In the midst of this ongoing global pandemic, the world is quiet. The aeroplanes are grounded. Dreams of visiting new places are on hold. Virtual travel is the new norm. Below are memories of an extraordinary place belonging to the pueblo people of Acoma, New Mexico.
Early one fall morning, as the sun beat down relentlessly from a clear blue sky, we gazed in awe at an arid landscape bathed in red-brown hues and dotted with low-growing pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush. Our unique viewing platform was atop a towering monolith in the heart of New Mexico. Home to the Acoma (pronounced Ah-Ko-Ma) pueblo people for many generations, this flat-topped mesa rises abruptly 367 ft. from the valley floor and reputedly is North America’s oldest continuously-inhabited community.
Our small group of sightseers had been driven by bus to the mesa-top along a paved road. Here we met Gary, our Native American guide, who set out the etiquette for our tour. He courteously stressed that his people welcome tourists but expect due respect be given to both their privacy and time-honored customs.
As we looked down from our cliff-top aerie, it was hard to believe that a civilization could survive and flourish in this desert terrain. No cautionary hand-rails protected one from an untimely plunge to Mother Earth. We stood well back from the rim as Gary pointed out several landmarks sacred to the Acomans. Firstly, he pointed to the Enchanted Mesa, the original settlement of his people in the area. Destroyed by a lightning storm about 1,000 years ago, the puebloans re-established their aerial village on the roof of this elevated tableland on which we were standing. Here, the Acomans sought refuge and hoped to live peaceably and avoid the nomadic and marauding tribes roaming the valley floor. Secondly, Gary directed our gaze to Mount Taylor, which rose majestically to over 11,000 feet, some 35 miles’ distant. The forested slopes of this extinct cone-shaped volcano once provided timber to several local tribes.
Our brief history lesson completed, we followed Gary on a “walk through time”. Our group wandered along unpaved streets and tiny plazas reminiscent of a bygone era. This ancient pueblo, also known as Sky City or “a place that always was”, was rebuilt in 1629 after the arrival of the Spanish explorers and includes about 300 two- and three-storey adobe and white sandstone structures. Formerly occupied by several hundred people, only a few spiritual leaders and tribal members continue to dwell at Acoma year round.
We were most impressed by the 21,000 sq. ft. adobe Mission Church of San Esteban del Rey. This remarkable structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Monuments as the oldest still-functioning building in the United States. Gary told us that the Church was built in the 1600s by the Acoma people under the direction of the Spanish over a period of 14 years. Huge logs were transported by hand from Mount Taylor to provide the timbers for the Church. Even though outwardly the Acomans submitted to Spanish rule, much traditional lore was woven into the construction of the Church. It was erected over a ceremonial kiva or prayer house. Gary explained that to the Acoma, certain numbers are considered “lucky”. In the Church interior, a rainbow formed of three colored bands decorated one wall. The adobe walls were seven feet wide at the top and 12 wooden spindles were displayed on each side of the altar.
Access to a sacred kiva is only permitted to the male puebloans. Originally entry was gained by ascending a white ladder skyward and then descending through a portal in the rooftop. In olden days the windows were made of mica. Nowadays, many structures have doorways and glass has replaced the mica windowpanes. Full-time residents do not have the luxury of electricity, plumbing or running water. However, we did pass a couple of water catchment areas. Gary told us that this water is only used to make adobe bricks and reinforce the walls. Beside one such area stood a lone cottonwood tree, the “Acoma National Forest”. Unbelievably, all the drinking water has to be laboriously hauled up from the valley below.
The indigenous people continue to hold on to their old way of life and cling to their ancient beliefs. Our group greatly admired Acoma’s hand-made pots which are world-renowned, extremely delicate and beautifully decorated in natural pigments. We chatted briefly with a local potter. He told us that the colour black represented the rain; white, mother earth; and orange, the sun. The intricate designs including sunflowers, yucca blooms and hummingbirds reflect the Acoma’s strong connection to the land. Often these native inhabitants used the inside leaves of the yucca plant to make paint brushes although one artisan told us that her brushes were made from her grandchild’s baby hair!
Before concluding the tour, Gary explained that in the past the only way to access the village was via a steep pathway which wound its way precariously up an almost sheer cliff face. If we took care, we had Gary’s permission to negotiate these uneven steps and utilize the time-worn hand-holds. Our descent safely completed, the fascinating exhibits at the Sky City Cultural Centre and Haak’u Museum awaited our discovery.
We will forever remember our visit to this extraordinary place. It was a privilege to tread in the time-worn steps of the ancestral people of Acoma and to learn about their distinct and enduring culture.