We met our friends at the Acoma Visitor’s Center, where Tibetan monks made a “peace mandala” last month. One of the native men who works at the Visitor Center offered to unlock the room it was in so that we could see and photograph the mandala.
We followed our friends up the absurdly steep road up the mesa to the Acoma pueblo (sometimes referred to as “Sky City”). We’ve taken countless shuttles up this road; we even walked it last September on their feast day… but driving it was an experience! Even driving in (on?) the pueblo was weird since we were essentially driving a Toyota Prius V on the surface of solid rock!
Acoma is a matriarchal society. The women own the property and make most of the important decisions. Our friend Becky’s sister Pearl owns the house we visited on top of the mesa. There are three towns surrounding the mesa where most of the Acoma Indians live. Pearl and her family live in Acomita, the largest of these towns. They only occupy the house in the old pueblo on the mesa during holidays and religious events.
There is no electricity or running water on the mesa. When you’re in someone’s home and need to use the bathroom, you must leave the house and walk to the nearest public facility which has waterless urinals and composting toilets. Surprisingly, these bathrooms are quite clean and odor-free, nothing like ‘port-a-johns’. I joked that this was the result of being a matriarchal society. Let’s be honest… patriarchal societies are fine with gas station bathrooms. 😉
A few of the houses have gas-powered generators supplying electricity but these are not allowed to run during religious holidays or events. We saw plenty of decorated Christmas trees throughout the pueblo but never with lights on them.
Settled in 1140 A.D.*, Acoma is the longest continuously inhabited community in the U.S. (* Acoma Indians believe that they settled on the mesa 2000 years ago, but, as they have no written language, this can’t be verified.) There are only around 30 full time, year round residents. The rest of the nearly 5000 pueblo residents live in one of the three villages surrounding the mesa and use the mesa for religious events and holidays. Christmas Eve marks the beginning of Acoma’s four-day celebration of Christmas.
I got permission to photograph this home in front of the only tree on the mesaI got permission to photograph this home in front of the only tree on the mesa
Our visit to Pearl’s home was much like our Thanksgiving in Cochiti: Non-stop stories and laughter. The most memorable of which was the story of the mean-spirited ram Pearl’s family owned. When Pearl’s late husband learned the ram had cornered one of his children, he ran to the area and distracted the ram so that the child could get away. The ram rushed the husband and knocked him to the ground. In the process, one of the ram’s horns got caught on the husband’s belt. Trying to free himself, the ram pulled the man’s pants off!
As he lay there hurt and pant-less, the husband got so angry he grabbed the ram’s horns and told one of his older children to bring him his knife. He got behind the ram and castrated him on the spot! Then he began smacking the ram with the testicles!
For those who associate American Indians with dream catchers and sweat lodges and smudging… Here is the American Indian we have come to know: Open hearts, storytelling, and laughter. Most (and the best) of our visit involved story after story.
The meal was incredible. Acoma Indians make the best tamales… lots of meat and chile with a very thin corn outer wrap. Pearl’s tamales were spicy and the best I’ve tasted. There were also short ribs, posole stew, artichoke dip, fry bread, banana bread, apple pie and more.
After dinner, we returned to the living room for more storytelling. After an hour or so we put on our coats and walked to Becky and Pearl’s mom’s house to visit. There we met more family members, including a few we knew already. Becky and Pearl’s brother Joe, a former Lieutenant Governor of Acoma explained to me how, over the next 4 days, members of the antelope clan would choose next year’s tribal officials. At midnight, the church bells rung, signaling the church event that was about to start.
San Estevan del Rey Mission ChurchSan Estevan del Rey Mission Church
The San Estevan del Rey Mission Church was ordered built by the Spanish conquerors after they had enslaved the Acoma Indians. Acoma men were forced to carry the 3 or 4 dozen huge 40-foot vegas that support the roof from a 30+ mile distance from the San Mateo mountains to the top of the Acoma mesa hundreds of years before there was a road to the top. During the 12 years, it took to build the church, Acoma men who died from overwork were ordered buried inside the walls of the church.
Before setting foot on church grounds, corn meal is taken with the right hand and blown on with one’s breath then sprinkled on the ground. This is respectfully asking permission to enter the grounds. Inside the church, people are grouped by family. We were part of Becky and Pearl’s family entourage. Our group waited (a very long time) to make our way to the front of the church. In the meantime, people in traditional outfits drummed, sang and danced in the church. There was a Buffalo Dance and a rare Deer Dance, among others. When we reached the front of the church, we took a handful of corn meal, said a prayer, made a wish for the coming year, and sprinkled the corn meal at the statue of the Christ child in the manger.
I once asked a college senior from the Santa Clara pueblo why the pueblo Indians didn’t toss out Christianity when they were finally rid of the Spanish invaders who forced it upon them with murder and torture. She replied that, by the time the Spanish left New Mexico, pueblo Indians had integrated Christianity into their lives for 150 years. They had embraced Christianity while continuing to practice their native faith in secret.
This remains to this day. Though we learn in school that the pilgrims came to the New World in search of religious freedom, we have persecuted the Indians countless times through the centuries for what we have labeled heathen religious practices. To this day, pueblo Indians keep their traditional beliefs and practices to themselves, unless they get to know and trust you.
By the time we left the church and the pueblo, after many hugs and kisses, we left Acoma with our gift of Acoma pottery filled with treats at 2:15AM and arrived home at 4:15AM. Mike and I slept until about 10AM. Judy slept until around noon. We exchanged gifts and agreed that this year, Christmas dinner would be Christmas supper!
I share this experience for my friends who might be interested and wish everyone a very merry and memorable Christmas.
One Thing I almost forgot:
Acoma Indians place luminarias along the road to Acoma for MILES! Traditionally, cars driving along the road extinguish their headlights and drive by the light of the luminarias. Initially unsettling, this becomes a haunting and memorable experience.