Sky City

Can you believe a city could be cursed by its windows?Some of the Treasures of Acoma

Well, that’s what happened to the Pueblo Indian city of Acoma.

Acoma is located about an hour and a half west of Albuquerque. A couple of weekends ago, Jim, myself, and our friend Michael Wester drove out to tour Acoma.

Research I had done for my alternate history novella, “Like the Rain,” (which will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Golden Reflections, edited by Joan Saberhagen and Robert Vardeman) had transformed my vague thought that I’d like to visit Acoma “one of these days” into a burning desire. We’d tried to make a date to go in the spring, but my extensive travel schedule had made that impossible. Summer is not a time I’d choose to go visit an adobe village built up on a mesa top, so we’d postponed until autumn.

We had perfect weather for our visit. When we arrived at around eleven in the morning, the skies were clear. There was the slightest of breezes and the temperatures were in the short- sleeved shirt range. A friendly young woman took our entry fees (which included camera permits that extended to the entire reservation) and informed us that the next tour would be leaving in about fifteen minutes.

The city of Acoma is built on a mesa overlooking lands ornamented with the twisted, wind-sculpted stone formations commonly known as “hoodoos.” The surrounding vista is also embellished with buttes and other mesas, including the poetically (and perfectly) named “Enchanted Mesa.”

We rode a tour bus for the short but steep climb up to the village of Acoma. This road is a relatively recent addition. When the village was founded in the 1100’s, it was isolated except for some very challenging trails. Most water and food was carried up these trails, often on top of the heads of the climbers. (We went down the “stone stair” – one of the easier trails, and it was still pretty steep at points).

Our tour guide was an Acoma resident named Conran. (He also gave us his Acoman name, but I didn’t make a note of it; I do remember he was affiliated with the Pumpkin Clan).

I know Conran must have been a man of mature years, because he mentioned a son who is in the military, but based on appearance I would have thought him in his late twenties or early thirties. Like many Pueblo Indians, Conran is not overly tall, but powerfully built, with very dark black hair and dark brown eyes. He was quite serious as he began the tour, but when he saw he had an interested audience, he often departed from his formal tour information to add personal information and introductions.

(“That’s my aunt with the oven bread.” “This is my nephew. He’s a firefighter in Albuquerque. He also runs marathons.” “These are my family’s houses.”)

Conran’s willingness to share such details transformed the village into what it is – a living, breathing community, not a mere tourist destination. He seemed to take for granted that we would already know that this is one of the longest continuously lived-in communities in the United States.

Today, many of the tribal members have more modern homes in the nearby communities of Acomita and McCarty’s, as well as in Albuquerque. However, the religious leaders annually nominate some who will take up residence in the traditional village. To these are assigned the task of praying – not only for the members of the tribe but, as Conran assured us, for all the world.

That’s very generous coming from a people whose contacts with the world beyond their own group have not always been kind. You don’t think they chose to live up on a mesa because their neighbors were all friendly, do you? No. I didn’t think so.

Additionally, the Acomans came in for a lot of attention – not all of it nice – from the Spanish. Remember what I said about those windows? The story goes like this…

When the Spanish were new to the area, a priest traveling through the region caught a glimpse of Acoma from a distance. The sunlight caught the windows and gave back the warm glitter of gold. Immediately, he turned around and reported that he had found one of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, where even the streets were said to be made of gold.

One problem. The Acomans didn’t have any gold. Gold is actually relatively uncommon in New Mexico. However, the Acomans had made their windows from thick sheets of mica (often called isinglass), a material that – when it catches the sun – glitters like gold.

The Spanish conquistadores arrived. Not only didn’t they find a city made from gold, they found a city up on a mesa top whose residents couldn’t understand why someone down below was shouting at them that they were now subject to a king of whom they’d never heard. The situation only got worse from there.

I’m not going to give a long history lesson here, but the material does make fascinating reading. However, I’d suggest you read a more modern, balanced account. The older Spanish ones contain a certain degree of what must be called self-justification.

Despite their less than ideal encounters with the outside world, we only met with friendliness from the Acoma residents with whom we spoke. After the tour, Jim, Michael, and I had an excellent lunch in the visitor’s center café. We then toured the museum. Our final stop was a stroll around the outer portal where some vendors sat with their wares.

Jim had already bought a beautiful hand-made plate: a bear-paw design in black on a red-brown micaceous-glaze background. Therefore, we weren’t exactly in the market for souvenirs. I did pretty well until we fell into conversation with a very nice woman named Carolyn Concho.

All of the vendors had been completely up-front about which of their work was handmade and which was merely hand-painting on commercial green ware. Therefore, I was fascinated when Ms. Concho proudly presented the brightly colored paints on her pieces as all-natural mineral paints.

I asked how this could be and was treated to a wonderful discussion of how Ms. Concho and her sisters (she referred to them as “the Lewis sisters”) have gone out of their way to explore the possibilities of various minerals they encounter in their travels. They then experiment with these (grinding, mixing, heat-treating) to see what they come up with. She was particularly delighted to show us a greenish-yellow paint that they’d mixed up in hopes of finding a bright yellow. Instead, what they ended up with was a bright red.

Well, after that, I really wanted a piece of her work. I purchased a tiny pot (see the photo above) on which a lizard was painted in a fashion that displayed Ms. Concho’s colors. Note the detailed black-line patterns surrounding the lizard. Then note the size of the piece – it’s resting on a pedestal made of United States quarters! Much of the painting was done with a single hair.

My wallet was pretty empty after this, but we stopped to chat with a vendor named Karen Miller.

(By the way, most Indians in the southwest have at least two names, one of which will sound very “un-Indian” to those who expect all Indians to be named things like Sunset Warrior or Little Flower).

Ms. Miller was eating her lunch, but came over to chat when she saw us admiring her work. One piece in particular caught my attention. It was about the size of a gum ball (in the photo above, it’s resting on a stack of pennies). Ms. Miller told us it was hand-coiled and that the designs (four bands of them) were etched on with a needle. She even brought out the needle to show us.

I crouched down to eye-level so I could better admire and fell completely in love. Not only was the second band made up of miniature bear-paws (Ms. Miller is affiliated with the Bear Clan), but the third band contained eight individual depictions of various symbolic animals or figures from legend.

I guess Ms. Miller saw the glow in my eyes, because she knocked a third off her price. Jim and I dug in our wallets and managed to come up with the amount. (By the way, lest you think all this friendliness was mere effort to make a sale, not one vendor mentioned there was an ATM in the Visitor’s Center)

So we left with some of the true treasures of Acoma. Not only the pottery, but our joy in the friendliness of the people, the wealth of their history, and the curious comfort that, in this world where competition rules, someone is taking time out to pray for everyone and everything.

7 Responses to “Sky City”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    What a wonderful trip that must have been. There’s something truly fascinating, not to say awe-inspiring about glimpses into other cultures., isn’t there?

    A couple of years ago Robin’s parents came to visit and we took them on a trip around New Zealand. One of the things we had to do for them was the “authentic maori experience”; a tourist trap, obviously, but very real for all that.

    A young Maori lady called Tina who was dressed in traditional costume and who had the proper facial moku tattoo introduced herself to us and welcomed us.

    “You,” she explained, “are visitors to our land. But before you can be properly welcomed, we must know who your chief is. Which one of you is the chief?”

    Every eyeball in the audience clicked into place and stared at me.

    “Are you the chief?” asked Tina.

    “Yes,” I said, “I suppose I am.”

    “And is the beautiful woman beside you your queen?”

    “Indeed she is.”

    And so I became a chief for a day and Robin became a queen.

    Tina led us off into the forest, explaining points of interest to us along the way. Suddenly an enormous tattooed Maori warrior jumped out of the bush and confronted us. Eyes popping, tongue sticking out, he waved his spear and roared a challenge. He placed a small, leafed branch on the ground and retreated. I picked it up and held it, thus indicating that I was coming in peace.

    This was my first ever powhiri – a Maori challenge and welcome. I was astonished at the overwhelming emotion of the moment, the sense of taking part in a truly foreign and yet at the same time oddly familiar ritual There was a feeling of spiritual rightness about the moment. I felt very strongly the deep cultural heritage with which I was now involved. It was all extremely moving, and I confess I was close to tears.


  2. heteromeles Says:

    I’m so glad to know that the Acoma are still making good pots. Those are gorgeous.

    At the Indian fests in the cities, mostly I’ve seen fairly cheap commercial pots, except for a couple gorgeous Mata Ortiz pots from Mexico that I got in LA a few years back.

  3. Paul Says:

    What great descriptions. I feel as though I’d been along on the tour. And the photos are wonderfully detailed.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Alan… You comments make me want to come back to New Zealand!

    Paul… I’ll let Jim know you liked the photos. I thought he did a great job.

    Heteromeles… I don’t know what you mean by “Indian fests in the cities” — perhaps something in California? I can only think of Indian Market here… and maybe the State Fair. Both of these show marvelous pieces, breathtaking. Our local potters are very proud of their wok and make a clear differentiation between what they made and what is built on commercial materials. The woman who made the tiny seed pot even told me she had used commerical clay rather than clay she had dug herself!

    If you make a trip to NM, e-mail me and I’ll give you the names of a few places in Albuquerque that won’t disappoint either your eyes or your wallet.

  5. Barbara Joan Says:

    I was absolutely enchanted by the blog and the pictures. Since I cannot draw a straight line with a ruler, the idea of being able to do such beautiful art on such a small scale is mind boggling.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, either…

    One thing I love about artists is how they show me what is possible!

  7. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Just got back from the Museum of Northern Arizona. Great pots, but I think the detail on yours is a little bit finer. I also love that Museum’s kiva, especially the “explanation in the artist’s own words” about the semi-traditional paintings on the wall. When one artist said, “it all gets very Jungian at this point,” you know there’s a certain humor in the whole work.

    As for the festivals: various museums hold these “Indian Fests.” There’s one at the San Diego Museum of Man, a rather better one at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, another one in Milwaukee (Indian Summer), and many others.

    Ninety percent of the stuff at these festivals is tourist junk, but a few of the booths have some real artists. At the Gene Autry center, the best pots were being sold by a trader working selling Mata Ortiz pots out of Mexico. They’re not “traditional,” but when you have a group of Puebloan Indians in Mexico taking designs from archeologists’ work and experimenting with them until they get designs they like, I’m not sure what to call them exactly. Striking does come to mind.

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