Saturday, April 14, 2007

Acoma: Then and Now

My adult children were 8, 11, and 12 years respectively, when the family journeyed west on THE BIG TRIP. We were heading to California on a two-week whirlwind of spots I could remember having taken when I was 13 years old with my parents.

Memory only serves me now, as I didn't keep a journal in the 1960's. But we all remember the Acoma reservation. A simple sign directed us off Interstate 40, which had been Highway 66 in my teen years. This side road was unpaved but layered with rocks and seemed endless. Finally, we arrived at another sign that indicated only a few more miles, and the Chrysler pulling our pop-up trailer groaned as it labored up a steep hill, R being carefull not to slide backwards. At the first level area, we parked and followed visitors before us scrambling up some stone stairs. To our kids, this was an adventure.

Suddenly we were on top of a mesa. An Indian posted near the steps pointed us to a tiny shack you'd think was for a watchman. Inside we were told to leave our cameras behind while visiting. No photos of anything. Outside in the sunny, slightly windy day a guide accepted a fee and led a small group of us immediately to the church, a grey structure founded by a Catholic priest in the 1800's. We listened intently as our guide sadly told us that only a handful of inhabitants were on the mesa, losing all the young people to civilization below. And, these older people living still without electricity, water, and sanitation were the last of the Acoma people. They made their living by continuing the practice of pottery making. Hand throwing and decorating pots large and small with the needles of the yucca plant and dyes made from nature, these few people sat in front of their adobe clad homes, hoping for the dollars they'd earn from us. So few houses were on the mesa that we visitors felt we were seeing the decline of an ancient peoples, remnants of the Anazazi. We backtracked down the stone steps to the car and trailer with the several pots we'd bought from one of the old women when she finished decorating them with her needle-like brush.

Now, forty years later Sis and I reached the turnoff at I40, checked into the Sky City Hotel/Casino for a night's rest before visiting the mesa the next morning. This time we followed a paved road, passing several housing projects, two churches, a council building, a Headstart building, two schools, a water tower, electrical lines, and television antennas. Something had been happening all the while my children were growing into adults. Sky City had grown up, too.

We arrived at a cultural center housing a museum, cafe, and gift shop. Our tickets cost us $11 and we were whisked off in a small bus up the mountain. I was aghast at the change from primitive to modern. The first thing we saw as we advanced towards the mesa were the dotting of small shacks in gray, blue and white-- the familiar portable latrines. Now, I call that good progress.

The second surprise was seeing the breath-taking views again. The third was the number of houses on the mesa. Through visitors' fees and pottery purchases, the Acoma had courted their young, building schools and teaching them an almost forgotten culture and language, and employing the young as guides. The housing projects had enticed families to return to their land.

Our guide was Kathleen, attending a local Albuquerque college. The day was dreary, an icy slush was falling, and we skidded and picked our way in the mud that refused to leave our shoes. She said the Acoma population that had moved away now had second homes they'd built in which to reside during sacred ceremonies held several times a year. This accounted for the increase in the number of dwellings on top. Having no building codes, some of the homes were very modern, sitting next door to an ancient structure. Her explanation of mesa life had lengthened to an hour and a half, reminding us of Coronado's twice visit to destroy everything Acoma. Now with progress, permanent residents park their cars and drive to and from stores below. Improved construcion methods are used to ward off deterioration from wind and bad weather. However, there is still no electricity nor running water. No television sets, microwaves, or other modern conveniences. Cisterns are now more available, so no one has to go far to fill a container of water; as of years earlier,when a frail Indian woman slipped deftly down a worn path to the springs below, dipping her pail and picking her way back up to supply the household for the day.

In the final moments she led us to the opposite side of the mesa where we could see below the cultural center, the winding road up to the mesa,and another breath-taking vista. She pointed to hewn rock steps and announced that early visitors had had to clammer to reach the top. My mind hadn't failed me. I looked at the steps and remembered the tough time R and I had maneuvering three kids and ourselves to the top. I smiled. Kathleen said that nowadays visitors no longer use the steps because they are deemed too perilous. Ha! I thought, visitors today are just wimps!

Instead of several older Indian women selling wares, there were a dozen, much younger, the sons and daughters (or maybe grandchildren) from whom we'd bought our pots. I recognized some of the names. They appear on the bottoms of our black and white pots sitting on a table in Madison, MS--still as beautiful as the day so long ago they were bought.


mreddie said...

Excellent verbal tour, made me almost feel that I was there. ec

MojoMan said...

It's heartening to read the Acoma people are reclaiming and preserving their sacred place. I hope modernity does not encroach to the point that they can no longer feel the specialness of this place.