As we drove along a lonesome narrow but smooth surfaced road, the sage and juniper brush reminded me of similar landscapes on the upper plateaus of Big Bend, Texas, that we call Home. The sky and horizon reached out forever, interrupted only by scattered large and small flat-topped table lands, called mesas. On one of these large and broad mesas was the ancestral home of the Acoma tribe. However, the scale of the landscapes confused the eyes as to which mesa it was. Later I was to learn why.
We arrived at the visitor center and museum in time to take the last tour of the day to the Acoma ancient pueblo; the Sky City. The rock and adobe pueblo is about 600 or more years old and built on top of a mesa, 375 feet above the floor of the desert. One road, which was built in the late 1950’s, winds up to the top. Before that, a foot stairway carved into the side of the mesa was the only access to and from the pueblo. All the water and food for the people had to be carried up those stairs carved into the cliff side. Even now, water and all food must be transported to the top for those living in or visiting the pueblos.
The views from the mesa are incredible. Here, on top, there is no water, no electricity, no food….nothing but the earthen ground and walls with the sky as your blanket. And here is a history that extends almost a thousand years ago right at your feet. It surrounds you. It embraces you.
To the north of the mesa is the Acoma people’s first home in this area: the Enchanted Mesa. Their oral history relates that they came from the Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde locations and chose that mesa, the Enchanted Mesa, as their new home.
There they lived for 500+ years. As their population grew, the top of the mesa became crowded. During a torrential storm, the foot stairs carved into the mesa side washed out. It was a sign for them to move. And so they left that mesa and populated the mesa where they are now. It was this very mesa and pueblo that Coronado and his men saw and marveled at.
After many successful attempts at rebuffing Spanish conquest, the governor of the province of New Mexico (of New Spain), Don Juan de Oñate, attacked the Acoma in 1598. Killing over 600 Acoma people and enslaving approximately 500 more, many of the Acoma survivors dispersed to other strongholds, and some formed new communities, such as Laguna Pueblo. A group of survivors remained on the mesa and in the immediate area, but suffered the fate of most of the pueblo nations: paying high taxes in crops and labor to the Spanish rulers. After many generations the Acoma returned to their ancestral homes on the mesa where they began a long journey to revitalize their culture and customs while renovating their home structures.
The Acoma’s history as a people is very rich. Although they were persecuted by the Spanish, as were most of the native peoples in North and Central America, and later challenged with intervention by federal and religious groups, their legacy as a people and nation lives on. Today they preserve that long history and have successfully merged it with the world of today. The Sky City is home to 300 or more 2-3 story pueblos of various stages of preservation and repair. Visitors can see how modern materials and technology, such as cement blocks and glass windows, merge with remains of the original structures made of rock and adobe. Even the former are masked with hand-made and applied earthen plasters to blend in as a continuance of the old pueblo style.
Although only a few choose to live on top of the mesa full-time, the nation continues to be traditional homes for many of the people, passed down in a family matriarchal line. Traditional ceremonies are still held on top of the mesa, serving as a connecting between the past and the present, and a strong bond between all Acoma people no matter where in the country they reside.
I felt fortunate and grateful that they allow us to share it, even only at the surface, by visiting their ancestral home. I hope that sometime in the near future I can visit and learn more.
We had an off-road adventure on the way to the main highway. I wanted to visit the Enchanted Mesa, so we turned off onto a dirt road. Which turned into a sandy track. Wet sand. Easy to get vehicles mired in. We had our moments. But it was amazing to see the difference in scale looking at the pueblo on top of the mesa in the distance compared to when we stood atop and looked north to where we were on the road above. I can see why those members of the Acoma nation choose to live on top of either mesa. The Sky City is like living on top of a magical world.