My friends and I began our visit in the beautiful cultural center at the base of Acoma, about an hour’s drive west of Albuquerque. The ancient settlement itself is located on a mesa 365 feet above the desert floor, a broken land dotted with other rock formations. Settled around the year 1000 AD, it is one of the oldest continually-occupied areas in the country.
Where formerly there were only ladders and steps carved into the rock, a winding road now leads up the steep hill to the cluster of adobe buildings occupied by only 30 people due to the lack of water, sewerage, and electricity. The remainder of the pueblo’s citizens have opted for modernity and live nearby where there are schools, shops, and the inevitable casino.
Like most of the Southwest, the Spanish arrived with their horses, guns and religion to irrevocably change the earlier culture. The mission church of San Esteban Rey, dominating the town, was founded in 1629.
The silent church has only a couple of rows of pews and is mostly used for weddings and funerals. I visualized it in the past with the priest chanting and incense wafting up to the high beams, each made from a single pine tree the Native Americans were forced to carry from the the hills thirty miles away. During their long trek they were not allowed to let the logs touch the ground even at night.
No photos are allowed, but the interior is a mix of Spanish and native décor with outlines of animals, including a bull and horse, above the side doors, and the altar brightly decorated with red and green pillars, carvings and paintings. One wall is decorated by an enormous painting donated by the King of Spain after the founding of the church. In front of the church is a walled cemetery, layered over time as a valley was filled to accommodate the dead. We looked at layer four, now reserved for dignitaries and war veterans.
The town is almost without vegetation, a lone tree beside a depression in the rock where rainwater collects stands as a sentinel.
Potters displayed their work nearby. Shops in Santa Fe, with their stratospheric prices, feature the works of the most famous potters, Most are women, although I talked to one on our tour who said she was teaching her two sons. The most valuable pots are those which are totally handmade with clay that includes ground up shards – broken pieces of old pottery. Whether commercially shaped or totally by hand, all feature intricate designs in orange and black.
As we strolled, we passed two and three-story homes, some with ladders that lead to kivas, rooms traditionally used for men’s religious ceremonies. One ladder had a crosspiece at the top in a cloud shape to encourage rain. Kivas are traditionally built underground, but because the ground is too hard to excavate, Acoma kivas are built on the second story of houses. Our guide, Maria, joked that they were early man caves, which made me wonder if they are actually used any more.
A few doors were painted to brighten the scene but the ground and the adobe buildings are all the same color, a warm tan color, making the pueblo appear as though it sprung from the earth centuries ago. A few of the homes still had the old-fashioned windows made of mica which the Spanish may have mistaken for gold when they sparkled in the sunlight.
We paused for lunch at the visitors’ center and the chef joined us to accept compliments on his latest creation: an acorn squash filled with wild rice and pine nuts, topped with grated cheese. Delicious and a recipe I’ll try at home.
On the way back to Albuquerque, we passed a small cemetery – so sad and lonely.
On the return trip back to Albuquerque, we took a detour to check out a white church on top of a hill at the Laguna Pueblo. The church, Mission San Jose de la Laguna, was built in 1699. As we were standing by the open front door I saw a man running toward us. Unsure if we might be trespassing, we stopped to wait. Out of breath and dripping with sweat, the man introduced himself as Arnold. He lived nearby and was a caretaker. He told us the story of the church, including some of the miracles that had happened there while empathizing that none happened at Acoma. To illustrate the continued blessing of happy events, he said his mother had recently been granted a house nearby on the reservation after many years of waiting.
As we began to move toward the exit, he brought out a wooden flute and serenaded us with a plaintive melody. Perhaps it was the same as that played in the centuries before the Spanish arrived.