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How has Ácoma accommodated change while maintaining a deep connection to the past?

High atop a rocky mesa in what is now the state of New Mexico, the pueblo of Ácoma stands as living testimony to an ancient American culture that has survived, and adapted, in the face of centuries of conquest.

This aerial photograph by H.L. James, taken in the early 1970s for a book sold to tourists at the pueblo, helps to tell the story.

Ácoma houses on the mesa Cliffside where Juan de Oñate's solders invaded the village in 1598 Church build by the Franciscan's in 1629 Crossroads outside the village

1. No one knows for certain when the ancestors of the current Ácoma people first came to the place known as Sky City. Some archaeological evidence suggests that people were living atop the mesa, and in small settlements along springs and streams on the surrounding plain, before the time of Christ. Tribal elders say that their people have always lived there. They say that the word "Ácoma" denotes "a place that always was." A home.

Archaeologists agree that the village of Old Ácoma has been inhabited since at least 1200 A.D. The first Europeans to visit the pueblo were soldiers and priests sent by Francisco de Coronado in 1540. Those visitors did not find gold, but they did find a village of three- and four-story houses, set atop a mesa that seemed to pierce the very sky, with irrigated farms and "abundant supplies of maize, beans, and turkeys like those of New Spain."

2.More than half a century of casual contact between Spanish and Ácoma people passed before the soldier Juan de Oñate came, in 1598, to conquer New Mexico for Spain. Ácoma resisted, relying on its seemingly impregnable location as protection. But Oñate's soldiers made the grueling climb to the top, swarming over the rim, burning the village and taking hundreds of prisoners. Oñate sentenced all the adult prisoners to twenty years of slavery, sent the children to live "in the kingdom or elsewhere. . . that they may attain the knowledge of God and the salvation of their souls," and reserved a special punishment for the Ácoma men. Before they were sent into slavery, his soldiers cut off one of the feet of each male prisoner.

The Ácoma never forgot. When a bronze statue of Juan de Oñate was erected in New Mexico in 1998, someone cut off the left foot.

3.By 1620, the Ácoma had returned to the mesa. A Franciscan father arrived in 1629 to supervise construction of a church. The Ácoma learned to use the Spanish technique of adobe brick-making, combined with their own use of stone, tons of rammed earth carried up from the valley floor, and log timbers hauled great distances from mountains to the north.

Ácoma joined the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but after Spanish troops under Don Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico in 1692, the Ácoma cast their lot with Spain. They joined with the Spaniards in raids against Apaches and Navajos and adopted Catholicism, yet retained their ancient religious practices.

With Mexican independence in 1821, life at Ácoma changed little. Villagers farmed and worshipped as they had for the better part of two centuries. They still spoke their ancient language. Mexican officials continued to rely on Pueblo support in forays against the Navajos.

4.After the United States gained control of New Mexico in 1848, traders, soldiers, schoolteachers, homesteaders came. Americans encroached on Ácoma lands, introduced new goods, words, and ways. Ácoma men went to work laying track for the railroad that entered New Mexico in 1880. Ácoma children rode the train to school in Albuquerque, and in some cases, all the way to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. New tensions grew within the pueblo, with "traditionalists" resisting Americanization, and "progressives" embracing modern tools and attitudes.

Remote as it was, Ácoma would ultimately be integrated into American systems of transportation, communication, and exchange. And yet the Ácomas were determined to retain the land they held and to recover what they had lost through encroachment.


Something More

Title: Aerial View of Ácoma Pueblo
Artist: Harold L. James
Date: c. 1970


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