At Acoma Pueblo, the famed ‘Sky City’ tells stories new and old

Unlike Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde — foundational places in the pueblo lineage that are currently owned by the National Park Service — Acoma Pueblo is still in the hands of the tribe. The stories told there don’t really fit neatly on a postcard, but come from a profound sense of home.

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"Looking northward from Aacqu and the tall rock monolith on which the mother pueblo sits, there is an opening, like a gateway, between two mesas. Looking northward, too, from Aacqu, one can see Kaweshtima — Snow Peaked — a dark blue misted mother mountain. Those Aacqumeh names do not appear anywhere except in the people’s hearts and souls and history and oral tradition, and in their love. But you will find the easy labels: Mt. Taylor, Elevation 11,950 ft., and Acoma: The Sky City.”

Simon Ortiz, a poet from Acoma Pueblo and a major figure in the 20th-century Native American Renaissance, wove together those words about his home together in 1980 in the piece “Fight Back.”

Acoma is a solid drive of 3 1/2 hours from Taos and sits just 66 miles to the west of Albuquerque on the old Route 66. Even though the heart of Acoma Pueblo — Old Acoma, the “Sky City” — is just a short way off the freeway, understanding the mythic and monumental stories of that community is not as easy as just taking an exit.

As one of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, the people of Acoma draw lines directly from their community today to the Chaco civilization. The “mother pueblo,” as Ortiz calls it, is an architectural masterpiece that sits atop a singular sandstone bluff, from where it seems the whole world is visible.

Fewer than 15 families live at the top of Old Acoma full time. Most other folks live in one of the surrounding communities, including Acomita and McCartys, the latter named for an Irishman who operated a water pump at the railroad station. Major industry isn’t foreign in and around Acoma. The railroad, which gave McCartys its census-ready name, is also the industry that took people from Acoma and spread them out across the Southwest, from Gallup to Flagstaff to Los Angeles. When Ortiz wrote “Fight Back,” uranium mining, too, had already seen its boom and was on its way toward busting.

Ascension

Unlike Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde — both foundational places in the pueblo lineage that are currently owned and operated by the National Park Service — Acoma Pueblo is still in the hands of the tribe. The stories told at the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum don’t really fit neatly on a postcard, but come from a profound sense of home.

“Aacqumeh hanoi came to their valley from a direction spoken of as the northwest. The place they came to had been prepared for them, and the name Aacqu, therefore means: that which is prepared. When they arrived in the flat valley sheltered by red and orange cliffs, they knew they found what had been prepared by their leaders and instructions from earlier generations of the people,” wrote Ortiz.

Old Acoma has to be experienced firsthand for the scale of the place to come into focus. Like Taos Pueblo, the tribe opens Old Acoma for tours. And also like Taos Pueblo, rules of respect absolutely apply.

From the museum, a bus takes you up a short, steep road to the top of the mesa. It’s not the only vehicle up there. Several big trucks loaded with two-by-fours and smaller cars belonging to some the artists are spread out on top of that maze of adobe buildings — some centuries old, others wrapped in chicken wire and waiting for plaster.

In warm afternoon light, the pueblo glistens with mica.

Way back when the Spanish first came to Acoma, they saw the mica-laced adobe punctuated with what seemed to be plates of gold: windows, solid slabs of mica cured in the sun for seven years. They thought the city atop the bluff was the famed city of gold. Thus began the story of the Spanish crown in that community.

Nowhere is the legacy of the Spanish more imposing at Old Acoma than in the San Estevan del Rey Mission Church, a behemoth of an adobe building that now sits empty but for two days a year. The church was the product of Catholic missionaries’ grand visions and what amounted to the slave labor of hundreds of men, women and children who were put to work to build it over the course of more than a decade in the 17th century.

Perhaps the most tragic symbol in the church are the four spear-like pillars, painted in white and bloody red, at the altar. The Spanish insisted the poles of ponderosa pine come from the highest reaches of Mount Taylor — closest to God — and never touch the ground. If the logs did touch the earth, they were abandoned and new ones chopped down. As they say on the tour, an untold number of men died carrying the logs the 40 miles from the mountain to the mesa.

If the church is a symbol to the religion and culture imposed on Acoma, then the square kivas are the vessels for the Native practices that many young people are fiercely reclaiming today. Native religion was outlawed by the Spanish. To disguise their kivas, Acoma people made them square and tucked them among the rest of the houses. Only a small window was open to the outside so that someone could keep guard and alert those inside if an official approached. Today, the kivas are marked by hulking ladders painted white and bound together by a boards that evoke thunderclouds.

Fighting back

The history of colonization at Acoma and the surrounding areas does not stop at the Spanish crown.

“The railroads were the first large industrial user of the water belonging to the land and the people. They found it easy enough to get, they simply took it,” wrote Ortiz. “There was no need for conspiracy to steal and degrade; rather there was a national goal to fulfill and godly purpose to be done. Laws, in fact, could be made and changed and new ones made which would legally serve economic and social interests with more proficiency.”

For a more recent iteration of these forces, one need only look at uranium mining. “It was the U.S. government and economic and military interests which would make enormous profits and hold the world at frightened bay which made that discovery in colonized territory,” Ortiz wrote.

Uranium mining took off in the 1940s, fueled by World War II. It lasted, by and large, until the late 1980s, when the price of the radioactive rock busted. Global economics made the idea of again mining uranium more attractive in the early 2000s, and new and renewed permits have occasionally popped up since.

The legacy is obvious on the landscape.

The Ambrosia Lake Mining District, an hour’s drive from Acoma proper, was once the most productive uranium mine in the world. Ortiz worked in the district for a while before a workers strike helped him cut ties with the industry and head off to school. After extensive remediation, Ambrosia Lake now stands on top of the landscape as an oddly geometric, black plateau.

Mount Taylor, too, became the focal point of the larger story of uranium and its connection to sacred sites. The mountain factors heavily in the religion not only of Acoma, but also of Laguna Pueblo and other tribes in the area. Spiritual leaders who live atop Old Acoma still visit the mountain in pilgrimages.

Acoma Pueblo joined together with several other tribes in 2008 to protect Mount Taylor from further unfettered development. Only after a protracted legal battle did the tribes secure the “traditional cultural property” designation for the area.

But like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota (where the company behind the pipeline has, at times, continued work – even against federal announcements that construction would be halted) has proven, many victories are temporary. Vigilance is also the modus operandi around uranium. In 2015, a company applied to make the Mount Taylor mine active. Local organizers have argued that the former uranium mine, like other exhausted mining sites, is an ongoing threat to water while remediation efforts — in addition to being ecologically necessary — would provide much-needed jobs.

Descent

After a tour of Sky City, it’s time for visitors to get down off the mesa.

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For that, there are two options: either the van that brought you up or the footpath. Historically, eight footpaths led up and down the mesa. As with most excursions, the more solitary route offers you the chance to get back into proper relationship to the scale of that landscape.

The trail is undeniably steep at a couple of turns, so go slowly. Handholds — holes in the rock perfectly carved for and worn down by humans’ grips — make an easier time of the descent.

Driving back toward the freeway past Enchanted Mesa — itself the setting of important stories at Acoma — the final words of Ortiz’s essay seemed to sound over the truck’s engine.

“The struggle goes on and it will continue. It is in the stories of the oral tradition and the advice and counsel that it will go on …" he wrote. “Only when we are not afraid to fight against the destroyers, thieves, liars, exploiters who profit handsomely off the land and people will we know what love and compassion are. Only when the people of this nation, not just Indian people, fight for what is just and good for all life, will we know life and its continuance. And when we fight, and fight back those who are bent on destruction of land and people, we will win. We will win.”

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