After a week of visiting the ruins of ancient cities, I was keenly interested in visiting a more recent outpost of those earlier civilizations — one that bears the distinction of being the oldest inhabited community within the borders of the United States. Acoma was settled in 1150, making it older than the Taos pueblo in the northern part of New Mexico.
Acoma does not share the distinction of being on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as Taos has been since 1992. Taos is on the list because it is “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.” As I discovered, Acoma lacks the uniform traditional adobe appearance that one sees at Taos. Upon closer examination, one can see liberal use of non-traditional materials, such as stucco instead of adobe and off-the-shelf doors and windows from places such as Home Depot. Perhaps that may explain why Acoma fails to merit the “outstanding universal value” distinction.
A few years back, I made some inquiries to both pueblos about their visitor levels. Although Acoma is only about 13 miles from Interstate 40 and less than an hour outside of Albuquerque, it receives half as many visitors as Taos, which is far more remote. Quite possibly that may be due to World Heritage inscription, although a more likely explanation would be that Taos Pueblo is close to other attractions for affluent visitors, such as ski resorts and artist communities.
The visit to the pueblo begins in its attractive new visitors center. After paying the $20 admission price, which includes a camera permit, visitors board a bus for a five-minute trip to the top of the mesa. Acoma has strict rules for photography, which are detailed on its website and reiterated by the tour guide.
Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church and within the cemetery courtyard. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork. Use of tripods, video cameras, digital video cameras, cellular phone cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited. Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited. VIOLATORS OF THESE GUIDELINES WILL HAVE THEIR FILM AND/OR CAMERA CONFISCATED.
I arrived shortly after 9:00 a.m. for the first tour, at 9:30. By 9:25 there was only one other group present, and elderly couple. The visitor center staff told me a tour bus was expected and that bus, laden with perhaps 30 visitors from Newport News, rolled in a moment later.
The assembled group required two tribal buses for the climb to the mesa top and it was hardly intimate. Still the tour guide, a hipster Acoman wearing earrings and shades, did a magnificent job of herding the mob about while explaining the pueblo’s history and answering questions.
Stationed along the route were members of the Pueblo selling pottery. None of the work I saw compared to the pottery from Mata Ortiz and the prices were perhaps ten times higher. The others in the mob, however, appeared to be spending freely on Acoma pottery.
Our guide explained that most of the dwellings are second homes, with residents living in nearby towns or on farms. This may explain the somewhat haphazard appearance of many of the buildings. I didn’t get a powerful sense that poverty is a large problem there. Some new construction was obvious and the Pueblo appeared relatively lively that day.
The tour brought us around the mesa top. One corner had a sign warning residents not to toss waste water and trash off the cliff. Evidently that was the traditional means of disposing of waste. A couple of enormous plastic garbage cans nearby were evidently put there to encourage appropriate behavior. I didn’t look over the cliff to see if that was successful.
The real gem of the Pueblo is San Esteban del Rey Church and Convent, whose origins go back to 1630. The building is being restored with the support of a bundle of institutions, including the Andy Warhol Foundation.
Visitors have two choices for a live return to the valley floor: a) the bus or b) the traditional stairs. I opted for door number two. Much as with the ancient path to Pueblo Alto at Chaco, the stairs were cut along a crack in the mesa wall. In some places one could see hand holds chiseled into the rock. I was most impressed by a spot near the top, where massive amounts of already-been-chewed gum had been deposited. After reaching the bottom, it’s about a ten minute walk to the visitors center.
After returning to the rented Malibu, I headed north toward Grants, New Mexico, where I hoped to find a wi-fi connection that would enable me to check in to my flight the next afternoon. As I made my way up Indian Route 38 to the top of the next mesa, I encountered an old Step Van accommodating a Indian craftsman making jewelry. Outside was another Indian peddling some attractive pottery which was arranged on a folding card table. I asked him why he had binoculars strung around his neck. The answer: “So I can watch for palefaces coming up the highway!”
I did manage to get to the McDonalds in Grants to check in, but I resisted eating there. There are too many great places to eat in New Mexico. Why would I consider eating that dreck? Unfortunately, Grants is hardly a thriving metropolis and there weren’t many choices. I opted for El Chile Toreado, a taco truck. This was a good choice. As I ate four great tacos, two enormous intermodal trains thundered by on the Santa Fe tracks, only a block away.
I returned to I-40, but couldn’t resist another detour which would complete my Acoma experience. That detour was a visit to the Pueblo’s Sky City Casino. I planted $5 into a video poker machine and watched the money dribble away. Then I injected another dollar so I could torture myself a bit longer. Fortunately, I hit some kind of combination that paid $6.75. I cashed out an congratulated myself on some excellent and unusual self-control.
Prior to visiting this sad place I entertained the notion that Indian casinos were a good thing because they represented a kind of payback for a long history of injustices inflicted by the white man. That idea evaporated once I entered the building and observed that most of those gambling were Indians.