Acoma Pueblo is a federally recognized tribal entity, with over 5000 members, located about 60 miles west of Albuquerque. The Acoma language is dialect of the Keresan language group, an isolate unique to Acoma, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Laguna Pueblos. Encompassing approximately 4.5 million acres, Acoma includes four small communities: Acomita, Anzac, McCartys, and Sky City (aka Old Acoma).
Acoma Sky City is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. The pueblo and the San Esteban del Rey Mission church are Registered National Historical Landmarks and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, Acoma Pueblo is the only Native American site to be recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Acoma Sky City
Sky City is located on top of a tall, sheer mesa, towering 376 feet above an open valley, surrounded by stone pinnacles and majestic buttes. The pueblo has been continuously occupied since at least 1150, possibly as early as 900 A.D. There are approximately 300 structures in the village, with three rows of three-story, apartment-style buildings, facing south on top of the mesa. They used adobe brick, with beams across the roof that were covered with poles, brush, and then plaster. The roof for one level would serve as the floor for another, with each level connected to others by ladders. Originally there were no windows or doors on the lower levels. They used the lower levels for storage. Family homes pass from one generation to the next through the maternal line (matrilineal society).
A few elders live on the mesa full-time; however, most people live in one of the other three communities. Tribal members head to Sky City for feast days, family gatherings, and special events.
Sky City’s kivas are the most obvious connection to Acoma’s ancestral traditions, but they are built differently. Whereas kivas are normally subterranean chambers, the seven kivas at Sky City are rectangular, located on the ground floors of buildings, with entry through the roof via ladders. Note: Kivas and ladders are absolutely off limits to visitors.
The modern world is kept at a distance in Sky City. For example, utility service is available, but the full-time residents of the pueblo have chosen to live as their ancestors did, with no running water or sewage disposal. Ovens are outside the buildings, with water collected in two natural cisterns. Portable generators are the sole source of electricity. Until the 1950s, the ancient stone staircase was the only way to get to the top of the mesa, with deep, weathered hand and foot holds providing a visceral connection to the people who traveled this route over the last millennia.
Sky City Tours
The pueblo is a popular tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors yearly. Tour tickets and photography permits are available at the Sky City Visitor Center, which is located at the base of the mesa. Guests are shuttled up the hill with Acoma guides providing tours of the ancient village. Residents become temporary vendors as the tour groups come through, setting up tables outside their homes to sell delicious baked goods and intricate Acoma pottery. There is more information about tours and fees at the end of this article.
History of Acoma
Historically Acoma’s society was communal, based on shared labor, with produce distributed equally. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the community was primarily agrarian, with food supplies supplemented by hunting and gathering. Farmers cultivated crops in the valley around the mesa, including corn, beans, and squash, aka the “Three Sisters,” as well as sunflowers and tobacco. They domesticated turkeys and hunted antelope, deer, elk, and rabbit. They also gathered seeds, berries, nuts, and plants seasonally, both for food and medicinal purposes. Traditional staples included blue corn drink, corn mush, corn balls, pudding, paper bread, and prickly pear fruit.
Acoma was part of an extensive trading network that covered thousands of miles and numerous tribes. The ancient trade routes connected the pueblos in the region with distant civilizations, like the Aztecs and Mayans to the south, which means the pueblos probably knew about the arrival of the Spanish, and the fate of the Aztecs, long before the Spaniards arrived at their doorstep.
Trading fairs were held annually in the summer and fall. The largest one was in Taos, with traders attending from near and far, exchanging a variety of commodities, including turquoise, shells, buckskins, buffalo hides, seeds, copper, macaw feathers, salt, slaves, and more.
The early Spanish expeditions were the first to document encounters with Acoma, starting in 1539 when Esteban, a Spanish slave, visited the community while scouting the region. The mica used for windows in Acoma and Zuni, viewed from a distance, glittered like gold. As a result, the scouting party mistakenly believed they had found Aztec treasure 2.0. They returned to Mexico City, spreading rumors of cities of gold waiting to be seized on behalf of the Spanish Crown. Those erroneous reports prompted the expedition by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado the following year.
Coronado arrived in July of 1540 with 2000 troops. He was looking for the “Seven Cities of Cibola,” where he thought he would find wealth on par with the Aztec capital, but the Seven Cities of Cibola were ancestral Zuni villages and they didn’t have any gold. They also didn’t have enough food to feed 2000 uninvited guests so Coronado and his men headed east, passing Acoma en route to the Rio Grande where they seized a Tiguex Pueblo near present-day Bernalillo to set up their winter camp. Ultimately, the Coronado expedition spent two years unsuccessfully looking for gold, traveling east to what is now Kansas and west to California, before returning to Mexico City empty-handed.
Spanish expeditions were extensively documented, providing detailed written accounts of their encounters with the regions native people, including a description of that first encounter with Acoma provided by Lieutenant Hernando de Alvarado:
“The village was very strong, because it was up on a rock out of reach, having steep sides in every direction… There was only one entrance by a stairway built by hand, with a broad stairway of about 200 steps, then a stretch of about 100 narrower steps and at the top they had to go up about three times as high as a man by means of holes in the rock, in which they put the points of their feet, holding on at the same time by their hands. There was a wall of large and small stones at the top, which they could roll down without showing themselves, so that no army could possibly be strong enough to capture the village. On the top they had room to sow and store a large amount of corn, and cisterns to collect snow and water.”
Juan de Oñate
Coronado’s expedition was the first of many. Whereas the inaccessibility of the mesa protected generations of Acoma people against raiders, as well as deterring the initial wave of Spanish conquistadors, that changed with the arrival of Juan de Oñate.
Oñate was the first official colonial governor, a position he held from 1598 – 1610. He was tasked with exploring and colonizing the new province, including building missions and converting the local population to Catholicism. He granted land to the colonists who accompanied him, empowering them to enslave and demand tribute from the native people. His contempt for the indigenous inhabitants of the province culminated in a brutal attack on Acoma Pueblo.
On December 1, 1598, Juan de Zaldívar, Oñate’s nephew, arrived in Acoma accompanied by 20–30 troops to trade for food supplies. Conflict ensued, but the story varies based on who you ask. The Acoma version cites an attack by some of the soldiers on Acoma women, with Acoma warriors retaliating. The Spanish version references a pre-existing plot to attack and kill the soldiers. Regardless, Acoma warriors killed 12 Spanish soldiers that day, including Zaldívar.
Oñate perceived the attack as an insurrection. He responded by sending Spanish troops, led by Juan de Zaldívar’s brother, back to Acoma in January of 1599, with orders to destroy the pueblo. The 3-day siege started on January 21, with approximately 800 people in the community killed during the battle that ensued, including men, women, and children. A row of houses on the north side of the mesa still have burn scars from a fire started by a cannon during the siege.
After the Spanish overwhelmed the village, they took 500 Acoma captive. However, Oñate wasn’t satisfied with the victory. He wanted to send a clear message to other pueblos about the cost of defying him so he put the captives on trial, sentencing men and women older than 12 to 20 years enslavement, with many shipped to Mexico. Men older than 25 had toes amputated. Surviving children were taken from their parents and given to Spanish missionaries to raise. Eventually some of those enslaved returned to Acoma, where they began the process of rebuilding under the watchful eye of the Spanish priests dispatched to the various pueblos to build Catholic missions. Of the 2000 people who had lived in the pueblo, approximately 250 Acoma survived.
When King Philip II of Spain heard about the massacre, and the extreme punishments levied, Oñate was charged in 1606 and convicted in 1610. He returned to Spain, banished from New Mexico forever and exiled from Mexico City for 5 years. Though he eventually overturned the conviction on appeal, he never returned to the new world, dying in Spain in 1626.
One of Oñate’s objectives was cultural indoctrination and assimilation. He demanded that the pueblos learn Spanish and sent Franciscan priests to their communities to build churches and convert them to Catholicism. That policy continued after Oñate was expelled.
When Father Juan Ramirez was assigned to Acoma in 1629, he started construction on a massive, fortress-like church. It was a monumental undertaking, involving more than a decade to complete. He forced residents of Acoma, usually women and children, to haul tons of adobe, straw, and sandstone up the mesa’s narrow stairs to build church walls. He dispatched Acoma men to Mount Taylor, 30-40 miles from the mesa-top community, to harvest ponderosa pine for the beams. They carried the logs to the pueblo. In total, 168 members of the community died while building the church.
They completed the imposing edifice in 1641. The 6000-square foot mission is a classic display of elegant engineering and impressive architecture, with a long nave and a sanctuary at the western end. Hand-carved 60-foot wood pillars flank the alter, painted with red and white designs symbolizing Christian and Acoma religious doctrines. Two square bell towers flank the front facade, with bells imported from Mexico during the 1800s. Priests residing in Acoma lived in the one-story convento on the north side of the church, with housing, workrooms, and storage.
There is a large cemetery in front of the church, surrounded by low walls. It took more than a decade to build a 40-foot retaining wall around the cemetery and then backfill it with enough dirt around the church for burials. Spanish and Acoma were buried there for centuries, but they ran out of room years ago.
Most of the missions in New Mexico were destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt in August of 1680, when the pueblos of New Mexico united to successfully expel the Spanish. In the process, they destroyed most of the missions in the region, killing priests and settlers in the process. However, San Esteban del Rey survived the revolt relatively unscathed.
Despite the negative connotations associated with forced labor and death, community members recognize that it was their ancestors who built the magnificent mission and they treat it as a cultural treasure. A tribal group, the Gaugashti, maintain the church, completing any necessary work to preserve it.
The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a National Trust Historic site in 2007. It houses the largest inventory of early 17th-century building material of any structure in New Mexico. Additionally, it features a large collection of Spanish colonial ecclesiastic art and paintings.
NOTE: All photography is forbidden within the church.
Acoma Pueblo Today
Acoma Pueblo allowed construction of a road in the 1950s, making Sky City far more accessible. Buses shuttle thousands of visitors from the Visitor Center at the base of the mesa to Sky City between March and October. All of the guides are tribal members. The cultural center and Haak’u Museum provide insight into the culture and history of the pueblo, with interesting exhibits spotlighting traditional pottery and other art forms. They also participate in the repatriation of objects of cultural patrimony and they are responsible for developing both educational and interpretive programs.
Of the many styles of pottery in New Mexico, Acoma pottery is one of my favorites. Their pottery traditions dates back more than 1000 years. They use a dense clay found in the area, with different potters having their favorite sources. Since pottery skills tend to pass from one generation to the next in many families, prime clay sources may be family secrets.
Potters dry the clay, strengthening it with pulverized pottery shards. They shape them, painting the thin-walled vessels with detailed designs, meticulously applied using the spike of a yucca. Geometric patterns, thunderbirds, deer, bear, rainbows and parrots are common designs. Depending on complexity, a piece of pottery can take 60-80 hours to create before firing. The potters test the pots for structural integrity prior to firing them by lightly striking the side of the pot and listening for a ring. Pots that don’t ring will crack when fired. They destroy culls, but they don’t waste them, repurposing shards into a future pot.
Experience a taste of Acoma culture at the Yaak’a Café, located within the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum. Y’aak’a means “corn” in Keres, the language of Acoma. The Acomaa farmed corn for centuries in the valley beneath the mesa. Open 9 AM – 4:30 PM from March – October
Haa’ku Museum and Sky City Cultural Center focus on the revitalization of lost art forms, language, as well as the preservation of Acoma’s history. The facility offer tours, educational programs, and features intriguing exhibits. Additionally, the center hosts public events for the community and the public throughout the year. Check the Acoma website for details and dates.
The 1.5 hr. pueblo guided tour covers areas of uneven ground on the mesa top. Wear comfortable walking shoes. During the tour you will have the opportunity to interact with local artisans and vendors; however, audio and video recordings are prohibited, and compliance with etiquette is expected.
Group Tour Coordinator | (505) 552-7861
- For general information on individual tours and group rates, check out the Tours page.
- For group reservations of 15 or more, call (800) 747-0181.
Group Discount Rates for 15 or more people
|Adults, Seniors, Military, University Student||$19.00/person + tax|
|Youth (Elem. thru H.S.)||$15.00/person + tax|
Admission Package Fees
(tax rate is currently 8%)
|Adult||$25.00 + tax|
|Senior, Active Duty U.S. Military (ID Req’d),
University Student (I.D. Req’d)
|$22.00 + tax|
|Children, Youth (Elem. – H.S.)||$17.00 + tax|
|Family package (2 adults, 2 youth)||$66.00 + tax|
|Condensed tour (Mission Only) – Adult||$17.00 + tax|
|Condensed tour (Mission Only) – Youth||$15.00 + tax|
|Camera permit only (no tour)||$15.00 + tax|
- Discounts are available to Friends of Haak’u Museum members and National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) members. Show the cashier your membership card.
June 24 & 29
July 9–14, & July 25
October: 1st or 2nd weekend
December: 1st Saturday
In addition to annual closures, unannounced cultural events or weather issues may affect tour times. Please call (800) 747-0181 between 8 AM – 5 PM for specific questions prior to your visit.
- Governor’s Feast at Old Acoma – 1st or 2nd weekend of February
- Santa Maria Feast Day in McCarty’s – First Sunday in May
- Harvest Dance at Sky City and the San Esteban Feast Day – September 2nd
- Holiday Arts and Crafts Fair – Thanksgiving Weekend
- Luminaria Tour – December 24th to 28th
The casino and hotel are alcohol-free.