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A place prepared

New Mexico day five


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

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Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma 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. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

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At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. 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.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

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Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

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’.

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View from the mesa top

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 the photo higher up this page. 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.

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 life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

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In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo 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 and 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, and 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 them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma 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.

Acoma houses

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A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. 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.

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Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each 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.

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Typical houses

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.

Some 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, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may 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.

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Building work

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Restoration in progress

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.

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Cistern and lone tree

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 (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all 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.

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Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

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Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see 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. 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.

Kivas

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Street with kiva

In the photo above 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 below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

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Kiva ladder

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 photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of 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. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

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.

The Church of San Esteban

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San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, 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 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.

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San Esteban

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.

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.

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At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see 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.

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.

I have no pictures of the adjoining 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 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.

A souvenir of Acoma

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Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

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Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs

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Comments

We thoroughly enjoyed the Acoma Pueble although it had rained recently and it was quite wet with large puddles all over the place. Seemed odd in a desert, but when it rains in the desert, it can rain very hard. The pottery is beautiful.

by Beausoleil

New Mexico definitely sounds like a place I'd love to visit

by Easymalc

Thank you both :) Sally, I can't imagine it raining there!!

by ToonSarah

Seems like everywhere the women are the best to keep the traditions are alive, so the Acoma people are wise.

by greatgrandmaR

Good point Rosalie!

by ToonSarah

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