Once upon a time, the story goes, the people of today’s Acoma Pueblo made their home atop a huge drum-shaped platform of reddish rock in the desert of Western New Mexico called the Enchanted Mesa.
One day, when the people of the Mesa were down on the desert floor tending their animals, an enormous storm arose, tearing off the mesa, a stone stairway to the top, which was now inaccessible.
So the people of the Pueblo moved — to a nearby white stone platform and settled in on top. Archeologists say, these people and their descendants have stayed there for just under 1000 years, making the white mesa-top the oldest continuously-settled place in North America. The people who have made this mesa their tribal home call themselves Acoma, the people of the white rock. They and their home are one.
Home is where families gather the people and possessions that mean the most to them. The Acoma Pueblo’s home, especially its oldest village atop the white mesa, is where its people live and where its sacred possessions reside.
I use that last verb intentionally, because the physical items intrinsic to Acoma identity are considered “residents,” living contributors to the group’s collective present tense. Not objects, not artifacts of a long-dead past, no more the kind of thing you’d put up for sale than your old Grandfather or his memories.
So, it was a shattering shock, when in 1970, half a dozen ceremonial shields disappeared from their traditional quarters, on designated shelves in a designated corner in a cool second-story room.
Emotionally, for the Acoma Pueblo, it was as if half a dozen members of the tribe had been kidnapped.
It is today, 50 years later, still an unsolved crime, but in 2015, one of the victims, one of the disappeared Acoma shields reappeared, most of a continent and all of an ocean away from the white mesa in New Mexico.
It took four more years to bring the shield back home.
Elena Saavedra Buckley is a contributing editor at High Country News.