Acoma from the south (The North American Indian; v.16). Photo taken by Edward S. Curtis in 1926.
Description by Edward S. Curtis: The large building in the centre is the church, and the walls of the cemetery are visible at its right. In the distance is the vague outline of Mount Taylor.
Courtesy of the Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's 'The North American Indian': the Photographic Images, 2001. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/curthome.html.
Denise Holladay Damico
Acoma Pueblo is perhaps best known for the old village's dramatic location atop a high mesa, situated approximately 50 miles west of Albuquerque and twelve miles south of Interstate 40. Tribal lands currently encompass over 245,000 acres. Today, more tribal members live in the nearby villages of McCartys and Acomita than in the old village, though almost every family maintains a home on the mesa.
According to one version of Acoma's origin story, as retold by historian Ward Alan Minge, the first two human beings were sisters, Nautsiti and Iatiku, who came from Shipapu, underground. When the girls came into the world, all other living things came to life. Iatiku founded the clans of Acoma Pueblo. Nautsiti disappeared into the east and her descendants were not seen again at Acoma until the first Spanish contacts with that Pueblo in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Acoma is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. The name “Acoma,” also rendered as Akome, Acu, Acuo, Acuco, and Ako, means a “place that always was” in the local dialect of Keres, one of the Pueblo languages. Acoma elders affirmed to Ward Alan Minge that, the Pueblo's name implied that their people had always lived on the mesa.
Archaeologists have a somewhat different understanding of the Pueblo's origins. One expert witness testified before the Indian Claims Commission in the 1950s that Old Acoma's origins might date back to before the time of Christ; other archaeologists suggest a date of some time in the 13th century, a period which saw large-scale migrations south and east by Ancestral Puebloans. More recently, one historian suggests that Acoma peoples' tales of the “Old People” who wandered from site to site in search of water corroborates archaeological evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan’s migration south and east from the Four Corners area to the areas now occupied by the Pueblos.
The unmistakable location of the old village allows for the accurate identification of Acoma Pueblo in sixteenth-century Spanish accounts of explorations in the region. Various factors may serve to obscure the truth behind these accounts. These include: a lack of understanding of native culture and language by the Spanish; the viewpoint and/or charge of the chronicler; and the problems inherent in accurately translating centuries-old Spanish to English. However, these accounts still provide tantalizing clues about sixteenth-century Native Americans, like the Acoma, and the experience of first contact between them and the Spanish. The earliest Spanish eyewitness account of Acoma came in 1540. That year, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, sent Hernando de Alvarado to explore the region surrounding Acoma. Alvarado wrote of “a very strange place built upon a rock.” According to his account, Acoma's location “up on a rock out of reach, having steep sides in every direction” made the Pueblo nearly impenetrable.
Other early Spanish accounts of the Pueblo, from the 1580s, describe relatively friendly interactions. In one of these accounts, Fray Agustín Rodriguez wrote of being invited atop the mesa and sharing in the residents' food. In another, Antonio de Espejo wrote of spending three days at Acoma. Diego Pérez de Luxán, who accompanied Espejo, recorded that the Acoma people greeted the Spanish explorers graciously. He wrote: “The natives came out to meet us and in order to honor us they performed a very impressive dance after the Mexican fashion, in which women took part, wearing Mexican blankets, very elegant with paintings, feathers, and other trappings.” Luxán also documented Acoma's farming methods, including the Pueblo's use of irrigation ditches which were very similar to those used in Spain.
The Spanish intent of extending their conquest and colonization of the New World north into New Mexico, changed the dynamic between first visits by Spanish conquistadores and the Acoma people and latter encounters. The cordiality with which Acoma's residents first greeted Espejo and Luxán was short lived. Indeed, Espejo's second encounter with the Acoma was marred by Spanish accusations of Acoma interference with a runaway Indian servant of Luxán's. Juan de Oñate entered New Mexico in February of 1598 to colonize the area by whatever means necessary including “the reduction and pacification of the natives.” Colonial Spanish policy was thus two-fold: Settlement of colonial territories and the conversion of the natives of those territories to Catholicism and Spanish ways of life.
Less than a year after Oñate entered New Mexico, his men, acting upon his orders, fought a bloody battle with Acoma Pueblo. After the Pueblo had surrendered, Oñate “razed and burned” the Pueblo completely and issued a series of harsh sentences upon the survivors. He sentenced all men and women between the ages of 12 and 25 to twenty years of servitude; men over the age of 25 were to have half of one foot cut off; the Pueblo's girls were put into the custodianship of Fray Alonso Martinez, who promptly sent 60 of them to a convent in Mexico; and the boys were held in custody by Vicente de Zaldivar, a key figure in the sacking of the Pueblo and brother of Juan Zaldivar, who had been slain by the Acoma in the lead-up to the battle. Oñate's treatment of Acoma people would eventually lead to his expulsion from New Mexico and legal punishment in Mexico City.
The Pueblo was likely “being re-built and re-populated by 1601” and less than three decades later, Acoma received its first full-time priest, Fray Juan Ramirez, who directed the construction of Acoma's famous mission church, San Esteban Rey. According to oral tradition, Ramirez forced the Acoma people to build the church, a truly massive undertaking: Building the church included hauling timber, sand, and other construction materials up the steep walls of the mesa.
These abuses of power by both religious and secular authorities contributed to strategies of passive resistance and finally to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Acoma participated in the Revolt by killing the Spanish friars who were living there at the time. After the Spanish re-conquest of New Mexico in 1692, Acoma continued, along with the other Pueblos, to live with the Spanish presence in a dynamic environment of conflict and accommodation.
During the eighteenth century, both the Pueblos and the Spanish settlers of New Mexico experienced raids by the Comanche, Apache, and Navajo. As a result, there was increased cooperation between the Spanish and the Pueblos. The Spanish government introduced the office of protector de indios (“protector general” of the Indians), to help ensure that Pueblo Indians could utilize the Spanish legal system to stop the appropriation of Indian land by Spanish settlers. Acoma made full use of this office throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Like the other Pueblos, the Acoma became “master litigants.”
Following the Spanish and, in the mid-nineteenth century, American conquests of New Mexico, Acoma, like New Mexico's other Pueblos, made accommodations to a new cultural landscape, compartmentalizing native and newcomer strategies. They adapted to the new forms of technology, government, and religion while retaining their own traditions. The American conquest brought a host of newcomers to Acoma – Anglo-American Indian agents, traders, soldiers, homesteaders, and lawyers. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Acoma had to interact with these groups in a struggle to retain their traditional landholdings before the United States Surveyor General, the Court of Private Land Claims, the Pueblo Lands Board, and other United States courts.
The Indian agent was the local representative of the US government and its “Indian policy.” In the 1880s, under pressure from the BIA and the local Indian agent, some Acoma parents sent their children to Indian schools in Albuquerque and Pennsylvania. In 1885, at the request of Acoma, the US Department of the Interior sent a schoolteacher to the Pueblo. US policy at the time dictated that these Indian schools act as tools of assimilation; indoctrinating, acculturating, and assimilating Indian people into the “mainstream. Indian schoolchildren were forced to speak only English, dress in dominant culture clothing, and the boys were to have their hair cut short.
US “Indian policy” of the time also sought Native American assimilation through the resident government farmer program. A resident government farmers, lived at the Pueblo and other Indian reservations and taught Native Americans to farm using Western, Euro-American (Anglo) cultural techniques. This program was none too successful, particularly among the Pueblo Indians, who had been successful agriculturists in New Mexico for centuries. As one Indian Agent wrote, the Pueblo Indians “know 10,000 times more today about agriculture than any Indian Service Farmer may expect to learn in his entire lifetime, especially if he is the usual uneducated individual who comes out of the east.”
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Acoma experienced the coming of the railroad, postal service and market capitalism through the establishment of Anglo trading posts and tourism labor. The development of tourism created opportunities in local and regional economies but also helped to popularize stereotypical images of Acoma and other Native peoples. Many Acoma women sold pottery to tourists and other travelers at Acomita and McCarty's Station. Acoma's pottery is famous among collectors and the general public today and it remains an important income source and means of cultural preservation for the Pueblo.
In the 1920s, Acoma Pueblo began charging tourists who wished to see the old village on the mesa and the San Esteban del Rey church, both of which were designated historic landmarks in 1980. The Pueblo of Acoma has built the Sky City Hotel and Casino and the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum. Despite early Spanish attempts to destroy the Pueblo, and later colonizing efforts by Spanish, Mexican, and American rule, the Pueblo has continued to thrive and adapt to newcomers and new institutions while preserving its traditional culture.
1 AD - 1200 AD: Archaeologists theorize that Acoma's ancestors settled in the vicinity of Acoma Pueblo at this time.
1540: Coronado expedition. Captain Hernando de Alvarado visits Acoma and reports the people were friendly and lived in houses three or four stories high. Pedro de Castañeda, chronicler of the Coronado expedition, reports that the Acoma were feared throughout the area and taunted the Spanish. Reports a population of about 200 men.
1582-83: Diego de Luxán and Antonio de Espejo's reports on the Espejo expedition.
1598: Don Juan de Oñate leads expedition to conquer New Mexico for the Spanish crown.
1630s: Construction of San Esteban del Rey mission church.
1680: Pueblo Revolt.
1821: Mexico becomes independent from Spain; New Mexico under Mexican governance.
1846-1848: Mexican War; New Mexico under American governance.
1880s: New institutions come to Acoma, including the railroad and the US Indian Agent.
1920s: Acoma begins charging tourists who wish to see the old village.
1990s: Sky City hotel and casino opens
2006: Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum opens.
http://www.skycitycasino.com/ Robison, John Kelly. Agriculture and Economy at Acoma Pueblo, 1598-1821. M.A. thesis, University of Montana, 1992. 133 pp.
Robison, John Kelly. Phoenix on the Mesa: Acoma Pueblo During the Spanish Colonial Period, 1500-1821. Ph.D. dissertation, Oklahoma State University, 1997. 372 pp.
García-Mason, Velma. “Acoma Pueblo,” in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 9: Southwest ed., Alfonso Ortiz, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979, 450-466.
Gibson, Christopher. “Sky City Cultural Center & Haak'u Museum,” Tradicion (Summer 2006): 26-28.
Gilbert, Petuuche, “The Legacy of Oñate and the Continuity of Colonialism,” Counterpunch (May 17, 2005), accessed online at http://www.counterpunch.org/gilbert05172005.html on October 5, 2006.
Minge, Ward Alan. “Historical Treatise in Defense of the Pueblo of Acoma Land Claim.” Pueblo Indians III, American Indian Ethnohistory Series, New York: Garland Publishing, 1974: 121-209.
Minge, Ward Alan. Acoma: Pueblo in the Sky. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002, rev. ed.
Rands, Robert L. “Acoma Land Utilization: An Ethno-historical Report,” Pueblo Indians III, American Indian Ethnohistory Series, New York: Garland Publishing, 1974: 211-407.
Tittman, Edward D. “The First Irrigation Law Suit.” New Mexico Historical Review 2:4 (October 1927): 363-8.
Sando, Joe. Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo History Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 1992.
Smithsonian film on Pueblo Resistance
Pueblo of Acoma: Haak’u
Acoma Pueblo Literary Map
Pueblo Runners and the Pueblo Revolt
Acoma Pueblo Church
Juan de Onate and the 1598 Battle and Trials of Acoma
Acoma Pueblo Land Grant
Acoma Pueblo-Literary Map
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