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Reaching for the Sky at Ancient Home of the Acoma Indians

September 27, 1987|CHARLOTTE GARNER | Garner is a Mountain View, Calif., free-lance writer.

ACOMA, N.M. — The name Sky City brings to mind images of a modern metropolis, but there is nothing contemporary about New Mexico's ancient home of the Acoma Indians, reputedly one of the oldest occupied villages in the United States.

Acoma, which means "people of the white rock," stands solidly atop a sun-parched mesa that shoots 367 feet above the New Mexico plain. Built as a refuge from attacks by rival Indians, the pueblo is believed to have been occupied since 1075.

Europeans discovered Acoma in 1540 when a Spanish exploration party scaled the rock. Recounting the event in a letter to his commander in chief, the famed Francisco Vaques de Coronado, Capt. Hernando de Alvarado described the pueblo as "one of the strongest ever seen because the city is built on a very high rock. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top."

Today's explorers can reach Sky City by driving 50 miles west of Albuquerque on Interstate 40 to New Mexico 23, then south about 13 miles to Sky City. Free parking is available at the visitor center at the base of the mesa.

Historic Landmarks

Guests can register for guided tours of the pueblo and its mission, both designated National Historic Landmarks. A $4 fee is charged adults, $2.50 for children ages 12-18 and $2 for children 6-11. Fees are also collected for still and movie cameras and sketch pads.

Instead of climbing to the mesa top on foot as the Indians did, you ride in a shuttle bus along an almost perpendicular but well-paved road. As you look out the window, watching the sand and sagebrush recede in the distance, you begin to imagine the Acoma Indians making this twice-daily trek from their homes to the fields below where they tended livestock and farmed.

We learned from our driver that the original trail to the top was known as the North Trail and was literally carved out of rock along the steepest part of the cliff.

"It began," he said, "with wide steps notched into logs and then narrowed into mere finger holds farther along. At the top was a wall of stones which the Indians would roll down down on the heads of their enemies.

"A second trail was built much later. Camino del Padre was named for Father Juan Ramirez who came to Acoma in 1629, 90 years after the Spanish explorers. As Ramirez climbed the rock he was stoned by the Indians above.

"During the excitement a little girl fell from the cliff-top and when the priest returned her, frightened but unhurt to her mother's arms, the Indians thought they had seen a miracle and welcomed Father Ramirez to the pueblo."

Sense of Abandonment

As you step down from the bus and look around the remnants of this ancient village, you're struck by an eerie sense of abandonment. The wind whips up clouds of dust in the deserted streets; adobe and rock houses stand in silence as if their occupants had left for the fields below, never to return.

Then you see a small black-haired, black-eyed cherub playing in the shadow of a sand-colored adobe. A screen door slams and a woman emerges, possibly his mother, carrying a stone jar on her way to the reservoir for fresh water.

A few families still live all year on the mesa, a far cry from the estimated 5,000 the Spaniards reported belonging to the Acoma tribe in the 1500s.

"Workmen are rebuilding these adobe houses," explained the college-age Indian guide. "They've completed about 100 so far. The project was begun in 1982 in an effort to encourage more of our people to return to Acoma on a full-time basis."

Many Indians come back to Acoma every summer; most attend the various religious ceremonies. But at no time is the pueblo without some Indians living in the old houses and caring for the Franciscan mission. The majority of tribal members have homes in nearby towns on the 248,000-acre reservation. Some continue to farm as their ancestors did, while others work in metropolitan centers such as Albuquerque.

No Electricity

It takes about an hour and a half to walk three-quarters of a mile around the 70-acre village. Parallel streets are lined with two- and three-story houses, some of the oldest in America. Tall ladders lean lazily against many dwellings, used for entry to the upper floors.

Acoma has no electricity; lighting is by kerosene lanterns. Villagers heat their homes with wood and use it to fire beehive-shaped ovens for baking bread.

At some point in your tour, walk over to the edge of the cliff and look down. Looking over this almost 400-foot drop you begin to understand why the early Acoma felt safe and protected on their rock.

A beleaguered people held off all invaders except one, the relentless Spaniards who finally broke through in 1599 and during a three-day battle killed 800 Indians, set fire to the pueblo and captured hundreds of prisoners who were marched off to trial at Santa Domingo pueblo.

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