With company in town for Christmas, we wanted to show them some of the uniqueness of our state so we headed to Acoma Pueblo, the most dramatic of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico. Situated atop a 360 foot mesa, it is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. (Yes, St. Augustine, Florida tries to claim that title, but it was established in 1565 and the city’s website then qualifies the “Oldest City” claim with “oldest continually occupied settlement of European origin in the United States”. Ah. Evidence places Acoma in existence since at least 1150.)
The end of the year marks many of the Native American pueblo tribes’ ceremonials. As our tour of the pueblo village was ending, low rhythmic drumbeats and soulful chanting could be heard echoing from the small plaza in front of the mission church. We hurried over to witness the scene. In the plaza, the tribal elders were sitting in a semi-circle in front of a carefully tended fire as the ceremonial dancers entered the church. Inside were assembled about a hundred people, mostly Acoma tribal members, old and young alike, and a handful of tourists like ourselves. The deer dance was in progress, a beautiful ritual dance performed by men and involving amazing costumes of antlers perched atop their heads with their faces covered by pine branches. The drumbeats and sing-song chanting became soothing as we watched the drama of the dance unfold. When this dance was finished, they exited the church to perform in front of the elders, and then another group arrived for the next ceremony, this time the female rainbow dancers. The scene was played out similarly but the movements were different. The women in their pretty but sleeveless dresses must have been freezing. They were followed by the buffalo dancers, arrayed with animal skins and buffalo horns. Their dance, too, conveyed strength and rhythm. These dances are not whirling or frenetic, but measured, steady, purposeful. We stood in the dusky and cold interior, the chill emanating up through the stone floors, observing the ancient rites being played out in dance. Toward the end of the hour all of the previous dancers assembled for a kind of “grand finale”. It was a very intense dance, and the entire experience was moving and dramatic.
My parents and my brother, who had never seen an American Indian ceremonial before, were amazed by the almost primeval beauty of it all and repeatedly said how glad they were that we had chosen that day for our outing. One day later and they would have missed it all! They approached the tribal elders and shook each one’s hand in turn, a mark of respect that was outwardly appreciated by the elders with their smiles and nods.
We returned to the visitor center by way of the ancient trail down the steep cliff of the mesa, using the time-worn hand and foot holds that are carved into the sandstone, weaving through a cleft in the rock and enjoying the views of the surrounding countryside and Mt. Taylor rising in the distance. Looking back at the mesa rising above the high desert, sparks an awe at the ability of the Acomans to persevere and retain their ancient rites.
It is times like these that make us glad to live in such a unique place. While Albuquerque has become much more homogenous through the years of our residence, scenes like these remind us that our state is diverse and, in many ways “old world”, with a rich history and amazing natural beauty.
copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider