James Paytiamo wrote a book in the 1930's that combined his knowledge of his tribal customs with the tales he'd heard from tribal elders. Flaming Arrow's People is an account of the traditions of the Acoma people and how they relate to their journey through time. Among the Acoma people many of the traditional concepts of community and culture have not changed over the years, even though recent modernization has brought some severe changes to the tribe. Many of the tribal customs still practiced today were practiced long before the Spanish conquest. Today only about 30 people, mostly children and elderly, live full time in Old Acoma on the mesa top. There is no running water, electricity or sewage disposal in the village. Virtually every family living on the Acoma reservation has a home on the mesa top which they maintain and occupy during traditional pueblo ceremonies but most live full time in the villages below.
Located about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, Acoma Pueblo consists of Sky City atop Acoma Mesa and the villages of McCartys and Acomita stretching out along the Rio San Jose River, a Rio Grande tributary.
Acoma's Sky City and Hopi's Old Oraibi both contend to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States, and both date their founding back to the 12th Century CE. Oral histories among the Acoma people indicate the tribe began living on the mesa top more than two thousand years ago.
The 376-foot-high sandstone mesa Acoma Pueblo is built on once provided excellent defense against Apache and Navajo raiding parties. In 1540, Captain Hernando de Alvarado and Fray Juan Padilla arrived at Acoma with an escort of soldiers. Hernando later claimed no army would ever be strong enough to capture the village built as it was upon a high rock with steep sides in every direction.
In 1598 Don Juan de Onate decided to colonize the area and the Acoma people responded by ambushing a group of Spanish and killing eleven of them, including Onate's nephew. The Spanish responded by attacking the pueblo in 1599 and captured the village after three days of fighting. When it was over, the Spanish had burned most of the village, killed about 600 residents and took another 500 residents prisoner. Most of those prisoners became slaves of the Spanish and all the men over 25 had their right foot amputated. In 1629 San Esteban del Ray, a mission church, was established atop the mesa. Like most of the other Rio Grande Pueblos, Acoma participated in the 1680 revolt against the Spanish. They also took in other pueblo refugees who had abandoned their homes. Most of those refugees left Acoma Pueblo between 1697-1699 and moved to establish Laguna Pueblo along the Rio Puerco.
The 12th century CE also saw the height (and end) of the Mimbres society to the south.
Acoma is about 80 miles east of Zuni Pueblo. They have enjoyed almost continuous interaction since prehistoric times. Red ware and glaze-painted decoration were quite common at both Zuni and Acoma locations in prehistoric times. Both abandoned the glaze method in favor of matte painted designs during the 1600's. Acoma pottery went through several transitions in styles and forms between the 1700's and 1900's. A mineral matte pigment replaced glaze paint, the bottoms of the jars went from convex to concave and many changes occurred in jar forms.
During the nineteenth century Acoma pottery changed and shapes and designs evolved into most of the common forms we see today. Designs became more floral with paintings of birds and parrots in beautiful patterns. The Acoma potters are known for their thin-walled white pottery with beautiful, multi-colored designs. The white clay they use to make their pottery comes from a secret source.
Lucy Lewis and Marie Chino became well-known for their adaptations of ancient Mimbres and Anasazi designs to the modern shapes of their vessels. Over time they created the geometric patterns and motifs that have almost become the signature for most Acoma pottery we see being created today.
While the traditional method of hand coiling using natural paints and outdoor wood firing is still in use in pottery making at Acoma today, some modern potters have turned to using gas kilns while others are buying or making slip-cast pottery. This type of pottery is often called contemporary style, greenware, or ceramic-style and is not authentically traditional. To purchase authentic traditional pottery always inquire about the process of how the piece was made.