Through the Anglo-centric vision most Americans are given of U.S. history, Native contact with Europeans is generally perceived as having taken place with American settlers or the U.S. cavalry. They may recognize that the European arrival reaches back to 1492, or that there was some taking sides and mixing it up in the contention between the British and the French for supremacy in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but mostly they imagine the plains and the deserts, settlers and soldiers, during the second half of the nineteenth century – which was, in fact, only the very end of the military conquest.
In the Southwest, the conflict and, often, the conquest are much older. The Christian Spaniards were already seeking to conquer and convert the Native populations of that territory during the sixteenth century. In 1598 conquistador Juan de Oñate began his assault on the Pueblos, taking the Acoma Pueblo in that same year. Estimates are that the Acoma population at the time was about 2,000. At the end of the three-day battle only 250 survived. The children under 12 were sent off to be raised by missionaries. Surviving men of fighting age had one foot chopped off. All adults were sold into slavery.
Remarkably, the Acoma people survived. They participated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but, with all the Pueblos, were reconquered in 1692. Since then they have lived under first Spanish, then Mexican, and finally American jurisdiction.
With the changes in U.S. Indian policy during the twentieth century, the Acoma chose not to adopt U.S. style institutions of self-governance, but to retain their traditional form instead. The Acoma are a clan-based society. Ownership follows a matrilineal line of inheritance, to the youngest daughter. Men do the work of governing. One clan periodically chooses the governor and his lieutenants, as well as those who will live in spiritual supervision of the ancient pueblo.
Perhaps the oldest continuously occupied village in the U.S., the Acoma Pueblo sits atop a 367-foot sandstone mesa almost midway between Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico. To look out from its edges over the surrounding desert floor and the other, nearby mesas is to contemplate in awe the shape of this world and the manner of our living in it. During the winter months only about twenty of the nearly four thousand Acoma Pueblo people live on the mesa. That number swells to a few hundred in the summer. The old cemetery is there, four layers deep with dead, just in front of the mission church of San Esteban Rey, completed in 1641. There is no running water or electric grid, though there are generators and portable toilets. Structures dating to the twelfth century are at the center of the mesa.
The Acoma have chosen a course to follow in attempting to maintain their culture in the midst of another, very modern one. They have been leading tours of the Pueblo since the early twentieth century. This became a more organized tourist enterprise in the 1970s, and with the completion of their $17 million, 40,000-square-foot Sky City Cultural Center in 2006, containing the Haak’u Museum, they are aiming at two destinations at once. The center, designed by local architects to express Acoma structural style with traditional materials, is a full commitment to the tourism dollar, as is the Sky City Casino twelve miles away off Interstate 40. It is also intended to be repository of Acoma culture, with programs to preserve it and educate the young in it. The plans for the center were developed in consultation with focus groups from among the tribal population in order to help ensure popular support for and satisfaction with the product.
The management of the cultural center and of the casino, where no alcohol is served, is separate from the tribal government. In addition, unlike other tribes, where casino profits have led to a kind of welfare culture, with the divvying of profits creating dissension over tribal enrollment (official membership) and blood quantum levels, there is no such disbursement among the Acoma. The profits fund the tribe as a whole.
Every worker we encountered at the cultural center and in the casino seemed to act quite genuinely as a kind of ambassador for the tribe. Pride and a spirit of helpfulness were frequently displayed. That is the part of the Acoma to be found in the United States of America in 2009. The rest they keep to themselves.
JD & AJA