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“Acoma”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

Tribal elders say that Acoma (sometimes spelled Akome, Acuo, Acuco, Ako and A’ku-me) means “a place that always was.” Archaeologists have found artifacts at digs on Acoma Mesa that speak of prehistoric times. Like its near neighbors Hopi and Zuni, Acoma is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States.

Acoma Pueblo, 1942“Acoma Pueblo, 1942,” Hildegard Bachert (Photographer)

Pottery sherds and pictographs on cliffs and kiva walls as well as the ruins of old settlements give clues to prehistoric migration routes. Archaeologists agree that Pueblo people lived in Old Acoma on the high mesa at least from 1200 CE. About this time, ancestral Puebloan peoples migrated out of their earlier settlements in the Chaco region and the Mesa Verde area of southwestern Colorado. Ancestral travelers from the north and south probably sought reliable river systems, fresh salt supplies, and natural defenses for their settlements. The remains of many camps and farming sites date back to this same period.

Stories and tales relate that long ago the Acoma people lived across the valley from the present day pueblo on the enchanted mesa of Katsimo. One day a great rain tore away the footholds to the mesa top, and those who had gone to the fields were forever cut off from those who remained above. After this disaster, the people moved to the top of Old Acoma, a craggy, secluded rock with steep foot trails. From here the trails would not wash away, but the people could still repel invaders. Since ancient times the Acoma have used springs to the north of Katsimo to water their crops of corn, squash, and beans. Whenever Katsina spirits bring rains, precious water collects on the mesa.

Origin stories tell of two sisters, Nautsiti and Iatiku. They were the first Acoma to emerge from the underground world. Nautsiti disobeyed Father Sun and Acoma Potter Mary Histea Firing Pots“Acoma Potter Mary Histea Firing Pots,” Unidentified (Photographer) conceived twin sons from drops of rain. Later, she took one of the boys and disappeared to the east. Iatiku stayed and married Nautsiti’s other son. She gave each of their many daughters a clan name. These names represented the gifts that Father Sun had given the sisters at emergence, such as Sky, Water, Fire, and Corn. Most of these are still clan names today. Some Acomas say the Spanish priests and conquistadors who traveled to Acoma from New Spain in the 1500s and 1600s descended from the vanished sister, Nautsiti.

In 1562, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado sent Captain Hernando Alvarado on an expedition to explore regions to the east of their camp at Hawikuh. Coronado instructed Alvarado to find the pueblo called the kingdom of Acoma that Fray Marcos de Niza had heard about.

Alvarado employed the Pecos chief Bigotes to guide him across the treacherous Malpais badlands and on to the pueblo of Acoma. Alvarado and his men were the first Spaniards to view Acoma high on its lofty cliff.

During a later expedition into Nuevo Mexico in 1582, Antonio Espejo wrote admiringly of an Acoma ceremony in which people danced and juggled with live snakes. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate arrived with 200 colonists. The poet-soldier Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá traveled with Oñate. Villagrá wrote rhyming cantos describing Oñate’s attempts to colonize Nuevo Mexico for Spain. This colonization had disastrous consequences for Acoma.

Onate’s nephews, Captains Juan and Vicente de Zaldívar, triggered the first violent encounter between Acoma warriors and conquistadors. In the last days of 1598, warriors at Acoma killed Juan de Zaldívar and twenty of his men. A few weeks later, Vicente de Zaldívar scaled the formidable rock with cannons and seventy armored men to avenge his brother’s death and force the rebellious Acomas into submission. His men slew hundreds of Acoma villagers in the bloody three-day battle. The Spanish forces took young Acoma girls to Mexico. In accordance with Spanish law in the 1500s, all Acoma males over age twenty-five were condemned to have one foot cut off and serve their Spanish overlords for twenty years. The Spaniards also forced many Acoma women and children to serve in their households as servants and slaves. The Acomas, devastated by their encounter with the Spaniards, retreated to a secluded way of life.

Over the years, some Franciscan priests were outspoken critics of Spanish exploitation of the Indians. These padres favored a gentle, gradual approach to converting the Pueblos to Catholicism. Fray Juan Ramírez was one such priest. In 1629, he walked into Acoma, built a mission church, and stayed on as pueblo priest for twenty years.

Acoma Trail“Acoma Trail,” Unidentified (Photographer)

During the Spanish period, Indians from Pecos, Jemez and other pueblos fled to Acoma seeking refuge from Spanish rule. In 1680, the Pueblo Revolt led most of the Spanish colonists to flee and weakened Catholicism among the pueblos.

In 1696, after don Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico for Spain, five Rio Grande pueblos killed their resident priests and twenty-one other Spaniards. Upon hearing that “there was a multitude of people and a trail of women going toward Acoma,” Governor de Vargas marched to the pueblo and attacked the villagers. He captured and killed five people and burned the cornfields. Then de Vargas and his men retreated, unable to capture the citadel.

Peaceful coexistence between Acoma and Spanish New Mexicans gradually evolved during the 1700s. The Spanish introduced fruit trees, horses, cows, burros and sheep to the region, adding to the plants and animals traditionally raised at Acoma.

During the 1800s, the Acomas fought with raiding Navajos and endured the arrival of the Americans. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway passed through the Acoma farming community of McCarty's. Tourism and commercial goods came to the pueblo. In the 1900s uranium mining became Acoma’s major labor source for many years. Acoma’s returning World War II veterans and television also brought the outside world to Acoma.

Like other people who speak the Keresan language, Acoma villagers maintain a closed, self-governed, and largely self-sustaining society. Ceremony and storytelling convey tribal information to the people. Many Acomas are acclaimed potters and poets.