Acoma Pueblo

Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Author Annie Lux


Categories Culture


Acoma Pueblo must be seen to be believed. And yes, it’s well worth believing. The ancient village is at least 800 years old and probably much older. And it’s not called Sky City for nothing: it’s built on top of a 350 foot rock!

A tour bus takes you from the Visitors Center to the top of the mesa. The steep, curved road was built by a Hollywood studio in the 1920s. Several movies, including a John Wayne western, were filmed here.

Yep, those are porta-potties you’re seeing as you approach the village. Acoma has no electricity or plumbing. Each family seems to have its own porta-potty. They dot the side of the mesa and cluster outside the church complex, an anachronism as strange a contrast to the tiny old stone houses and dirt roads as the late-model automobiles parked here and there.

Once on top, you can take the tour—which is very informative—or wander around on your own (which you can also do when the tour is over). You’ll find jewelry, pottery and other wares for sale in front of some homes, and others with signs offering food for sale. Other than these, do not approach any private homes on the pueblo, though you may walk along the pueblo’s narrow streets. Be mindful of signs warning visitors away. Some mark areas that are sacred to the Acoma people or otherwise off-limits. Others are for safety: this is one place where you really can drop off the face of the earth!

Near the center of the village you’ll see a small pond. This is actually a cistern which collects water for the village. A lone tree next to the pond—the only one on the mesa—is jokingly referred to as the “Acoma National Forest.”

On the southern edge of the mesa stands Acoma’s fortress of a church, San Esteban del Rey (St. Stephen the King). Built in 1629 by the Acoma people under the direction of Franciscan missionaries, it is one of the largest and oldest of the Mission churches of that era. Be mindful not to walk through the cemetery, but do go over to the cliffside edge of the churchyard. It’s a great place to get a sense of the height of Acoma’s mesa and its place in the surrounding landscape. And to get a feel for its history: for hundreds of years, Acoma warriors stood watch on this very spot.

Take a close look at the little earthen knobs that line the top of the wall around the churchyard. They are heads: benevolent spirits that watch over the church, cemetery and the pueblo itself, although some say they represent the warriors killed in the 1599 Battle of Acoma.

Now take a look at San Esteban del Rey itself. It may not be the prettiest church in New Mexico but it’s among the most impressive. The 21,000 square-foot church has walls that are nine feet thick! And remember: Acoma is built on a rock. All the materials for the church—tons of dirt and water to make the adobe bricks—had to be carried up to the mesa at a time when the only access to the village was a steep stair-path from the valley below. The vigas (the timber beams in the church’s ceiling) were brought by Acoma men from forests on Mt. Taylor, 40 miles away. It is said that the men never allowed the timbers to touch the ground, and that one beam, which fell to the church’s floor during construction, was not allowed to support the church’s ceiling but was used elsewhere in the church.

Getting There

I-25 South to Exit [226B]—I-40 West. Take Exit [108] or [102] to Sky City.

Located just south of I-40, about 50 miles west of Albuquerque, Acoma Pueblo is abut a two-hour drive from Santa Fe. And worth every minute. Take I-25 south from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, head west on I-40. Pull over at the Scenic View sign near Exit [114]. That little village up on the right is Laguna Pueblo. Built on a small mesa (much smaller than Acoma’s!), their lovely old church, San José Mission, is clearly visible from the highway.

Because Sky City Casino is located at Exit [102], the signs for Acoma at Exit [108]—much closer to the Visitors’ Center from this direction—are not so obvious. Make a left off the exit, go past the Dancing Eagle Casino (which belongs to Laguna Pueblo), and drive south for about eleven miles past some seriously weird and wonderful rock formations till you come to the Visitors Center.

If you’re not in a hurry, you may want to take the extra time to drive to Exit [102]. You’ll go past the tribal offices then make a (well-marked) left toward the village. The reason for the detour will soon be right in front of you: before the road makes a sharp turn downhill, there will be a large pull-off area. Definitely stop. You’ll be standing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the valley below. That breathtaking view includes both Enchanted Mesa and the mesa-top village of Acoma. You can just make out the bell towers of San Esteban del Rey church. (If you came in on the shortcut, be sure to take this road on your way out. The view is well worth it!)

History and Legends of Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo claims to be the oldest continually inhabited village in the United States, a claim that may well be true. The Acoma people say that their ancestors originally lived on nearby Enchanted Mesa, until a terrible storm wiped away the pathway to the mesatop. The villagers, who were down in the valley working their farms, had no way to climb back to their homes. Worse, three women who had remained behind were stranded. The legend says that they jumped to their deaths rather than die alone on the top of the mesa.

Some of Coronado’s men first saw Acoma during their 1540 exploration and were greatly impressed with the fortress-like village. One soldier wrote, “The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top,” and noted that they would not have been able to enter the village without permission.

Alas, the fortress wasn’t strong enough to keep out the conquistadors who came later with Don Juan Oñate in 1598. Some say, though, that the Acoma Indians invited Spanish invaders into their village, promising food and shelter, and then ambushed them. Among those killed was Governor Oñate’s nephew, Juan de Zaldivar. Oñate immediately sent a retaliation party. The three-day battle that ensued, known as the Battle of Acoma, left hundreds of Acoma warriors dead. But Oñate was still not satisfied. He cut off the left feet of all the adult men of Acoma and sentenced the entire pueblo to slavery.

This horrible incident destroyed any good will between the Spanish and the natives of New Mexico. For this and other crimes, Oñate stood trial in Mexico City and was removed as governor of the territory. (In 1998, someone cut the left foot off the statue of Oñate in front of the Oñate Cultural Center on Highway 68 in Alcalde.)

By the 1620s, the Spanish missionary efforts in New Mexico were in full swing. Most Franciscans, though, were afraid to go to Acoma. With good reason: when one intrepid friar, Fray Juan Ramirez, took on the assignment, he was pelted with rocks by the villagers above when he attempted to climb the mesa. Legend has it that one woman, leaning too far over the mesa’s edge, dropped her baby, and that Fray Ramirez caught the child. The grateful people then welcomed the Franciscan, who lived and ministered at Acoma for many years and oversaw the building of San Esteban del Rey. This massive edifice is the only mission church that was not destroyed or badly damaged during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

Today, most Acomans live in nearby towns, staying at their ancient village only during summer months and on holidays.