Mesa and Desert: Exploring New Mexico Pueblos

Tribal traditions thrive on three Native American pueblos

By Nancy Bevilaqua

We’re in the aptly named Sky City, the part of the Acoma Pueblo that sits on a mesa 370 feet above the New Mexico desert floor. The view from up here could make you cry with the beauty of it; other mesas mushroom up from the earth in all directions for miles around in stunning colors under the cloudless desert sky.

It’s easy to see why Sky City is considered the spiritual center for the Acoma people. The pueblo is thought to have been in existence since about 1100 A.D., making it the oldest continuously occupied community in North America. Early in 2007 it was declared a National Trust Historic site.

[photo photo2 max-width=150 align=left]Despite the lack of electricity or running water, the most distinguished Acoma families keep adobe homes atop the mesa and send their children to Sky City to learn the tribe’s oral history. If ever there were a place where the spirit world and the world of the living were meant to intersect, this would be it.

My 9-year-old son, Alessandro, was born and raised in and around New York City. As far as either he or I know, he’s never met a person of American Indian descent. Your grandchildren may be in the same situation.

Recently, a school reading assignment prompted me to ask Alessandro what he thought Indians were like. I was dismayed to hear that he thought that Native Americans all wear “skirt-type things.” 

It’s always been very important to me that Alessandro learn about and respect other cultures, and it was clearly time to start working on his Native American education. Visiting Acoma, one of 19 pueblos in New Mexico, was an eye-opening experience for us both.

Acoma

Alessandro first encounters some of the indigenous people of North America in the bright, modern, beautifully designed Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum at the foot of the Sky City. The Acoma are going about the business of running the Center looking every bit as modern and professional as the Wall Street-types he sees back home.

Later, in Sky City, he’s charmed by our very knowledgeable and very pretty Acoma guide. I tell her she reminds me a little of Paula Abdul, but she says that she usually hears that she looks like Janet Jackson. We chat with the people who have set up tables outside of their homes to sell the beautiful, distinctive pottery of the Acoma (along with candy bars and bottles of water). One man, a soft-spoken veteran who told us that he’d been stationed in New Jersey at one point, watches as Alessandro accidentally spills some of his water on the ground.

“Now some of our ancestors can drink it,” he tells an impressed Alessandro, explaining that the Acoma believe that spirits will partake of food and drink that’s left for them.

Santa Ana

Acoma was the second pueblo we visited in New Mexico. The first, the Santa Ana pueblo, is the home of the Tamayame people, and the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa. Set against the Sandia Mountains about 30 miles northeast of Albuquerque, the resort is designed to reflect the style and traditions of the Tamayame. It also feels like a very spiritual place — a very luxurious spiritual place — fusing tribal culture and Hyatt-style opulence.

It’s also a jumping-off point for grandparents and grandchildren to explore the pueblo cultures of New Mexico. Fun activities are designed to introduce children, teens, and adults to life and traditions on a pueblo. These include classes in making bread (the bread, baked in outdoor ovens called hornos, is to die for), pottery, and drums. Guests can listen to native stories under the stars and tour the on-site Tamaya Cultural Learning Center.

There are also three swimming pools, a magnificent water slide, and stables on the resort grounds. Horseback riding is a magical way to explore the desert.

Zuni

Our final pueblo visit was to the Zuni Pueblo, about a three-hour drive from Albuquerque. During the trip out, our Zuni step-on guide provided a detailed (and often very violent, but enlightening) history of the local tribes. In Zuni, we lunched at the home of one of the pueblo families. The menu: tamales, blue corn soup, more horno-baked bread, and what Alessandro refers to as “that really good meat” (as a vegetarian, I wouldn’t know).

Family members came and went as we ate, stopping at the table occasionally to explain a Zuni tradition or just chat. As in the other two pueblos we’d visited, Alessandro was able to experience tribe members in a modern setting, and yet get a sense of how their spiritual beliefs and traditions influence their day-to-day lives.

The Zuni are known for their fetishes — stone carvings that represent the spirits of various animals, and their respective powers. Just before leaving Zuni, we went into a shop which sold, among other things, fetishes of amazing variety. I was surprised when Alessandro begged that I buy him a fetish, as his taste tends to run almost exclusively to LEGO™ toys at this point in his life. He chose a beaver fetish. To the Zuni, beavers represent building ability (no doubt this would be put to use on the aforementioned LEGOs), hard work, and achievement.

The fetish now sits on Alessandro’s bookshelf in New Jersey, a sweet reminder that the traditional ways of New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians are not at odds with modern ways of life. I’m pretty certain that he’ll never make assumptions about North America’s indigenous people again.

Mission accomplished.

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