Spend a Night on an Indian Reservation

at Sky City in Acoma, New Mexico

article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

exterior of Sky City Casino Hotel in Acoma,  New Mexico; image courtesy of venue
exterior of Sky City Casino Hotel in Acoma, New Mexico;
image courtesy of venue

Stop midway between Albuquerque and Flagstaff on Highway I-40 (which replaced the famous Highway 66) to explore the wide open spaces of the vast Acoma Indian Reservation and perhaps do a little gambling.  It is jeans-and-t-shirt casual.

Owned and operated by the Acoma Tribe (pronounced ACK-oma), the attractive pueblo-style Sky City Casino Hotel sits gently on its site just off busy Highway I-40.  Though the fact that the well-maintained hotel is a bargain is reason enough to seek it out, the complex also has a pool, hut tub, and small putting green and additionally offers Las Vegas-style gaming.  I was amazed by the vast Bingo room filled with very quiet, very intent players, and my husband made out like a bandit at the poker tables—almost single-handedly paying for our trip.

Our room was comfortably furnished with heavy wood pieces built by Acoma craftsmen.  Framed historical pueblo photos added nicely to the ambiance.  I made good use of the whirlpool tub in our suite and especially liked the fragrant touch provided by sweetgrass Native Naturals toiletries.

We were lucky to be there on an evening when a special comedy dinner show wash scheduled and caught a very funny performance by Native American Larry Omaha, who says “every tribe wants a piece of me.”  (He’s actually part Yaqui and part Zapotec Mexican and grew up in the Midwest.)  He had me laughing so hard I teared.  Waiting for the show to begin, we chatted with our tablemate who happened to be an Acoman potter.  She told us she makes pots all day but quits at sundown, when she often comes to the casino to play Bingo.  I was amazed as she described how she uses one of her own hairs to paint the thin lines on her teeny, tiny miniature pots.

Because Acoma is a dry reservation, this busy casino serves no alcohol and it isn’t much missed.  The bar still schedules live bands, and runners still bring tired gamblers refreshing fruit drinks at the slots.

empty road on Acoma Pueblo in Acoma, New Mexico
empty road on Acoma Pueblo
in Acoma, New Mexico

exploring the reservation

This area is known as Sky City because of the Acoma Pueblo’s strategic location atop a 357-foot sandstone mesa.  Acomans claim that their 70-acre village is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the U.S.  Today about 50 of them continue to live year-round in the pueblo, which has no electricity or running water.

We spent an entire day exploring the reservation.  After a fabulously scenic drive inland to the dramatic new Sky City Cultural Center, we viewed the Haak’u Museum’s display of intricately decorated Acoma pottery painted in eye-catching shades of white, orange, and black and also saw a small display of tribal textiles.

The pueblo tour leaves by bus from the center.  Our Acoman guide told us fascinating stories while we were stopped in front of stunning, vast views of mesas and valleys running off in all directions.  Again hitting the jackpot, we enjoyed the added aesthetic of thunder rolling in from far away.  Since residents display a good selection of pottery here, this is a good spot to purchase a souvenir.  (Notes:  There are no public restrooms once you leave the center.  Hiking shoes are advisable for the rough terrain.  Cover up, as this is considered a sacred place.)

pottery for sale on Acoma reservation in Acoma, New Mexico
pottery for sale on Acoma reservation
in Acoma, New Mexico

Upon our return, we dined outside in the shadow of the pueblo while sampling some traditional dishes from the center’s cafe—fresh bread baked in the center’s horno oven, flavorful red chile beef posole, and mama dolls (tiny, sweet blue-corn tamales).

All in all, Sky City is a good one-nighter for visitors to Albuquerque, and it works in easily as part of a road trip to Santa Fe.  If you are lucky enough to have more time, spend another day visiting the recreated underground mine at the nearby New Mexico Mining Museum (the world’s only uranium mining museum) in Grants , the El Malpais National Monument, or Chaco Canyon.

(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)