Manataka American Indian Council








Acoma History Brief


The Acoma or Ácoma [both: ak'umu] , pueblo (1990 pop. 2,590), altitude. c.7,000 feet (2,130 m), located in Valencia County in West Central New Mexico was founded c.1100-1250.  This "sky city" atop a steep-sided sandstone mesa, 357 ft (109 m) high and hard to access, is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. The residents, who speak a Western Keresan language (Pueblo),
are skilled potters. Below the mesa are the cultivated fields and grazing grounds that help support the community. Sheep, cattle, and grain are produced.

The pueblo's location has impressed visitors from Fray Marcos de Niza (1539) and Coronado's men (1540) to present-day tourists. Juan de Ońate was allowed entry in 1598, but the natives soon resisted the Spanish; defeated after severe fighting, many were later maimed. The missionary Fray Juan Ramírez arrived in 1629. The Acoma people joined in the Pueblo revolt of 1680, were forced to submit to Diego de Vargas in 1692, joined in the later uprising of 1696, and were subdued again in 1699. They were later Christianized; the
pueblo is dominated by the mission church of San Estevan del Rey.

Acoma is, along with the Hopi town of Oraibi, the oldest inhabited settlement in the United States; it was already well established when the Spaniards first saw it in 1540. The ancient pueblo, known as the Sky City, is spectacularly situated like a medieval fortress atop its 600-foot-high rock, halfway between Gallup and Albuquerque in New Mexico.

In the midst of the village stands the seventeenth-century Church of San Esteban with its wonderful polychrome altar, one of the great architectural treasures of the Southwest.

The Acoma Pueblo conversed in Keresan, a language unique to the Southwest.

In the Keres culture of Acoma Pueblo, the cacique bore the title of Inside Chief, signifying his power within the village. Beyond the pueblo walls, power passed to one or more war leaders, or Outside Chiefs, who were responsible for constructing defenses and keeping watch against invaders.

They say the earth was formed when the Great Father Uchtsiti, Lord of the Sun, hurled a clot of his own blood into the heavens. In the soil of this new world, he set germinating the souls of two sisters, the Corn Mothers, who were raised to maturity by a spirit called Thought Woman. When the time was ripe, Thought Woman gave the two sisters baskets filled with seeds and showed them the way to the earth's surface. Corn was the first thing they planted. They learned to cultivate and harvest it, to grind and cook it, and to make daily offerings of cornmeal and pollen to their father, Uchtsiti.  These lessons the Acomans would practice each day of their lives.

Drought in the 1100's to the 1200's was caused, as explained by Acoma storytellers, who say that one night the Horned Water Serpent, spirit of rain and fertility, abruptly left his people. No amount of prayer, no charms or dances of the rain priests, would bring him back. Unable to survive without their snake god, the people followed his trail until it reached a river. There they established a new home. The people of Acoma, so the elders  recounted, once followed the Salt Mother's (an elderly matriarch who gave herself freely to anyone who sought her) trail far into the wilderness, trekking past dry gulches and sage-purpled hills for days on end. 


Finally they reached a large salt lake. "This is my home," the Salt Mother declared.  After that, all who traveled there read their fortune in the water, and if ailing in body they were made well again.

When the column of Spanish troops came into view on a cold winter afternoon of January 21, 1599, by European reckoning-the fighting men of Acoma fanned out from their village to guard the edge of the mesa. As the Spaniards drew closer, the defenders unleashed a barrage of insults, rocks, and arrows from more than 300 feet above. Just seven weeks earlier, a party of Spanish soldiers seeking food had been treated in a friendly manner until their demands turned aggressive and provoked a furious reaction. When it was over, almost all the intruders were dead, including their commander, Juan de Zaldivar, nephew of the military govenror of New Mexico, Juan de Onate Resolved to make an example of Acoma, Onate dispatched 70 of his best men under the command of Vicente de Zaldivar.


These were the troops approaching the seemingly impregnable "Sky City" that January afternoon, and with them arrived a harsh new reality. Over the next 3 days the Spaniards fought their way to the top of the mesa, where they rolled out a fearsome new weapon, a cannon that spewed thunderous blasts of small stones, tearing flesh and shattering bones. The battle became a massacre. As many as 800 Acomans soon lay dead in the rubble of their ruined city. Some 500 survivors were herded into dismal captivity: all males over the age of 12 were condemned to 20 years' servitude; those over 25 were also sentenced to have one foot cut off. 


In time, some of the Acomans managed to escape and made their way home, there to begin the long process of rebuilding. The Sky City has been continuously inhabited since then, and never again has it fallen to an invader.

The Acoma 16th century pueblo-settlement still survives west of the Rio Grande in midwest New Mexico.

From Blue Panther Keeper of Stories.