PUEBLO OF ACOMA, N.M. — Stanley Paytiamo, 63, governor of the Acoma Nation, population 4,200, stood on a bluff overlooking a rugged wilderness of prehistoric lava beds, fumbling for words and looking shamed as he described aspects of the Acomas' sacred fall Corn Dance to bring rain, an ancient religious ceremony that the tribe has always held in fiercest secrecy from the prying eyes of outsiders.
"We place, uh, certain articles, religious items out there (at distances of several miles) in a certain pattern . . . which we believe helps guide the rain spirits, the rain clouds, into Acoma from the West. It's the same principle, sort of, as the runway lights at an airport."
A few miles away, in one of the reservation's two tiny villages down by the highway, the tribal cacique, or holy man, a shadowy figure invested with absolute authority over every Acoma man, woman and child, and who, by tradition, does not grant interviews to the white man, opened the door to his home and, with weary resignation, said, "Come on in."
Exotica for the White Man
Elsewhere, all across the reservation, ordinary Acomas, from the painfully shy to the openly resentful, did their part to hold the white man's interest, speaking of their respect for tadpoles and frogs, their dread of owls and witches, and tossing out other exotic tidbits.
Picturesque, bewildered elders, bedecked in their best Indian finery, some carrying pictures of their sons in military uniforms, paraded before TV cameras in the first public protest demonstration in Acoma history.
And so it went, when one small band of Indians discovered itself directly at odds with the will of the United States Congress, and tried to fight back.
Historically, the Acomas have been near legendary for their determined, tight-knit isolation--and so touchy about their ancient religious practices in particular that most books on the subject have been little more than apologetic essays in guesswork, or based on the dubious data provided by paid snitches.
Reject Radio Station
Two years ago, the Acomas even voted down plans to build a radio station on their reservation, partly out of fear that it would enable snoopy outsiders to learn more of their ways.
Then along came a bill to turn some 380,000 scenic acres adjacent to the Acoma reservation into the El Malpais (Badlands) National Monument and wilderness-conservation area. The whole New Mexico congressional delegation thought it was a fine idea. So did the environmentalists. Small towns around the Malpais began to count the ways they might cash in on the tourist boom.
The Acomas took one look at the map, however, and screamed.
Never mind 96% of the area--it was the threatened loss of the remaining four, a sliver of 13,000 acres that the Acomas now lease from the government for grazing, that literally flushed them into the open, forcing them to frantically solicit as much national attention as they could get.
At issue, according to the Acomas, was no mere cattle pasture or squabble over water rights.
This area had also been their most sacred, secret religious site since time immemorial. And one reason they hadn't mentioned it earlier, they said, was because the region is also a virtual museum of 1,000-year-old Acoma ruins, burial grounds, shrines, relics and secret caves crammed with priceless Indian artifacts. It gave them nightmares, just thinking about the desecrating thunder of tourist feet now about to be unleashed on the area--never mind the swarms of looters who would probably follow, carting off their ancestral treasures in moving vans.
But, said the Acomas, it wasn't only for themselves that they were begging that the land be given back to them. They're also worried about what fate may lay in store for non-Indians who intrude, however innocently, into an Indian temple.
Threats From the Gods
"Indian religion is for Indians only," said Regina Castillo, 45, an Acoma drug counselor. "Part of the reason for our secrecy is to protect our beliefs from disrespect--but it's also to protect non-Indians from our gods."
In fact, the Acomas worry that things may have gone too far, as it is.
"Already, our religious leaders inform us that an imbalance has been created in our oneness with nature," Paytiamo ruminated darkly. "It's against our beliefs to talk about our religion, even this much. It's unnatural."
Nevertheless, the Acomas got the hang of it pretty fast.
In place of their former narrow-eyed, ill-concealed distrust, they began wooing the media with a passion, inviting reporters to drop by the reservation any time--and never mind yesterday's unyielding rule that an official tribal escort must accompany them wherever they go.