Chapter II. Of Acoma, Pueblo of the Sky; How Edward Hunt Found Us Lodgings There; and of the Fiesta of San Esteban


Up: Contents Previous: Chapter I. Of Our First Sight of the Pueblo Indian, of Tesuque Pronounced Te-soo´-kā. and How We Took a Photograph There Next: Chapter III. Of what Befell Us under the Rock of Acoma, and how We Turned Cliff Dwellers


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THE most poetic of all New Mexico pueblos, in point of situation, is Acoma, 1 a veritable city of the sky, built upon the flat, seventy-acre summit of a huge rock with perpendicular sides, thrust up some three hundred and fifty feet out of the midst of a sandy solitude of plain. Beyond the plain and encircling it is a rim of mountains, touched morning and evening with the mysterious colours of the desert; and if there is a world beyond the mountains, it is not evident to Acoma.

To reach this village of the upper air, one leaves the train at Laguna, where also is an Indian pueblo. Close by are a few homes of white people with whom arrangements can be made for transportation to Acoma, which lies fifteen miles to the south. Most tourists who take the trip are, after the manner of their kind, in haste about getting home, and pare the time down to one day; but a week is none too much to devote to the sights of this miniature wonderland—which has been described as "the Garden of the Gods multiplied by ten plus a human interest"—and to experience the spirit of its simple life and its primitive people. There is, however, no accommodation available except that offered by Indian homes, and, as few travellers care for that sort of adventure, it is advisable for intending sojourners to take their own blankets and provisions, and if it be in the season when rain is likely, a tent.

A street in Acoma.


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The road from Laguna is through a characteristic northern New Mexico landscape, dotted with piñon and cedar and black lava blocks, around and among which, in summer, an ocean of sunflowers flows and ebbs; and near and far rise red and purple mountains fantastically cut and gashed by the weather of ancient times into titanic, battlemented fortresses, towers, domes, and pinnacles.

As the road enters the valley of Acoma, our eyes are greeted with the sight of that famous table-rock


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of the South-West—the Enchanted Mesa—lifting its cylindrical block against the turquoise sky. Four miles beyond towers the rock of Acoma, similar in form, but somewhat less loftly. A few cattle and sheep are grazing on the wild growths of the plain and an Indian on pony-back, his shock of jet black hair bound about with a scarlet fillet and his white, cotton trousers flapping in the breeze, lopes by on some errand toward the hills. A snatch of the barbaric melody which he sings drifts back to us as he disappears around the sand hills, and we realise that it is happiness to be an Indian in a real Indian country.

Why the Enchanted Mesa is enchanted, I have never heard explained. The term is a translation of the name given to it by the first Spaniards, who called it "La Mesa Encantada." The Indians say ‘‘Katzímo’’. A tragic interest attaches to it because of the tradition of the Acomas that their own town, a long time before the coming of the white man, was located on its flat top, which was accessible by only one trail. One day, when most of the inhabitants were busy in their fields out in the plain, a storm destroyed this approach and it was necessary for the people to establish a new


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home for themselves, which they did upon the present rocky site. Of course, the hard-fact scientist has fallen afoul of this legend, and some years ago a Princeton professor thought to give it a scientific burial. After a brief visit to the top, accomplished only after several days' labour, he saw nothing which would pass in New Jersey for the remains of a prehistoric settlement, and said so in print. This nettled the archæologists of the South-West, and an expedition was fitted out for the scaling of the rock by Dr. F. W. Hodge of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, who discovered abundant evidence of a human habitation at some very distant time. Under the title Katzimo the Enchanted, there is an interesting popular account of this visit in the Land of Sunshine Magazine for November, 1897. The curious traveller, desirous of following in the footsteps of these venturesome climbers, will not find it possible unassisted to approach nearer than within some thirty or forty feet of the summit of the Mesa; but arrangements may be made at Laguna for an outfit of ladders and ropes by which the top may be reached by hard scrambling.

One needs to be close under the cliffs of Acoma


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before any sign of the village is visible, as the houses are of the same colour as the rock upon which they stand and so far above the plain that, as old Castañeda, the chronicler of Coronado's expedition in 1540, records, "it was a very good musket that could throw a ball as high." The huge mesa is of soft brown rock, worn by the sand which the wind of ages has hurled against it. This, acting as a natural sand-blast, has cut the rock into many a grotesque shape,—squat columns and airy minarets, caverns and ogres' dens, and strange forms with features like those of fabled creatures of old romance. The fine sand of the plains, piled up by these wind-storms of the past, has finally created two or three giants' pathways up and around the cliffs on one side. By one of these, animals are enabled to attain the summit, though it is not possible for vehicles to do so. Human beings usually reach the town by means of one of two steep stairways of rock, carved out and built up through two of the crevasses of the mesa's side. To one unaccustomed to climbing, it certainly is a dizzy sight—the first look up this dark and winding flight of aboriginal steps. Yet the ascent is not difficult, having been made safe and easy by


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cutting hand holes in the soft sandstone at ticklish places, and the Indians ascend and descend non-chalantly, bearing back-bowing burdens.

It was up one of these trails that Brother Juan Ramirez, the apostle to the Acomas, unheralded and alone, made his missionary way one day in 1629. Before reaching the top, he was greeted with flying arrows, shot at him by a group of Indians gathered on the cliff above; for the Acomas had by that outlived their love for white men. Simultaneously with the arrows, the story goes, a little girl accidentally fell over the edge of the cliff and lit, unseen by the Indians, on a sheltered ledge within reach of the Brother's hand. He picked her up unhurt, and, when he appeared a little later holding in his arms the smiling child whom the Indians thought dashed to pieces by that time at the foot of the precipice, their opinion of him went rapidly to a premium, and he was received as a great medicine man. The story is recounted by Lummis in his fascinating book, The Spanish Pioneers; and readers who would enjoy a stirring recital of one of the most heroic assaults in history, will find, in the same volume, an account of the storming of Acoma in 1599 by seventy Spaniards.


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The rock, manned by four hundred Indian warriors, was considered as impregnable as Gibraltar now is, but the Spanish took it, though every man of them, who was not killed, was wounded.

Like all the New Mexico pueblos excepting Zuñi, Acoma is a cure of the Roman Catholic Church, and is endowed with a patron saint—Stephen. To the average sightseer the most interesting time to visit the old town is on the occasion of this Saint's feast—the Fiesta de San Esteban, which occurs annually on September 2d. Sylvia and I engaged a Laguna Indian to drive us over on the day before, and when our team of little grey ponies, their ancient harness held thriftily together with baling wire, landed us at the foot of the Acoma cliffs, we were greeted by Edward Hunt, a large, good-humoured Acoma Indian, who had picked up a Quakerish name, a fair knowledge of English, and American ways enough to make him think that a trader's store at the foot of Acoma would be an agreeable and profitable vehicle in which to make the journey of life. To him we unfolded our plan of spending a few days in the village, and asked if he could help us to rent a house up in the pueblo.

Spanish church, forty years in building, Acoma. All the material was brought up on Indians' backs, from the plain 350 feet below.


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No, he thought no one had any, and smiled genially; and then, seeing our disappointment perhaps, he turned more hopeful and added: ‘‘Well, you eat your lunch, and I guess I have to go with you peoples pretty soon up the mesa and look around. You wait awhile. Pretty soon I come again.’’

With that he disappeared into the recesses of his little adobe—half store, half dwelling.

We ate our luncheon, and knowing something from experience of the leisurely ways of the red brother, we did not hurry through it. Then a bit of siesta, and so into the store to look about for Edward. Through a door he was discovered in the next room in the midst of his family, changing his shirt. He smiled at us benignantly and remarked: ‘‘You wait. Pretty soon I come.’’

We waited—twenty-five minutes by the watch.

At the end of that time, he came out and glanced leisurely around the store, picked up a large grey sombrero adorned with a magnificent hat-band, set it carefully on his raven locks, viewed himself in a square inch or two of mirror that hung behind the door, took one more last look slowly


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around the store, went into the next room, chatted with his wife, patted one of the children on the head, and then, stepping forth into the sunshine, observed, as though we had been keeping him waiting: ‘‘You ready? Let's go.’’

Two hours had been thus consumed in getting Edward under way, but three more went into the maw of time before our lodging was found. The way of our aboriginal house-hunt was this:

First, Edward had to pause at the top of the trail, light a cigarette, and pass the time of day with a knot of his cronies who were sunning themselves at the brink of the broad rock where, three centuries agone, their assembled ancestors spat defiance at the King of Spain. Then, when progress was resumed and we were really within the pueblo, friendly faces would peer out of sundry doorways and the sociable Edward, leaving us to sit on the steps and distribute candy to the children who were trooping after us with murmurs of "gooties," would disappear within a house, where we would descry him smoking more cigarettes and passing more time of day. Emerging after a while, he would smile his kind, indulgent smile,


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and remark, as though communicating the best news in the world:

"Well, he say, ‘‘No’’" ("he" being the woman of the house). ‘‘Mebbe better luck some other houses, I don' know. Let's go!’’

And so to another house and another, all to no purpose; for it seemed that, because of the fiesta on the morrow, the hospitality of Acoma was taxed to the physical limit for the accommodation of friends, who took precedence over the white strangers. It looked as though we should have to roll up in our blankets on the rock.

At last we had exhausted the town and stood on the outskirts overlooking the ancient Spanish church with its two-century-old balcony. Edward's roving eyes settled upon it as a last hope, and he observed insinuatingly: ‘‘Well, what you say—that porch way up on the church? That's pretty good place, no? Mebbe the Governor he let you have that porch. What you say?’’

We could hardly believe we were not dreaming. To have offered us for our very own a balcony overlooking all Acoma, the Enchanted Mesa, and the sunrise—a balcony with an ancient, hand-carved,


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wooden railing around it, as Sylvia had observed—the balcony of one of the most famous churches in the New World,—famous because every stick and adobe brick in it had been carried up the dizzy trails bit by bit from the plain three hundred feet below, on Indians' weary backs, and because the church had been as long a-building as the children of Israel were in getting out of the wilderness—it was like a fairy tale to us and, of course, we said ‘‘Yes.’’

‘‘Let us go!’’ said Edward.

And so to the Governor's. There we all sat gravely down as to the discussion of an international modus vivendi and, after rolling a cigarette apiece, the Governor and Edward launched out upon a pourparler, which came with the shadows of evening to this happy conclusion, as interpreted to us by Edward: ‘‘The Governor he say church belong to all the people; but you say what you worth to sleep there two or three days and he be satisfied. What you say?’’

We parried this by asking Edward what he thought was right, and it was finally arranged that we should pay fifty cents to the Governor


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for the rent, fifty cents to a friend of Edward's who had a burro and would bring up our bundles of blankets, provisions, and two cots, and fifty cents to the Governor's niece to bring us water every morning in an Indian jar balanced on her head, as one sees in pictures.

We were awakened at dawn the next morning by the hollow voice of the tombé or official drum and the stentorian tones of the public crier as he walked up one street and down another, announcing the exercises of the day—at least, we assumed this to be the purport of his words, which were in the native tongue—and by the time the sun had risen, all Acoma was astir. Blankets and beds were being shaken out from the upper roofs, where many had slept the night before, Syrian fashion, under the glowing stars; fires were sending up their smoke straight into the delicious air of the New Mexico morning; girls, with water jars poised upon their heads, climbed ladders to the upper terraces and disappeared into various houses. Into our own airy balcony came the Governor's niece and, silently setting down a brimming tinaja in one corner, as silently departed. Certain fragrances that rose from beneath us indicated that the padre,


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whose apartments were immediately under our balcony, and who had arrived sometime during the watches of the night, was prefacing his spiritual labours with a substantial breakfast. We met him later in the morning—a rotund little Spanish man, jovially disposed by nature, but that day sallow and hollow-eyed, having, it seems, supped on canned caviare and suffered a colic during the night.

‘‘But it was a sick padre, my friends,’’ he said sadly with a kindly shake of our hands, ‘‘that was beneath you last night—that detest' caviare—bah!’’

The first order of the day at these Pueblo fiestas of the saints is always the mass in the church; this apparently atones in advance for the pagan features which make up the bulk of the day's doings. It was a picturesque throng that assembled before the church that sunny September morning, and upon which we looked down from our balcony—such a sight, indeed, as one would hardly think possible in these United States. On every hand, mingling with the Indians, were swarthy Mexicans, their wives and children decked out in wondrous effects of green, yellow, white,


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and red. The Acomas were in divers sorts of raiment: there were the rich progressives in broad-brimmed sombreros, set squarely on their heads, which, with their plain faces, gave them somewhat of a Quaker appearance. To a man, this group wore clean, boiled shirts, black trousers, open, black waistcoats without a coat, and uncompromisingly stiff new brogans encasing their feet. Their bright new bandas wound about their heads were the only visible remnants of the distinctive Pueblo dress, and these were apparent only when the men eased their heads by carrying their hats in their hands. In contrast to this group, were the hatless rich conservatives, resisters of the American invasion, clad in shirts that hung outside flapping white trousers, with ample red garters with tassels wound about their knees. For the most part, too, they were enveloped in blankets of striking designs, wherein, like as not, a baby was carried, while the wife, arrayed in short Pueblo skirt, gorgeous leg moccasins, silver necklace, and silver bracelets, followed close behind. Mingling with these folk in gala attire were many of the poorer sort, clad in their every-day overalls, and such scraps of clothing, American and Pueblo, as their poverty might vouchsafe them. But everyone who could afford it had a new banda about his head.

The tombé beater, Acoma. Fiesta of San Esteban.


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Among the crowd, too, were wolfish-looking Navajos, draped in gay blankets of their own weaving, thus displayed for sale, and, though hereditary enemies of the Pueblos, come to barter and pick up such loaves and fishes as the day might vouchsafe them. And here, too, were Indians from far Isleta, Pueblo farmer folk with baskets of fruit for sale. There were loose clusters of sweet Mission grapes, pears, and persimmon-like plums, and luscious peaches that reminded us of the white October peaches of the East; and there were long yellow muskmelons and little round watermelons the size of one's head. Very gifts of the gods were these fruits to dwellers in that sunburnt dewless plain of Acoma, and none remained unsold.

After all that would, had been drummed to church, the services there came to a close. Then, thronging out into the sunlight, the people formed in procession, the image of Saint Stephen in their midst, with mushroom halo and wooden hands raised in blessing, and marched about the village to the accompaniment of clanging bells from the belfry, the firing of muskets to keep off the devil, and the solemn chanting of a hundred reverent voices. So to a rustic shrine of corn plants and leafy cottonwood branches which had been erected for the occasion. Here deposited, Saint Stephen received that day, with two old Indians sitting at the doorway of the shrine to keep off errant swine and other godless interlopers. Hither for hours the devout came bringing baskets heaped high with thank-offerings, which were tendered on bended knee and left lying at his feet—melons, peaches, and corn, chili peppers and candles and brown loaves of fresh bread. The Saint would have none go hungry on his day, and at frequent intervals basketfuls were handed out to the multitude or thrown high into the air to be scrambled for.

The melon sellers, Acoma, on San Esteban day.


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To the visitors the main event was the Indian dance. Long before Fray Juan Ramirez came to Acoma, the people held festivals of prayer offered paganwise to the Powers Above for the gift of rain and festivals of thanksgiving for harvests vouchsafed. The heart of Acoma is still warm to its old love, and the Church indulges it in such of the immemorial practices as are innocent of


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offence against decent living. So no feast day is complete without its dance in ancient costume.

Shortly after noon, the dull thumping of a tombé was heard from an unseen quarter, and streaming down from the upper stories of certain houses came the dancers, who formed in two lines, and, to the chanting of a choir of Indian men, moved in step, an inch at a time, toward the Saint's booth. The men dancers were stripped to the waist, their faces and bodies painted in fantastic fashion, while from neck and shoulders, waist and ankles, depended all sorts of tinkling and gay ornaments. Twigs of live spruce were thrust in their head-dresses, wristlets, and arm-bands, and in their hands were rattles made of gourds with pebbles within. There was no sign of levity, for this was a religious rite hallowed to the tribe by ancestral usage and doubtless more real to them than those morning services in the church. The women dancers had sweet, shy faces, and their eyes were modestly downcast. Their costumes were very brilliant in colour and had the special distinction of a curious head-dress, consisting of a large painted board set upright and cut into shapes of symbolic significance.

Women dancers, Acoma. Fiesta of San Esteban.


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All the hot, September afternoon the dancers kept step to the choiring, until the sun sank low in the heavens. Then, suddenly the singing ceased and the dancers, breaking ranks, crowded about the Saint's booth and knelt for a moment in silent adoration before his image. The booth was then stripped of its green; the image was brought out; the faithful, candles in hand, again formed in procession, and amid the ringing of the church bells and the firing of guns as in the morning, the precious relic was borne back to its niche in the old church, and the feast of Saint Stephen was over.


Notes

1. Pronounced Ah'co-ma.

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter I. Of Our First Sight of the Pueblo Indian, of Tesuque Pronounced Te-soo´-kā. and How We Took a Photograph There Next: Chapter III. Of what Befell Us under the Rock of Acoma, and how We Turned Cliff Dwellers




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