a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

IT’S A CRISP MORNING and I'm flying over a sheer mesa dotted with adobe houses, but not in an airplane. I'm floating silently, effortlessly, just like flying in my dreams. The currents gently waft our hot air balloon over the Acoma Indian reservation west of Albuquerque. Slowly, we drift 500 feet above the mesa-top community of Sky City, the oldest continuously inhabited town in North America. I look down on the dwarfed houses and marvel at the dreamlike view.

The balloon floats under a cloudless, turquoise sky around the northern end of the towering mesa. The prow of the massive rock stands like a ship in a sea of sand and scrubby junipers. Only one dirt road and the faint lines of old corn rows suggest a human presence, even though this high desert valley has been occupied since 800 AD. The hairline mark of the paved road to IH-40 bisects the valley in the distance.

The sheer, 375-feet-high sandstone cliffs and adobe mud dwellings glow golden in the early sun. No wonder Coronado heard that the pueblos were cities of gold. But his first expedition in 1540 bypassed Sky City. One soldier wrote that they "... found a rock with a village on top, the strongest position in all the land. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top."

Instead of repenting, our balloon pilot, Clark O'Byrne, hits the propane and a blast of hot air raises us higher above the ancestral village. "We fly the Acoma balloon at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival and other events, but just a few times a year over Sky City," he says. "The tribal elders grant

permission only for special events."

Today's balloon launch

commemorates the Memorial Day

opening of the new Sky City Cultural

Center and Haak'u Museum at the

foot of the mesa. Theold cultural

center burned in 2000. The new,

40,000-square-foot facility does

more than welcome visitors who

come for the guided tour of Sky

City. It serves as a focal point for

preserving the cultural heritage,

traditional art forms, and sacred

artifacts of the Acoma people.

"I like to say that we're not just preserving our culture, we're

sustaining it," Brian Vallo, the Center director says. The $10-million center has a research library, class rooms, theater, marketplace for craft vendors, and two exhibition galleries. "Education programs will teach our Keresan language, our thousand-year-old tradition of pottery, and hopefully revive the lost art of weaving. The current exhibit, Cotton Girls, displays examples of the decorated dresses that women wore in the 19th century."

The Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum, which means "A Place Prepared," also includes Smithsonian-quality archival facilities. "Now we can repatriate many of the cultural items held by other institutions," Vallo says. "Some are so sacred that only the spiritual leaders can handle them."

The main gallery displays a pottery exhibit, The Matriarchs, of four of the most famous Acoma potters. The master potters rejuvenated the ancient art form and promoted it as a means of economic self-reliance. Each developed her own signature style and passed her skills to the next generation. Since the railroad first brought outsiders to the reservation more than 100 years ago, Acoma pottery, with its intricate black-and-white and earth-color designs, has become world renowned.

Acoma is one of the 19 pueblo reservations in New Mexico. Sixty miles west of Albuquerque, Sky City sits 10 miles south of IH-40 and the tribe's Sky City Casino and Hotel and Flower Mountain Travel Center. We stay at the three-diamond hotel, with cut-rate casino prices for the room and restaurant, and attend one of the cultural lecture series co-sponsored by the casino and University of New Mexico.

The Acoma poet and author, Simon Ortiz, speaks about the power of language to free a people. He wrote the PBS documentary "Surviving Columbus" and has received numerous literary awards.

"In elementary school, we were forbidden to speak Keres, the Acoma language," he tells us. "Not using our own language made us feel inferior. By age 10, I wanted to speak in my own voice so I could know who I was. Writing (in English) allowed me to say what I wanted to say as an indigenous American."

After five years as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, Ortiz recently returned to his homeland. He reads from his new book of poetry, "Out There Someplace," about the eternal connection a person has with home, even when far away. "Now, with the Cultural Center, many of our heritage items can come home, too."

The next morning, we drive through the tribal lands to the Cultural Center and join a tour of Sky City for an escorted tour of the village that daunted the Spanish conquistadors. They didn't conquer the mesa until 1599. Eight hundred Acoma men died defending their homes and 500 captives had one foot chopped off for resisting. The women and children who survived the massacre were sent to Mexico as slaves.

Our guide, Orlando Antonio, leads us to San Esteban del Rey Mission, built by forced Indian labor in 1629 and now a Save America's Treasures site. A large painting presented by the king of Spain when the church was built hangs on one of the 60-foot-high stucco walls. The church has no pews, just a 400-year-old wooden statue of Saint Stephens and the gaily painted alter from Mexico, which rises a few steps above the packed mud and straw floor.

A hushed stillness rests within the vast space of the vaulted sanctuary. High windows cast soft, filtered light. The absence of embellishment contrasts greatly with the Baroque cathedrals of Europe. Three simple rainbow arcs over corn stalks decorate the side walls below paintings of the stations of the cross. The rainbows represent prayers for rain. The Acoma eventually embraced Catholicism, but integrated it with their traditional beliefs.

Antonio tells us about the matriarchal society as we make our way past religious kivas and houses with ladders to upstairs rooms since the homes have no interior staircases. "Children are members of the mother's clan," he says. "Women own everything. Homes are passed down to the youngest daughter so she can take care of the

parents when they get old."

Along the way we pass women selling their pottery on tables in front of their homes. La Donna "Butterfly" Victoriana stands under the only tree on the mesa, a 15-foot cottonwood beside a water-filled depression. "My grandfather planted it," she says as I admire her pots. Her decorated plates are light as feathers and her pots covered with the traditional fine-lined designs.

Victoriana learned the art from her grandmother. "Every household has two or three potters," she says. "I saw them working everyday and picked it up. I started doing miniatures, now I enter a lot of juried competitions."

Antonio leads us to a precipitous edge of the mesa. In the distance, the cliffs of Enchanted Mesa, another icon in Acoma oral history, catch the afternoon light. "The rocks talk," Antonio says. "They tells us our past and who we are today." He adds with more emphasis, "The rocks talk!"

That evening after dinner in the Cultural Center café, we hear drumming in the meeting room and investigate. A family has invited friends to a corn dance in honor of the dedication of the Center. People move in and out of the dance line, sit and chat, and eat popcorn. "These kind of socials usually occur in homes," Vello, the Center director tells us. "Now they can take place in the Center. It's fulfilling its community mission. Our goal is to preserve our past and guarantee that our culture will be here for another 1,000 years."

Perched high on a mesa in New Mexico, the oldest town in North America holds tightly to its culture.

Susan Sarracino sits by a table of her museum-quality pottery.  "I usually sell on the [Sky City] mesa but it's closed for the opening celebrations," she says. Today she sets up a table on the overlook of the ancient valley . A delicate design of triangles and thin lines cover her paper-thin pots. Master potters use the traditional method of building a pot with coils of clay and painting the intricate designs with a fine brush made from yucca fibers.

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