The Acoma Pueblo village known as Sky City sits atop a 376 foot tall mesa surrounded by a surreal landscape of soaring buttes, rock pinnacles and piles of gigantic boulders. Occupied since at least 1150, possibly as early as 900, it may be the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. The only way to visit the ancient village is on a tour operated by the Sky City Visitor Center, which is located at the base of the mesa.
As I sat outside the Visitor Center in the warm October sun along with a dozen or so other people waiting for the next tour, a horse ambled across the parking lot and began munching on a clump of sunflowers. When the horse had polished off the flowers, she headed off to find her next snack and I went into the Center to look around.
The facility includes a gift shop showcasing the black and white pottery for which the Acoma people are justifiably famous, a coffee shop, a theater, restrooms and an outdoor picnic area. It also houses the Haak’u Museum with displays of Acoma artifacts and a fascinating collection of vintage photos.
The word “Haak’u” is Keresan, the ancestral Acoma language. It’s usually translated as “a place prepared.” The idea of Haak'u plays an important role in the Acoma origin story.
When the first people appeared in a mysterious place far to the north, Earth Mother told them to migrate south and not to stop until they found Haak’u, the special place that had been prepared for them. She said they would know when they found it.
As the Acoma wandered through strange and often dangerous territories, they repeatedly called out “Haak’u?” Their shouts were met with silence until the day they entered this beautiful wonderland of mesas. An elder cried out, “Haak’u?” His voice echoed off a butte, "Haak'u!" The land had answered. They were home.
A shiny white shuttle bus pulled into the parking lot and our little band of visitors climbed aboard. As we settled into our seats, we were joined by our guide, a smiling young man named Brandon, a member of the Acoma tribe, as all Sky City guides must be.
Acoma land, which covers approximately 430,000 acres including Sky City, is home to around 6000 tribal members. A few dozen elders live in Sky City full-time. Everyone else lives in the modern villages of Acomita and McCarty, although many families maintain ancestral homes on the mesa top where they gather for feast days and other special occasions.
The bus began its steep ascent on a road built in the 1940s by a Hollywood studio. Prior to that time the only way up was via steps chiseled out of the rock face. Brandon told us those who wished to do so could descend the ancient stairs at the end of the tour. I glanced out the bus window at the sheer drop off and the boulders that had tumbled from the mesa top and decided to pass on that option.
The trip to the top took less than five minutes. As we rolled to a stop, Brandon explained the rules and told us what to expect on our 90 minute tour. “You must stay with the group. No wandering off on your own.” Our ticket price included a photography permit, but there were still restrictions. “No videos. Don’t take pictures of people. Photography is prohibited in the church and the cemetery. Otherwise,” he smiled, “you’re good.”
“You’ll have plenty of shopping opportunities,” he added, “pottery, jewelry, figurines. Everything is hand-made and the best part is you get to buy directly from the artists. There are tables in front of their houses. They’ll come out as we approach. Don’t be shy. You can ask them anything you want.”
We followed him down a narrow, hard-packed dirt street lined with one and two story adobe houses butted up against each other. Sky City consists of about 300 structures. There is no running water or indoor plumbing and portable generators are the only source of electricity. Utility services are readily available, but the Acoma have chosen to maintain their traditional way of life on top of the mesa.
We squeezed past a dusty pickup truck parked next to a cluster of port-o-potties, rounded a corner and stepped into a small plaza facing the San Esteban del Rey Mission.
“Our ancestors lived peacefully in this valley for centuries,” Brandon explained. “Everything changed in 1540. That’s when the Spaniards showed up. They were searching for the Seven Cities of Gold.” He pointed to a small opaque window in an adobe wall. “That window pane is mica. It’s what every window in the pueblo was made of. It’s very reflective, especially from a distance. As the Spaniards came across the valley, they saw the sun glinting off the windows up here. They thought they’d hit the jackpot. When they figured out we didn’t have gold, they left. Unfortunately they came back. ”
In 1599 the Spaniards returned and things took a catastrophic turn. Conquistador Juan de Onate, who blamed the Acoma for the death of his nephew, ordered his men to attack the village. The Spaniards had horses, armor, swords and cannons. The Acoma had bows and arrows, clubs and rocks.
During the onslaught, which raged for three days, hundreds of Acoma men, women and children were slaughtered and the village atop the mesa was destroyed. Many of the survivors were sent to Mexico as slaves. Those who remained in the valley had to adapt to being Spanish subjects.
The Acoma rebuilt the village under the watchful eye of their new overlords. The buildings we see today date from that time as does the San Esteban del Rey Mission. The church, begun in 1629, was completed after 11 years of hard labor and 168 Acoma deaths.
The Spaniards forced the Acoma to accept Catholicism. A steady parade of Spanish priests made their way up the treacherous stairs to the village where they worked tirelessly to make sure none of the Acoma reverted to their old ways. Some of the padres were patient and kind; most were not. A few were so brutal the Acoma gave them “flying lessons” off the mesa top.
Incredibly, through all the violence and cultural upheaval, the Acoma managed to keep their language, religion, traditional beliefs, rituals, songs and stories alive.
Sky City’s many sacred ceremonial areas known as kivas are the most obvious connection to pre-Spanish times. In most places kivas are underground chambers. But it’s not possible to excavate subterranean rooms on the mesa, so the kivas in Sky City are located on the ground floors of buildings. They are accessed through the roofs by large white ladders. The kivas and their ladders are strictly off limits to visitors.
We continued trailing Brandon up and down the dirt streets. Every block or so there was a folding table with a potter, a silversmith or a lady selling freshly-baked bread.
And then there it was, right in front of us – the tree, the only one in Sky City. It’s known as the Acoma National Forest.
After we were done admiring the tree, Brandon directed us to the edge of the mesa where we began snapping pictures like a gaggle of crazed paparazzi. The vision of the entire valley stretched out before us was simply incredible plus we had a spectacular bird’s eye view of the Enchanted Mesa, the most photographed natural feature in the area.
“According to our elders, “Brandon said, “the first Acoma village was not built on the mesa we’re standing on. It was over there, on the Enchanted Mesa. The people cut rock steps to the top, just like we have here. Every day they went down to the valley to tend their crops and every evening they returned to the village.
“One day while the people were working in the valley an enormous lightning bolt struck the mesa and destroyed the stairs stranding an old woman and all of the village children on top. Without the stairs they could not come down and the villagers had no way to get back up to rescue them.
“Just when they were about to give up hope,” he continued, “a Thunderbird swooped out of the sky, gathered the old woman and children in his talons and carried them safely to the valley floor. That was a clear sign for our ancestors. They knew it was time to move. They came to this mesa and our people have been here ever since.”
Everyone assumed the story was a myth until the 1970s when an archeologist studying the Enchanted Mesa found pottery shards that dated to the time the Acoma arrived in the valley. For a few weeks after the findings were announced, people saw strange lights hovering over the Enchanted Mesa. “New Mexico.” Brandon chuckled and shook his head. “That kind of stuff happens here all the time.”
As he walked back to the bus with those of us afraid to climb down the rock stairs, he said, “The night sky up here is awesome, even when there aren’t any UFOs. My favorite thing to do is lie on my back on a warm summer evening and watch the Milky Way.” He paused for a few moments. “When Acoma people pray, we pray for everything, not just the people. We pray for the animals, the plants, the earth, the sky. Even the stars.”
As I pulled onto I-40 to return to Albuquerque, I thought about something I’d read in the Visitor’s Center while I was waiting for the tour to begin. “A place prepared” is not the only translation of the word Haak’u. It also means “the place that always was,” the perfect description of the timeless village in the sky.
Plan Your Visit
Sky City is located about 65 miles west of Albuquerque. Most of the drive is via I-40.
For more information including tour prices, hours and days of operation, visit the Sky City website. Most of the year the only way to visit Sky City is on a guided tour. However, there a few special days, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when the public is invited to visit without being on a tour. There are details about visitng on these special open days on the website.
It's a good idea to call and make sure Sky City will be open on the day you plan to visit, whether it's an open day or a regular tour day. The pueblo closes to all visitors from time to time.
The Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum have an interesting Facebook page. Give them a like.
Both the pueblo and the San Esteban del Rey Mission church are Registered National Historical Landmarks and are on the National Register of Historic Places. Acoma Pueblo is the only Native American site to be recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. NTHP members get a discount for the pueblo tour by showing their membership cards.
You can find out about the etiquette of visiting the pueblo here.
The Acoma Pueblo operates a hotel and casino with a restaurant and bar. The Sky City Hotel and Casino are located right off I-40 at exit 102. Find more about those facilities here.
Acoma photo from Wiki by Scott Catron
By Scott Catron - originally posted to Flickr as Acoma Pueblo Sky City, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9711331
Aerial view of Sky City by Marshall Henrie
By Marshall Henrie - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29406068