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Feb 21st
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Home History of the West Native Americans For Visitors, New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo Is ‘Haak’u’ – A Place Prepared

For Visitors, New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo Is ‘Haak’u’ – A Place Prepared

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Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is a progressive model of the old customs of a proud culture moving seamlessly into the 21st century.

With the unexplained collapse of the great commercial and spiritual center of Chaco Canyon, legend has it that the Acoma tribe, searching for a home, wandered in the southwest calling out "Haak'u" - which in their native Keresan means "a place prepared." Upon entering this other-worldly valley their words echoed back from the surrounding mesas; they had the sign - they were home.

missionsanesteban_delrey A small weathered sign, almost buried in the brush on the side of Interstate 40, leads us to Acoma Route 38 past the Santa Maria Mission. One could be forgiven for mistaking this enigmatic vision of stone and mortar as a 17th Century Spanish mission. It is, in fact, a masterful example of the Pueblo Revival style - built in the 1930s - by John Gaw Meem.

This imposing basilica seems a touch overbuilt to be the parish church of the tiny settlement of McCartys in Acoma Pueblo (also called Sky City) but, that's how it is in New Mexico.

We pass scattered adobe homes, their adjoining kitchen gardens brimming with squash and corn, carefully watching for stray dogs basking in the dirt by the side of the road. Low lying mesas gradually grow taller and more monolithic amid wide prairies; great pink and ocher swathes are dotted with squat pinons and junipers. We are on the tail end of the summer monsoons and it has started to rain.

acoma_cultural_center Snaking to the top of our last mesa, a lava-flow of mud oozing down the steep cliffs has stopped us dead. Ahead, behind a yellow barricade, men in hard hats work frantically to shore up the swiftly spreading sludge that threatens to block the road. Storms like this are as common as pinon nuts in New Mexico in late summer; the clouds gather to a spectacular crescendo of organic energy, a deluge peaks and then wanes, the sun once again warming the amber shadows of the surrounding landscape.

This turns out to be the perfect vantage point across the valley to two lonely mesas - solid walls of rock, separate and stoic, like silent sentinels. The closest one is Enchanted Mesa, the first home of the Acoma until (as legend goes), a severe storm destroyed the only access; the far one, looking like the crenellated fortress of a medieval castle, is Acoma Pueblo.

"This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness;" is how Willa Cather described this very spot in ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop', "as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted..."

The sight is overwhelming - I feel transported gazing on such hallowed ground.

Acoma's Violent History

Information on the history of the Acoma is sketchy. Said to be the oldest continually inhabited community in the country, Acoma dates from around 1150AD. The people are reluctant to reveal their secrets and rituals, which is understandable considering the abuse they suffered at the hands of the early Spanish, namely Don Juan de Onate.

Known as "the Last Conquistador," this newly appointed governor of the colony of New Mexico arrived at Acoma in 1598. A dispute over what the Indians felt were excessive demands for supplies turned into a massacre; several hundred villagers were tortured and killed and many hundreds more were enslaved. Tried in 1614 for his brutal treatment of natives and colonists, he was banished from New Mexico, to die in Spain in 1626.

In 1629, under the direction of the Franciscan Friar Juan Ramirez, the foundation stones of Mission San Esteban del Rey were laid at the top of the mesa. It took 14 years to complete and today its rustic and imposing silhouette dominates the skyline.

All building materials - rock, wood, water and soil - were laboriously carried up over a perilously steep pathway and the massive pine vigas for the adobe roofwere hauled from the San Mateo Mountains 30 miles away. Adobe walls vary from 5 feet to 7 feet thick at the base and taper upwards 35 feet, diminishing to as little as 30 inches thick at the top.

The church, 150 fee long and 40 feet at its widest, is shaped like a coffin, the front flanked boldly by two massive belfry towers. Light streams in through windows high on the south wall and the interior is so immense that the centuries-old ancestral art and icons almost disappear into the white-washed walls.

Because it was built on sacred ground, the mission fared well during the legendary Pueblo Revolt of 1680, losing only its doors and roof. The friars did not. They were unceremoniously tossed from the mesa to the valley floor 350 feet below.

Restoration and preservation (at times misguided) has been attempted over the centuries; a garish layer of white plaster was once slapped on the east façade during the late 19th Century. Learning from previous mistakes, the Acoma are careful to use original building techniques in their maintenance and restoration. Today, straw fragments can be clearly seen in the fresh layers of adobe mud that coat the church.

John Wayne's Road

Tour groups are shuttled to the top of the mesa over a road that was built in the late '50s - a slick barter for the right to film a John Wayne movie. Our guide is a young Acoma woman in her early 20s, lustrous black hair cascading around her brown face and framing a beaming white smile. Giving us just enough history and myth to titillate and inform without disclosing tribal secrets we follow along, huddled under umbrellas against the steadily building downpour.

We slosh down sodden sandstone streets, past an ancient cistern now filling with muddy water, to the plaza and the lone cottonwood tree. Some homes are plastered with adobe mud, others expose their rock core. Still others have new additions which, some say, runs the risk of compromising the integrity of the village. Wooden ladders lean against buildings - reminders of a time when access was through a small hole in the roof - and the traditional ceramic chimneys and canales have been replaced with sheet metal vents and pipes.

Of the 4,000 tribal members, most still live in the villages of McCartys and Acomita - only a hardy handful occupy the mesa (probably to maintain their oldest continually inhabited status). With no running water or electricity, the nod to 20th Century hygiene is a collection of out-houses clustered at the mesa rim. Still, most families maintain homes in "old Acoma" which they use on feast days and as summer getaways.

New Cultural Center

The new Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum is a masterful collaboration of the new and the old. The exterior resembles a cluster of adobe homes painted to blend with the earthy colors of the surrounding mesas. Traditional building materials were used in the construction; massive pine logs form the vigas for the roof; wood lintels are etched with decorative patterns; interior walls include mica and rock; the floors are painted to resemble the sand floors in traditional homes.

A heavy wooden entry door pivots on a fulcrum which replicates the doors of the mission and some of the old homes on the mesa. Outside in the courtyard a covered market place provides space for local artists to show their handicrafts. The Yaak'a Café serves traditional Acoma food along with standard American fare. An Acoma staple, a mildly spicy lamb stew with fry bread, is pure simple goodness.

Tribal members recognized their reliance on the casino economy and tourism, as well as their need to preserve their unique history and to educate their youngsters in the Acoma traditions and religion. So, teaming with the Santa Fe firm of Barbara Felix Architecture and Design, they created a gathering place, a venue for tourists and tribal members alike.

Here, tourists can learn about the rich history and traditions of the Acoma. Displays of their beautiful pottery, famous for its thin walls, fluted rims and finely painted geometric and animal designs, is on view at the Haak'u Museum. The center is closed to the public on certain feast days, thus preserving the privacy of religious rituals in this communal gathering place.

The Acoma Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum is a place prepared for the 21st Century. It's a model for others in the southwest; as a way to share their culture and proud heritage. The challenge is to use their distinctive culture to economic advantage; to finally take charge of their own destiny while fulfilling the spiritual and communal needs of their people. Having survived in this formidable land for over 800 years, the Acoma plan to remain for many more to come.

For more information visit the Web site at
http://sccc.acomaskycity.org/ .

Editor's Note: Maggie Kielpinski is a freelance travel writer based in Big Bear, California, and a regular contributor to OldWestNewWest.com

History of the West