The Graveyard at Acoma Pueblo
aka San Esteban del Rey Mission Churchyard
Size: 2000 square feet
Number of interments: unknown
Open: Winter hours are in effect from the end of November until the end of February. During that time, the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum are only open on Saturdays and Sundays. The first tour begins at 9:30 a.m. Tours run every hour on the half hour. The final full tour begins at 3 p.m. Please call 800-747-0181 for more information and to verify the tour schedule and hours of operation.
Admission: Adult: $23. Senior, Active Duty U.S. Military (ID required), or college student with ID: $20. Children/Youth: $15. Family packages are available.
Seventy miles west of Albuquerque rises the Acoma Mesa. Atop it sprawls the 300 buildings of the Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City, which may be the oldest continuously occupied site in the Western Hemisphere. Dates of the initial settlement vary from 600 CE to 1150, but either way people have lived there for more than eight centuries.
Women in this matrilineal society own the flat-roof adobe-brick homes, none of which have running water, sewer hookups, or electricity. Some of the buildings have been modified with modern windows, but others, which are only occupied during festivals on the mesa, are closer to traditional homes.
The mesa rises 360 feet above the plain, to an elevation of 6600 feet above sea level. That made it high enough that Hernando de Alvarado of the Coronado expedition called it one of the strongest pueblos he’d ever seen in 1540. Not until January 12, 1599 did the Spanish attack in force, killing 800 Acoma Indians and punishing the survivors. One story is that the Spanish cut off the right foot of every adult male. Many of the other survivors were sold into slavery.
Once they’d allowed the workforce to recover, the Spanish built a mission church called San Esteban del Rey on the mesa between 1629 and 1640. The church took so long to complete because its building materials, even the dirt for its adobe walls, had to be carried up from the valley floor. Cornerstones Community Partnerships estimates Acomans moved approximately 20,000 tons of earth and stone from the canyon floor to build the church, convent, and cemetery. Even the water to make the adobe bricks had to be carried up on the heads of Acoman women.
The church stretches 150 feet long with walls 60 feet high. The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Desert States calls it “one of the most beautifully constructed and situated mission churches in New Mexico.” Many of the Spanish mission churches were destroyed in the Pueblo revolt of 1680, but the Acomans chose not to destroy their church. It continues to be used today for the Feast of St. Stephen and for Christmas, as well as for traditional dancing.
The Stations of the Cross adorn adobe walls that are ten feet deep. It’s believed that people are buried inside the walls.
Before the Conquistadors, the Acomans did not bury their dead. With the imposition of Catholicism came burial. Since the mesa top was barren rock, earth had to be carried up in woven baskets to fill the cemetery. This tradition continued until the road up the mesa was finally built. Now earth is carried up in the beds of pickup trucks. There are five layers of graves in the cemetery, surrounded by a retaining wall that is nearly fifty feet high on the outside.
This level of graves will be the last. Once it is full, no more will be added. Space in the cemetery is reserved for tribal elders and those who live in the pueblo year-round. Most other Acoma choose to be buried elsewhere in the reservation.
In front of the church stands a memorial to the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall is pierced by a hole, to allow spirits of the deceased an exit into the afterlife.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Acoma Pueblo the 28th Historic Site in 2007. It is the only Native American site to make the list.
The pueblo can only be visited on a guided tour. Camera permits are available, but photography of the interior of the church and all of the cemetery are forbidden. Visitors who violate this rule will have their cameras confiscated.
During the tours, Acomans sell traditional pottery. There is also a café which serves excellent tamales and other good things. The Visitor Center at the foot of the mesa has a gift shop.
Vans shuttle visitors up to the mesa top, but visitors can choose to walk down the traditional path. I found it very challenging not just because of the uneven surface but also because of the altitude. Don’t discount that if you’re not acclimated to it. Also, bring water and sunscreen. The top of the mesa is unprotected from the sun.
Acoma Pueblo homepage
Acoma tour information
Travel feature in the San Francisco Examiner
Beautiful photos of the Acoma Pueblo
Photo of the graveyard from 1975
Information on the ongoing restoration of the church
A description of Christmas Eve as celebrated in Acoma