The Oldest Town in America
Today I visited the oldest inhabited town in America, started sometime in the 11th century. Acoma is not easy to get to. It's an hour and a half from our RV site, and poorly signed, so I found myself backtracking numerous times. As I got closer on the First Nation land, it began to feel like I was in a different land, with cows walking along the road and grasses encroaching on the main road. Mesas rose out of the ground, and in the distance, Acoma Pueblo on its safe high ground.
Below the mesa is a Visitor Center, where you pay $10 for entrance and $10 for the right to take pictures. (If you take video, they will destroy your camera.) The most interesting part of it is this door, opening like nothing else I've ever seen.
(The video camera I had with me doesn't allow for rotation, so you'll have to tilt your head to view the video.)
Shuttle buses run you up to the top of the mesa. I've been in 7,000 year old ruins before. You want to rest and meditate and take in the sheer age around you, remembering that countless generations have lived here before. Unfortunately, at Acoma they run you through a tour the entire time, and you don't have a chance to truly appreciate the ancientness around you.
There are no building regulations, running water, or electricity. Homes are constructed however the owners want, though most choose adobe for it's cooling. Most families have homes down below, essentially summer and winter homes, as it's so rustic on top of the mesa, but about 13 families live on the mesa year-round.
By far the most impressive feature of the pueblo is the mission. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed of it or the adjoining cemetery, going back centuries. But the interior of the mission was amazing. Giant wooden beams cross the top, brought in through slave labor when the Spaniards forced the First Nation Peoples to carry them from miles away without touching the ground once. Along the wall are frescoes, paintings, and sculptures going back centuries. Now there are benches, but traditionally it was only a large vacant space, cooled by adobe walls.
The treatment of the native peoples goes a long way towards explaining the deep animosity our guide had towards Christianity. There were numerous attacks by so-called Christian Spaniards, including at least one massacre. Ultimately the Spaniards forced the First Nation peoples to accept Christianity, at the point of the sword.
The mission is also used for traditionalist celebrations, and mass only celebrated there on high holy days. No priest is allowed at the mission, as the Catholic Church doesn't approve of the extensive syncretism occurring among the Acoma people. Along with the Catholic saints there were also native traditionalist religious icons inside the church, representing the animism that is still practiced by about half of the Acoma people. Indeed, the guard made it appear that the Acoma only follow animism, and give a veneer of Christianity in order to satisfy the oppressors in the past. Now she felt that it was some symbols pulled in from Christianity, but the real heart of the people was still Animism. I was so surprised at how she didn't have a single kind word to say about Christianity, that I asked other Acoma down below. They stated that in truth, the Acoma population was about split between Animism and Christianity, which is what I'd read previously.
At the left is a traditional gathering area for practicing animistic religion. There were small holes carved the adobe to hide what they were doing from the Spaniards, who didn't allow the traditional religion to be practiced. A lookout would shout out if a Spaniard was coming. Today they are still used for traditional religious gatherings, but only men are allowed inside. (The guide suggested they were also used for the men to watch Supebowl games without women around.) Among the Acoma, men run the government, and women own the land, with houses passed down mother to youngest daughter. The understanding is that the youngest is the last in the house, responsible for caring for her parents, and therefore has the right to the property.
There are two watering holes on top, in the past used for horses, but today certainly not potable. All water must be carted up from below. The joke on the pueblo is that this is Acoma Forest, the one tree growing on top of the mesa.
I was pleasantly surprised to see something familiar at the pueblo. The invading Muslim armies from North Africa brought special ovens to Moorish Spain. The Spaniards continued to use them after they drove the Muslims out, and brought them to the New World, where the Acoma were happy to adopt them. Indeed, I later discovered that one of these ovens is at the RV park we are currently staying at.
The guide took us to the edge of the pueblo, to look down over the cliff edge. She told us the story of some of the Acoma who were encamped on a rocky outcrop of the mesa, when lightning struck, demolishing the rock isthmus to the main section of the pueblo. The people were now isolated on the rock, with no way across, and no way to climb down the sheer cliffs. They were close enough to talk to, but not to get food. Eventually some threw themselves over the cliff face, and the rest starved to death.
This is the rock outcrop where they lived their last moments.
Another image like out of Morocco: "mica" windows, occluded so only light goes in, but no images.
At the end of the tour, we had the option of heading down the road or via the shuttle buses. I took the third option, of the ancient trail down the mesa. It was incredibly steep, so that at times some (not me) had to turn around and go down backwards facing the rock. But I have the feet of a goat.
Below the mesa are traditional fences, the Camel Rock, and two rocks that are widely interpreted as people kissing.