One of our favourite stops during our full-length and express tours of Route 66 is Sky City, the historic site of the Acoma Pueblo community in present-day New Mexico. The ancient architecture and awe-inspiring cliff side scenery at the destination are matched only by the fascinating history of this Indigenous settlement.
According to the website of the Sky City Cultural Center & Haak'u Museum, the Acoma Pueblo dates back to 1150, which would make it the oldest continually inhabited settlement in North America. Sky City is the heart of a thriving Native community that has maintained its cultural traditions and political strength for centuries, even as various rulers and states have laid claim to the territory over the years.
The community today
The ancient pueblo sits atop a high mesa thrust more than 100 metres into the air by sheer walls in a somewhat remote section of western New Mexico, located about halfway between Albuquerque and the state line bordering Arizona. It's one of the best stops to explore in New Mexico when traversing the eight states of Route 66. Other nearby locales include the El Malpais National Monument to the west and the neighbouring Laguna Pueblo to the east.
Today, the federally recognised Acoma Pueblo tribe holds 431,664 acres and includes 5,000 tribal members, according to the Sky City Cultural Center. The New Mexico Tourism Department noted that around 50 tribal members live in historic Sky City, while most others reside in the communities of Acomita, McCarty's and Anzac.
In addition to the cultural centre and museum, the tribe operates other businesses catering to tourists and visitors, including the Sky City Casino and a camping site for recreational vehicles.
Origins of the Acoma Pueblo
The cliff sides of the mesa form a protective barrier for the settlement. Some Acoma elders trace the community's origins back to ancestors who emerged on the earth from another realm, referred to as Shipapu, before travelling from somewhere in the north to the area that became known as Sky City.
In that location, the residents of the settlement flourished for hundreds of years, living in multi-storey adobe houses and practising pottery and other skilled crafts while raising livestock and farming.
The pueblo communities of the American Southwest have long been known for their linguistic diversity and dispersed, autonomous settlements.
Relationship with other pueblos
According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, there are about 75,000 people of pueblo ancestry living today. Broadly speaking, the pueblos could be divided into two groups: eastern and western. Acoma would be considered a western pueblo, associated with the Zuni, Hopi and nearby Laguna Pueblos, while the eastern pueblo communities emerged along the Rio Grande and other areas.
Though there are cultural similarities among the languages, dialects and customs of the pueblo communities, these groups historically lived mostly independent of each other, and their respective communities were tied largely to their permanent historical settlements.
Contact with Europeans and the mission
A video from the Sky City Cultural Center website explains how Spanish explorers first reached Acoma in 1540 during their search for gold. At that time, they observed there were about 500 homes in the community, which they then dubbed a pueblo.
According to an article from the U.S. National Park Service, Spanish settlement in nearby areas increased and tensions between the communities grew. When the Spanish returned in 1599 under the leadership of Juan de Oñate, they took colonial control of the city and instituted a rule that was seen as quite brutal and severe.
During the early days of Spanish colonial administration, perhaps as early as 1629, construction began on the San Esteban Del Rey Mission Church. It still stands today, preserved by designated caretakers from the Acoma Pueblo.
By 1680, tensions between the residents of the pueblo communities and Spanish administrators and clergy reached a decisive point. It was at this time that the monumental Pueblo Rebellion, led by a Tewa man named Pope, or Po'pay, expelled many European leaders from the pueblos. Spanish control was reinstated in 1699. Today, a statue of Po'pay sits in the National Statuary Hall of the United States.
Following Spanish reconquest, and up to the present day, Acoma religious practices have often represented a blend of Catholicism and Native traditions. Likewise, the community has incorporated Mexican and American cultural practices into its distinct and unique Indigenous heritage.
Attractions in contemporary Sky City
Visitors who arrive at the Sky City Cultural Center & Haak'u Museum today can join guided tours of the ancient settlement. There are restrictions on photography and tourists are expected to dress comfortably but respectfully, so be careful to follow all relevant guidelines out of respect for the Acoma community.
The Haak'u Museum houses exhibits exploring the culture and history of the pueblo, including displays of fine art, textiles and expertly constructed crafts.
At the Yaak'a Cafe, diners can experience traditional Acoma cuisine and a variety of American foods. Try everything from Native fry bread to pueblo hot dogs made from bison meat. "Yaak'a" means corn, a staple of the Acoma diet for centuries, and a prominent ingredient in many dishes served at the cafe.
In the Gaits'i Gift Shop, you can explore intricate pottery and eye-catching turquoise jewellery created by local artisans. Take home prints, souvenir T-shirts or books about the long and storied history of the Acoma people to remember this once-in-a-lifetime stop during your unforgettable Route 66 adventure.
Our spring, summer and fall full-length and express tours all include a 90-minute walking tour of historic Sky City. Other attractions along the journey include visits to Meteor Crater, Grand Canyon Caverns and Las Vegas. And don't forget that our tours centre on a world-class tourist attraction in its own right, the Original Mother Road: Route 66. Book your tour today and prepare for the American road trip you've been dreaming of.