West of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America: Acoma Pueblo. The 367-foot sandstone bluff is visible from miles away, but ageless adobe houses nearly blend into the top of the mesa. The Acoma settled here in approximately 1150 A.D. – for defensive reasons as the story goes – and although the majority of the tribe now lives on the reservation land surrounding the mesa, 50 or so tribal members still live here in their sky city. There is no running water, no electricity, and no sewers. That’s the way they like it. Many of those who remain are elderly, we were told, or just don’t care for the hustle and noise of city life. Some of them are painters or weavers or potters who are maintaining their traditional arts. (And they do beautiful work – while some of them take credit cards – really, just take a bunch of cash with you – it’s easier.)
Because the people value their privacy, the pueblo is not open to visitors except for organized tours, led by a tribal guide. After stopping at the cultural center down below – which also houses a museum and gift shop – you are taken up in groups by shuttle bus driven along the road you have to thank Hollywood for. Until Hollywood fell in love with New Mexico, there was only a “staircase” of sorts carved into the cliff face. But to make movies, they need equipment, and equipment needs roads. So now the tribe uses the road as part of their tourist infrastructure. (We had the opportunity to take the, uh, “stairs” back down the mesa after the tour was over. Some of our group did, but I declined. Too close to the beginning of the trip for me to trash a knee or ankle.)
There is no wandering wherever you want, no walking into people’s homes. We saw few people besides our guide and the artists displaying their wares. And a dog.
The colors in Sky City are muted: shades of brown and white against the blue sky. It seemed somehow fitting, because the history of the Pueblo is not all pleasant. No, it wasn’t like a somber funeral procession or something, nor did we feel anger or bitterness. Our guide was funny, entertaining, and informative. She spoke of having “the best of two worlds” (of getting to choose which parts of Catholicism to blend with their native beliefs, or getting to choose whether she was in her world or in ours).
She showed us the traditional adobe ovens still in use, the patched-many-times-over walls of their homes (if you look closely you can see bits of old pots embedded in the mud).
Then there was the San Esteban del Rey Mission (1640). In the Spaniards bid to convert the natives, Acoma men were forced to build it. Some of them are still present we were told: buried in the walls. And that bell you see in the photo below. They didn’t want it. But they were made to pay for the bell anyway – with their children. It wasn’t the first time children had been taken from them (never to be seen again).
You won’t see photos of the inside of the church (beautifully restored!) – it is not permitted. Nor will you see photos of the graveyard which sits between the church and the edge of the cliff. It not only represents yet another feat of architectural engineering they accomplished on top of this bluff (no road to haul up all that dirt), but another way in which they were forced to accept a foreign custom: burying their dead. There is little room left in the graveyard. From now on, only the elders can be buried there.
But that is not to say there will be no other arrivals. On the far wall, overlooking that abrupt drop-off to the valley floor, there is a hole. It is for the souls of their children. Those the Spanish took away, the ones they have no idea what ever happened to. There will always be room for those children’s spirits to return to their people. It may take a long time for the spirits to find their way home, but they will always be welcomed.