It’s our last day in New Mexico. The initial intrigue of the red Zia symbol against the bright yellow background of the NM state flag has stayed with us. We are at the Acoma Pueblo, a simultaneous ancient and contemporary community west of Albuquerque and difficult to find. Listening to Barnett “Gooby” of Acoma explain the symbolic complexity in the meticulously crafted pottery atop the Mesa, I’m reminded of this symbol.
He doesn’t know how to spell his Keres name, so it’s Gooby for short. Gooby is the community storyteller and religious leader, which is clear from the way he captivates us with the symbols and tales of his culture. We are surprised when he shares that he is severely dyslexic and only has about an eighth grade level education. He tells us that some cracks in the pottery are intentional: fill the vase with rainwater, bring it back into your home, and let the water leak out. The smell of rain brings Mother Earth into your home without any damage. He also explains the dozens of symbols in his carefully crafted bracelets. As we stand there, marveling at the black and white pottery and vibrant beadwork, our guide, Geri, reminds us kindly to keep moving throughout the pueblo community.
We follow the stout, less than 5'0" woman in her olive green shorts, and contrasting bright white sun hat with long black hair. Her monotone voice holds a familiarity with word choice from years of experience. Geri tells ancient stories of war and triumph, loss and community as though they took place a week ago. She tells jokes as if she has told them a thousand times. Referring to what is known as Lonesome Rock 200 meters in the distance, she points out that it appears to be two people kissing, so it’s “not so lonely after all.” Loneliness doesn’t seem to be a problem at Acoma. As we tour their humble community, Geri is greeted by everyone we pass in both the native Keres and English, getting called the Keres equivalent to “sister” and “granddaughter.” Everyone is kin in Acoma.
At the end of the large alley that runs between the clay homes, we see Gary, a round-faced man with a gray ponytail under a worn U.S. Navy Veterans hat, beside a table stacked with paintings. Becoming an artist at age 11, Gary is much older and wiser today. He calls our professor, Spenser Simrill, “son.” Humbled by the extreme kindness in Gary’s voice, Spenser remarks on how good it feels to hear that.
Gary beams, turns to a small group of us, and explains, “in other words, you are all my daughters.” Gary talks to us with the closeness of a familial connection. He tells us his Keres name, Waya’aisiwa. He doesn’t know what it means, since his grandfather died before telling anyone, but likes to think it means “Big Kahuna.” When asked about one of his paintings, he speaks softly to the individual who yearns to know more. He leans in and makes the mesmerized listener feel significant. This conversation, sharing his story and sweet advice, is the only thing that matters.
Gary pulls out the arrowhead that hangs on a string around his neck. His father landed on Normandy with the same necklace and escaped without “a single bullet hole,” but not without mental trauma upon return home. Gary holds the necklace carefully between his hands and explains why he wears it everyday for protection, “Because out in the world, out of home, not everyone thinks like you do.” In the same vein, he offers a type of emotional guidance. After speaking with student Chandler Dean, he tells her to leave her worries behind. Ironically, she leaves her field book on his table.
More casually, Geri shares with us the stories of her people and herself. After the Spanish took advantage of her ancestors for decades, Catholicism still exists atop the Acoma Pueblo. The church and cemetery are the only places photography of any kind is forbidden. The cemetery is unlike the grassy, serene cemeteries covering so much land in the southeast. This plot is a square, spanning 40 ft across and about the same going down. There are 5 layers of burials here, but most are undocumented due to the destruction of documents by the Spanish, among other more gruesome punishments. Geri points out a small hole in the clay wall surrounding the cemetery, about a square meter big, and my eyes fill with water. Through this hole, those who perish away from home may return to rest. Love and loss are sacred here.
For the Acoma people, many feel a connection to both Catholicism and their traditional beliefs. Geri described her experience with Catholicism with frankness. As an institution that doesn’t understand the values of the Acoma people, the church frustrated her. After the death of her brother, the church demanded money for something they wanted for the service. “Why should I pray at a church that gets rich off our people?” Geri explains that God forgives people without the interference of the church. Since childhood, she never understood to whom she was praying or what for, but enjoyed the punch and cookies after service. The church does not recognize her traditional marriage who claimed it was a “pretend marriage,” and that was the final straw.
Geri’s husband travels often and wants to take her with him. Geri won’t travel alone, feeling like the outside world is too dangerous with the abundance of murder and stealing. She laughs, “I’m not afraid of any bears.” Both Gary and Gooby explained that they don’t travel either. Understandably so. The Acoma pueblo is undeniably one of the safest places in America. With so much trust and love in the community, only outsiders have harmed these people.
After years of oppression by the Spanish and American people, you would assume the Acoma people would want nothing to do with the culture that degraded their way of living. But in fact, it’s the opposite. The people of Acoma do not harbor any resentment for what took place years ago. Imo, another Acoma artist, told student Sophie Harrington, “A question people always ask is why we invite people up here. We are a peaceful people, and that was history. But the elders taught us that we are all brothers and sisters and so we welcome people here today.” The extreme hospitality extended to IFP at Acoma is unmatched to any other. In a place thousands of miles away, we felt at home.