It happened that the Mogollon inhabitants of Chaco Canyon were 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’, which means ‘a place prepared’. 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’.
Their first home in the valley was on nearby Enchanted Mesa. Their legends tell how 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 the mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation); the larger part of the tribe abandoned Enchanted Mesa for one nearby, where they remain to this day – Acoma.
Acoma past and present
To visit Acoma today is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world, a shallow valley studded with towering monoliths or mesas, many of them sacred to the Acoma people.
The village that the people call Sky City is built on top of a sheer-sided, 367 foot sandstone bluff. But it was hard as we drove across the valley to pick out exactly which mesa had a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the church of San Esteban with its twin adobe towers on one side of the village; but even this blended into the warm hues of the sandstone, only becoming distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.
Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top); but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the lifestyle of the Acoma people is as it has always been.
Of course there have not always been tourists here; but others have come, some much more invasive than the current busloads of visitors. The first white visitor was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.
In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region. He raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops.
De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo. In the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adults were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.
As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten.
The past has shaped this people, and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.
There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored; this is very much a living village, not a museum.
The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter; while sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned; each is exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.
Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter, the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer, the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.
Many of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view; today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. 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 on the mesa
Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months, and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.
These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo. They believe that a 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.
There are no toilets in the houses either. Instead communal Portaloos around the edges of the village are used by everyone and regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets. She also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.
Throughout the pueblo you see distinctive ladders resting against the houses. A double ladder indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. Some also have a stylised cloud-shaped bar across the 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. 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.
The Church of San Esteban
The pueblo’s most prominent building is its church, dedicated to Saint 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 the child fell from its edge and was assumed 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. 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.
The Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church from Mount Taylor, a distant and sacred mountain known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. 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, symbolises the Acoma and their traditional beliefs; while white symbolises Catholicism, the two religions intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few follow only one or the other.
I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery either, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden. But it is too interesting a place not to mention it. It lies in front of the church 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 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.
A matriarchal society
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; 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 when she feels it is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point, the matriarch loses her role in the family; she moves out of the home in the pueblo (if 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.