Ascending an ancient civilization – Acoma

Article & photos by Jack Olson © 2016

Acoma village house

Long before the Pilgrims landed, before Jamestown, a thriving civilization flourished atop a high mesa in the southwestern region of what would eventually become the United States. These were not scattered groups of individuals or nomads which followed the wildlife and the climate. This is Acoma Pueblo, which has existed as a community for at least 800 years in what is now New Mexico.

I won’t attempt an exhaustive history. You can Google all that. Some elders claim they may have occupied the area for 2,000 years. What we know is that surging from the south the Spaniards subdued them around 1598. From this time they adopted the Catholic religion and the Spanish language, along with their own tongue. You go there now and many also speak English.

For years I’d heard of this mystical place, Acoma. It intrigued me no end. Was it a lost world, was it invisible? Were there spirits? Was it on a map? Yes, it’s there; a friend in Albuquerque drove me there. Excitement reigned.

Acoma guide
Acoma guide relates tribal history

So let’s talk about what you can do right now. Acoma is about 60 miles west of Albuquerque on Interstate 40. At the exit the tribe operates a casino and hotel to take advantage of tourism along the highway. But to explore the culture of the Acoma you must drive a few miles south to the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum.

I’d heard before that strangers might not be welcome. You probably wouldn’t be able to venture atop the mesa to explore the village. And you’d sure not let anyone see you with a camera. False. Visitors are very welcome at the cultural center and museum. We wolfed a hearty lunch in the restaurant while waiting for a tour. Passes for these guided tours can be purchased for $24, seniors are $20. Permission for one still camera is included in the tour price. They do not allow “professional” photography, which they define as a tripod or video and no commercial photography.

And can you go up on top? You bet. On a regular schedule a bus carries visitors to the community on the mesa. We had an Acoma guide who detailed the history of his people and a few guidelines before we went off on our own. We could photograph anywhere in the village except the churchyard and inside the chapel. While we were in the chapel we were stunned by a man’s surprise marriage proposal to his love. We could photograph residents if we asked permission. As our guide mugged for us he allowed as how we could photograph him as often as we wished.

Acoma village ladder
Ladder to the sky

We really had a lot of freedom in the village. The tour was loosely structured. I was able to photograph at will when I saw an interesting subject. Dwellings were composed mainly of adobe brick, much as you would see at Taos Pueblo. There are about 300 buildings atop the 367-foot-high sandstone mesa. Since there is no running water, sewage disposal or electricity on the mesa many residents have moved to homes below but spend time on top. You will find a number of artisans selling their work in the streets.

For additional information go to: Information found on various other web sites differs a bit. No matter. What does matter is that if you love history, native culture, New Mexico, mystery, and a bit of adventure, you should go.