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Acoma Pueblo: City in the Sky – New Mexico, USA

Acoma Pueblo: City in the Sky

New Mexico, USA

“Pueblo of Acoma. You Are Entering Acoma Pueblo Tribal Lands.” As we turned onto Tribal Route 38, we left the Albuquerque stretch of I-40 one hour and a thousand years behind. Acoma, “the place that always was,” wrapped around us like a desert wind.

“As you walk through my mesa, you will find nothing but total peace,” smiled Dale Sanchez, great grandmother, family matriarch, and one of 5,642 remaining full-blooded Acoma. She led us to the top of Sky City, Acoma Pueblo’s 400-foot-high sacred heart and spiritual epicenter. Acoma is America’s oldest continually inhabited village. Nearly a thousand years ago, native people lived on these 70 acres of high rock. Three and a half centuries ago, Franciscan father Juan Ramirez asked the people to show him the mesa’s most sacred spot. Where the main plaza and kiva were, Ramirez built them a Catholic church.

The double rainbow painted on the thick adobe wall of St. Esteban signifies the Acomas’ two religions. Dale explained. “Ninety-eight percent of us are Catholic. One hundred percent of us practice our native ways.”

Acoma's San Esteban del Rey Mission
Acoma’s San Esteban del Rey Mission
“It’s all intertwined,” she said, and shared examples of how Acoma blend two cultures and religions. Everything is an ingenious, workable marriage. The people celebrate Indian Easter and Christmas a week before the Catholic holidays. Acoma’s medicine man is also a priest. The church’s floor is hard sand, to signify Mother Nature, and St. Esteban’s ceiling timbers are ponderosa pine, felled on Mt. Taylor, north of the mesa. Once felled, any log that touched the ground before it was set in place was abandoned. Niches in the back of the church are for offerings. “Cornmeal, tobacco, water,” said Dale. “We leave simple offerings because our lives are simple.”

In the cemetery, which is a dusty plateau of white wooden crosses that extends from the church steps out to the sky at the mesa’s edge, Acoma are buried coffinless, one atop another. “We don’t come into the world in a box and, by golly, we’re not gonna leave in one!” exclaimed Dale. She pointed to a hole in the cemetery wall as she talked more of coming and leaving. “We come from a hole called Mother Nature.” And, when Acoma die, “the hole is where we go when we leave this world.”

Mother Nature stays close to the people, even at home. Acoma never sweep all the dirt from their houses, but leave some just inside the door. “The dirt inside the door is Mother Nature, a magnet to pull your children, friends, family home safely.”

Dale opens the church every morning at five, beginning a new day that “always comes back to four.” Each day, at four different times, she tosses corn meal to one of the cardinal directions. “This is my daily ritual. My way of life on the mesa.” In the morning, she faces east and cries, “Hello, sun!” At dusk, facing west, she bids the sun goodnight. Facing north around 9 p.m., Dale welcomes the moon and the stars. Before bedtime, she faces south: “See you tomorrow, stars and moon.”

Acoma society is matriarchal, with land and decision-making falling to a family’s youngest daughter, which Dale is. “The tribal council says, ‘You are the landowner. You decide,'” said Dale, about times when decisions are called for. Sometimes Dale’s decisions affect the lives of her two brothers. Whether they can marry, whether they can have land. It’s up to Dale. For her brothers, the pull of Acoma’s ancient ways has remained strong. One brother is a doctor, the other a builder who “worked on New York City skyscrapers.” Maybe it was the dirt Dale leaves just inside her door, but something had pulled both brothers back to the pueblo, where they now lived.

Dale was no doubt leaving dirt inside her door to pull someone else safely home. Her grandson was serving with Delta Force in Pakistan. “I’m proud of him,” she said. When the magnet of Mother Nature does pull him safely back to the pueblo, reunion talk will likely be in Acoma, which Dale, her children and her grandchildren all speak.


This is an excerpt from Lori Hein’s Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, the story of a 12,000-mile back road journey through post-9/11 America. Copyright Lori Hein

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