The White Buffalo Woman

The White Buffalo Woman Legend, or how the Lakota got the Peace Pipe…One summer so long ago that nobody knows how long, the Oceti­Shakowin, the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Oyate, the nation, came together and camped. The sun shone all the time, but there was no game and the people were starving. Every day they sent scouts to look for game, but the scouts found nothing.

 

Among the bands assembled were the Itazipcho, the Without­Bows, who had their own camp circle under their chief, Standing Hollow Horn. Early one morning the chief sent two of his young men to hunt for game. They went on foot, because at that time the Sioux didn’t yet have horses. They searched everywhere but could find nothing. Seeing a high hill, they decided to climb it in order to look over the whole country. Halfway up, they saw something coming toward them from far off, but the figure was floating instead of walking. From this they knew that the person was waken, holy. 

At first they could make out only a small moving speck and had to squint to see that it was a human form. But as it came nearer, they realized that it was a beautiful young woman, more beautiful than any they had ever seen, with two round, red dots of face paint on her cheeks. She wore a wonderful white buckskin outfit, tanned until it shone a long way in the sun. It was embroidered with sacred and marvelous designs of porcupine quill, in radiant colors no ordinary woman could have made. This wakan stranger was Ptesan­Wi, White Buffalo Woman. In her hands she carried a large bundle and a fan of sage leaves. She wore her blue­black hair loose except for a strand at the left side, which was tied up with buffalo fur. Her eyes shone dark and sparkling, with great power in them. 

The two young men looked at her open­mouthed. One was overawed, but the other desired her body and stretched his hand out to touch her. This woman was lila waken, very sacred, and could not be treated with disrespect. Lightning instantly struck the brash young man and burned him up, so that only a small heap of blackened bones was left. Or as some say that he was suddenly covered by a cloud, and within it he was eaten up by snakes that left only his skeleton, just as a man can be eaten up by lust. 

To the other scout who had behaved rightly, the White Buffalo Woman said: “Good things I am bringing, something holy to your nation. A message I carry for your people from the buffalo nation. Go back to the camp and tell the people to prepare for my arrival. Tell your chief to put up a medicine lodge with twenty­four poles. Let it be made holy for my coming.”

This young hunter returned to the camp. He told the chief, he told the people, what the sacred woman had commanded. The chief told the eyapaha, the crier, and the crier went through the camp circle calling: “Someone sacred is coming. A holy woman approaches. Make all things ready for her.” So the people put up the big medicine tipi and waited. After four days they saw the White Buffalo Woman approaching, carrying her bundle before her. Her wonderful white buckskin dress shone from afar. The chief, Standing Hollow Horn, invited her to enter the medicine lodge. She went in and circled the interior sunwise. The chief addressed her respectfully, saying: “Sister, we are glad you have come to instruct us.” 

She told him what she wanted done. In the center of the tipi they were to put up an owanka wakan, a sacred altar, made of red earth, with a buffalo skull and a three­stick rack for a holy thing she was bringing. They did what she directed, and she traced a design with her finger on the smoothed earth of the altar. She showed them how to do all this, then circled the lodge again sunwise. Halting before the chief, she now opened the bundle. the holy thing it contained was the chanunpa, the sacred pipe. She held it out to the people and let them look at it. She was grasping the stem with her right hand and the bowl with her left, and thus the pipe has been held ever since. 

Again the chief spoke, saying: “Sister, we are glad. We have had no meat for some time. All we can give you is water.” They dipped some wacanga, sweet grass, into a skin bag of water and gave it to her, and to this day the people dip sweet grass or an eagle wing in water and sprinkle it on a person to be purified. 

The White Buffalo Woman showed the people how to use the pipe. She filled it with chan­shasha, red willow­bark tobacco. She walked around the lodge four times after the manner of Anpetu­Wi, the great sun. This represented the circle without end, the sacred hoop, the road of life. The woman placed a dry buffalo chip on the fire and lit the pipe with it. This was peta­owihankeshini, the fire without end, the flame to be passed on from generation to generation. She told them that the smoke rising from the bowl was Tunkashila’s breath, the living breath of the great Grandfather Mystery. 

The White Buffalo Woman showed the people the right way to pray, the right words and the right gestures. She taught them how to sing the pipe­filling song and how to lift the pipe up to the sky, toward Grandfather, and down toward Grandmother Earth, to Unci, and then to the four directions of the universe. 

“With this holy pipe,” she said, “you will walk like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and the pipestem reaching into the sky, your body forms a living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above. Wakan Tanka smiles upon us, because now we are as one: earth, sky, all living things, the two legged, the four­legged, the winged ones, the trees, the grasses. Together with the people, they are all related, one family. The pipe holds them all together.” 

“Look at this bowl,” said the White Buffalo Woman. “Its stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the red man. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of man. The buffalo was put in the west by Wakan Tanka at the making of the world, to hold back the waters. Every year he loses one hair, and in every one of the four ages he loses a leg. The Sacred Hoop will end when all the hair and legs of the great buffalo are gone, and the water comes back to cover the Earth. 

The wooden stem of this chanunpa stands for all that grows on the earth. Twelve feathers hanging from where the stem­ the backbone­ joins the bowl­ the skull­ are from Wanblee Galeshka, the spotted eagle, the very sacred who is the Great Spirit’s messenger and the wisest of all cry out to Tunkashila. Look at the bowl: engraved in it are seven circles of various sizes. They stand for the seven ceremonies you will practice with this pipe, and for the Ocheti Shakowin, the seven sacred campfires of our Lakota nation.” 

The White Buffalo Woman then spoke to the women, telling them that it was the work of their hands and the fruit of their bodies which kept the people alive. “You are from the mother earth,” she told them. “What you are doing is as great as what warriors do.” 

And therefore the sacred pipe is also something that binds men and women together in a circle of love. It is the one holy object in the making of which both men and women have a hand. The men carve the bowl and make the stem; the women decorate it with bands of colored porcupine quills. When a man takes a wife, they both hold the pipe at the same time and red cloth is wound around their hands, thus tying them together for life. 

The White Buffalo Woman had many things for her Lakota sisters in her sacred womb bag; corn, wasna (pemmican), wild turnip. She taught how to make the hearth fire. She filled a buffalo paunch with cold water and dropped a red­hot stone into it. “This way you shall cook the corn and the meat,” she told them. 

The White Buffalo Woman also talked to the children, because they have an understanding beyond their years. She told them that what their fathers and mothers did was for them, that their parents could remember being little once, and that they, the children, would grow up to have little ones of their own. She told them: “You are the coming generation, that’s why you are the most important and precious ones. Some day you will hold this pipe and smoke it. Some day you will pray with it.” 

She spoke once more to all the people: “The pipe is alive; it is a red being showing
you a red life and a red road. And this is the first ceremony for which you will use the pipe. You will use it to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery Spirit. The day a human dies is always a sacred day. The day when the soul is released to the Great Spirit is another. Four women will become sacred on such a day. They will be the ones to cut the sacred tree, the can­wakan, for the sun dance.” 

She told the Lakota that they were the purest among the tribes, and for that reason Tunkashila had bestowed upon them the holy chanunpa. They had been chosen to take care of it for all the Indian people on this turtle continent. 

She spoke one last time to Standing Hollow Horn, the chief, saying, “Remember: this pipe is very sacred. Respect it and it will take you to the end of the road. The four ages of creation are in me; I am the four ages. I will come to see you in every generation cycle. I shall come back to you.” 

The sacred woman then took leave of the people, saying: “Toksha ake wacinyanitin ktelo, I shall see you again.” 

The people saw her walking off in the same direction from which she had come, outlined against the red ball of the setting sun. As she went, she stopped and rolled over four times. The first time, she turned into a black buffalo; the second into a brown one; the third into a red one; and finally, the fourth time she rolled over, she turned into a white female buffalo calf. A white buffalo is the most sacred living thing you could ever encounter.

The White Buffalo Woman disappeared over the Horizon. Sometime she might come back. As soon as she had vanished, buffalo in great herds appeared, allowing themselves to be killed so the people might survive. And from that day on, our relations, the buffalo, furnished the people with everything they needed, meat for their food, skins for their clothes and tipis, bones for their many tools.

The first Keeper of the Sacred Pipe was Walking Upright. He kept the peace pipe carefully wrapped most of the time. Every little while he called all his people together, untied the bundle, and repeated the lessons he had been taught by the beautiful woman. And he used it in prayers and other ceremonies until he was more than one hundred years old.

When he became feeble, he held a great feast. There he gave the pipe and the lessons to Sunrise, a worthy man. In a similar way the pipe was passed down from generation to generation. Today, Arvol Looking Horse is the pipekeeper of the nineteeth generation.

“As long as the pipe is used,” the beautiful woman had said, “Your people will live and will be happy. As soon as it is forgotten, the people will perish.”

Sacred White Buffalo Calf Murdered

When Joe Merrival was called to the scene of a buffalo shooting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation recently, he stared in disbelief — not far away lay his sacred buffalo, its throat slit, its hide tattered. Medicine Wheel had been the first white buffalo born on Indian lands in more than a century.

Sacred White Buffalo Calf Murdered »»

What foods do we eat today that were originally developed by native american tribes?

–Submitted by Juanita C.


Answer:


Hi Juanita,

Over the course of thousands of years, many, many plant species were domesticated, bred and cultivated by the indigenous native american peoples of the American continent. Many of these cultivars spread throughout the American continent and are presently common staples in diets worldwide.

What foods do we eat today that were originally developed by native american tribes? »»

What is the underlying significance of the birth of the white buffalo ?

Question Submitted by: Dmbad5

The White Buffalo Calf Woman Prophesy

The Lakota religious system and White Buffalo prophesies are based on a messiah who appeared to them about 2,000 years ago called the White Buffalo Woman, or Ptesan­Wi, as she is called in the Lakota language. (The “Calf” part of her name was added later by fairly recent storytellers.)

The oral tradition says she first appeared to them in the form of a wakan (holy) woman who “floated” above the ground. She stayed among them for a period of time and taught them how to use the buffalo to sustain them, and gave them instruction in seven sacred rites they were to incorporate into their daily lives and preserve and pass down to future generations, similar to the Christian belief in the 10 commandments presented to Moses by the Christian God.

When White Buffalo Calf Woman left the Lakota people, the people saw her walking off in the same direction from which she had come, outlined against the setting sun. As she went, she stopped and rolled over four times. The first time, she turned into a black buffalo; the second into a brown one; the third into a red one; and finally, the fourth time she rolled over, she turned into a white female buffalo calf before disappearing.

Just as the Christians believe Jesus spent 32 years among us, then returned to Heaven with a promise to return in the future for his faithfull followers, the White Buffalo Calf Woman also promised to return. Instead of transporting her faithful to Heaven in a rapture, she promised to restore the Earth to harmony if we had made the necessary preparations.

What is the underlying significance of the birth of the white buffalo ? »»

Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico has been inhabited for more than 1,000 years

The ancient pueblo of Acoma is aptly nicknamed. Known as the Sky City, it commands the most exotic location of any inhabited place in the United States — the top of a 370-foot-high mesa in New Mexico, a natural citadel of golden rock, an island in the sky. It’s also amazingly well-disguised.

I’d driven there from Albuquerque in late afternoon, turning south off Interstate 40 at the Acoma tribe’s booming casino complex and picking up a small, scenic road. At first it ran past scattered homesteads — old stone houses, trailers, a few brand-new ranches — but for most of its almost 20 miles, it took me through a gorgeously empty landscape of red and gold mesas, polka-dotted with plump, dark cedar shrubs.

Finally the road curved, and the vista I was waiting for opened out above a wide valley, studded with mesas and giant rock towers, like sentinels along a sacred way.

I pulled over where the road starts down, got out of the car and, as usual, stared in awe. The Sky City was right there in front of me, 3 1/2 miles away, but its camouflage is so perfect, I couldn’t see it, though I knew where to look.

I drove a mile closer, down onto the valley floor, and still saw nothing but banded mesas and golden rock. I had to drive another full mile before I could finally distinguish the twin bell towers of San Esteban del Rey, Acoma’s 1629 Spanish mission church, rising above the fringe of little flat-roofed houses along the mesa rim.

This place, which last month became the nation’s 28th National Trust Historic Site, is North America’s Machu Picchu, but in some ways it’s more impressive: It’s older than the mountaintop ruin in Peru, and it’s still alive. Acoma people have lived up there for more than a thousand years.

The Sky City mesa is a tribal emblem, and the nickname functions like a brand. But its real name, Haak’u, means “a place prepared,” a reference to a cosmic promise made to the tribe when it first emerged into this world.

“It was already foretold at the time of emergence that there was ‘a place prepared’ — in all senses of the word — for our eternal occupancy,” Brian Vallo, director of Acoma’s brand-new cultural center, explained while the center was being finished. “It is the traditional homeland of the Acoma people. A very sacred place.”

The Pueblos are different nations

Twenty pueblos — the Spanish word can mean village, tribe or individuals — survive in the Southwest. One tribe, the Hopi, lives in northeastern Arizona. The 19 other pueblos are in New Mexico.

The pueblos are different nations, speaking different languages. They look different from one another, too. Taos is famous for its ancient pair of multistory apartment buildings. Jemez, beside a mountain river, has narrow, tight-knit lanes and the feel of a Greek village. And Acoma — well, Acoma is like nothing else in this country.

But those are superficial differences. All the pueblos share something more important — a powerful belief system so encompassing and so interwoven with every aspect of daily life that even to call it “tradition” or “religion” is to limit its scope. It is deeply rooted in the land, and the pueblos have managed to hang onto it for 400 years, ever since the Spanish conquest.

Whenever I visit, I try to imagine what it is like to inhabit the pueblo world, where everything is sacred, where everything has meaning, where everything — and everyone — is connected to everything else.

“The connections to place and people — that’s home,” Vallo said. “And that’s a lot.”

Imagining a world so complete is like trying to picture a color that isn’t in the spectrum, and it turns every trip to this part of the Southwest into a spiritual journey.

Acoma Pueblo has the feeling of home

It was a long way, in more than miles, from the sacred Sky City back to Acoma’s Sky City Casino-Hotel and Travel Center on I-40 — so far that at first I had trouble picturing them in the same universe, let alone the same landscape.

But the casino complex and its huge, adjacent truck stop are the economic engine fueling Acoma’s future, and that future includes the preservation of its past. Gaming revenues paid for most of the tribe’s new $17 million cultural center, which opened at the foot of Haak’u mesa last May.

The handsome center is intended to be many things, Vallo said, but they all involve the concept of home — a home where visitors can feel welcome; a home for repatriated Acoma artifacts; a home where the Acoma can study their language and heritage.

From my room in the casino hotel, I could look across the swimming pool and see the force that is driving Acoma’s economy now: the raised roadbed of Interstate 40. It took the place of old Route 66, and it’s still the Mother Road across New Mexico.

Rivers of semi trucks glittered in both directions, and steady streams of them were pulling off at the Acoma exit to tank up and let their drivers fire down.

Inside the casino hotel, there were the familiar clangs, whoops and jingles from the gaming hall off the lobby. But the complex does not serve alcohol, and the hotel was surprisingly tasteful and quiet. It felt more like a community center than a subset of Las Vegas.

Tracking tourists at Acoma Pueblo

Haak’u draws a different crowd, but it, too, draws large numbers: In summer hundreds of tourists a day descend on a village of fewer than a dozen families.

To protect it, the tribe has been tracking tourism to the Sky City for more than a century. Tours are now the only way you can visit the mesa. Small buses shuttle visitors up there from the new cultural center at its base, on a road built in 1950 for a John Wayne movie.

The rules are strict: No photography without a permit, no wandering off, and you need to get the name right.

“It’s pronounced AAAAH-coma,” my group’s tour guide said firmly. “We aren’t in a COMA!”

The houses of the Sky City are plain and boxlike, one or two stories, made of stone or adobe plastered with mud. Gusts of wind whip through the narrow streets, flinging sand against skin and into eyes. There is only one small tree — “the Acoma National Forest,” my tour guide joked — and the blistering New Mexico sun always feels as if it’s right overhead.

The mesa-top tours take about an hour under that sun. The guides move fast, and they cover a lot. Pause, and you’re guaranteed to miss something — an ancient window made of mica, for example, or the hole in the cemetery wall that allowed lost spirits to come home, or an explanation of the tribe‘s matrilineal system — how the youngest daughter inherits from the youngest daughter, down through time.

But visitors do pause — caught by stunning views at the end of every lane, by the tables of distinctive black-on-white pottery set out in front of artists’ homes and by the food — apple turnovers, straight from the oven, and fry bread so fresh that the grease burns your tongue.

A lot of these tourist pauses, I suspect, are really just ways of extending the experience.

At the end of the tour, the guides always offer a choice of how to get back: Ride the bus back down the mesa, or take the hidden foot trail that the Acoma people used for centuries before the road was cut.

I always choose the trail.

Almost vertical in places, it follows a steep, narrow slot in the cliff face. Getting down safely requires trusting the ancient builders, who knew what they were doing when they carved the footholds and handholds.

I turned around to face the yellow rock and then descended as if I were on a ladder, reaching my toes down step by step, sliding my fingers into ancient niches.

Of all the good experiences on this trip, that descent was the best. I liked feeling that I fittted into something that went so far back in time, with so many connections to other people — even if they could never be my own. The scale of the steps was human, and the warm, golden stone felt good and secure against my hands. It felt, in fact, like comfort.

Getting to Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo is about 60 miles southwest of Albuquerque, N.M. Round-trip, restricted airfare between Kansas City and Albuquerque recently started about $130.

Visiting Acoma

For information on Acoma, call the tribe’s main number, 1-888-SKY-CITY, or go to www.skycity.com. The ancient mesa-top village may be visited only by guided tours, which begin at the new Cultural Center ($12 adults, $11 seniors, $9 ages 6 through 17, free for children younger than 5).

Tours go daily, unless a snowstorm blocks the roads, so call ahead in winter.

For an excellent introduction to pueblo cultures, visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, 2401 12th St. N.W.; (505) 843-7270; or go to www.indianpueblo.org. Adult admission this year is $6, $5.50 for seniors, $1 for students (college students need ID), free for children younger than 5.

The Weather at Acoma Pueblo

Central New Mexico, though dry, does get snow in winter, particularly if a bad storm has ravaged the Great Plains. Average February temperatures in Albuquerque range from a high of 53 to a low of 27.

Food and lodging near Acoma Pueblo

At Acoma, the best place to eat and the only place to stay is the Sky City Casino-Hotel and Travel Center on Interstate 40. The pleasant, quiet hotel rooms run $89 standard, $119 suite. For reservations, call 1-888-SKY-CITY.

The hotel restaurant offers huge portions, a good buffet, some traditional foods and reasonable prices. Snacks and good pizza are available inside the casino, and there’s a busy McDonald’s at the truck stop.

The new Sky City Cultural Center, worlds away at the base of the ancient city’s mesa, also has a restaurant; it serves such traditional items as blue corn porridge and blue corn pancakes for breakfast, and Acoma oven bread and lamb stew for lunch. Again, prices are reasonable.

Acoma Cultural center

Last May, Acoma opened a remarkable new cultural center at the foot of the Sky City mesa.

The $17 million project, mostly funded with gaming revenue, is the biggest investment the tribe has ever made, said Brian Vallo, the center’s director.

The center’s first-rate museum was designed to hold an expanding collection of Acoma pottery, weavings and other cultural objects. The museum also includes climate-controlled storage, a requirement for the return of tribal material under federal law.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. | Catherine Watson, Special to The Star


Famous Pueblo People

A visit to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is a sacred journey

The ancient pueblo of Acoma is aptly nicknamed. Known as the Sky City, it commands the most exotic location of any inhabited place in the United States — the top of a 370-foot-high mesa in New Mexico, a natural citadel of golden rock, an island in the sky.

It’s also amazingly well-disguised.

I’d driven there from Albuquerque in late afternoon, turning south off Interstate 40 at the Acoma tribe’s booming casino complex and picking up a small, scenic road. At first it ran past scattered homesteads — old stone houses, trailers, a few brand-new ranches — but for most of its almost 20 miles, it took me through a gorgeously empty landscape of red and gold mesas, polka-dotted with plump, dark cedar shrubs.

Finally the road curved, and the vista I was waiting for opened out above a wide valley, studded with mesas and giant rock towers, like sentinels along a sacred way.

I pulled over where the road starts down, got out of the car and, as usual, stared in awe. The Sky City was right there in front of me, 3 1/2 miles away, but its camouflage is so perfect, I couldn’t see it, though I knew where to look.

I drove a mile closer, down onto the valley floor, and still saw nothing but banded mesas and golden rock. I had to drive another full mile before I could finally distinguish the twin bell towers of San Esteban del Rey, Acoma’s 1629 Spanish mission church, rising above the fringe of little flat-roofed houses along the mesa rim.

This place, which last month became the nation’s 28th National Trust Historic Site, is North America’s Machu Picchu, but in some ways it’s more impressive: It’s older than the mountaintop ruin in Peru, and it’s still alive. Acoma people have lived up there for more than a thousand years.

The Sky City mesa is a tribal emblem, and the nickname functions like a brand. But its real name, Haak’u, means “a place prepared,” a reference to a cosmic promise made to the tribe when it first emerged into this world.

“It was already foretold at the time of emergence that there was ‘a place prepared’ — in all senses of the word — for our eternal occupancy,” Brian Vallo, director of Acoma’s brand-new cultural center, explained while the center was being finished. “It is the traditional homeland of the Acoma people. A very sacred place.”

The Pueblos are different nations

Twenty pueblos — the Spanish word can mean village, tribe or individuals — survive in the Southwest. One tribe, the Hopi, lives in northeastern Arizona. The 19 other pueblos are in New Mexico.

The pueblos are different nations, speaking different languages. They look different from one another, too. Taos is famous for its ancient pair of multistory apartment buildings. Jemez, beside a mountain river, has narrow, tight-knit lanes and the feel of a Greek village. And Acoma — well, Acoma is like nothing else in this country.

But those are superficial differences. All the pueblos share something more important — a powerful belief system so encompassing and so interwoven with every aspect of daily life that even to call it “tradition” or “religion” is to limit its scope. It is deeply rooted in the land, and the pueblos have managed to hang onto it for 400 years, ever since the Spanish conquest.

Whenever I visit, I try to imagine what it is like to inhabit the pueblo world, where everything is sacred, where everything has meaning, where everything — and everyone — is connected to everything else.

“The connections to place and people — that’s home,” Vallo said. “And that’s a lot.”

Imagining a world so complete is like trying to picture a color that isn’t in the spectrum, and it turns every trip to this part of the Southwest into a spiritual journey.

Acoma Pueblo has the feeling of home

It was a long way, in more than miles, from the sacred Sky City back to Acoma’s Sky City Casino-Hotel and Travel Center on I-40 — so far that at first I had trouble picturing them in the same universe, let alone the same landscape.

But the casino complex and its huge, adjacent truck stop are the economic engine fueling Acoma’s future, and that future includes the preservation of its past. Gaming revenues paid for most of the tribe’s new $17 million cultural center, which opened at the foot of Haak’u mesa last May.

The handsome center is intended to be many things, Vallo said, but they all involve the concept of home — a home where visitors can feel welcome; a home for repatriated Acoma artifacts; a home where the Acoma can study their language and heritage.

From my room in the casino hotel, I could look across the swimming pool and see the force that is driving Acoma’s economy now: the raised roadbed of Interstate 40. It took the place of old Route 66, and it’s still the Mother Road across New Mexico.

Rivers of semi trucks glittered in both directions, and steady streams of them were pulling off at the Acoma exit to tank up and let their drivers fire down.

Inside the casino hotel, there were the familiar clangs, whoops and jingles from the gaming hall off the lobby. But the complex does not serve alcohol, and the hotel was surprisingly tasteful and quiet. It felt more like a community center than a subset of Las Vegas.

Tracking tourists at Acoma Pueblo

Haak’u draws a different crowd, but it, too, draws large numbers: In summer hundreds of tourists a day descend on a village of fewer than a dozen families.

To protect it, the tribe has been tracking tourism to the Sky City for more than a century. Tours are now the only way you can visit the mesa. Small buses shuttle visitors up there from the new cultural center at its base, on a road built in 1950 for a John Wayne movie.

The rules are strict: No photography without a permit, no wandering off, and you need to get the name right.

“It’s pronounced AAAAH-coma,” my group’s tour guide said firmly. “We aren’t in a COMA!”

The houses of the Sky City are plain and boxlike, one or two stories, made of stone or adobe plastered with mud. Gusts of wind whip through the narrow streets, flinging sand against skin and into eyes. There is only one small tree — “the Acoma National Forest,” my tour guide joked — and the blistering New Mexico sun always feels as if it’s right overhead.

The mesa-top tours take about an hour under that sun. The guides move fast, and they cover a lot. Pause, and you’re guaranteed to miss something — an ancient window made of mica, for example, or the hole in the cemetery wall that allowed lost spirits to come home, or an explanation of the tribe‘s matrilineal system — how the youngest daughter inherits from the youngest daughter, down through time.

But visitors do pause — caught by stunning views at the end of every lane, by the tables of distinctive black-on-white pottery set out in front of artists’ homes and by the food — apple turnovers, straight from the oven, and fry bread so fresh that the grease burns your tongue.

A lot of these tourist pauses, I suspect, are really just ways of extending the experience.

At the end of the tour, the guides always offer a choice of how to get back: Ride the bus back down the mesa, or take the hidden foot trail that the Acoma people used for centuries before the road was cut.

I always choose the trail.

Almost vertical in places, it follows a steep, narrow slot in the cliff face. Getting down safely requires trusting the ancient builders, who knew what they were doing when they carved the footholds and handholds.

I turned around to face the yellow rock and then descended as if I were on a ladder, reaching my toes down step by step, sliding my fingers into ancient niches.

Of all the good experiences on this trip, that descent was the best. I liked feeling that I fittted into something that went so far back in time, with so many connections to other people — even if they could never be my own. The scale of the steps was human, and the warm, golden stone felt good and secure against my hands. It felt, in fact, like comfort.

Getting to Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo is about 60 miles southwest of Albuquerque, N.M. Round-trip, restricted airfare between Kansas City and Albuquerque recently started about $130.

Visiting Acoma

For information on Acoma, call the tribe’s main number, 1-888-SKY-CITY, or go to www.skycity.com. The ancient mesa-top village may be visited only by guided tours, which begin at the new Cultural Center ($12 adults, $11 seniors, $9 ages 6 through 17, free for children younger than 5).

Tours go daily, unless a snowstorm blocks the roads, so call ahead in winter.

For an excellent introduction to pueblo cultures, visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, 2401 12th St. N.W.; (505) 843-7270; or go to www.indianpueblo.org. Adult admission this year is $6, $5.50 for seniors, $1 for students (college students need ID), free for children younger than 5.

The Weather at Acoma Pueblo

Central New Mexico, though dry, does get snow in winter, particularly if a bad storm has ravaged the Great Plains. Average February temperatures in Albuquerque range from a high of 53 to a low of 27.

Food and lodging near Acoma Pueblo

At Acoma, the best place to eat and the only place to stay is the Sky City Casino-Hotel and Travel Center on Interstate 40. The pleasant, quiet hotel rooms run $89 standard, $119 suite. For reservations, call 1-888-SKY-CITY.

The hotel restaurant offers huge portions, a good buffet, some traditional foods and reasonable prices. Snacks and good pizza are available inside the casino, and there’s a busy McDonald’s at the truck stop.

The new Sky City Cultural Center, worlds away at the base of the ancient city’s mesa, also has a restaurant; it serves such traditional items as blue corn porridge and blue corn pancakes for breakfast, and Acoma oven bread and lamb stew for lunch. Again, prices are reasonable.

Acoma Cultural center

Last May, Acoma opened a remarkable new cultural center at the foot of the Sky City mesa.

The $17 million project, mostly funded with gaming revenue, is the biggest investment the tribe has ever made, said Brian Vallo, the center’s director.

The center’s first-rate museum was designed to hold an expanding collection of Acoma pottery, weavings and other cultural objects. The museum also includes climate-controlled storage, a requirement for the return of tribal material under federal law. 

Profile of the Pueblo of Acoma

Acoma Indian Reservation

Famous Pueblo Indians

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. | Catherine Watson, Special to The Star


DNA extracted from a 10,300-year-old tooth reveals new line of people in the Americas

DNA extracted from a 10,300-year-old tooth found in On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island off southern Alaska in 1996 reveals a previously unknown lineage for the people who first arrived in the Americas. A study of the oldest known sample of human DNA in the Americas suggests that humans arrived in the New World relatively recently, around 15,000 years ago.

The findings, published last week online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, shed light on how the descendants of the Alaskan caveman might have spread.

Comparing the DNA found in the tooth with that sampled from 3,500 Native Americans, researchers discovered that only one percent of modern tribal members have genetic patterns that matched the prehistoric sample.

Those who did lived primarily on the Pacific coast of North and South America, from California to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America.

This suggests that the first Americans may have spread through the New World along a coastal route.

Brian Kemp, a molecular anthropologist who sequenced the DNA, said the discovery underlines the importance of genetic research in understanding human migration.

“I think there’s a lot of information in these old skeletons that’s going to help us clarify the timing of the peopling of the Americas and perhaps where Native Americans originated in Asia,” said Kemp, a research associate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Using material taken from the tooth, Kemp isolated fragments of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed down from mothers to their offspring, and Y chromosome DNA, which is passed from father to son.

Genetic Markers

All of the mtDNA lineages among Native Americans are associated with five founding lineages believed to have originated in Asia.

But the caveman DNA turned out to be an independent founding lineage.

Of the 47 samples that matched the tooth DNA, 4 were from descendants of Chumash Indians living along California’s central coast.

“The distribution of people exhibiting this [genetic] type today are all distributed in the western Americas,” Kemp said.

“More or less the individuals are smack down the coast. It’s a very neat western distribution.”

John Johnson, an archaeologist and ethnohistorian at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in California, collected the Chumash DNA samples.

To Johnson, the matching of the Chumash samples to the On Your Knees Cave man is indirect evidence of an ancient coastal migration that may have occurred very rapidly.

“We’re interested in who were those first people to arrive here at the Pacific coast,” Johnson said.

“I believe the Chumash descended from a very early coastal migration that resulted in the distribution of people down to the tip of South America.”

Fishing Cultures

But where did these coastal migrants come from?

DNA samples of people living in Japan and northeast Asia show some of the genetic mutations found in the cave-tooth and Chumash samples.

“I think that’s a clue that there could be a genetic connection,” Johnson said.

He said the Chumash ancestors may have been skilled fishers before they arrived in the Americas.

“Your techniques for exploiting coastal resources are easily [transferable] and something that maybe can allow you to migrate more quickly than people who are hunters and gatherers, who must get used to new environments as they move into uncharted territory,” Johnson said.

“I think that may have allowed a more rapid migration along the Pacific margins of the Americas.”

On Your Knees Cave

When and how the first people came to the Americas has been a subject of intense debate.

The prevailing theory has been that the first to arrive descended from prehistoric hunters who walked across a thousand-mile (1,600-kilometer) land bridge from Asia to Alaska.

This migration probably occurred at least 15,000 years ago—the oldest human remains discovered so far are 13,000 years old—but some scientists have proposed that the first Americans arrived up to 40,000 years ago.

The Alaskan tooth was discovered in a cavern called On Your Knees Cave, named by the explorer who first crawled inside it.

From a genetic database of 3,500 Native Americans, Kemp found 47 individuals in North and South America who exhibited the same genetic markers as the caveman. Some of the samples were drawn from living people and others from ancient bones.

He then compared the tooth DNA with the matching, modern samples and tracked the mutations that had occurred in that DNA over time.

By measuring the rate of mutation, Kemp found that so-called molecular evolution—the process by which genetic material changes over time—had taken place two to four times faster than researchers believed mtDNA could evolve.

That, Kemp said, suggests people entered the Americas within the last 15,000 years, because the DNA has evolved too fast for the arrival to have occurred any earlier.

“I would say that humans were probably not here much before that date,” said Kemp. “A 15,000-year-old entry is [also] much more consistent with the archaeological record.”

Kemp said rapidly advancing DNA technology will help scientists piece together the story of the first Americans.

“No expert in morphology could look at the bones and say this person resembles a Tierra del Fuego person. It was only the DNA that could seal the case,” Kemp said.

“This really highlights the importance of adding a molecular component to the study of these really ancient remains.”