Walking through the Sky City reminded me of a trailer park filled with long narrow dwellings, not of wood and metal, but of stone. Underfoot, the sandstone felt soft and powdery, more like beach sand than rock.
San Esteban del Rey Mission, the enormous Catholic mission built in 1629, gleamed in the desert sun as beautiful as it must have been nearly 500 years ago.
The Pueblo People
My explorations of New Mexico history began with the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. There are 19 different Pueblos (Pueblo refers to both groups of indigenous people, and to the stone, or adobe brick, structures they live in) in New Mexico, all descendants of a Native American culture that has established itself over many centuries.
The living history Center has galleries that exhibit Pueblo art; murals to illustrate stories; and the Pueblo House providing an experience in daily life, from the clay ovens where traditional breads are baked, to the displays of woven materials and clothing.
The Acoma Pueblo is about a hundred mile drive each way from Albuquerque, but while we consider anything beyond a hundred years old in Saskatchewan to be historic, this Pueblo is more than 2100 years old and still intact.
Centuries ago, the people of Acoma Pueblo built their homes high on the top of a mesa—the Sky City—now the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Since 1150 A.D., the Acoma people have dwelt at the top of this 367-foot sandstone bluff, overlooking a vista that extends for miles across the desert.
The steep sides of the mesa defy all but the most daring to scale their height, so the only access is up the steep road that takes visitors from the Sky City Cultural Center to the historic community.
Stories in Rock
In addition to meeting the Pueblo people, I was also able to visit an “art gallery” and “museum” that spanned centuries. Of course, it took a different form than those of modern times–the form of petroglyphs or stone carvings.
The Petroglyph National Monument is co-operatively managed by the city of Albuquerque and the National Park services.
About 150,000 years ago a volcano erupted in the Rio Grande River Valley, spewing out magma that spread and hardened, turning into black or charcoal coloured basalt rocks, which seem to have been strewn for kilometers across the landscape by a giant hand.
Over 20,000 birds, lizards, snakes, parrots, and various other images have been carved into the rocks with stone tools.
The petroglyphs range in age from about 1600 B.C. right to the arrival of the Spanish in the 1600s.
While we appreciate these petroglyphs from a variety of perspectives, the oldest of them were powerful symbols to their ancient communities. They were important spiritually, and even today sacred ceremonies take place among the rocks.
The rocks are laid out symbolically, so their placement has meaning has well as the images carved on them. This meaning is derived from their orientation to the horizon, their relationship to rocks around them, and the landscape that spreads out from the hillside.
My hike through the park gave me much to appreciate and think about.