Atop a broad mesa rising above the New Mexico desert, earthen buildings emerge from pale sandstone where descendants of the ancient Anasazi have made their home for at least 700 years. This is Acoma, ancestral home of the Pueblo tribe of the same name, and one of the country’s oldest continuously occupied villages.
Once home to more than 1,000, today about 30 brave the winter winds in the pueblo known as Sky City. Its population doubles in the summer. But for the 2,700 Acoma (pronounced ACK-oh-mah) who live in scattered villages on the valley floor, the pueblo is home in a deeper sense.
Tradition holds that sacred twins led their people across the earth to a place created for them. When the twins called out a name—Ako in one legend, HaKu in another—and it echoed back from the mesa, they knew they had arrived. The sheer sandstone walls gave the village protection, but not invincibility. In 1599, invading Spaniards burned it to the ground, and only the Acomas’ tenacious spirit allowed them to live in the harsh environment and bring the pueblo back from the ashes.
“Everything comes back to ancestors,” says Andrew Lewis Jr., a year-round resident who sells traditional pottery at the doorstep of the house that was his grandmother’s. “It’s a different feeling here. It’s a mystery. It always draws you back. I don’t care what nationality you are.”
Timelessness is entangled with modernity. No power lines run. Water comes from 50-gallon drums hauled up the mesa. Wooden ladders climb clay and sandstone walls to hidden sacred kivas (religious ceremonial areas). Outside the 17th-century San Esteban del Rey mission church, the cemetery has graves layered 10 deep. At the same time, pickup trucks cruise a paved road cut for a John Wayne movie, cell phones ring, and tourists fill the streets in summer.
“People still think we rely on corn and dried meat,” says Prudy Correa, who runs a gift shop selling pottery, T-shirts, and souvenirs. “They ask, where are the Indians? And we say, we are the Indians. They say, where are your feathers? Where are your horses?”
The Acoma (meaning “people of the white rock”) work to preserve their heritage while keeping pace with changing times. Tourists are encouraged but restricted to group visits. Video cameras are forbidden, and sacred sites are camera-free. Many ceremonies are performed for Acoma only.
Meanwhile, the tribe has launched enterprises to bring in tourists and jobs. Sky City Casino is 12 miles from the foot of the mesa, and the Acoma reservation hosts a hotel and conference center, a restaurant, a travel plaza, and an interpretive center for motorists following nearby historic Route 66. Visitors fish at Acomita Lake or hunt for elk in the surrounding mountains.
“I know I can get a job in Albuquerque or the cities, but here it’s peace and quiet,” Correa says.
For some, shunning modern conveniences for ancient rhythms is a new lifestyle. “I wasn’t brought up like that,” says Bernadette Ascencio, who was raised off the reservation in nearby Grants, N.M.
“When I came back, I didn’t know my own people. It was scary,” she says.
When her husband was named a pueblo leader, the couple became year-round Sky City residents. Now she sells traditional pottery outside her home, and her four children share in the ancient art. Following tradition, they take shards of ancient pots left scattered around the mesas, grind them into a powder and mix them into clay. Finished pots are painted with swirling Acoma patterns.
Like the town in which they live, it is an ancient tradition carried forth in new hands, built on the dust of ancestors.