grants to acoma pueblo to albuquerque, part 1

Wednesday, September 9

This turned out to be one of the crazier days we've had on a vacation, but somehow we managed to do everything we wanted, and mostly in good spirits.

We passed on the ubiquitous free breakfast buffet at the hotel in favour of returning to El Cafecito, the local joint where we had dinner the night before. Turns out it's easy to order anything without the hot sauce; you simply say "no chile". Here in New Mexico, "chile" is what I would call hot sauce. If you don't specify, it's ladled heavily over everything. So when the server asked if I wanted red or green chile on my huevos rancheros, I said no chile, and that was fine. The food was great and the people were super friendly.

After breakfast we had to stop in a supermarket for a few things, so we drove through a residential area, a quiet, working-class neighbourhood, many yards complete with well tended dogs. Wherever we go, we are always looking at dogs.

The one thing we knew we wanted to do that day was visit Acoma Pueblo, also known as "Sky City". There are about 20 pueblos in New Mexico - Native American villages where you can learn about the culture, see exhibits, and buy art and crafts made by residents. Most of the pueblos, if not all, also operate casinos, which you see advertised on billboards on every highway. But the casinos are in separate locations from the pueblos themselves.

All the tourist information that you see here lists instructions for proper behaviour when visiting pueblos. The rules are pretty self-evident to any respectful person, but I'm sure they're necessary for many dimwits. You're cautioned that ceremonial dances are religious ceremonies, not entertainment events, and to not walk into someone's home without asking their permission. The only rules that might not be obvious are around photography and video, but everything is clearly posted (multiple times) and your hosts remind you verbally.

I imagine all the pueblos are interesting and each is probably unique. Given our limited time, we knew we would visit only one, and Acoma jumped out as a fascinating location. Acoma Pueblo is located on the very top of a huge mesa. For most of its existence, it was only accessible by steep stone steps. Now a paved road is a concession to modernity, but access is strictly limited.

We followed signs off the highway and drove a long, winding road onto the Acoma reservation. The road winds up a mountain, from which you can see a breathtaking view: a huge, sweeping valley dotted with giant sandstone rock formations and mesas. Across the valley from you is the mesa that is home to the pueblo, but it's not visible from there. The sky is beyond enormous. I felt like a tiny ant. At this overlook, signs are posted to not video, and to not take photographs unless your camera is registered. We didn't know what that meant, but we refrained.

From there, we wound down the mountain, across the valley floor, among the giant orange rocks. On the other side of the valley, we parked at a cultural centre. It's a beautiful building, designed to echo both the adobe of the region and the ancient sites like we saw at Chaco.

I think that from everything you read, all the rules and warnings, first-time visitors are a little tense and don't know what to expect. Everyone at the cultural centre is very warm, friendly and welcoming, perhaps extra so to defuse tensions. Maybe this is my imagination, but I doubt it.

There's a fee for entry, and a small fee to register your camera. After that, you can take still photography only. From there you board a bus that takes you up the mesa. The driver and the guide were both really friendly. Our guide did the "where is everyone from" thing - visitors in this group were from all over the US, California to New Jersey, and as far away as Germany. At the top of the mesa, our guide introduced himself, giving both his English name, Gary, and his given name in his own language. He went over the rules again, almost apologetically: "A long time ago someone messed up, and now you all have to pay for it."

The pueblo tour was fascinating. I took notes and although I don't usually blog what I learn on a tour, this time I will. If this is not your cup of tea, please skip to the second set of * * * *s.

* * * *

Gary told us he is from the Eagle clan, and he inherited his name from his mother, as the Acoma are a matrilineal people. He has a "big name" from his mother and a "small name" from his father's side. Property is inherited from mother to youngest daughter, the thought being the youngest will outlive the others. When a couple marries (after the union is approved by the tribe), the young man moves out of his parents' home, into his wife's home. He can live there until she decides otherwise. Divorce proceedings consist of her placing his possessions on the street outside the house.

Acoma is 637 feet off the ground, and the ground is 6500 feet above sea level. The tribe is comprised of about 3600 people, but the pueblo itself has only 20-25 full-time residents, about 10 families. Four or five families live in one house, and a house is typically one room. A stalk of corn grows outside each house, a tradition that harkens back to the days when a tribe member placed a few kernels of corn outside each house to announce the day to plant. One or two houses still have a window made of mica - a slab of the mineral two inches thick. You can't see through it at all, but it lets in light.

The oldest part of the pueblo dates back to 1150 AD. Houses were built three storeys high. In the winter the top floor was for food storage, because it was coldest, the bottom floor for cooking, to help heat the residence rooms in the middle. In the summer, the floors were reversed - top for cooking and bottom for storage.

Even though the society is matrilineal, the tribal leader who serves as the government is always a man. He is chosen by all the elders, and he cannot refuse to serve - it is his duty to serve for one year. There are three feast days - St. Stephen Day, Christmas (a multi-day celebration) and the day a new leader is chosen.

Although guidebooks say the remote mesa location was chosen for defensive purposes, the pueblo says that was only a minor consideration, saying, "This is the place that was prepared for us." The people called up to the top of a mesa, heard nothing in return, and moved on. Another mesa, another call, silence. Then they found a mesa, called up, heard an echo: "This place is prepared for you." That is roughly transliterated as "Ha-ak Ah Meh," called Acoma by the Spanish.

Gary also pointed out, in the distance, the mesa where the Acoma originally made their home. Long ago, there was some sort of catastrophe - I didn't catch what it was - and everyone had to be evacuated. A woman and her granddaughter got stranded on top. The road was impassable, either from flood or from snow, and they could not be rescued. Rather than slowly starve to death, they chose to jump off the mesa. From that point on, the mesa was no longer touched by humans. No one is allowed to go there - ever - to honour the memory of those two.

From the pueblo, you see breathtaking views of the valley floor. For hundreds of years, the only way up or down was a stone staircase. You can still descend this way, but Gary cautioned against it for people afraid of heights or confined spaces. I was too insecure about my ankle to chance it. (Allan is afraid of heights.) The pueblo guarded their staircase against the Spanish and would never have let them in. "We were like, no way this guy in a brown dress is coming up here!" As the story goes, people were leaning over to see the masses of Spanish soldiers and horses. One girl leaned too far, and fell over the edge, landing in the small pond and surviving. The Spanish priest pulled her out, and some observers labeled it his miracle. Thus the people allowed the priest up the ladder, into their lives. He stayed for 26 years, and it's hard to say that any good came of it.

The first road to the pueblo was built in 1928 for the filming of a movie, then improved several times, including once by US actor John Wayne. Two of the movies filmed there were supposed to take place in Africa!

Pueblo residents can build with any material and any style they want, although people hope that their neighbours will stick with adobe and adobe brick, and eschew concrete blocks and aluminum siding. The only thing residents can't do is sell their homes or their land. Any tribal member who wants to live in the pueblo can do so.

There's no running water, and no electricity hookup. There are two catch-basins for water, used for cooking and cleaning. Drinking water comes from a separate catch-basin on the valley floor, and is brought up the mountain, now by truck, in the past by hand. Gary said the water on the valley floor is rainwater (no springs), filtered by rock and very pure. Some residents have generators: watching NFL football seems to be deciding factor.

We saw a stone oven, one of the few things positives that were adopted from the Spanish. (Horses were another. The Spanish language was once mandatory, but Gary made it a point of saying that no Acoma speak or write Spanish there anymore.)The Spanish actually adopted the ovens from the Moors and the Basque people. And we saw these same type of ovens in Newfoundland, brought by the French people, taken from the Basque. Neat, eh?

Cedar wood is put into the oven, burned to charcoal, then the ashes are cleaned out with a special broom, then dough put in for bread, or corn for roasting. Cedar is used for cooking, cottonwood for heat, because of the difference in how they burn. A lone cottonwood tree beside a catch-basin is jokingly referred to as "Acoma National Forest".

The catch-basins in the pueblo are home to tadpoles and tiny horseshoe crabs. The people don't kill either animal, and instruct their playing children not to touch them. The tadpoles turn to frogs, and "frogs bring the rain," and the horseshoe crab is too tiny to eat. "It's just an animal that has chosen to live among us. We do not bother him."

At several points, Gary emphasized that "our children are just like any other children" or "we are just like everyone else". When he was growing up, no one had locks on their doors, now everyone needs them; there have been several break-ins with expensive pottery stolen. He attributed this to that "people have lost all respect for everything and everyone" - simple, but not untrue. He also addressed the ongoing struggle against addiction, and said he was proud to tell us he was nine years sober.

We saw the kiva, where only men go to meditate and pray - and where they used to pray in secret. A guard would be posted outside the holes in the wall, and give a signal when a Spanish priest was near, and the men would go quiet.

Although we only stopped by the kiva, we spent a long time inside the church and cemetery, where photography is strictly forbidden. If you're familiar with Willa Cather's short story, "Death Comes To The Archbishop," this is the cathedral the story is based on - and according to the Acoma, it's a true story.

In the cemetery, people are buried four layers deep. Faces carved into the wall look into the cemetery as witnesses. Women carried the dirt in bags from the valley floor while men built the stone wall. A hole in the wall allows the unknown souls who are buried beneath to continue their journey to the next life.

The church was built with forced labour, and the bodies of the people who died building it are buried in the walls and floors. For that reason, during a famous pueblo revolt, the altar was burned but the church itself was spared. Huge wooden beams hold the ceiling, all hand carried from a distant mesa, and never allowed to touch the ground. Horses were available, but the Spanish forbid the Acoma to use them. The church took 11 years to build; the walls are seven feet thick. Inside the church, native symbols like corn, rainbows and parrots mix with images of saints and the stations of the cross.

Gary recounted a brief outline of the Spanish attempted conversions of the Acoma. In 1699, he said, "the people accepted Christianity. They didn't embrace it, it didn't envelop them. But they accepted it." That made peace.

* * * *

We had read in the guidebook that the big festival day of Acoma Pueblo was September 2, The Feast of San Esteban (St. Stephen) - just one day before we arrived in Santa Fe. On those days, admission is free, there are dances in the plaza, and all the residents invite tourists into their home to eat and drink. Gary made a point of telling everyone in the group that he would be more than honoured, if we were ever there on September 2, if his family could feed us. He said the only requirement would be wearing "big appetite clothing," because of the abundance of the feast. He invited us several times, and apparently this is what happens in every pueblo on feast days. I thought that was really cool.

Throughout the tour, tables are set up outside people's homes. If the artist is not already there, he or she comes outside when the tour comes by. You can continue listening to the tour, or take a little break to look at the work and ask the artist questions. At certain times of day, a "craft guide" will take interested shoppers around to the various tables to focus on just that.

We lingered at many of the craft tables. I love pottery and much of this work had me drooling. Some of the work was inexpensive and fairly basic. Those pieces are still made by hand, but they're produced from commercial clay with commercial paint. The work may be interesting looking or pleasant, but it's broad and basic. Other work, however, is made completely by hand. The artist makes the clay out of soil, gathers plants and makes her or his own dye, uses a yucca frond for a paintbrush, and antelope antler for etching. The patterns are very intricate and fine, sometimes mind-bogglingly so. The pieces are shaped by hand, without a potter's wheel, but are so perfectly shaped and balanced, it's hard to believe they were not made on a wheel.

These are quite expensive, and really out of our range. They are positively a steal compared to buying this kind of pottery in Santa Fe, and I would always prefer to buy directly from an artist or craftsperson; who knows what the retail stores pay for their work? But even so, I can't afford $200 or $300 for a small piece of pottery. If the artists we liked had been able to accept Visa, I'm sure I would have caved, but it's cash only. (Many artists said they accept a personal cheque, which seems to put them out of touch with current practices.) A few take Visa for the most expensive items, but for what I would have wanted, it was cash only, so an easy decision.

We did buy something, though - a beautiful decorative piece in the shape of a white, howling dog, painted with Acoma symbols and symbols of the desert. We also bought an inexpensive gift for my mom and beaded earrings for me.

Because we lingered to shop, we took the bus back to the centre with our guide, but without the rest of the group. This gave me an opportunity to ask him what was on my mind. I was wondering how he felt about his people being Catholic, given the brutal methods by which that religion was introduced to them, and given that it's the religion of their former oppressors. (I didn't use that word, but I doubt he would have quibbled with it.)

He said he had been in the seminary and came close to becoming a priest. But when it came time for his vows, he would have had to give up his ancestry, his own spirituality, his family history. And he couldn't do it. Now he said he practices his own religion, the religion of his people. He said he'll go to church if someone really wants him to, but he'd rather not. This didn't really answer my question, but it was the answer I got.

Back at the centre, we had something to eat and drink in the parking lot, then wandered quickly through the pottery exhibit, and spent time in the gift shop. It was the classy variety of gift shop, with a big book section and good jewelry. We bought a book about the pueblo, and... another pair of earrings for me. These are beautiful, made of Southwestern stone, and supposedly, hopefully, made by a local craftsperson. At the very least, I figure the money goes to support the pueblo, and that's worth it.

On the way back, as we drove through across the valley, we had to stop for a herd of sheep that were spilled out over the road. It reminded me of Colca Canyon, in Peru, where we frequently had to stop for herds of alpaca. When we reached the scenic overlook, now we were authorized to take photos, because our camera was registered with the pueblo. I guess they don't want people coming to their land and using it for scenic photography without giving them something in return. I can understand that. I suppose the no video rule is to prevent people from selling videos of their tours and ceremonies, and to preserve it as an "in situ" experience.

Some of our photos from Acoma Pueblo are here.

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