Charles Lummis was a journalist interested in historic preservation and indian rights. He traveled through New Mexico in the 1880s. The stark landscapes had a visceral impact on him.

And in its midst lies a shadowy world of crags so unearthly beautiful, so weird, so unique, that it is hard for the onlooker to believe himself in America, or upon this dull planet at all.

Acoma Pueblo

Until the 1950s, there was no road to Acoma Sky City. A movie studio paid to build the road in the 1950s for a production filming in the area. Acoma is about 20 miles from the interstate. The road winds 20 miles south, through a wide canyon punctuated by towering stone pillars and two solitary mesas. Two mesas rise from the flat canyon floor like stark sentinels protecting the valley. One is Enchanted Mesa and the other is home to the Acoma people, known as Sky City. The Sky City is an ancient pueblo. The Acoma established the village more than a thousand years ago. Before that, they lived on top of Enchanted Mesa.

Enchanted MesaEnchanted Mesa

Enchanted Mesa is the taller of the two mesas. Acoma oral history refers to an ancient pueblo that existed prior to Sky City. An enormous storm triggered a rock slide, sheering the part of the cliff with hand and foot holds. The majority of the community was stranded in the valley below, with no way to ascend or descend to the pueblo above.

The Acoma people needed a new defensive stronghold so they set up a pueblo on the adjoining mesa. That village, Acoma Sky City, is still there and still inhabited. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied communities in the United States.

Acoma Sky CityAcoma Sky City

Living on top of a mesa offered little advantage to the people of Acoma other than defense. Water was a precious commodity, almost a form of currency. Villagers toted pots to distant springs on the valley floor and climbed with four hundred feet to the top of the mesa with the heavy containers. On top of the mesa, they relied on cisterns to capture rainwater.

Tribal farmers were masters of dry land farming, conserving meager water supplies to eke crops from the valley below the mesa. Otherwise, the community’s agricultural resources.

Conflict with the Spanish

Father Marcos de Niza led a scouting party to Zuni the year prior to the Coronado expedition. He passed Acoma in 1539 on his way to the Zuni pueblo Hawikuh. The following year, in 1540, the Stone walking paths in Acoma Sky CityCoronado expedition went by Acoma pueblo. They didn’t linger. Coronado realized that superior weapons and horses weren’t enough to overcome the strategic advantage of being on top of a mesa.

When Oñate arrived in 1598, Acoma initially submitted to the Spanish demand for homage and obedience; however, their compliance was short lived. Acoma warriors attacked a group of soldiers en route to Zuni for supplies. They killed ten of them. Oñate retaliated, sending Vicente de Zaldívar and a small troop of Spanish soldiers to attack Acoma. After a violent and bloody battle, the Spanish emerged victorious.

Oñate wanted to establish a precedent for dealing with uprisings. He handed down sentences ranging from mutilation to servitude. In total, 600 residents of Acoma were killed, 500 were imprisoned, men over the age of 25 had a foot amputated, and the women were sent to Mexico as slaves. Acoma pueblo was decimated. Other pueblos in the region were horrified.

San Esteban of Acoma Mission

San Esteban of Acoma is an enormous structure, measuring 150 feet in length and 33 feet in width. The vigas supporting the roof are fourteen inches square and forty feet San Esteban Mission in Acoma Pueblolong, built with logs brought from the San Mateo mountains 20 miles away. The inside height of the nave is almost fifty feet tall. There are no transepts. The walls are almost 10 feet thick, constructed with approximately 20,000 tons of adobe and stone. A choir loft spans the rear of the nave at the eastern end. The villagers worked on it for more than 12 years, completing the church and holding the initial Mass in 1642. There is an element of irony that the largest existing mission in New Mexico serves the most inaccessible congregation.

Though it took more than a decade to build the mission, it took longer to create a viable cemetery. Nature uses wind and water to power wash mesa tops, removing all dirt. As a result, the Acoma had to build a massive stone retaining wall east of the church to create a cemetery with enough earth to hold a Christian burial. The wall measures forty-five feet high in places. They spent 40 years filling the cemetery with dirt from the valley floor.

Pueblo Revolt and Aftermath

Acoma warriors killed the resident priest, Father Lucas Maldonado, during the Pueblo Revolt. It is unclear whether they damaged or demolished the church during the uprising or its aftermath.

The Spanish reconquered the region in 1598, dispatching Franciscan priests to the pueblos to re-establish missions. Father Juan Álvarez visited Acoma in 1705 to assess the state of the parish. He reported scant inventory, overseen by a lone priest. The priest, Father Antonio Miranda, decided to repair the church himself. He completed the reconstruction in 1725.

Major Renovations

By the 20th century, the church had deteriorated to an alarming degree. Water and wind eroded the tower bases. Acomita, 15 miles away, was the nearest railroad stop. Villagers had to transport building materials to the top of the mesa using human and animal labor. The community initiated the restoration, repairing the roof to protect the nave. They repaired the south wall in 1926, because it had eroded 10 – 18 inches, which destabilized the base of the structure. Photographs taken shortly after the restoration reveal a polished version of the Acoma church.

Today, San Esteban is in a good state of repair following further preservation efforts in 1975 and roof repairs in 1981. Morning is the best time to view the church, when the facade catches the sunlight and reflects it back across the campo santo. The interior of the nave is whitewashed and sports a pink wainscot with painted decorations reminiscent of the motifs used on Acoma’s distinctive pottery. Above the altarpiece are paintings of the sun and moon, native motifs mixed into the religious framework of Catholic iconography.

San Esteban Mission
Established 1629, completed in 1641 and used continuously since, San Esteban del Rey Mission Church is a National Historic Landmark located south of Interstate 40 on State Route 23 at Acoma Pueblo, NM.

Guided tours of the mission church and Acoma Pueblo are available for $23. Photography of the pueblo is allowed with a permit/fee, but visitors are asked not to photograph the cemetery and interior of the Mission Church. For more information, visit the Acoma Sky City website or call 505-470-4966 or 800-747-0181.

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