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Acoma Pueblo, Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum

In a land of stunning vistas, of sandstone bluffs and multihued mesas, the Acoma lands contain some of the most scenic and compelling of all, stretching for miles to the horizon. Add to that a fascinating tour of pueblo life atop a mesa, and a close look at the pottery, weaving, and artisan crafts of a living culture. That's a visit to the Acoma Pueblo and their new cultural center and museum. The pueblo itself covers about 75 acres atop a 357-foot high sandstone mesa overlooking the valley floor. It is the legendary Sky City and it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States. The crown jewel is the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum sitting in the valley below, which opened in May, 2006. It replaced their previous tourist center that was felled by a devastating fire in 2000, destroying not only the building but priceless artifacts. Determined to rebuild bigger and better (and safe), the new center is a beautiful showcase of Acoma culture.

The Acoma

The Acoma are one of the rare native tribes who have been one people living on their land for over 2000 years. In their oral history, they go back much further. Their traditional stories tell of being led to this stunning valley and their aerie mesa by their ancestors. They are the Haak'u, which means a place prepared, Acoma is the anglicized version.

The story goes that as their ancestors were told that a place had been prepared for them in which to live. As the ancestors traveled through the lands that now make up Colorado and New Mexico they would stop and call out Haak'u. When, at last, that call returned to them, the ancestors knew they had found the place that was their destiny. They are a people who believe in having a plan and a purpose.

For centuries they lived in peace and trade, and their culture thrived. They hunted in the mountains, traded with other tribes, grew corn in the valley and raised their families on the top of the mesa.

But their high sandstone walls turned out to be no match for Spanish conquistadors who came seeking the city of gold, and conquered the Acoma in the process. The Acoma became Catholic and experienced the repression of the colonial rule. Some have suggested that they had even lost their religion to Catholicism.

The Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum

Read more at: newly opened cultural center, costing over $15 million to complete, is an expression of the Acoma culture. Everything has been carefully chosen and planned. The colors which recall the colors of the pueblo with its whitewashed walls. Traditional designs with stone floors help to achieve a look similar to the dirt floors of their adobe homes. Doors that pivot open and closed, like the doors of the 375-year-old San Esteban del Rey Mission in the pueblo. The T-shaped doorways hark back to the structures of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and Colorado's Mesa Verde, both of which are places visited by the Acoma during the search for the place prepared for them. The designs on the walls are the symbols for clouds. The original windows of the pueblo were of mica so the designs in the glass panels of the Museum echo that history as well. A tour of the building itself is as fascinating as studying the exhibits.

In addition to sharing their culture, the people of the Acoma pueblo hope the cultural center will be a home for many of their objects and art that have, over time, been scattered to public and private collections. Pieces from the Maxwell Museum, National Museum of the American Indian and School of American Research are on loan to the new museum. And pueblo hopes to reinvigorate some of their once vibrant art and craft, such as weaving, with special classes.

Another way to experience Acoma culture is through a taste of it at Yaak'a Cafe (Corn Cafe), an airy eatery opening to the outside courtyard featuring a diverse menu of Acoma foods as well as traditional native American cooking and contemporary American dishes. In other words, there's something for everyone. The lamb stew was deliciously spicy and the traditional native American taco (one of my favorite New Mexican dishes) was mouth-wateringly good meat and beans atop fry bread, a yeasty dough flattened and deep fried, with grated cheese and diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce.

While it is not unusual for a pueblo to be open to the public, the Acoma's long history of hospitality, tolerance, and acceptance have led them to reach out to share their culture through the new building. "Take care of the people, the animals and the land," says Marvis Aragon CEO of Acoma Business Enterprise, the financial and business arm of the pueblo "The cultural center is a way to take care of the people, Acoma and non-Acoma alike."

The Pueblo

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The only way to visit the pueblo is by a tour given by Acoma guides from the Sky City Cultural Center. I walked the unpaved rocky streets, past ancient buildings and tiny plazas surrounded by mountains and mesas that measure their ages in eons. Exploring the pueblo (which means little town in Spanish) is to become clearly aware of history and the difficulties of combining that legacy with modern life.

The pueblo has both older and newer buildings, moments of incongruity as new windows and cement blocks sit atop older adobe walls. In a country that tosses away and bulldozes history aside they are determined to hold onto their traditions that anchors them to what is real and eternal, the life that had nurtured them, even if that is not easy. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers hold food, although an occasional generator can be seen. Water is hauled up the steep road, and outhouses remind visitors of the reality of living as one's ancestors did. People live this way from a conscious choice. There are modern homes and buildings down below in the valley. A new Head Start Center, a modern fire station, offices for tribal government. But the Acoma come to the top of their mesa to remember who they are and where they come from.

The Acoma are famous for the pottery, and visitors to the pueblo have ample opportunity to see these hand-made pots of coiled clay, smoothed, painted and signed by the artisans. The people are open and friendly, but etiquette is clear no photos of people without their expressed permission. Frequently requests for photos are waved away with a shy smile and a head shake "no." Privacy is valued, especially when visitors are always coming into your community.

Our tour guide was Orlando, a clan elder, both knowledgeable and forthright. He spoke of the history of the Acoma people, the repression of Spanish rule, and some of the experiences of living in a matrilineal culture. Read more at:

San Esteban del Rey Mission

The historically recognized San Esteban del Rey Mission is true highlight, even if the church it represented was often unsympathetic to the people of the pueblo. Although the Spanish are long gone, some of the Catholic heritage survived and fused with native religious song, prayer, and dance. The melding has produced unique celebrations and unusual interior design for the church.

San Esteban del Rey Mission, St. Stephen for short, is decorated with parrots, corn, rainbows and borders of pink. At the ceiling of the church is a traditional Acoma painting. The parrots represent beauty, the pink is the color of mother earth and corn is the staple food of the pueblo.

Although there's a cemetery, the Acoma people do not believe in burials. They hold that we all have come from the earth, emerging from that place of origination. Thus people aren't buried in the earth. Rather when they die they are given back to the earth.

Sky City Casino Hotel

The Acoma Pueblo is also one of the gaming tribes. But with their own unique approach. The casino, hotel, and entire pueblo are alcohol-free. What's more, it is one of the few pueblos that have used their financial success to grow other business and the infrastructure of the pueblo. Mr. Aragon explains that the Acoma Business Enterprise has seven different businesses. The casino is the money engine, as walking through the aisles of the casino or in the parking lot shows. But they are diversifying and widening their business and will continue to do so in the future.

Mr. Aragon sums up the Acoma approach with the story of the two sisters. One chose to stay in the west and maintain her heritage through stories and song. The other went east. The tale is telling because it speaks of a world view in which we are all one people. Their cultural outreach is part of their spiritual tradition of the oneness of all humanity. Their cultural center is a way to know the Acoma people. Grown from a belief that acceptance is rooted in the soil of understanding.