Travel: In Search Of Albuquerque’s 300-year-old Past—and Its Neon-lit Present

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If you’re still wondering how to pass time in Albuquerque, stop by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. It’s known for art exhibits and dance festivals, not to mention an interesting café offering native specialties and a great gift shop, but the real draw of the place lies in its function as a gateway to New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. An exhibit tells their histories, incorporating magnificent examples of the crafts each group is best known for. A map plots every pueblo’s distance from Albuquerque, and an accompanying brochure lists feast days and phone numbers.

There was a special program of music and dance taking place in the center’s courtyard to kick off the Tricentennial celebration while I was there. The announcer introduced a guest who had dropped by to see what was happening, and then she dissolved into tears as she handed the mike over to Bill Toledo. He is one of World War II’s fabled Navajo code talkers, Marines who transmitted crucial military information throughout the Pacific Theater in their impenetrable, unwritten language. “They trained 420 of us,” Toledo said. “There are about 100 left, and those who are able go around the country telling the story.” And singing it. When he performed the Marine hymn, first in English, then in Navajo, I was in tears too.

I was intrigued by a display on the Acoma people, master potters and weavers whose land lies about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, a reasonable day trip that included a preview of the new cultural center and museum that was soon to open there. I could see what a powerful statement this museum would make, as it evoked a thousand and more years of history. The architectural details are beautifully wrought, offering clues to the past in the shape of doorways and sandstone walls that reflect the tribe’s origins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.

One of the inaugural exhibits, called “The Matriarchs,” honors four Acoma potters, women who helped spur a cultural and economic revival in the 1950s. Over several centuries collectors and museums have bought up some half-million Acoma objects. Now there are plans to get many back, as either loans or outright gifts. Most of the pieces in the Matriarch exhibit are on loan from one outstanding collection.

The Acomas possess a remarkable artifact, a silver-headed cane engraved “A. Lincoln, Prst. U.S.A., Acoma, 1863.” That was the year Acoma leaders and other New Mexico tribal governors traveled to Washington, D.C., for a conference on boundaries and were presented with canes in recognition of their sovereignty. This tradition began in 1620 under Spanish rule and continued when Mexico occupied the territory.

The tribe’s ancestral home sits 357 feet above the museum, atop a mesa, looking out at a lunar landscape studded with huge boulders. The village, known most appropriately as Sky City, has been continuously occupied since the eleventh century, contending with Arizona’s Hopi Pueblo of Oraibi as the oldest permanently occupied settlement in the United States. In 1540, after Coronado and his men besieged the place, one of them sounded shaken, calling it “one of the strongest ever seen, because the city was built on a high rock. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top.”

Fortunately, access these days is a quick, if vertiginous, trip by bus. On hourlong tours led by tribe members, there is the chance to marvel at the vast San Esteban del Rey Mission, completed in 1640 with a felicitous blend of Catholic and Pueblo beliefs. You can also wander streets that hold several hundred adobe and sandstone houses. Only about 15 families live there permanently, but during feast days the place fills up. Sky City was used as a set for Sundown , a 1941 movie about World War II in Africa, and that doesn’t seem much of a stretch. “One feels as in a strange, sweet, unearthly dream,” wrote the journalist Charles Lummis in 1893, adding, “… it is the spendthrift of beauty.”

On the road to Acoma, I-40, you can glimpse remnants of the old Route 66. Starting in 1926 it wound through eight states and 2,448 miles, until the mid-fifties, when the interstate system took over. In myth and artifact Route 66 lives on. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue is a roadside show of diners, motor courts, neon signs, and shapely, streamlined service stations.

This downtown area is enjoying new life as people move back in. A model of adaptive reuse is the vaguely Gothic 1914 Albuquerque High School, converted to highly sought-after condominiums. High-ceilinged lofts occupy the former gym, and 70 rental apartments have been fashioned from classrooms. A few bleachers and some blackboards were kept as reminders of high school days.

I revisited Old Town on a Sunday morning, in time for the official start to the Tricentennial, the Entrada. This was a procession by descendants of the founding families, who arrived at the plaza by horseback, mule, or carriage. Spain’s Duke and Duchess of Alburquerque were honored guests, just as the duke’s father had been 50 years before. I somehow found myself in the first row of on-lookers and began talking with several costumed women, all extremely cordial to a stranger in their midst and eager to impart their family histories.