Thought to be one of the two oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States, along with the Hopi village of Oraibi in Arizona, Acoma Pueblo, established around 1100 AD, looms high over the valley below from its ancient perch on a 367-foot high pink and white sandstone mesa, 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Early ancestors of Acoma lived at the top of nearby Enchanted Mesa, which juts up to the east of the pueblo. The Acomans eventually relocated to their present day mesa. The name "Acoma" may have come from the Keresan Pueblo Indian word haaku which means "to prepare" - a description that reflects the strategic defensive position the mesa location provided its inhabitants.

Access to the pueblo in early times was difficult because of the steep faces surrounding the mesa. Before modern times access was gained only by means of a hand-cut path carved into the sandstone. The road which now winds to the top of the mesa was constructed for use by a movie company in 1957.

Today, only several caretaker families live on the mesa year-round, while others live in nearby pueblo villages, including Acomita, McCarty's, Anzac and Sky Line, and only return to the pueblo during special feast days. The 2000 Census indicated a total of 2,802 Acoma villagers existed in that year.

Acoma’s people "dry-farm" growing corn, squash, and beans in the valley surrounding the pueblo and use irrigation canals in the villages closer to the Rio San Jose. Acoma inhabitants have also traded and interacted with neighboring pueblos for centuries, as well as with Aztec and Mayan people to the south. Traditional alliances still exist between the Pueblos who often speak different dialects or different languages.

Acoma's pueblo structures crowded into 70 acres atop the mesa are constructed of adobe and the white stone common to the area. The original pueblo houses were three stories high. The first story was between twelve and fifteen feet high and had no openings except a trap door on top because it was used exclusively for storage of supplies. Ladders led from the ground to the second level, which was the living area. The top level contained the kitchen and it was accessed by narrow outside steps against the pueblo division wall which led to the roof. The low ceiling rooms originally had windows made of selenite, an opaque material mined in the vicinity and later glass. Today most of the dwellings are single-story; multilevels are no longer in use.

Acoma's history has seen violent times. Spanish conquerors learned of Acoma when they entered New Mexico in the 1500s. The pueblo was nearly destroyed when Gov. Juan de Oñate and 70 of his men retaliated for the killing of 13 Spanish soldiers by the Acomas, when they tried to take grain from the pueblo storehouses in 1598.

As a restitution of peace, after severe punishment of the Acomans for their actions, construction of the massive San Estéban del Rey Mission was started in 1629 and completed in 1640, under the guidance of Friar Juan Ramírez. According to legend, Ramírez was allowed to enter Acoma after he saved an infant from a fall off the edge as he approached the mesa. His delivery of the child back to the mother was considered a miracle by the tribe.

The church is 150 feet long and 40 feet wide. Its walls are 60 feet high and 10 feet thick. Its 40-foot beams were hand-carried 30 miles from Kaweshtima (Mount Taylor Mountain) by members of the tribe. All of the building material for the Mission and the dirt for its graveyard was carried up to the mesa from the valley below via the steep passages on a burro trail that had been chipped out of the rock. As the Mission walls were built, the heavy ceiling beams were placed on top of the walls and elevated with the walls as they rose to the ceiling during construction. Along with the Catholic religion forced upon them by Spanish settlers, the Acoma people still continue the traditions of their ancestors.

After several decades of peace and prosperity, the pueblo experienced more troubles. Battles with neighboring Navajos, quarrels with the nearby Lagunas over grazing and water rights, drought, and a smallpox epidemic contributed to a dramatic decline in the population of the pueblo. After the American occupation of New Mexico in 1846, the Acomas numbered three hundred fifty, down from nine hundred fifty a hundred years earlier and from two thousand in 1630.

The United States confirmed the Spanish grant of 1659 on December 22, 1858, but the Acoma Indians did not formally apply for their land until 1863, when seven Pueblo governors went to Washington to confer with President Lincoln and settle boundaries.

Both the mission and the pueblo are now registered National Historical Landmarks. In late 2006 the Acoma Pueblo was also named as a National Trust Historic Site.

Like other pueblos, Acoma and the surrounding area are considered federal trust land and are administered by the federal government for the pueblo.

The pueblo is open to the public only by guided tour. Photography of the pueblo and surrounding lands is restricted. Tours can be arranged and although camera permits may be obtained from the recently renovated Sky City Visitor Center located at the base of the mesa, videotaping, drawing and sketching are prohibited.

For information, call the
Acoma Commercial Center
at: 505-250-6486

 

Compiled from information
gathered from web and print
sources and an Acoma guide.

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