Over 900 years ago bare feet walked the mesa of Sky City Acoma Pueblo where my boots now tread. As I stand at the edge of the mesa I wonder how they got here. It was certainly not easy to reach with its steep cliffs that rise 370 feet above the desert floor.
We cannot be sure why the Acoma people decided to make this mesa their home. Could it be that they recognized the great defensive posture they would have against intruders? Perhaps they wished to be closer to the rain or the sky.
What we do know is that the Acoma people must have liked it here, for here they remain making Sky City Acoma Pueblo the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Not all current residents live here year round but it is a living community. Important community ceremonies still take place at Sky City which is the oldest of the three of the Acoma Pueblo communities.
Visiting Sky City Acoma Pueblo is about as close to time travel as you can get. It is living history in its truest form. Over 300 sandstone and adobe buildings line dirt and rock streets and most of the traffic seems to be on foot.
Acoma Pueblo and its San Esteban del Rey Mission constructed between 1629 and 1640 are each the National Register of Historic Monuments. The mission was constructed by the Acoma under forced labor by the Spanish and is noted for its amazing 21,000 square foot adobe construction.
Yet there is a strange dichotomy. Cars, although not many, stand in stark contrast to ancient buildings with native-made pole ladders. Contemporary portable toilets snuggle behind houses to compensate for the lack of indoor toilets.
Robert, our excellent guide, grew up here. No TV, no electricity, no running water. His ancestral home remains in the family. In this matriarchal society each of the homes is owned by Acoma Pueblo women. No one is allowed to sell their home, it must stay in the family.
Caroline Lucario stands outside her home at a small table. She is quick to show me which of her pottery is make the old way and which has been cast in a mold. Like Caroline, other women scattered throughout the Pueblo display the orange, black, and white pottery for which Acoma Pueblo is famous– similar in general appearance but each unique in details. Designs flow from the minds of these women directly onto the pots and that amazes me.
In the traditional Acoma way clay is made from a specific stone ground into a power. The clay is formed into coils and carefully handmade into fine, thin-walled but sturdy pottery. Paint is handmade from various natural sources and brushes are generally handmade from the Yucca plant. One woman told me she prefers to create her brushes from the hair of her children because she can make a finer brush for detailed design or a thicker brush if needed. Another woman proudly shares that she is a sixth generation Acoma potter while a woman at a neighboring table shares that her pottery is in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
The pottery is more than pretty. Each part of the design on a piece of pottery means something. The symbolism is traditional and the thought that goes into each design is phenomenal. A craft passed from generation to generation, rooted in an ancient culture, yet each piece so unique and functional as well. I am totally fascinated.
Acoma Sky City is located off of I-40 about one hour west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. You must take a guided tour and be transported to the mesa by tour vehicle. The modern visitor’s center includes a museum, café, and gift shop. It is truly a cultural experience not to be missed. Learn more on their website here.
Note: There are a couple of RV Parks in the area but we stayed at Sky City RV Park and Casino. It was about 20-30 minutes from the Sky City Pueblo. At the RV Park the Airstream was in sight of the Casino. We’re not gamblers, but we’ve learned that casinos often have reasonably priced food and this campground has discount tickets for meals and Sky City tours.