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As the good people in Virginia are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, we might pause to consider how old that is, compared to Acoma, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. The physical settlement dates back to at least 1150 AD, with an oral history that goes back to before 610 AD, or nearly 1,400 years ago. A Colonial Dames of America spokeswoman, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II when interviewed on CNN on May 3, 2007 said repeatedly, "This is where America began, after all." Those in the know, including most folks out in New Mexico, have a different point of view, however. And because the Acoma community there dates back at least one thousand years before Jamestown's founding and their Native American heritage goes back to the continent's earliest settlers, say, more than about 12 to 30 thousand years ago, they know America "began" long before 1607.

Acoma, the People and Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo, about 50 miles west of Albuquerque on I-40, is unique not only because of its ancient and continuous existence as a community, but for its magnificent artistic traditions, evidenced mostly in the splendid pottery produced and sold here. One of 19 pueblos in New Mexico, the Acoma (pronounced with the accent on the "Ah," not the "co") moved here in the seventh century after leaving the fabulous Chaco Canyon region about 60 miles north, with several other stops in between. Just this month (May 6), Acoma Pueblo became the first Native American community anywhere to be designated a National Trust Historic Site.

"We didn't pick the mesa because it was a high place from which to defend ourselves," says former tribal leader and current CEO of Acoma Business Enterprises Marvis J. Aragon, Jr., "but because it was the place prepared. The high cliffs were just a bonus." The Spanish conquistador, Coronado, came through here looking for the fabled (and nonexistent) Seven Cities of Cibola, said to be built of gold. We surmise today that the clever Native Americans just kept pointing farther north and west, in any direction to get him to keep moving on. "We have had treaties with the Spanish, the Mexican, and with the United States, the latter including the pact of Guadeloupe Hidalgo (1848), attesting to our sovereignty," Aragon said.

The Acoma have a tradition that says they come from the earth itself, not all that far from the evolutionary belief that humanity ascended from the sea. Though the Southwest is rife with practitioners of "wellness," the Acoma strive neither for that nor for "happiness," Aragon told me, but for balance. Mr. Aragon's Acoma Business Enterprises handles the hotel and casino, among other endeavors, and he is a former first lieutenant governor of the tribe. "Our main hope," he said "is to get corporate-minded America simply to understand us." One big difference in cultures: the Acoma are a matriarchal society, their homes being passed on to the youngest daughters in each family.

Sky City Cultural Center

In aid of getting the attention of outsiders, the Acoma hope that more visitors will come to their new (since May 2006) Sky City Cultural Center, at the foot of the mesa, to visit the striking museum there, then to ascend 370 feet to the "never conquered" pueblo by bus for a walking tour of the village. About 30 people live year round up here, some 20 more (mostly children) in summer. (The majority of the 4,700 Acoma members live on the plains a few miles north of the mesa.) Among artists whose work I noticed on the mesa were award-winning Keith Chino, whose pieces are all one of a kind, and Emil Chino, who creates traditional and modern styles in his work. Pottery prices on the mesa range all the way from $5 for a thumb-sized bit of painted clay on up to thousands of dollars for big masterpieces, a medium-sized vase going for $170 at one spot, a two-gallon vase for $1,200 at another.

In addition to the artwork on display in the center's museum, there's a pleasant little restaurant, with tasty flatbread taco plates (choice of flatbread or tortillas) at $7. From June 23 through August 3, 2007, the museum will feature "Key Ingredients: America by Food," a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, featuring the evolution of the American kitchen. Admission to the museum is $4, to the museum and tour of the mesa $12, photo permit $10. Note: you must ask permission before taking photos of any resident, or of any artwork displayed on the mesa.

The pueblo's major feast day (for St. Esteban) is September 2, with a Harvest Dance. Other public events include the Governor's Feast (early February), San Lorenzo Feast Day in Acomita (August 10), and a Luminaria Tour at San Esteban Del Rey Mission in Sky City from December 24 to 28. Note also the annual Tour de Acoma, that being 25-, 50- and 100-mile Bike Challenges at the pueblo. For more information on Sky City Cultural Center and Pueblo of Acoma, call tel. 888/759-2489 or visit www.skycity.com.

Chaco Canyon, Spiritual Home

Chaco Canyon is a magnificent spot, but hard to reach, requiring about a five-hour round trip from Grants, not counting the time you want to spend in the canyon itself. Construction of the large (150 rooms) Una Vida house here (probably by the Anasazi people) began in the mid 800s and continued until late in the mid 1100s, while concurrent construction was going on at Pueblo Bonito and Penasco Blanco farther down the canyon, at the core of the park. Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the park, was four stories high and contained over 600 rooms and 40 kivas (religious rites rooms). Sacred to many Indians, it was occupied until the 1200s, and is now one of only 20 World Heritage Sites in the US.

Four other groups of dwellings, dating from as early as about 1020 and as late as about 1130, make up the rest of the structures you can see. Chetro Ketl has about 500 rooms and 16 kivas, for instance. The best way to see all this is on a hiking tour with a park ranger, but you can drive (one-way road) on a loop past several of the structures if you are in a hurry. You can hike all over the park, but you need a permit, obtainable at the visitor center. Details: Chaco Culture National Historical Park (tel. 505/786-7061; www.nps.gov/chcu).

El Malpais National Monument

About 15 minutes west of the Acoma pueblo, and largely a part of the Acoma reservation, is the El Malpais National Monument. The name is Spanish for "badlands", as it contains large lava flows. The highlight here, in my opinion, is the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, from which you get a grand view of the area. Especially at sunset, you can take photographs of the marvelous bluffs, illuminated in whatever colors the sun chooses for the day, often a fiery red. I like the cathedrals of solid stone, resembling ships, churches, New York's Pierre Hotel, you name it, along Route 117 between the overlook and La Ventana Natural Arch, another highlight of the area. Established in 1987, the monument preserves 114,177 acres, most of which are federal. It's never too late to preserve the outdoors. According to the US Forest Service, America loses 4,000 acres of open space every day to development, or about three acres per minute. El Malpais National Monument (tel. 505/783-4774; www.nps.gov/elma).

Grants and Route 66

About 20 miles west of Acoma Hotel & Casino on I-40 is Grants, a town noted especially for the New Mexico Mining Museum, said to be the only uranium mining museum in the world. You needn't worry about radiation, as the museum was constructed in the heart of town and is not part of a real mine. After discovery of uranium by a Navajo sheepherder in 1950, the industry flourished until the 1980s, when a combination of foreign competition and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown in Pennsylvania stopped nearly all development of nuclear energy plants in this country. Just recently, however, thanks to the oil energy crisis, plans are being made to start mining again in the vicinity, maybe as early as 2012. The place to eat here is La Ventana, where the local gentry gather for diner-style food. If you want Mexican, try El Jardin, or for New Mexican, El Cafecito.

If Grants once again becomes the center of the world's largest uranium mining district, as it once was, you may want to settle down. If so, note that you can buy a 2,100-sq foot house for about $82,000, or 160 undeveloped acres 20 minutes outside town for $160,000. Outsiders are getting involved, an ad in the Navajo Times asking anyone interested to contact a Denver address in order to sell "mineral or water rights."

Also special to Grants is Route 66, the old highway connecting Chicago to Los Angeles that is still popular with roadies and other nostalgia buffs. Local officials say Grants is on the longest stretch of 66 in the state. For information on the museum and town, go to www.grants.org or phone tel. 800/748-2142. More on Route 66 at www.bringbackroute66.com.

Casino & Hotel

The best place to stay in this region is at the Acoma Hotel & Casino, right on I-40 at Exit 102. Both the hotel and casino, like the pueblo and entire reservation, are dry, no alcohol being allowed on the premises. Many customers appreciate that restriction, and it doesn't affect the running of either establishment adversely. On a Friday night I visited, guests had a choice of attending a comedy show dinner for $20 or a boxing match. (Most seats at the show were reserved for frequent players of the casino, but 20 spots were held for ordinary hotel guests.) The 132 rooms (featuring solid wooden furniture crafted by Acoma carpenters) complement an outdoor pool and a good-sized restaurant, with buffet breakfast at $7.95, ditto lunches $8.95 and buffet dinners at $10.95. (Don't pass up the chance to try some chili, perhaps with a taco or enchilada.) The hotel was built in 2001, but the casino has been in business for 25 years. Across the side road from the hotel were a truck stop (I-40 is a major transcontinental trucking route), gas station and a McDonald's.

The casino says it has paid out more multi-million-dollar jackpots than any other New Mexico casino, and they feature a lot of musical entertainment, many by fledgling Native American performers. (My evening at a comedy dinner show saw an opening routine by a self-described "gay Indian from San Francisco," for example.) Details about casino and hotel can be found at www.skycity.com.

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Before leaving Albuquerque, it's a good idea to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, off I-40 at the 6th-12th St. exit, for an introduction to the 19 pueblo tribes in the state. In addition to the main museum, there are a children's museum, gift shop and a nice-looking restaurant. Sample dish: bowl of posole (hominy and pork with chili) grilled squash and fry bread for $6. Traditional dance performances and art demonstrations are offered free, daily, they say. On June 2, they open up a six-month event, "Community Connections: Native Food & Wellness," promoting local foods and healthy living. On June 9, artist Steven Deo will build a lazy boy recliner out of fry bread, an Indian favorite. The chair will stay in the museum, they say, unless visitors or mice nibble it away.

Here you will learn that the Indians of the pueblo tribes predate the more famous Apache and Navajo, for instance, by at least a thousand years, the former having arrived about 850 AD, the latter about the same time as the Spaniards, in the early 16th century. If you are staying in Albuquerque and want to see Acoma, you can take a one-day tour from the IPCC on Tuesdays and Thursdays, including lunch. Open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day). Admission $6; tel. 505/843-7270; www.indianpueblo.org.

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