Looking High and Low

A view of the Acoma pueblo perched on a mesa in the Arizona desertNone of our families has been here forever. Most of us, or our ancestors, settled in the West when the land was much like it is today. Life may have been different, but the land and the people were not. A few of us have forebearers whose trek to this country is measured in more than decades or centuries. But as long as people have lived on the land, they have suffered the realtors’ curse. Location is all. And always, it seems, something better is out there.

Life was not different eight hundred years ago when someone in the Southwest, in what we now call New Mexico, decided that the mesa–the Sacred Mountain, “the place that always was”–rising six hundred feet from the flat of the desert around it, was the best of locations.

For one thing, it had a great view. From its height the majestic mountains, snow-covered in winter, were fully visible. Thanks to a scarp running straight as a level that cut off the view, those mountains could barely be seen from the desert below.

And it was safe. From the top one could see for dozens of miles in all directions across the sparsely covered plain. It was not a place where one could easily be taken by surprise.

And it was, after all, the sacred place.

The people of the surrounding pueblos were sold on the property. They would live on the Sacred Mountain. Never mind that it was rock and that it had no soil for growing or water for drinking. No matter that the nearest timber was twenty miles away. For a location this grand these could be brought in from below. And thus the city began–a city still lived in today. Acoma arose on the mesa.

Then, as now, grand locations were in short supply. Developing them for human habitation required ingenious problem solving, heavy labor, and rigorous social structure. And then, as now, once built they became targets of envy.

In the fifteen hundreds, Spaniards who had settled in Mexico turned north seeking rumored gold. For reasons sometimes political, sometimes religious, and sometimes too human, they clashed with the inhabitants of the heights. It was not a pretty fight. Death and deceit dogged both sides in a feud that still lasts to this day.

A new religion was brought to the town in the sky. A church was built high on the mesa with roof timbers carried from afar. And in order to properly bury the dead, a cemetery in the churchyard was carved out of the rock. At first filled with earth hauled up from the desert below, it was then filled with those who had hauled up the earth.

None of our families will be here forever. What is our claim to the earth? Do we own it? Does it own us? Can we each have a piece of it? When is it worth fighting for? When is it worth dying for? When is it sacred? What can we know from Acoma?

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The Acoma Pueblo, the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, is located fifty miles west of Albuquerque and fifteen miles south of I-40.