Acoma Pueblo (pronounced AH-koh-mah PWEB-loh). Acoma is sometimes spelled Akome, Acuo, Acuco, Ako and A’ku-me. Some tribal elders say the name Acoma means “a place that always was;” outsiders say it means “people of the white rock.” A pueblo is a stone and adobe village inhabited by various tribes in the southwestern United States. The Spanish used the word pueblo to refer to both the people and their villages. The name of the main Acoma village, Acu, may mean “home for many ages” or “place of preparedness.”
Traditional Acoma lands may have consisted of some 5 million acres and many villages in present-day New Mexico. The modern-day Acoma Pueblo, a federal reservation, is located 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most Acoma now live in one of the two more modern towns on the reservation, but fewer than fifty families maintain individual or group homes in the old city.
The Spanish estimated that five thousand to ten thousand people lived in the Acoma village in 1540. In 1582 there were about six thousand Acoma people. In 1776 there were fewer than six hundred. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 3,938 people identified themselves as Acoma Pueblo. When the 2000 census was taken, that number had risen to 4,298. In 2004 the tribe recorded an enrollment of 4,754.
Origins and group affiliations
Modern-day Acoma people have four different groups of ancestors, one of which inhabited the Acoma homeland from prehistoric times. Some Anasazi people came and intermingled with them around the year 1200. The other ancestral groups probably migrated to the area from the Cebollita Mesa region of New Mexico.
Ancient tales tell that the Acoma once lived across the valley from their present-day settlement on an enchanted mesa (high, flat land shaped like a table) called Katsimo. One day heavy rains separated the ground below from the land above. After that, the people built a village on top of a mesa for safety. The Acoma Pueblo, sometimes referred to as Sky City, sits like a mighty fortress high above the New Mexico countryside. Some say the Acoma Pueblo is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States. This claim is challenged only by the Hopi Pueblo of Oraibi.
Contact with the Spanish
The Acoma say that their people have been living in the village of Acu for at least two thousand years. They were hunter-gatherers and farmers who apparently lived a contented life hunting for game and working their fields. The Acoma people first encountered Europeans in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Alvarado and his party of twenty soldiers arrived on their land.
Alvarado was impressed by the pueblo, perched atop a large hill with steep sides and a flat top—the kind of terrain the Spanish call a mesa. It could only be entered by way of a hand-built stairway of two hundred steps, followed by a stretch of about one hundred narrower steps. Beyond the steps lay 20-foot high rocks with hand- and toe-holds for climbing to the entrance. The Spanish gave the name “Kingdom of Acu” to this astonishing place and recorded that five thousand to ten thousand warlike people lived there.
The next major contact with the Spanish came in 1598 when Juan de Oñate (1552–1626), the new governor of the region, toured the pueblo. A year later the governor’s nephew visited the Acoma Pueblo, but his trip ended in violence as the Acoma attacked the Spanish. According to the Acoma, Spanish soldiers assaulted some women in the village; the Spanish, however, maintained that they did nothing to provoke the assault.
1150: Acoma Pueblo is a well-established city.
1540: Spanish explorers visit Acoma Pueblo.
1599: Spanish soldiers destroy the pueblo in the Battle of Acoma. The tribe submits to Spanish rule.
1680: The Acoma people revolt against Spanish rule.
1699: The Acoma resubmit to Spanish rule.
1848: The Acoma Pueblo comes under the control of the United States.
1970: A financial settlement with the U.S. government allows the Acoma people to begin purchasing back parts of their traditional lands.
Attack on Acoma
Only four Spanish men survived the attack and escaped. Six weeks later the Spanish stormed the Acoma. With a cannon in tow, a dozen men scaled the tribe’s mesa wall unseen and launched the bloody, two-day Battle of Acoma (1599). When it ended, the city lay in ruins and eight hundred of the six thousand residents had been killed.
More than five hundred Native American prisoners were taken to stand trial at the Spanish governor’s headquarters. Warriors over the age of 12 were sentenced to twenty years of forced labor; men over the age of 25 had one foot cut off. This was the beginning of a long and unhappy relationship between the Spanish and the Acoma people.
Acoma rebellion brews
Between 1629 and 1640 Spanish missionary priests forced the Acoma people to build a monumental Catholic church. The building was made of stone and adobe (a sun-dried mud made of a mixture of clay, sand, and sometimes ashes, rocks, or straw). The materials had to be hauled up to the top of the mesa in buffalo-hide bags and water jars. Native American workers carried massive timbers—some up to 40 feet long (12 meters)—more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Mt. Taylor. The logs apparently could not touch the ground during the backbreaking trip to the building site. Even the soil for a 2,000-square-foot (610-square-meter) cemetery had to be carried up the steep trail.
The Spanish tried to force all the Pueblo Indians to convert to the Catholic religion. They imposed severe penalties on any Natives who practiced their traditional religion. The Native Americans grew increasingly hostile. The forced labor, the imposition of a foreign religion on them, and the burden of keeping the Spanish supplied with food caused them to revolt in 1680.
Spanish return to Acoma
Although Acoma was some distance from the other pueblos, its people took part in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 by killing the local priest and burning the Catholic church in their hometown. (For more information on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, see Pueblo entry.) But they were no match for the Spanish weapons, and in 1699 the Spanish again asserted their rule. They forced the Acoma to rebuild the church, a magnificent structure 150 feet (46 meters) long, 40 feet (12 meters) wide, and 35 feet (11 meters) tall, with walls 9 feet (3 meters) thick at their base. The church is still in use in the early twenty-first century.
The Acoma faced more hard times during the eighteenth century: the Apache (see entry) raided their land, and they suffered from diseases such as smallpox that had been brought by Europeans. By 1776 only 530 Acoma remained alive at the pueblo.
U.S. Congress affirms Acoma rights
Much of Pueblo territory, including Acoma land, was acquired by the United States in 1848 when they won the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States). Ten years later Congress confirmed that the Acoma, along with other Pueblo tribes, could live on and farm their lands. An illegally built railroad, however, soon caused the loss of some reservation land. This left many Acoma unable to support themselves by farming; some left the reservation to find work as laborers, mechanics, electricians, and painters.
During the twentieth century new laws were enacted that allowed the Acoma to regain ownership of portions of their homeland, including some major religious sites. In 1970 they received a cash settlement of $6.1 million from the U.S. government for the illegal loss of their lands (but none of the land was returned). The money enabled the Acoma to make several purchases during the 1970s and 1980s that added more than 15,000 acres to their tribal land holdings.
For a while in the last quarter of the twentieth century, nearby uranium mines provided employment opportunities for the Acoma people; then the uranium market disappeared. The closing of the Ambrosia Lake Mine meant the loss of jobs for three hundred people on the reservation. Well into the mid-1990s the number of Acoma Pueblo who could not find work remained extremely high. Since that time the Acoma continue to expand work opportunities for the residents of their ancient city by increasing tourism, offering gaming, developing service and retail businesses, and mining natural resources.
The Acoma have suffered religious persecution because of their beliefs, so they maintain a great deal of secrecy about their spiritual traditions. Their chief gods are Ocatc (the Sun, who is called “Father”) and Iatiku (the mother of all Indians).
The Spanish Catholic missionaries were only partly successful in converting the Acoma to their faith. Christianity has never fully replaced the Native religion, but over the centuries the tribe has blended elements of Christianity with their traditional beliefs.
Acoma Keresan is still the primary language (the one they speak most of the time) of nearly 95 percent of the population on the Acoma reservation. Even in the early twenty-first century many elders do not want the Keresan language to be written down, but only passed along orally because that has always been the tribal tradition. Other Acoma disagree, believing that writing could help to preserve the language for future generations. Even though the Keresan language was unwritten, it survived for centuries under Spanish rule.
The Acoma also struggled to hold on to their oral traditions and language during the 1900s when the U.S. government forced Native Americans to adopt white culture. Students attending federal or mission schools were forbidden to speak anything but English. As poet Simon Ortiz (1941–) recalled in Woven Stone, “Though it was forbidden and punishable with a hard crack by the teacher’s ruler across the back or knuckles, we continued to speak in our Aacqumeh dzehni [Acoma language], surreptitiously in the classroom and openly on the playground unless teachers were around.”
In modern times most Acoma residents speak English as well as Keresan, and many of the older Acoma people communicate in other Native languages of the region and in Spanish.
Since the time of Spanish rule in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the tribe has maintained a two-part governmental structure. The nonreligious government is led by a governor, his or her assistants, and a tribal council. They are responsible for interactions with the non-Native world. The religious tribal government is an ancient, god-centered system headed by members of the Antelope clan (a group of families who claim a common ancestor).
Initiation of a War Chief
Anthropologist (a person who studies human behavior and culture) Elsie Clews Parsons described the Acoma war chief ritual in her 1939 book, Pueblo Indian Religion:
The outgoing war chief presented the new war chief with a prayer stick. The following day the war chief’s two lieutenants, each carrying the cane of office and a quiver of mountain lion skin containing a smaller stick, gathered wood for additional prayer sticks. When they returned the war chief met them, singing, and made two lines of cornmeal for them to walk on.
After making the prayer sticks the next day, the three men left them at the springs and returned with filled water jars. At three o’clock in the morning they asked to be admitted to the kiva. The Antelope clan bid them enter. The War Captain left four prayer feathers there as he prayed, then went to the east side of the mesa to pray. Just before sunrise, he called to the villagers who came out, greeted the sun, and sprinkled cornmeal on him.
In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) presented the Acoma and other Pueblo tribes with silver-headed canes to commemorate their political and legal right to land and self-government. The governors of each pueblo keep the canes during their official terms.
The tribe’s first formal court system and written code of law was adopted in 1974. Today the Pueblo is governed by five tribal officers and a twelve-member council. These leaders are appointed in the traditional manner. The Acoma also have a tribal court system. They have established business taxes and gaming ordinances.
For centuries the Acoma economy was based on agriculture. Men planted, harvested, built irrigation systems, and hunted. Women took care of housekeeping, child care, and food preparation, including grinding cornmeal. After the people harvested fruits and vegetables, the chief distributed them equally among the tribal members.
During the past few decades the Acoma have moved from a primarily agricultural economy to a business-based one. In modern times the increasing pollution of the nearby San Jose River has cut down on Acoma farming. Cattle raising is now a major industry. Nearly 125 families work in ranching or farming. The tribal government employs more than half of the Acoma workforce to perform community projects or operate local facilities.
Tourism is important to the Acoma economy. Every year at least eighty thousand tourists visit Sky City and provide income for the tribe. One popular attraction at Sky City is the San Esteban del Rey Mission, completed in 1640. The Sky City Cultural Center opened in 2005 and offers additional tourist activities.
Pottery-making is the single largest private employment. More than 120 self-employed potters sell their wares to visitors. The reservation also owns and operates a laundromat, a motel, a restaurant, a truckstop plaza, and a gaming casino. A 17,000-square-foot (1,579-square-meter) building is available for rent to manufacturers. In addition a small portion of trees on the reservation is sold for lumber.
Acoma Pueblo society is matrilineal, meaning descent and inheritances are traced through the mother’s side of the family. Aside from his or her inherited clan membership, each person is a member of a kiva (a ceremonial society named for the chamber in which the group’s meetings are held) and participates in the tribal celebrations.
Acoma buildings are aligned side by side in sets of three, forming east-west rows. Most contain kivas (meeting chambers for ceremonial societies). Acoma kivas are rectangular in shape rather than circular, as they are in many pueblos.
Present-day Acoma live in Acomita and McCartys, the reservation’s two modern-style villages. But a few families still occupy the old villages, where buildings are maintained for the purposes of tradition, ceremonial gatherings, and tourism. The 250 dwellings in the original pueblo have neither running water nor sewer service. The families who choose to live there carry drinking water from natural stone catch-basins where water has been stored for a thousand years. The few radios and televisions in the old pueblo operate only on batteries, and all cooking and heating is done with wood.
Clothing and adornment
Acoma clothing is more colorful than that of other pueblo dwellers. Garments are usually made from rectangular cloth strips with bright, embroidered designs along the borders.
The Acoma enjoy many traditional foods, some of their favorites being blue corn drink, corn mush, pudding, wheat cake, corn balls, piki or paper bread, peach bark drink, flour bread, wild berries, wild banana, prickly pear fruit, and a chili-spiced stew.
The Acoma Pueblo has two elementary schools and a high school overseen by a tribal school board that was created in 1978. Students also have the option of attending local public schools or private schools. Loan programs help students who wish to attend colleges and universities.
Public school education is supplemented by special classes taught by Acoma men who head various ceremonial societies. They conduct classes on such topics as proper behavior, care of the human spirit and the human body, astrology, child psychology, public speaking, history, music, and dancing. Spiritual teachings are learned mainly through participation in religious activities.
Traditional Acoma had medicine societies that included male healers and female assistants. Healers called shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz) treated anyone who asked for help, and people gave them food or other useful items in payment. Shamans were said to receive their abilities from animals—bears, eagles, snakes, or wolves, for example—and would call on their powers with traditional songs and dances. To show off their skills shamans might perform public feats such as sword swallowing, dancing on hot coals without injury, or producing green corn or fresh berries during winter. Three of the Acoma medicine societies remained in operation as of 2007.
Modern-day Acoma combine traditional practices with the latest medical techniques. For example, the Acoma hospital, which also serves the Navajo (see entry) and Laguna peoples, is equipped with a ritual curing room as well as alcohol and drug treatment facilities and a ward for treating kidney disease.
A large percentage of Acoma people are keeping alive traditional crafts such as potterymaking, carving, and the weaving of blankets, belts, dresses, capes, socks, skirts, moccasins, and baskets. Acoma pottery is particularly prized for its thin walls and delicate decorations. The Acoma Pueblo has a Visitor’s Center with a museum where tourists can see the thousand-year history of this ancient craft. The center also sells pieces by modern-day artists.
The Stolen Squashes
The Acoma composed many songs and poems, and some are used for teaching moral lessons. Coyote, an indestructible supernatural spirit with a humanlike mixture of good and evil qualities, is a popular character in their oral literature. He appears in stories like this one about the terrible consequences of stealing:
There is a telling that one day Insect Man went out to weed his squash patch and found that one of his squashes had been eaten.
“Who can the thief be?” he chirped. “I’ll think of a way to catch him.” So he sat down and thought for a while.
Then he took a sharp stick and went from one squash to another, tasting them all until he found the sweetest one in the whole patch. He chewed a small hole in it and crawled inside. “Now I shall find out who is stealing my squashes,” he said.
Soon Coyote came trotting along. He stopped beside the patch and began tasting each squash. When he came to the sweet one, he ate it up, Insect Man and all.
Down inside Coyote, Insect Man hunted about, singing as usual. Coyote looked first on one side and then on the other. He could not see anyone and was puzzled about that singing.
At last, Insect Man found what he was looking for. He pushed his sharp stick as deep as he could into Coyote’s heart, and Coyote fell over dead.
Insect Man crawled out and went back to this weeding and singing.
When Coyote came to life again, he never stole another squash. But that is how it happened that Coyotes have false hearts.
Reed, Evelyn Dahl. “The Stolen Squashes.” Coyote Tales from the Indian Pueblos. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 1988.
Festivals and ceremonies
The major modern celebrations of the Acoma are the Governor’s Feast, the Easter celebration (a Catholic holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ), Santa Maria Feast, Fiesta Day, and the Harvest Dance. The tribe gathers every year in the old village atop the mesa to celebrate the Feast of San Estevan, patron saint of Acoma. Both a Catholic mass and a traditional Harvest Dance are held, and fruits of the harvest are randomly distributed to attendees. Animals have always been highly respected by the Acoma, and the pueblo hosts Buffalo, Deer, and Turtle dances, as well as Basket and Turtle dances at Christmastime.
On the fourth day after a baby was born, the Pueblo people named the child and took him or her outside at dawn to see the Sun rise. In the early twenty-first century, due to the Catholic influence, babies are made full members of the tribe with both a Catholic baptism and the traditional presentation to Ocatc, the Pueblo Sun god.
Born in the mid-1880s, James Paytiamo wrote of his Pueblo childhood in Flaming Arrow’s People by an Acoma Indian, published in 1932. This story tells of his birth and naming, and begins when his grandfather lit a match that fateful day.
Matches were new in those days and, as it was windy, the flames soon spread over the fields. The villagers saw the flames and ran out with buckets of water in their hands. Some used wet rags, and some beat with brush, but they couldn’t stop the fire, and about twelve acres of wheat were lost.
As a result of this excitement, a little brown baby boy was born—on the high cliff of Acoma, the Sky City—who was myself, and was named for his baby name: Wheat-Sprout, or Ah-shrah-ne. When I was four days old, for it is always four days until a baby is named in Acoma, an old ceremonial ritual took place. I know what happened then, because I have since seen other babies named.
In order to find a baby’s name, the head of the family, or perhaps some medicine man, performs this ceremony. He sings over many Native American songs. While these songs were being sung it came into their minds to name me after the legend of Flaming Arrow.… But as my mother wanted to keep in memory this bad wheat fire, she named me Wheat-Sprout.
It was early on that August morning, before sunrise. The man who undertook this ceremony picked me up, the baby, to make my first trip to see the sunrise. In order to have me at a certain point, where the sun’s rays would fall on me easily, the party patiently waited until the sun rose, then shaking a sprinkle of pollen to the sun that was rising in the east, he mentioned my given name, Ah-shrah-ne. Then, right on the same spot where they were naming me, they gave me a bath in the cold water of a water hole in the rock, and took me back to my home place, where they feasted in honor of my birth. There was plenty for them to feast on, as we were well-to-do, in the manner of Acomas, having many sheep and cattle.
Paytiamo, James.“Wheat-Sprout.” Flaming Arrow’s People by an Acoma Indian. New York: Duffield & Green, 1932. Available online at (accessed on August 8, 2007).
Upon the death of a Catholic Acoma, a Roman Catholic mass for the dead is celebrated. Traditional Native American prayers are also said to pave the way for the departed to be received by the Creator.
Current tribal issues
Alcoholism among Acoma youth has become a matter of great concern to the tribe, not only because of its devastating physical and psychological effects but also because of its link to increased crime. The tribal court and police department seek to function as law enforcement agents, counselors, and educators to this troubled segment of Acoma society.
During the last half of the twentieth century the Acoma started buying back their original lands. They made land purchases in the 1970s and 1980s that added thousands of acres to their holdings. Later they erected a new governmental complex that included a large visitor’s center, a museum, and a cafeteria.
Simon J. Ortiz (1941–), who grew up in the village of McCartys, overcame alcohol addiction to become a sober and successful professional writer. In 1968 he received a fellowship from the International Writers Program for study at the University of Iowa. Despite having never earned a college degree, he has taught at several universities, held the post of consulting editor with the Pueblo of Acoma Press, and served as an interpreter and first lieutenant governor for his pueblo. Ortiz has written about Native life in essays, award-winning poetry (collected in Going for the Rain and A Good Journey), and story collections such as Fightin’ and Howbah Indians.
Other notable Acoma Pueblo people include painter and jewelry designer Wolf Robe Hunt (1905–1977); potter Lucy Lewis (1898–1992), whose painted designs are based on ancient Native patterns; and potter Lilly Salvador (1944–).
Cassidy, James J., Jr., ed. Through Indian Eyes: The Untold Story of Native American Peoples. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, 1995.
Keegan, Marcia. Pueblo People: Ancient Tradition, Modern Lives. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1999.
Little, Kimberley Griffiths. The Last Snake Runner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Mails, Thomas E. Dancing in the Paths of the Ancestors: The Culture, Crafts, and Ceremonies of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and Rio Grande Pueblo Indians of Yesterday. Berlin: Marlowe and Company, 1999.
Ortiz, Simon J. Woven Stone. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Peaster, Lillian. Pueblo Pottery Families: Acoma, Cochiti, Hopi, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2003.
Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1992.
“Acoma Pueblo.” ClayHound Web. (accessed on August 8, 2007).
“Acoma Pueblo.” Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. (accessed on August 8, 2007).
“Acoma Pueblo.” New Mexico Magazine. (accessed on August 8, 2007).
“Simon Ortiz: Native American Poet.” The University of Texas at Arlington. (accessed on August 8, 2007).
Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison