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Acoma people fold old traditions into present

ACOMA — A dark-haired woman wearing jeans and a striped shirt climbs a ladder to enter her adobe home on this small Native American pueblo, carrying a bag of food from McDonald’s.

Her hourlong trip to the closest McDonald’s, which took her from one culture to another, shows how a touch of the outside world has woven itself into traditional life on the pueblo. Located 60 miles west of Albuquerque, Acoma is the oldest inhabited community in the U.S., where residents have brought many aspects of their traditional history into the present.

Signs of the pueblo’s connection to its history are everywhere: stories of church portals remaining open for the return of the souls of children kidnapped hundreds of years ago are mentioned on weekend tours; a 77-year-old woman who grew up without a last name speaks Keres as she makes pottery with clay she digs up by hand.

Another one of the pueblo’s traditional features: members of the estimated 15 families who live year-round atop a mesa, about 300 feet above other villages that constitute the pueblo, have Porta-Potties outside their houses. They burn wood to cook and stay warm, and they use kerosene lamps when it’s dark.

That part of the 245,000-acre pueblo chooses not to have indoor plumbing, electricity or running water.

“I think it’s just accepted that they’re not willing to allow utilities and water lines to be a part of the village,” says Conroy Chino, a former TV newsman and now documentarian who grew up on the Acoma Pueblo, graduated from Princeton University in New Jersey, and returned to lobby on behalf of the pueblo before the state Legislature on matters of gaming, health, education and natural resources through his company, ChinoWorks.

“I think they want to maintain the traditional lifestyle and historic sense of what Acoma has always been for centuries. … That’s the way it’s maintaining its authenticity, its uniqueness, its originality,” he says.

Authenticity has been maintained after hundreds of years of attacks, according to the New Mexico Office of the State Historian’s article on the Acoma Pueblo. In the late 1590s, Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate fought a bloody battle with the pueblo. Survivors surrendered. The pueblo was razed and burned, and survivors were forced into foot amputations and subjected to decades of servitude. Oñate was later expelled to Mexico City and the pueblo was rebuilt. In the late 1620s, missionary Fray Juan Ramirez forced the Acoma people to haul timber up the steep cliffs of the mesa to build a church, which still stands. Such abuses of power were events that led to the Acoma role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. According to the article, the Spanish reconquered New Mexico in 1692, forcing the Acoma and other pueblos to live with Spanish presence, often in conflict.

Before a road was built to the top, this was the only way up to the Acoma Pueblo, through a narrow stairway on the westside. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Before a road was built to the top, this was the only way up to the Acoma Pueblo, through a narrow stairway on the westside. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)


Despite its storied history, some signs of modernity atop the mesa, located 12 miles south of the 102 exit off Interstate 40, abound as well.

There’s a fancy-looking visitor’s center that has a chicly decorated café and a gift store selling souvenirs and jewelry. Weekend bus tours attract over a dozen tourists from around the country and the world; the museum with a specialist knowledgeable in Acoma pottery is open most days.

And Sky City Casino, about 10 miles from the mesa, sees thousands of visitors each year, has created an income stream for Acoma members who work there, and is now renegotiating a contract with the state to operate for years to come.

“Acoma still is a living culture,” Chino says. “The fact that we still have language, a strong sense of cultural knowledge, ceremony, ritual, song, prayer … it’s ancient in itself, but still a part of contemporary society.”

Small erosions

Signs of transition from ancient to contemporary life can be detected in little ways – the erosion of language and the building of homes – and can be heard through stories shared by pueblo elders.

Mission Church, San Esteban del Rey in Acoma Pueblo. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Mission Church, San Esteban del Rey in Acoma Pueblo. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Once, every Acoma resident was fluent in Keres, a language spoken in slightly different dialects on other New Mexico pueblos as well. Only about half are fluent today. “Nowadays, it’s a little more harder for younger children to pick it up, with TV and Internet, which is all English, all the time,” says Robert Lukee, a pueblo resident whose job is to lead many of the tours.

The rationale behind some houses having no doors on the first level, Lukee says, shows more evolution from ancient times to the present.

Instead of having doors, properties often had retractable ladders leading to entrances on upper levels, to keep them safe from invaders, which included not only Spaniards but other tribes, including Comanche, Apache and Navajo, according to the State Historian’s office. The house of the woman carrying the McDonald’s bag was built in such a way.

On the tour

Some are 400 years old, and, according to Lukee, many houses had very low doors, because the average height of an Acoma man was once 4-foot-11.

“In pictures from the 1800s, you’ll see houses that are only seven or eight feet high,” he tells a group of about 14 people who joined him on a three-hour bus tour of the upper mesa recently.

Guests included a Korean-born Fulbright Scholar doing research at the University of Oklahoma and his wife, as well as visitors from Georgia and St. Louis, none of whom were allowed to wander around the sandy, unpaved walkways unattended.

Many roadways on the mesa are lined with rustic adobe homes with outdoor ladders. On the sandy ground below, there aren’t sidewalks, street names or pavement. Some people set up in front of their homes with tables covered with artwork for sale: beaded jewelry, drawings and handmade pottery.

Marie Juanico, 77, has painstakingly made thin-walled pottery with geometric designs on the outside, which she placed for sale on a folding table alongside a stack of her business cards, kept in a plastic container.

Speaking in the slightly halting, lilting voice of many of the locals for whom English is a second language, Juanico says her mother taught her pottery-making; it starts with her digging clay out of the ground. “I put water in it and strain it with a cloth. Sometimes you have to let the dirt soak. It goes on better on the pot.”

Traditionally, Acoma pottery is made by hand using a coiling method rather than a wheel and is distinguished from other styles by thinner walls and designs that are painted on rather than carved in, according to Melvin Sarracino, museum specialist at Haak’u Museum, located inside the pueblo visitor center.

Longtime resident and potter Marie Juanico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Longtime resident and potter Marie Juanico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Pottery used to be more functional than decorative, Juanico says. “I remember when I was younger, we used one bowl to serve food … there were no dishes when we were growing up. Mom would cook out of a certain pot made of red clay. The food tasted really good, better than in a stainless steel pot.”

She and the children she grew up playing tag and hide-‘n’-seek with knew everyone else by their Indian names, which was usually one name, not two. “The Spanish names, they were just given to us,” she says. “We didn’t have last names.”

She says that rather than shop for groceries, her family made their own. Her dad grew pumpkins, squash, corn, watermelons and tomatoes. “Mom would can it,” she says. “If we butcher a cow, they can the beef, too.”

It’s different today, she remarks. “Wishing we could live like we used to live, not so much of the white man’s way, always needing money. … That’s one thing people don’t worry about up here, paying an electricity bill.”

The storyteller

Gary Keene, 59, doesn’t have to worry about that either.

His home is a short walk from where Juanico sells pottery.

He lives in an adobe house of about 600 square feet, which was passed down from his mother to his sister. In the front portion of the house are folding tables, pull-out couches and a few stacked coolers. The sleeping area is partitioned off in back.

Gary Keene, 59, left, tells a story while his son Noah, 10, dramatizes it in their house on the Acoma Pueblo. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Gary Keene, 59, left, tells a story while his son Noah, 10, dramatizes it in their house on the Acoma Pueblo. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“No water, no electricity, makes you humble,” says Keene, an artist and storyteller who moved back to the pueblo after he got out of the Navy in the ’70s.

Pleased to demonstrate his storytelling prowess, he recounts to a few visitors a story about how people got swirls on their fingertips, heels and hair growth patterns.

According to one story he heard growing up, many different animals – badgers, eagles and rabbits included – tried to breathe life into two clay mounds that had fingers.

They sang for hours in efforts to enliven the mounds, but they couldn’t, so they implored some whirlwinds to do it. The animals promised the whirlwinds would be rewarded with powerful strength, and the ability to go anywhere, if they succeeded.

They did, and their reward turned them into tornadoes, and their touching humanity with their swirling movements is what caused people to have swirls on their fingertips, heels and in the growth pattern of their hair, Keene explains in amused detail.

Meanwhile, his 10-year-old son, Noah, sits next to him with an animated face. When an animal character from the story was thinking, Noah, whose waist-length hair is worn in a thick braid, taps his temple or puts two fingers on his chin and frowns. Sometimes he moves his lips, forming the same words his father is saying.

“I just felt like doing it,” he smiles and shrugs when asked what made him join in, as he has been doing for the past few years. He dramatizes the stories both for visitors on the mesa and when he and his father tell stories together at local schools.

A quiet life

Noah says he likes spending time on the mesa. “It’s a little quiet,” he says. He and his dad pass time in the evenings doing Cat’s Cradle with string, telling stories or playing games like Battleship and Stratego.

They keep the house heated with a wood-burning stove that stays on all night so that they wake up toasty-warm. They bring tanks of water up and use that to cook, wash and serve to guests. Their linoleum floor has faded, there’s a leaking wall and the roof slopes. Stone walls in the back let in a draft, and the ceiling is made of wood beams.

“From ’76 on, that’s when I considered this home,” Keene says proudly.

According to potter Marie Juanico, it’s always home for members of the Acoma Pueblo – a place to which its own often return. “Some leave, but they always come back,” she says.

Chino says he comes back every week or so, as do most people from the Acoma Pueblo, for a range of reasons: “Clanship ties, ceremonial ties, familiarity, ties to the land,” he says. “Anybody who’s grown up there still has that strong tie or connection to the community.”