Pueblo Acoma: Sky City
Under a turquoise-blue sky and balmy temperatures, visitors begin jockeying for the best vantage point, preferably in the shade. There is a sense of anticipation in the air. Anytime now, the harvest dance will begin atop the 376-foot mesa, the perch of Pueblo de Acoma, or “Sky City.”
A hush falls over the dusty divide between rows of adobe houses. The sound of a rattle can be heard coming up the street, then the steady beat of a drum. A small cloud of dust kicks up as one of the smallest members of the tribe, a little girl maybe 2 or 3 years old, comes into view. She shakes a gourd rattle with one hand and clings to her father’s leg with the other. Like the other harvest dancers in full traditional costume, the young girl is not fazed by curious visitors oohing and aahing.
The open compound is now filled with dancers, every generation represented. With graceful precision, they dance to the rhythm of the drum. Each dancer carries a freshly cut pine branch; a fox pelt hangs off the back of every costume. No one in the crowd makes a sound. Reverence is a given on this most sacred of days.
San Esteban Feast Day
Each year on September 2, the Pueblo of Acoma tribe celebrates San Esteban Feast Day, in honor of its patron saint, starting with mass at the San Esteban del Rey Mission, built in 1629 under the direction of Friar Juan Ramirez. The mission has been undergoing restoration since 2008.
San Esteban del Rey Mission is designated a Save America’s Treasures site and one of 100 endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund. It is also the 28th – and first Native American site – in the United States to be named a National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
The highlight of the mass is the procession with the figure of San Esteban leading the way, followed by the pageantry and color of the harvest dance. The figure is taken to a small, covered hut where war chiefs and clan leaders of the tribe sit as people bring gifts of fresh fruit, water, bread and sweets and pay homage to the regaled saint.
Feast Day brings out vendors who line the dirt streets, selling everything from ornate Native American jewelry and fry bread dripping with honey to the new taste sensation among the children, sunflower seeds soaked in grape Kool-Aid, one dollar a bag.
After the harvest dance, families open their homes and kitchens to whoever drops by. Since there is no electricity or running water atop the pueblo, water is brought in and propane fuels the stoves.
Visitors are treated to fresh-baked bread, red chile posole, fresh fruit, and green chile stew with potatoes and corn, a local favorite.
Sky City is sacred ground to the Pueblo of Acoma people. No cameras or recording devices are allowed during Feast Day.
Although visitors are welcome most days of the year to explore the history and beauty of Acoma, the true significance of Sky City can be better sensed and better appreciated during the celebration of Feast Day.
Acoma is about an hour drive from Albuquerque via I-40. Accommodations are available at the Sky City Casino Hotel. At the Huwaka Restaurant, guests can order off the menu or enjoy the buffet, which includes such New Mexico dishes such as – you guessed it – green chile and red chile posole.
Many other attractions in the area can be explored, including the Sand Stone Bluffs and Ventana Arches at El Mapais, about 30 miles from Sky City, and Chaco Canyon, a two-hour drive from the ancient pueblo, the oldest, continuously inhabited community in North America.