Acoma Pueblo

Haaku is the traditional name of Acoma Pueblo, which is also popularly called “Sky City”. According to Pueblo officials, the word “Acoma” and related words which are equally correct and historically applicable—Akome, Acu, Acuo and Ako—denote “a place always prepared.” The Pueblo is a member of the Keresan language group along with Cochiti, Laguna, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santa Domingo and Zia.

Acoma is the oldest continuously occupied village in the United States at about 1,000 to 1,300 years. Located sixty miles west and a little south of Albuquerque in Cibola County, the village occupies a mesa top some 350 to 375 feet above the surrounding plain although according to tribal legend, the tribe previously lived on Enchanted Mesa a short distance to the north. The reservation covers about 450,000 acres—702 square miles—adjacent to Laguna Pueblo.

The Spanish first heard of Acoma when Fray Marcos de Niza visited New Mexico in 1539. He traveled as far north as Hawikuh near present-day Zuñi where he was obliged to halt, and he never actually saw Acoma. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and a large party of conquerors marched into New Mexico in 1540. Captain Hernando de Alvarado, a Coronado subordinate, visited Acoma, and was not impressed with what he found.

“We regretted having climbed up to that place,” he later wrote. The community was not molested by that party of Spaniards.

Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate arrived in New Mexico in July 1598. After he established his capital at San Gabriel, near modern-day San Juan Pueblo, he visited Acoma in October. He thought he secured agreement from the Acoma people which called upon them to subjugate themselves to the Spanish Crown and to the Catholic Church. While several of what he thought were Acoma chiefs seemed to agree, according to history writer Howard Bryan, one of them, named Zutucapan, opposed the idea. It is an historical footnote that historian Ward Alan Minge, in his book Acoma: Pueblo in the Sky, makes no mention of a leader by that name.

In early December of 1598, Oñate’s nephew, Captain Juan de Zaldivar, and a troop of Spanish soldiers visited Acoma. They were set upon by Pueblo people, and nearly a dozen of them were killed, including Zaldivar, who, according to Bryan, was killed “in single combat” with Zutucapan.

In January 1599, an avenging troop of Spaniards was organized by Zaldivar’s brother, Vincente. They arrived at Acoma on January 21, and soon attacked and defeated the Acoma belligerents. One source reported that 600 Indians were killed, while another reported that only 600 were left alive when the melee was over. Many of the survivors were taken prisoner. A relatively few Spaniards were killed.

Legend holds that for their rebellious behavior, the captured Acomas were tried at Santo Domingo Pueblo, where Governor Oñate ordered the amputations of the right feet of adult Acoma men over the age of 25, plus 25 years of personal servitude. Men under that age were sentenced to 25 years of personal servitude. Two Hopi men who were present at Acoma during the fight were sentenced to have a hand cut off. Many modern historians acknowledge that Oñate gave such an order, but note that it was probably not executed. After all, many have reasoned, the Spaniards enslaved the Acomas, and how much good is a one-footed slave?

Historian Minge, however, wrote: “The sentence was carried out in Santo Domingo Pueblo and other nearby towns. Beginning on February 12, hands and feet were cut off on different days. On February 15, Oñate distributed the slaves at San Juan Pueblo, where the main army was stationed.”

Whatever the fact of the matter might be, it resulted in hard feelings which continued until modern times.

The Acoma Indians were not converted to the Catholic Church until some years after the Spanish conquest of New Mexico and by 1621 “the pueblo was still a pagan refuge for malcontents from other pueblos….”

The first mission church at Acoma, San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church, was built between 1629 and 1640, under the direction of Fray Juan Ramírez. All construction material—stone, wood, and enough dirt for a cemetery of 200 square feet—was carried up the steep path on the backs of the Indian people. What happened to the structure during and after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 is not clear. Eleanor B. Adams and Fray Angélico Chávez in The Missions of New Mexico wrote, “The exact date of the building of the Acoma church is not known, but the weight of the evidence indicates that the greater part of the structure [was] described by Domínguez [in 1776].” That would mean that the present church dates from the late eighteenth century. San Esteban del Rey Mission church remains standing today though it received considerable renovation during the 1920s.

About 300 multi-storied residences remain atop the mesa, but only a few Acoma people live there year around.

Much has been written about Acoma Pueblo, and what follows is but a sampling of it.

SELECTED SOURCES: Warren A. Beck & Ynez D. Haase, Historical Atlas of New Mexico
Howard Bryan, “Off the Beaten Path,” Albuquerque Tribune, December 2, 1954
Edward P. Dozier, The Pueblo Indians of North America
Bertha P. Dutton, American Indians of the Southwest
Robert Julyan, The Place Names of New Mexico
Howard Lamar, The New Encyclopedia of the American West
Ward Alan Minge, Acoma: Pueblo in the Sky
Richard Melzer, Buried Treasures
Alfonso Ortiz, Ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Vol.9
Joe S. Sando, Pueblo Nations
Marc Simmons, “The Enchanted Mesa: myth or true tale?” The New Mexican, May 20, 2006

Don Bullis’ newest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, was published in early October. It may be ordered from Rio Grande Books at