Subscribe!Get all the best of On Walkabout by subscribing.

On Walkabout at: Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

The American Southwest has many pueblos from Native-American tribes that continue to thrive to this day.  However, in my opinion there isn’t one as unusual and with as a colorful history as the Acoma Pueblo located to the west of Albuquerque, New Mexico:

Acoma Pueblo Map

The Sky City Casino is located right off of I-40, which is what brings in the biggest revenue for the Acoma Indian Reservation, but the must see destination is not the casino, but its pueblo.  The Acoma Pueblo, which is also known as “Sky City” was built an estimated 1,000 years ago on top of a 112 meter (367 feet) mesa.  From the I-40 exit the pueblo is about a 30 minutes drive.  At first the road to the pueblo crosses a flat plain backdropped by the beautiful 4,094 meter (11,305 feet) Mt. Taylor:

IMG_2811

As the road continued across the flat plain it was flanked by some very nice housing for the Acoma tribe members.  The housing was some of the nicest I have seen on an Indian Reservation.  Eventually the flat plain ended at this rocky butte:

Picture from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

From a pull out in front of the rocky butte that is where I realized that the flat plain was actually the top of a large mesa extending all the way from Mt. Taylor.  From the top of the mesa I had an incredible view looking down into a valley with spectacular rock outcroppings:

Picture from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Unlike the top of the mesa that is largely arid, this valley was actually very green with lush grassland:

Picture from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

As I gazed closely at the rock outcroppings I was able to make out the Acoma Pueblo on top of one of mesa shaped rock outcroppings:

Picture from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Besides seeing the Acoma Pueblo, this rock outcropping known as the Enchanted Mesa definitely caught my eyes with its impressive size and vibrant colors:

Picture from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

I would later find out that this Enchanted Mesa was the first home of the Acoma people before moving on to the top of their current mesa and thousand years ago. Here is a Google Earth image of this valley with the viewpoint I was standing at annotated:

Google Earth Acoma Pueblo Image

After spending a few minutes admiring the view I then proceeded to drive down the road to the valley floor:

Picture from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Located towards the center of the valley is the very impressive Sky City Cultural Center:

IMG_2788

The cultural center was very nice both inside and out.  I first had to pay my admission price of $20.00 which allows you to tour the cultural center, take the guided tour of the Acoma Pueblo, and includes a camera permit.  It is important to remember that on the Acoma Indian Reservation you must have a camera permit to take pictures.  The cultural center included an informative film about the Acoma people and a nice display of their artifacts and artwork.  The cultural center also had a nice restaurant inside that had a mixture of Acoma and American food available for people.  After touring the cultural center I then went outside to wait for the tour bus to arrive to take us to the pueblo.  While I waited for the bus to arrive I just admired the scenic view that was right in front me:

IMG_2783

Here are some closer looks at the Acoma Pueblo from the valley floor:

IMG_2785

This pueblo is a registered National Historic Landmark and for good reason considering that it is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States:

IMG_2786

Here is a Google Earth view of the pueblo:

Google Earth Acoma Pueblo Image

In the cultural center I learned that the ancestors of the Acoma people moved here from the Canyon de Chelly region about a 1,000 years ago probably escaping drought or invasion from rival tribes.  When they arrived in this valley these migrants built their first community on top of the impressive Enchanted Mesa.  Building on this mesa is what is believed to have given the Acoma their name.  Acoma is believed to mean “The People of the White Rock“.  As legend has it these early Acoma people were forced to abandon the Enchanted Mesa when a ferocious storm caused a rock column to collapse and block the only way up the mesa.  The Acoma people who were able to make their way down the mesa began to construct a new pueblo at the current location.  However, the elderly people who were not able to scale down the mesa ultimately ended up starving to death.  Because of this the mesa is considered haunted and the Acoma no longer allow anyone to climb up it.

Google Earth Acoma Pueblo Image

At the current mesa they built their new pueblo and it was not as high as the Enchanted Mesa, but it was still a formidable place for any invader to try and capture.  The main enemy for centuries for the Acoma were the Apaches who have long raided their lands and to a lesser extent the Navajo.  The Pueblo people say they were born of the Earth and have always lived in the American Southwest and did not migrate here like the Apache.  The Acoma say the Apache like most other tribes in America migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia which caused them to be a nomadic people that raided other tribes to survive.  The Pueblo people on the other hand had lived in these lands so long they developed cities, agriculture, arts, and other forms of advanced culture.  This made them prime targets by nomadic tribes over the centuries.  Due to their formidable location, none of these tribes would ever conquer the Acoma, but people from a far off continent on the other side of the world eventually would.

In the 16th century when the Spanish first arrived in the American Southwest they came to look for the fabled seven cities of gold.  The city on the mesa that they heard about from other tribes in the region quickly caught the interest of the Spanish Conquistadors.  According to Wikipedia, in 1598, Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded New Mexico, and began staging raids on Native American pueblos in the area, taking anything of value. Upon reaching San Juan Pueblo, Oñate had all the Native Americans who were living there removed from their homes and used it as a base to stage more raids on other Native American pueblos in the area. In response, the Acoma fought back, and several Spaniards were killed in the battle to re-take the pueblo from the Spaniards. During the battle, the Spaniards brought a small cannon up the back of Acoma Mesa, and began firing into the village.

Don Juan de Onate

According to Acoma oral traditions, the average Spaniard at the time weighed much more than the average Acoma, and the Spaniards also brought with them attack dogs, which were believed to be fed on human flesh and trained to eat humans alive. The Acoma people lost the Battle of Acoma, and the indigenous population of the pueblo, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to approximately 250 survivors; as women, children, and elders were killed by the Spaniards in that battle as well.

After the survivors were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, all the surviving children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents, and given to Spanish missionaries to raise; but most of them and the other survivors 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 of each one. The tour guide told us that the Acoma that were enslaved were given 20 year sentences and upon completing their sentences the survivors returned to the Acoma Pueblo and rebuilt it.  This 20 year period she explained was the only time the Pueblo was not inhabited in the last 1,000 years.  Oñate on the other hand was later tried and convicted of cruelty to Indians and colonists by the colonial Mexican government and was banished from New Mexico. However, he was cleared of all charges on appeal and lived out the rest of his life in Spain.  Is it any wonder why the Acoma people protested the building of a statue of Onate in El Paso?

Don Juan de Onate Statue In El Paso

I bought a book about the Acoma that has excerpts from Spanish journals about the battle.  As cruel as the Spanish were to the Acoma I had to admire their courage.  The group of about 400 Spanish soldiers were out numbered about 5 to 1 by the Acoma and these defenders were actually mocking the Spanish for trying to attack them with such a small force.  Think about it the Spanish sailed thousands of miles across the ocean and then walked hundreds of more miles from Mexico into hostile and unknown territory to storm a fortified city on a mesa with this small force.  No matter what you think about the Spanish Conquistadors they were without a doubt brave men.

IMG_2782

Anyway the tour bus arrived and our native guide was quite nice and informative.  This is something I really liked about the Acoma people was how their tribal members ran everything here.  In Australia the Aboriginal tribe that manages Australia’s most well known icon, Uluru (Ayers Rock) has few members of their tribe working at the park and it felt like the park was sold to the Germans considering how many German backpackers were working at the park.  Anyway the bus proceeded to drive up a road to the top of the mesa:

IMG_2778

The tour guide informed everyone on the bus that this road was constructed by a Hollywood movie company who wanted to shoot a movie at the pueblo about 40 years ago.  The agreement the tribe made with the movie producers was that they had to build a road for the tribe up the mesa in return for being allowed to film on the reservation.  Prior to this road the Acoma had to walk the steep and narrow path up the mountain that their ancestor had to use.  The movie company built a dirt road up the mesa for the Acoma, which the reservation eventually paved in 1994 to allow even easier access to the pueblo:

IMG_2768

The bus dropped us off at the edge of the pueblo and the guide began to show us around. We walked along the perimeter of the pueblo to take in the expansive views:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

This rock below along the road is supposed to be of a couple kissing:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Here is the view looking back towards the mesa I drove down to reach the pueblo:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Here is the view looking down at the cultural center:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

On top of the mesa there is a number of natural holes in the rock the fill up with the rain water.  These holes that naturally collect water is why the early Acoma were able to live on top of this mesa.  This hole here the guide told us was historically used for watering horses:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

The hole used for drinking water for tribe members is located in a isolated area of the mesa and we were told it is very clean.  We then began to walk around the pueblo and the tribe members that live here are not living in primitive squalor by any means:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Many of the buildings are of new construction and even the older buildings have been fixed up:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

The guide told us that the tribe no longer makes these adobe bricks any more and instead they actually purchase them from Albuquerque based company:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

The Acoma may now use modern technology to build their , none of the buildings are hooked up to the electrical grid or has running water.  Many of the people who still live here cook using these traditional ovens:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

They may be off the electricity grid and have no running water, but there were plenty of vehicles driving around through the narrow dirt streets:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Located in the center of the city is this plaza where large gatherings, pow wows, and dances are held:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Near the central plaza is also the pueblo’s kiva:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

A kiva is used by all the Pueblo Indians in the region for religious ceremonies and as a meeting place.  The guide explained to us that only males are allowed in the kiva and that this kiva is unusual because it is built into the pueblo and above ground.  Other pueblos in the region like the ones at Bandelier National Monument are built underground, but since the Acoma cannot dig into solid rock this one is built above ground.

As our group continue to walk around the Pueblo we came upon another natural water hole:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

All around the mesa there are a number of local cooks and artists selling their wares to the tour groups passing through the pueblo.  Much of the art is extremely beautiful and as I usually do when visiting the various Indian reservations I bought a few items:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Our guide explained to us that many of the Acoma that lived in the pueblo were elderly and the pueblo was sort of a retirement village for the tribe.  Most of the current residents had lived and worked in other communities on the reservation or even off it and then retired in the Acoma Pueblo.  Their extended families help support them by helping them with water and installing generators in some of the homes for power.  She also told us that in the Acoma culture the men hold all the government positions.  Their are no women in the tribal government.  However, to balance things out the Acoma allowed only women to be property owners.  The women owned all the homes and if they didn’t want their husbands to stay in the home they could kick them out.  It was an interesting system to learn about, but our guide said that it works for her people.

Something else of interest she mentioned was that the Acoma chief actually has a wooden walking stick with a silver handle on it.  Engraved in the silver is a message of friendship from Abraham Lincoln.  This was a gift from the legendary US President to the Acoma in 1863 when the Acoma lands were officially recognized by the US government.  You often hear about how Native-American tribes were poorly treated by the US government, but our guide said the US government actually treated the Acoma well because like many of the Pueblo tribes the Acoma hated the Apache who had long raided their lands and the Acoma were more than happy to help the US military fight them.

Here is the view from the northeastern corner of the mesa:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Here is a close up view of the 130 meter (430 feet) high Enchanted Mesa as seen from this corner:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

The Acoma believe that when their ancestor constructed their first city on the Enchanted Mesa it was constructed of adobes buildings just like some of the buildings standing today in the current pueblo.  To early archaeologists that traveled to the American Southwest the legend of this city on the Enchanted Mesa became a subject of much debate.  Despite having permission from the state government to climb the mesa no one was able to do it until 1897 when Professor William Libbey from Princeton University used a cannon to shoot a rope up to the top of the mesa.  The rope was then used to climb the mesa.  He searched the top of the mesa for 2-3 hours and declared there was nothing up there and that the legend was not true.  However, a few years later Archaeologist Frederick Webb Hodge ascended the mesa and found plenty of arrow points, stone tools, beads and pottery fragments lodged in crevices that proved that the top of the mesa was used at one time by the Acoma, but there was no evidence of a large adobe pueblo city.

Here was the view looking back across the valley towards Mt. Taylor:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Mt. Taylor is a holy mountain to the Acoma and other tribes in the region.  It is also a source of building wood and for hunting game.  A closer look at Mt. Taylor from the mesa reveals that it is in fact a volcano:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

If you look closely at the above picture you can see the shape of the caldera of this now extinct volcano.  Mt. Taylor is no where near as big as the Jemez Supervolcano located outside of Santa Fe, but it is still quite impressive.  Here is the view looking towards the rock outcroppings that surround the cultural center:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

From this corner of the mesa I then proceeded to walk to the southeastern corner of the mesa and saw this view:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Are there outhouses in New Mexico with a better view than this?  The outhouses weren’t the only ones with a great view, but there were plenty of homes on the mesa as well that enjoyed incredible views:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

How about this kitchen view?:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

At the center of the mesa is this large water hole that actually had a large tree growing right next it.  It was the only large tree I saw on the entire mesa:

Picture from the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

From the water hole the guide then took us to see the historic San Esteban Mission located on this remote mesa.

Next Posting: The San Esteban Del Rey Mission

5 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *