to grind corn into meal, and chile into powder. Though only used for ceremonial purposes these days ...... they are still special to the history of Acoma.
When I returned in early 2006, it was just a few days after a big festival. I noticed some partially burned material in one of the indentations. Our guide that day wouldn't tell me what it was, but use your imagination and decide for yourself :)
February -- Governor's Feast at Old Acoma
March/April -- Easter Celebration at Acomita and McCartys. Usually closed at Old Acoma
May -- 1st Sunday, Santa Maria Feast at McCartys.
Date Flexible -- Annual Arts & Craft Festivities, Tourist Visitor Center.
August 10 -- Feast Day in Acomita -- Saint Lorenzo's Day
September 2 -- Harvest Dance & Annual Feast of San Estevan at Old Acoma.
December 25-28 -- Christmas Festivals at San Estevan del Rey Mission at Old Acoma
From the referenced website.
The Acoma have a matriarchal society with the ownership of property and leadership handed down from the youngest daughter to the youngest daughter of the next generation. Our guide, Dale, informed us that men must always walk behind a woman...we saw this as we were leaving the church...two men got ahead of her and learned the hard way.
Acoma hosts a number of festivities during the year, several of which are opened to the public. The largest is the annual Harvest Dance and Feast of San Estevan on September 2 on the mesa top. The Christmas Festivals at Old Acoma on December 25-28 are also quite colorful. Sadly, still and video photography are not permitted during these festivals.