I have no pictures of the cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church (out of shot on the left of my photo) and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.
At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.
The most prominent building in the pueblo is the Church dedicated to San Esteban, that is St Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.
The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.
My third photo is of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa with behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.
Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.
Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.
The Acoma Cultural Centre is not only the starting place for tours, it is also worth a visit in its own right. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.
The Cultural Centre also has a café, where the food is reputed to be very good although we only had a cold drink so can’t really comment (it looked good though!). There is the inevitable gift shop, with some very good quality merchandise including the traditional Acoma pottery, but I would only recommend buying this here if you are unable to do the pueblo tour for some reason (e.g. if you are a wheelchair user, or if you come in winter when tours aren’t available). Otherwise save your cash for the sellers in the pueblo itself, as it’s much more interesting to buy direct from the artist, and probably a little cheaper too.
To visit Acoma you have to take a tour, which start from the Cultural Centre. Tours cost $20 for adults, $12 for children and $17 for seniors and college students (late 2011 prices), with other discounts available for families and large groups. This fee includes permission to use one camera. Your camera will be tagged to show that you have paid, so don’t think you can use multiple devices for the one fee – and note that no video photography is allowed. We weren’t challenged however about the fact that our digital cameras can take videos (not that we tried to do so, naturally).
Having paid your fee you join a small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with your guide. You are then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so no wandering off on your own. All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent. The tour winds through the village streets and you will see the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. You finish in the simple but beautiful church of San Esteban (no photos allowed inside), having had a fascinating glimpse of Acoma culture and learnt much about the life-style, beliefs and customs of these people.
When the tour finishes you have the choice of returning to the Cultural Centre in the minibus or on foot. I would like to have done the latter but decided that it would be wiser to save my still-dodgy back for places where there was no alternative but to walk, so we got the bus back. Others from our group who walked arrived about 15 minutes later while we were enjoying a cold drink in the courtyard and said that the walk was steep but not difficult, though they didn’t seem to have found it especially interesting (I have read otherwise here on VT however). Whether you plan to walk down or not, do wear sensible shoes for the tour as the ground even within the village is rough in places.
Unless, let’s say you have a local girlfriend, there is no way you will climb the mesa unsupervised by a guide! The welcome center at the base of the rock is a modern facility with all conveniences and preliminary tune-up through educational movies. A much americanised obese woman sells tickets and explains the rules. The busses are stationed outside and take off on regular basis. Once on the top of the rock the inert mass is talked at by a funny Acoma native with US Navy cap for protection from the sun. The circuit includes several artisans' stalls and a couple of “feeding” stations. The artwork is off-limits for picture taking and quite expensive for buying. The tamale on the hand is reasonable in price and heavenly in taste. Some of the standard stories are being told such as the one about the mother and daughter who were caught on the opposite mesa by a collapsed ladder and starved to death; or the story about the Spanish friar who performed a miracle on the spot by saving a girl falling from the rock. The views of the surrounding area are stunning. Most of the people though seem to be living outside of this heavenly location for the better amenities that modern housing has. The church is rather spacious and has an impressive row of beams as ceiling - everything looking very new or in good repair - signs of a well-to-do community. The casino at the interstate highway at the edge of the tribal land performs miracles too. End of the tour is announced by a plea for tips despite the whooping 20USD entrance fee to the pueblo, and many people contribute.
The visitor center is undergoing extensive rebuilding at this time, so is temporarily housed in trailers next to the construction zone. [I took a picture of the construction site, and the temporary digs .... but my picture disk decided to have 'issues' and I couldn't retrieve 'em ..... harumph! So months later I returned, and the spirits of Acoma decided they were ready to be seen on the internet ... finally!]
The current visitor center includes a counter to buy your tour ticket, a continuous loop movie about the history of the Chaco Canyon and Acoma people, a gift shop, and a snack bar. The new one, which should be opening in the next few months, will have interactive exhibits, museums and all sorts of wonderful things! I can't wait :)
History is everything to people with oral traditions, such as those of Acoma. The language of is Keresan, a decidedly different language than that of the neighboring pueblos. This language is so unique that it is only an oral language ... there are no written forms and so it must be passed on from person to person .... the same manner in which they pass on their traditions.
Acoma (pronounced eh-Ko-Ma or Ah-Ko-Ma) is derived from the Keresan word Hak'u. HaK'u means in a sense to prepare or plan. The Acoma people believe they are the direct decendents of the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon. After a prolonged drought, the Chacoans needed to relocate in order to survive. It was prophesied from the beginning that there existed a place ready for the people to occupy. Searchers looked throughout the region until they found the site that is currently known as Sky City - the oldest continuously inhabited town in North America.
Adult tour: $10.00 per person
Camera fee: $10.00 per camera
If you look to the northeast from the village, you'll notice a small but distinctive butte in the distance. This is Mesa Encantada, former home to the Acoma and known as Katzimo in their Keresan language. Tribal history relates that when it was once occupied, there was only one very difficult route from the valley to the village perched 430 feet above. One day, when all but a few elderly women were down below tending their crops, a violent storm suddenly blew in and washed away that fragile, stone ladder trail - leaving no way for the people to return home or for those left behind to escape. Tragically, the poor souls stranded on the pinnacle either starved or jumped to their deaths and the tribe relocated to the mesa on which you now stand.
In 1897, Princeton University professor William Libbey scaled the butte and after a few hours looking about, claimed he found no evidence of former habitation, and pronounced tribal lore to be nothing more than myth. But shortly after, esteemed ethnologist Frederick Webb Hodge made another exploration of the site and found arrowheads, pottery shards and other artifacts that supported the legend.
The butte is said to be haunted by the spirits of those unfortunate ancestors and, out of respect, is now off-limits to everyone - even the Acoma.
This was fun. After the tour, you can either return to the visitor center by shuttle or climb down an ancient stair trail that was once one of the only ways to reach the top of the mesa. It's very steep (and probably very slippery in the rain) but handholds carved many centuries ago are still there to help you get a grip. This is the only place outside of the visitor center that you are allowed to go without a guide and you're cautioned to stay on the path and road leading back to the center. We were accompanied by a sure-footed local pooch who probably scrambles the old stones many times a day. I didn't find the going difficult but the person behind me elected to do part of it on her fanny. Whatever works!
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, pueblo bread was made from ground corn and cooked, tortilla style, on hot, flat stones. The Spanish introduced wheat and these beehive-shaped ovens for baking it. Seen all over the Southwest, hornos (OR-nos) can be made of sandstone, lava rock, adobe or a combination of the three. To heat them, a cedarwood fire is built inside, left to burn down to coal and ash and then swept out while the walls are still very hot. The interior is then filled with bread dough, meat or other foods and the doorway sealed for however long it takes to cook. These ovens are still in use and horno-baked bread is on the menu at the visitor center restaurant. They may also offer some for purchase at points along the tour.
On the right of this picture is one of several reservoirs once used to collect rainwater for all washing, drinking and cooking . To keep them clean, washing or playing in them was forbidden and they were occasionally scrubbed out. Today, drinking water is trucked up the mesa.
Some of the structures serve as kivas: ceremonial spaces that represent the place where the People originally emerged from the lower world. Unlike many Southwest kivas, Acoma's are all above ground, as digging into solid rock of the mesa isn't possible, and square in shape versus round. They are accessed from a hole in roof and you can usually identify them by the exterior ladders used to get to the roof, and the ends of the interior ladders sticking out of the openings. Acoma's kiva ladders are shown have two or three poles, painted white, with pointed ends symbolizing piercing of the clouds for rain. Three-pole ladders actually have a carved cloud formation near the top that the poles. Kivas are sacred and strictly off limits to visitors.
Note: I'm only guessing that behind this section of windowless wall may be a kiva. Curiously, none of the tell-tale ladders were evident the day we were there or we weren't taken down streets when you would see them. Could also be they were being repainted or the tribal members decided against wanting outsiders to identify, and photograph, the location of their sacred places.
Currently, houses in the pueblo are one to three stories high (originally, they were all three), made of thick-walled stone or adobe and generally date from the 17th century to more recent additions. As mentioned in my travel page, the village was destroyed by Vicente de Zaldivar in 1599 - the "new" village was built on top of the ruins.
Built in adjoining, multi-celled rows common to Southwest pueblos, they are models of solar efficiency! Situated with their entries and terraces to the south, the 2-ft. thick walls absorb the sun's rays in winter and reflect it from the roof terraces in the summer. Shared walls also help insulate the interiors from heat and cold. The width of the dirt roads that run between the buildings were carefully planned so that winter's shadow from a row of houses in front of another would extend no further than the edge of the road.
Usually one small room per story, cooking was done on the ground floor of the home during winter; heat rose to the living/sleeping room in the middle story, and food storage was on the top story as it was the coldest. In summer the functions of the top and bottom floors were reversed. Access to the ground floor interiors was through holes in the roof and exterior ladders that could be pulled up to discourage intruders - doors and glass-paned windows you see now are more recent alterations. Second and third floors could have either ladders or steps to their rooftops.
Today, only a handful of families still live on the mesa full time. Acoma is a matriarchal society where property is passed from mother to daughter: houses traditionally are given to the youngest as she's the one most likely to care for aging parents. Our young guide told us that most of the owners use them for family gatherings, ceremonial events and weekend getaways. They have no electricity or plumbing - which explains the cluster of outhouses on one corner of the mesa!
Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City, is 65 miles west of Albuquerque. From I-40 heading west, exit on 102 (notice signs for Sky City Casino), take a left at the bottom of the ramp and it's another 15 miles south to the Sky City Cultural Center (visitor center for the pueblo). Look carefully for signs on the right side of the road! The last few miles of this drive is gorgeous - terrific views from high above the valley as you drop down into it. As you start your descent, look for the large, rocky mesa in the distance and see at what point you can start to make out the well-disguised cluster of the pueblo on top. There's a scenic overlook with a pullout that's good for snapping off a couple of pictures. It's also the ONLY place you're allowed stopping or picture-taking on the road to the pueblo.
This massive church was built over a period of 11 years (1629 - 1640) under the direction of Spanish friar Juan Ramírez and is, as is the entire pueblo, on the National Historic Landmark's list. As the mesa is solid rock and virtually devoid of building materials, 20,000 tons worth of earth and stone needed for construction of the mission had to be hauled up narrow, treacherous rock footpaths. Even the soil for the adjoining cemetery was transported from the valley below. In keeping with the tradition of building sacred kivas, the 35 ft. beams - felled at a mountain 30 miles away - were required to be shouldered to the site without ever being allowed to touch the ground.
Besides the incredible amount of work it took to construct, St. Stephen's is unique in that it was one of very few of the area's Spanish missions to survive destruction during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and contains a valuable collection of 17th century artifacts. The interior is vast and largely empty except for the altar and confessional - I assume to accommodate ceremonial dances - but the walls and ceiling are gaily painted with images that reflect both traditional Catholic and Acoman spirituality: the stations of the cross, rainbows, parrots and cornstalks. Acomans, like many of the other pueblo tribes, practice an interesting mix of traditional beliefs and Catholicism that has evolved over the centuries since forced conversion by Spanish missionaries.
No photography is allowed of the cemetery and interior of the church
The only way to see the pueblo is by guided tour. Tickets and camera permits are purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center and regularly scheduled shuttles take you up the mesa to the old city. Once there, you'll be met by your Acoman guide for a narrated walk covering about 3/4 mile of the village. Along the way, you'll have opportunities to purchase handmade crafts from pueblo artisans (pottery is the best!) so bring some cash - most don't take credit cards. The route isn't paved and it'll be pretty hot during the summer so wear comfortable shoes and bring your water bottle!
Tours last about 75 minutes, run $20 for adults and less for seniors, US military and collage students (ID required). There's also a discounted package for families of 4. The good news is that it appears that the previous $10-per-camera fee is now included with the tour price. Yay! You still have to have them issue a permit but that was an additional cost when we were there.
Reference the website for hours, current fees and other good stuff to know.