The Sky City
by Jay W. Sharp
The storm came in the spring of that year, during the day, when all the people except for three ill women and a caretaker boy had descended from their pueblo atop Katzimo Mesa by way of Ladder Rock to plant corn, squash and beans in their communal fields in the surrounding desert plain. The storm struck with cosmic fury. Lightning ripped the sky, the thunder sounding like a duel of cannons. The rain cascades of water issued from the clouds. Runoff scoured drainages.
The mesa-top village threatened to collapse, and the caretaker boy descended Ladder Rock through the fury of the storm to summon help. Just as he reached the bottom, "...he felt the ground quiver beneath his feet," said Charles Lummis, a journalist who recorded the story in the late nineteenth century, "A strange rushing sound filled his ears: and whirling about, he saw the great Ladder Rock rear, throw its head out from the cliff, reel there in instant in mid-air, and then go toppling out into the plain like some wounded Titan... The Ladder Rock had fallenthe unprecedented flood had undermined its sandy bed."
After the storm, the people discovered, to their horror, that their mesa top home a desert refuge had been cut off. It and the three ill women who had stayed behind that stormy day now lay as far beyond reach as the mountains of the moon. Katzimo had become what Adolph Bandelier, a nineteenth century anthropologist and historian, would call "...a towering isolated mesa with vertical sides several hundred feet in height and utterly inaccessible..."
The people had no choice but to abandon their pueblo and the three women. They decided to move a few miles west, to the top of another mesa, another natural citadel in the desert, where they would construct a new village around a few natural ponds, break new fields in the surrounding plain and rebuild their lives after the storm. As they left the forlorn and eroded desert floor below Katzimo, they could hear the pleading but hopeless calls of the three women stranded on the mesa top. That mournful event happened a long time ago, early in the second millennium, and it seared a permanent and painful place in the tribal memory.
A New Life
The people began construction of their new pueblo, which they would call Acoma, the "People of the White Rock," and they would rely on their cultural roots to anchor their new lives.
They forged a trail upward, through a crevasse, often with handholds ground into the living stone, to the top of Acoma Mesa. There, more than 350 feet above the surrounding desert floor, they built ceremonial and communal chambers and homes two or three stories high, with windowless walls of stone, mortar and plaster; and they covered the structures with roofs of timbers, branches, grasses and soil. They ascended the walls by ladders and entered their homes though portals in the rooftops.
In accordance with immemorial traditions, drawn from their origins as hunters and gatherers and seasoned by cultural winds from the great Mexican civilizations, they made water and agriculture the center of their spiritual universe. They celebrated the seasons of planting and harvest. They sought balance and harmony in their lives. They cherished the sense of belonging they found in their clans, which they identified by names taken from familiar animals and plants. They traced the children’s lineage and clan affiliations through the blood of their mothers, who also owned the family homes. They spoke Keresan, a language with mysterious roots.
The men organized and directed ceremonies, hunted game and wove textiles. The women tended the children, ground corn, prepared food, carried water, wove baskets and cast exquisite thin-walled ceramics. Together, they worked the village fields, raised turkeys and built and maintained their homes.
As the centuries passed, the people of Acoma and their village of stone and mortar, burnished by age, became an expression of Mother Earth, with lives attuned to the rhythm of the seasons, as natural and enduring as the wind on the mesa top. They felt secure here, in this natural fortress. They could set their spirits free here, in their home in the sky.
Willa Cather caught the essence of the pueblo in her classic Death Comes for the Archbishop. "The Acomas, who must share the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of changethey had their idea in substance. They actually lived upon their Rock; were born upon it and died upon it..." It was, she said, "a place to go back to."
The Acomas, however, could never have anticipated the changes which lay before them.
The Spanish Come Calling
Late in the summer of 1540, the Acomas saw a vanguard of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition appear from the west, out of the desert. They descended the mesa to confront the Spanish force, which, under the command of Don Hernando de Alvarado, comprised twenty soldiers and several Pecos Pueblo Indian guides. Unintimidated by bearded men who wore armor, rode strange animals and carried muskets, swords and crossbows, the Acomas first challenged the Spaniards to fight, then stood down and allowed them into the pueblo.
"The village was very strong," said Pedro de Castaneda, a chronicler of the Coronado expedition, "because it was up on a rock out of reach, having steep sides in every direction, and so high that it was a very good musket that could throw a ball as high... There was a broad stairway for about 200 steps, then a stretch of about 100 narrower steps, and at the top they had to go up about three times as high as a man by means of holes in the rock... There was a wall of large and small stones at the top, which they could roll down without showing themselves, so that no army could possibly be strong enough to capture the village. On the top they had room to sow and store a large amount of corn, and cisterns to collect snow and water... They made a present [for the Spaniards] of a large number of [turkey] cocks with very big wattles, much bread, tanned deerskins, pine [pinon] nuts, flour [corn meal], and corn."
In the snows of the following winter, the remainder of Coronado’s expedition passed the mesa. "...the natives, who were peaceful, entertained our men well, giving them provisions and birds..." said Castaneda. "Many of the gentlemen went up to the top to see it, and they had great difficulty in going up the steps in the rock, because they were not used to them, for the natives go up and down so easily that they carry loads and the women carry water, and they do not seem even to touch their hands, although our men had to pass their weapons up from one to another."
Nearly six decades later, in the fall of 1598, the Acomas again found bearded Spaniards who wore armor, rode horses and carried muskets and swords at the base of their mesa, "the best situated Indian stronghold in all of Christendom." The Acomas had learned that these soldiers represented Juan de Onate’s enterprise to seize and colonize the pueblo lands of the Southwest. With barely concealed hostility, they invited Onate and his men to ascend the mesa, to the village. A warrior invited Onate to enter a ceremonial chamber, which hid a party of assassins. Onate wisely declined. The Keresan-speaking tribal elders listened, mystified, as the Spanish-speaking Onate administered to them the customary ceremony of Indian submission to the Crown and the Church, "And those," said Onate, "who render obedience can never again withdraw their allegiance under penalty of death." Those words would become prophetic.
The Acomas watched Onate and his force leave, headed west. They waited patiently. A few weeks later, they laid an ambush for Onate’s nephew, Juan de Zaldivar, who led a force of 31 soldiers to Acoma, en route to join his uncle. In a brutal battle in the village, the Acomas killed Zaldivar and ten of his men. He fell, "delivered unto that eternal sleep to which we are all doomed someday," said Gaspar Perez de Villagra, Onate’s chronicler.
The Acomas could not have known what Onate planned for retribution, that "penalty of death." They could not have known that Onate, with the support of his colonists, declared guerra de sangre y fuego, war by blood and firewar without quarter, without mercy. In the ice and snow of January, 1599, the Acomas saw the Spaniards return, a force of 72 heavily armed soldiers commanded by Vicente de Zaldivar, Juan de Zaldivar’s brother. From the precipice of their mesa, the Indian hurled insults, ice, stones, arrows and spears at the Spaniards.
On the afternoon of January 22, Acoma braced for attack. The warriors heard the call of trumpets, signaling the beginning of a Spanish frontal assault. They rushed to the top of the ascending trail, prepared to launch a fusillade of stones down on their attackers. They soon discovered that the trumpets had been a diversion, a cover for a dozen Spaniards, led by Zaldivar, who had gained entry into an undefended side of the pueblo. The Spaniards had, said Villagra, "climbed the high walls of this immense mass of stone...for there were none to oppose us."
With the beachhead established, the Acomas could not prevent the entire Spanish force from overrunning their village. They fought with prehistoric club, arrow and spear against Spanish cannon, musket, sword and dagger. They fought house-to-house, hand-to-hand, for three days, falling to superior arms, leaping suicidally over the precipice, burning in the conflagration of battle. The Acomas died by the hundreds. They saw their community, where their lives had begun anew after the great storm centuries earlier, lying in ruins. They had killed not a single Spaniard. (Only one had died, accidentally shot by one of his own men. Others suffered wounds.) The surviving Acomas, about 500, mostly women and children, surrendered. "...those who render obedience can never again withdraw their allegiance under penalty of death."
At the height of the battle, the Indians had seen (said Zaldivar’s soldiers) the spiritual figure of a Spaniard astride a white horse, hovering protectively above the Spaniards, wielding a flaming and deadly sword. A woman of transcendent beauty rode by his side. The Indians had seen (said Zaldivar’s soldiers) Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, and they had seen (said Zaldivar’s soldiers) the Virgin Mary herself. They had seen a miracle.
The Keresan-speaking Acomas stood trial before the Spanish-speaking judge and jury, with conviction a foregone conclusion. Onate handed down the sentences:
- Males over 25: loss of the right foot, 20 years of slavery.
- Males 12 to 25: 20 years of slavery.
- Two Moquis Indian visitors: loss of right hand, a warning to their own pueblos.
- Women over 12: 20 years of slavery.
- Children under 12: a Christian upbringing under a Franciscan priest.
Sixty small girls found themselves bundled off to religious training in convents in Mexico City. They would never see their families nor Acoma again.
A few years after the disastrous defeat, Acoma men and women began to slip the bonds of slavery and return in a trickle to their village on the mesa, that place to go back to. They began to reconstruct their homes and kivas, reestablish their fields and rebuild their lives. Aging men with a missing right foot fueled continuing fires of hostility and bitterness toward the Spanish.
Three decades passed before they found a renewed sense of purpose. It came from an unexpected source, a solitary and unarmed priest, Father Juan Ramirez, who appeared from nowhere one day like a tribal deity on the ascending trail to the mesa top. The Acomas attacked him with arrows, which were deflected by his habit. In the melee of the attack, a little girl tumbled over the precipice. They watched Father Ramirez pray over her. She revived from her fall, unharmed. A woman agonized over a dying infant. They watched the father pray over the baby, who recovered from its illness, cooing.
Seeing their arrows deflected and their children saved, the Acomas believed that Father Ramirez had supernatural power, and they accepted him as a spiritual leader. Under his guidance, they undertook the construction of a great mission church on the top of their barren mesa. Over 12 years, they hauled 20,000 tons of earth and stone on their backs, up the trail from the plain, to raise walls 10 feet thick. They carried dozens of timbers, or vigas, 40 feet in length, 14 inches in diameter, from the flanks of Mount Taylor, 40 miles to the north, to construct the roof. They hauled up soil for the churchyard, which lies at a walled edge of the Mesa, before the structure’s massive twin bell towers. The mission church rose as a mighty fortress, like the mesa itself, a monument to sacrifice and suffering, with Saint Stevens as its patron saint.
Seventy four Acomas men and women died in its construction. Moreover, as James Paytiamo, an Acoma, said in his 1932 book Flaming Arrow’s People, "I am told by [my people] that at the time this church was being built there was great famine at Acoma and that the people, when their regular food was gone, first ate cactus, then chewed their buckskins, and finally ate each other."
A Measure of Revenge
The tragic events of the pueblo’s past still have a powerful hold on the tribal memory . "If you go to the southwest side of the Acoma mesa," said Paytiamo, "you can still see under the overhanging bluff the smoke-stains from the Spanish cannon, made when the conquistadores came and took my people’s land away from them and tried to break down the rock mesa with their cannon, and there is still the remains of the little fort which my people built on the southwest top, with little windows from which they shot their arrows."
More recently, in early January of 1998, four centuries after Onate began the Spanish colonization of northern New Mexico, the Acomas finally got a measure of revenge. They had watched with growing resentment as the visitors’ center near Onate’s first settlement raised a bronze sculpture of the conquistador mounted heroically on his horse, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of his expedition. The Acomas attacked "Onate" in the dark of night, not with arrows and spears, but with an electric saw, with which they separated the bronze Spaniard from his right foot.
Acoma is located about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, south off Interstate 40. To visit the pueblo, one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States, you must register at the visitor center for a guided tour. You will be taken to the top of the mesa in a bus for a tour by an Acoma guide. Saint Stephen’s mission church, a national historic landmark, will be a highlight.
Ticket Prices: Subject to change.
Senior Citizens $20
Camera Permits $13.00 (still camera only)
For additional information on tour schedules and events, contact
Acoma Visitor Center
PO Box 309; Acoma, NM 87034
Ph 1-505 470-4966 or 1-800 747-0181
Pueblo Cultural Center
2401 12th Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
Ph 1-505-843-7270 or 1-800-766-4405 outside of NM
To learn more about the history and the people, read Mrs. William T. Sedgwick’s Acoma, The Sky City and James Paytiamo’s Flaming Arrow’s People.
Related DesertUSA Pages
- How to Turn Your Smartphone into a Survival Tool
- 26 Tips for Surviving in the Desert
- Your GPS Navigation Systems
May Get You Killed
- 7 Smartphone Apps to Improve Your Camping Experience
- Desert Survival Skills
- Successful Search & Rescue Missions with Happy Endings
- How to Keep Ice Cold in the Desert
Survival Tips for Horse and Rider
an Emergency Survival Kit
Share this page on Facebook:
DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)