Acoma Pueblo — “The Sky City” — is possibly the longest occupied place in America. There are other contenders, Taos Pueblo up north or the Hopi pueblos over in Arizona are also extremely old in the context of occupied Native American communities. Each of the three communities are unique in their location and position in the landscape…set almost like a jewel.. Archaeological evidence shows that people were living on the mesa top at Acoma 2,000 years ago. The existing pueblo dates back at least 800 years. Acoma is particularly accessible and the people welcome tourists and are happy to provide a guided tour of the mesa-top pueblo. Acoma, the word, can be translated to “A place always prepared”. Accessibility is a relative term…The pueblo sits on top of a 350 foot mesa.
Interstate 40 passes close enough to entice visitors to the tribal visitor center. There is also the Sky City Casino out by the interchange. The old pueblo itself sits apart — high up on the top of a mesa. There was no road up to the top of the mesa until about fifty years ago and it is still an impressive drive. Most tribal members live in the more modern communities of Acomita and McCartys out by the highway but extended families will maintain their ancestral home up on the mesa top and use it for special occasions or religious observances. There are permanent traditional residents at the old pueblo including the religious leaders of the tribe. The setting of the place in the landscape is stunning with 360-degree views out across the desert and mesas.
It is hard to escape the Earth’s beauty from the old pueblo. Desert storms track across the horizon, lightning flashes in the distance, seasons change and the night sky is amazing.
This is a living community…not a relic or ruin. Kids play out on the road and dogs stroll or nap in the shade. Streets are left unpaved as this is mostly a place of walking….but there are a few cars and trucks parked next to the buildings.
Traditionally, the pueblo structures were entered through the roof and some of the household activity took place on the roof of the structures. Today there are still some examples of this. The active kivas are entered through the roof.
Hornos, the bee-hive ovens used for cooking or baking, were introduced by the Spanish but have become a fixture in pueblo culture.
The mission church of San Estevan Del Rey (named for Stephen I of Hungary) is the largest single structure at Acoma, dating to around 1629-41. Although it was built by forced labor under the direction of the Spanish, it is a revered and holy place today. All material had to be hand carried up the 350 foot climb to the top of the mesa. The massive wood beams were carried twenty-five miles from Mount Taylor. Today, a society of church caretakers (the Gaugashti ) maintain the church as a lifetime commitment. The cemetery, laid out in front of the church, is particularly sacred ground. The mission church of San Estevan Del Rey is the oldest and largest intact adobe structure in North America.
It is a plain and austere structure both inside and out…almost monolithic in appearance. There are few interior decorations other than some wall murals and painting. San Estevan was the only pueblo mission church to survive largely unscathed from the Pueblo revolt of 1680. The church bell was a gift from the King of Spain.
The southwestern architect, John Gaw Meem, was engaged in the restoration of the church in the 1920s. The photo above dates to 1934 and the church appears much the same today. It had deteriorated somewhat before the restoration and was on the brink of falling into ruin. The depth of the cemetery, built up by successive burials, can be seen in the old photo.
Life goes on at Acoma.
If you visit, there is a shuttle bus that will take you to the top of the mesa and a guide will show you around and explain what you are seeing and the history of the place. There are a few vendors selling pottery or other crafts and some traditional food. The guide will explain the photography restrictions at the church — no interior pictures. At the end of the tour you can take the shuttle or choose to climb down the ancient pathway that was the main access to the pueblo before the road was built.
An April storm approaches