The pueblo, believed to have been established in the 12th century or earlier, was chosen in part because of its defensive position against raiders. It is regarded as one the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States, along with Old Oraibi, Arizona, as both communities were settled in the 11th century. Access to the pueblo is difficult as the faces of the mesa are sheer (a topographic map shows this best). Before modern times access was gained only by means of a hand-cut staircase carved into the sandstone.
Acoma Pueblo comprises several villages including Acomita, McCarty's, Anzac and the newer subdivision of Sky Line. Acoma people dry-farm in the valley below Aa'ku and use irrigation canals in the villages closer to the Rio San Jose.
In 1598, Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded New Mexico, and began staging raids on Native American pueblos in the area, taking anything of value. Upon reaching San Juan Pueblo, Oñate had all the Native Americans who were living there removed from their homes and used it as a base to stage more raids on other Native American pueblos in the area. In response, the Acoma fought back, and several Spaniards were killed in the battle to re-take the pueblo from the Spaniards. During the battle, the Spaniards brought a small cannon up the back of Acoma Mesa, and began firing into the village.
According to Acoma oral traditions, the average Spaniard at the time weighed much more than the average Acoma, and the Spaniards also brought with them attack dogs, which were believed to be fed on human flesh and trained to eat humans alive. The Acoma people lost the Battle of Acoma, and the indigenous population of the pueblo, which had been approximataly 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to approximately 250 survivors; as women, children, and elders were killed by the Spaniards in that battle as well.
After the survivors were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, all the surviving children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents, and given to Spanish missionaries to raise; but most of them and the other survivors were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle. Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off of each one. Oñate was later tried and convicted of cruelty to Indians and colonists, and was banished from New Mexico. However, he was cleared of all charges on appeal and lived out the rest of his life in Spain.
Tracing their lineage to the inhabitants of ruins to the west and north, the Acoma people continue the traditions of their ancestors. Acoma people practice their traditional religion and some also practice the Catholic religion that came with Spanish settlers in the 1500s. Acoma people have traded and interacted with their neighbors for centuries, some of which extended beyond the local Pueblos. Trade between Aztec and Mayan people was common prior to European settlement. Only more recently has trade and interaction with other tribes been hampered by international boundaries. Traditional alliances still exist between the Pueblos who often speak different dialects or different languages. The Acoma Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo have many ties, including location, language and a shared high school. Throughout the year feasts are held in celebration of historic occasions. Visitors are allowed to attend these feasts but are encouraged to be respectful and aware of local protocol.
The Spanish settlers had the mission church of San Esteban del Rey built at the pueblo from 1629 to 1641, under the direction of Friar Juan Ramírez. Its 30-foot beams were carried 30 miles from Kaweshtima or Mount Taylor Mountain, and the dirt for its graveyard was carried up the mesa from the valley below. Both the mission and the pueblo are registered National Historical Landmarks. In late 2006 the Acoma Pueblo was also named as a National Trust Historic Site.
Like other pueblos, Acoma and the surrounding area are considered federal trust land, administered by the federal government for the pueblo. Several families still live on the mesa itself year-round, while others elect to live in nearby villages (Acomita Village, New Mexico, among them). The 2000 US Census lists 2,802 inhabitants of the Acoma Pueblo and off-reservation trust lands, which encompasses territory in parts of Cibola, Socorro, and Catron counties.
Today Acoma's culture is practiced almost the same as before the 1589 invasion. The traditions are always oral traditions, in which dancing, music, art, theology, astrology, philosophy and history are taught. The traditional foods that are planted there are beans, pumpkins, corn, chili, onions and fruits like apples, apricots, peaches, plums and cherries. All of the sowing is done as a group.
The pueblo is located 60 miles (100 km) west of Albuquerque on Interstate 40 and 12 miles (20 km) south on Indian Route 23. The pueblo is open to the public only by guided tour. Photography of the pueblo and surrounding lands is restricted. Tours can be arranged and $10 camera permits obtained from the recently renovated Sky City visitor center at the base of the mesa. However, videotaping, drawing and sketching are prohibited, with big signs warning visitors not to do any of them but especially not to videotape.