January 2013, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
All images and text (c) Bettina M. Gordon
There are high-tops and sky-scrapers and then there is Sky City: almost 700 feet above ground, on a large sandstone bluff, sits the village of Acoma, the oldest continuously inhabited American Indian pueblo in the United States (a title also claimed by the Taos Pueblo a couple of hours further north). This is quite the feat: more than nine hundred years of not relenting to invaders trying to force the Natives from their homes and their land speaks of the defiance and deep cultural roots of the pueblo’s inhabitants.
Originally I had come to New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment”, to speak about travel writing at the International Tour Management Institute’s (ITMI) yearly symposium. When I heard that we could visit Acoma Pueblo – located only about one hour west of Albuquerque – as part of the program I jumped on the opportunity since I am very interested in the culture of America’s first nation. I am glad I came to Acoma as it is a lived-in village as much as an historic site.
Visiting Acoma was surely a trip back in time. A long trip back. A federally recognized Indian Tribe, Acoma Pueblo has a land base covering 432,000 acres and is home to 4,800 tribal members with more than 250 dwellings, none of which have electricity, sewer, or water.
In 1629, construction began on the massive San Esteban del Rey Mission, a Catholic mission. Both the Mission and the Pueblo are Registered National Historical Landmarks. When we toured Acoma with our professional guide we were not allowed to take photos inside the mission, but this Wikipedia paragraph puts the immense undertaking of building the mission into context:
Between 1629 and 1641 Father Juan Ramirez oversaw construction of the San Esteban del Rey Mission. The Acoma were ordered to build the church, moving 20,000 tons of adobe, straw, sandstone, and mud to the mesa for the church walls. Ponderosa pine was brought in by community members from Mount Taylor, over 40 miles away. At 6,000-square-feet, with an altar flanked by 60-foot-high wood pillars hand carved in red and white designs representing Christian and Indigenous beliefs, the structure is considered a cultural treasure by the Acoma, despite the slave labor used to build it.
What struck me was that our guide spoke passionately about how his people’s religion was suppressed and oppressed (people were not allowed to practice their religion and forced to convert to catholicism). He made it very clear that his people suffered greatly under the Spanish in the late 16th century but yet, hundreds of years later, this church is still the center of worship in the pueblo.
And while there are many symbols and paintings in the church representing indigenous beliefs, surprisingly many of the devotional objects were clearly Christian. The mission lacks the pews and usual pomp of catholic churches and we walked on dirt instead of stone floor, but there were paintings of Mary and Jesus, Francis of Assisi and other saints and it was clear, that many Acoma are still Catholic.
It surprised me to hear that the birth of Jesus is celebrated every year with a multi day event. And I am wondering why there is not a heavier focus on Native American religion again by now. Or why, if their Native religion is practiced more in secret and out of sight from us tourists (which I understand), so many Acoma people still choose to celebrate the Catholic faith – given their history. Next time I visit I will certainly investigate this conundrum further.
To visit Acoma Pueblo please check out The Sky City Cultural Center for details: http://sccc.acomaskycity.org/
Acoma Pueblo is open to the public by guided tour the majority of the year. Photography of the Pueblo and surrounding land is restricted. Tours and camera permits are purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center. While photography may be produced with permit, video recordings, drawings, and sketching are prohibited.
Category: Explore the World With Me