For more than a millennium, the Acoma have lived in pueblo settlements on a mesa outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, like many Indian people, they suffered at the hands of Spanish conquerors, enslaved and succumbing to smallpox, among other infectious diseases. They also periodically fought with Apache, Comanche, and Ute who raided their community. Forced to adopt Roman Catholicism by the Spanish, they combined elements of their beliefs with those of Christianity.
The creator god of the Acoma is associated with the sun, which along with the earth and the surrounding mountains, serve to provide balance in the world. Common to creation myths of the American Southwest, the emergence motif provides the structure for the Acoma story. In emergence myths, creatures emerge through several levels under the earth into the current world above. The reasons for the move upward are various: lack of food, crowding, or even a maturation process from “seed” to “plant.” The creatures are usually animals of various sorts and become totems when they emerge. The earth itself is seen as a womb, and the opening into this world is considered sacred.
Other motifs exhibited in the Acoma story are that of two creators, this time two females named Iatiku and Nautsiti’, and the introduction of death as part of the life cycle into the world. Once the women have emerged, they create food, animals, mountains, and even directions. The establishment of claims is also completed, so that the two female deities are considered culture heroes as well. Culture heroes are deities that bring civilization to their people (foods, rituals, societal rules and structures, farming, fire, etc.).
Our selection is taken from Matthew W. Stirling’s Origin Myth Of Acoma And Other Records, 1942.
Acoma Creation Myth
In the beginning two female human beings were born. These two children were born underground at a place called Shipapu. As they grew up, they began to be aware of each other. There was no light and they could only feel each other. Being in the dark they grew slowly.
After they had grown considerably, a Spirit whom they afterward called Tsichtinako spoke to them, and they found that it would give them nourishment. After they had grown large enough to think for themselves, they spoke to the Spirit when it had come to them one day and asked it to make itself known to them and to say whether it was male or female, but it replied only that it was not allowed to meet with them. They then asked why they were living in the dark without knowing each other by name, but the Spirit answered that they were under the earth; but they were to be patient in waiting until everything was ready for them to go up into the light. So they waited a long time, and as they grew they learned their language from Tsichtinako.
When all was ready, they found a present from Tsichtinako, two baskets of seeds and little images of all the different animals there were to be in the world. The Spirit said they were sent by their father. They asked who was meant by their father, and Tsichtinako replied that his name was Ūch’tsiti and that he wished them to take their baskets out into the light, when the time came. Tsichtinako instructed them, “You will find the seeds of four kinds of pine trees in your baskets. You are to plant these seeds and will use the trees to get up into the light.” They could not see the things in their baskets but feeling each object in turn they asked, “Is this it?” until the seeds were found. They then planted the seeds as Tsichtinako instructed. All of the four seeds sprouted, but in the darkness the trees grew very slowly and the two sisters became very anxious to reach the light as they waited this long time. They slept for many years as they had no use for eyes. Each time they awoke they would feel the trees to see how they were growing. The tree lanye grew faster than the others and after a very long time pushed a hole through the earth for them and let in a very little light. The others stopped growing, at various heights, when this happened.
The hole that the tree lanye made was not large enough for them to pass through, so Tsichtinako advised them to look again in their baskets where they would find the image of an animal called Badger and tell it to become alive. They told it to live, and it did so as they spoke, exclaiming, “A’uha! Why have you given me life?” They told it not to be afraid nor to worry about coming to life. “We have brought you to life because you are to be useful.” Tsichtinako spoke to them again, instructing them to tell Badger to climb the pine tree, to bore a hole large enough for them to crawl up, cautioning him not to go out into the light, but to return, when the hole was finished. Badger climbed the tree and after he had dug a hole large enough, returned saying that he had done his work. They thanked him and said, “As a reward you will come up with us to the light and thereafter you will live happily. You will always know how to dig and your home will be in the ground where you will be neither too hot nor too cold.”
Tsichtinako now spoke again, telling them to look in the basket for Locust, giving it life and asking it to smooth the hole by plastering. It, too was to be cautioned to return. This they did and Locust smoothed the hole but, having finished, went out into the light. When it returned reporting that it had done its work, they asked it if it had gone out. Locust said no, and every time he was asked he replied no, until the fourth time when he admitted that he had gone out. They asked Locust what it was like outside. Locust replied that it was just laid out flat. They said, “From now on you will be known as Tsi·k’ă. You will also come up with us, but you will be punished for disobedience by being allowed out only a short time. Your home will be in the ground and you will have to return when the weather is bad. You will soon die but you will be reborn each season.”
The hole now let light into the place where the two sisters were, and Tsichtinako spoke to them, “Now is the time you are to go out. You are able to take your baskets with you. In them you will find pollen and sacred corn meal. When you reach the top, you will Wait for the sun to come up and that direction will be called East. With the pollen and the sacred corn meal you will pray to the Sun. You will thank the Sun for bringing you to light, ask for a long life and happiness, and for success in the purpose for which you were created.” Tsichtinako then taught them the prayers and the creation song, which they were to sing. This took a long while, but finally the sisters followed by Badger and Locust, went out into the light, climbing the pine tree. Badger was very strong and skillful and helped them. On reaching the earth, they set down their baskets and saw for the first time what they had. The earth was soft and spongy under their feet as they walked, and they said, “This is not ripe.” They stood waiting for the sun, not knowing where it would appear. Gradually it grew lighter and finally the sun came up. Before they began to pray, Tsichtinako told them they were facing east and that their right side, the side their best aim was on, would be known as South and the left North while behind at their backs was the direction West where the sun would go down. They had already learned while underground the direction down and later, when they asked where their father was, they were told four skies above.
And as they waited to pray to the Sun, the girl on the right moved her best hand and was named Iatiku which meant “bringing to life.” Tsichtinako then told her to name her sister, but it took a long time. Finally Tsichtinako noticed that the other had more in her basket, so Tsichtinako told Iatiku to name her thus, and Iatiku called her Nautsiti which meant “more of everything in the basket.”
They now prayed to the Sun as they had been taught by Tsichtinako, and sang the creation song. Their eyes hurt for they were not accustomed to the strong light. For the first time they asked Tsichtinako why they were on earth and why they were created. Tsichtinako replied, “I did not make you. Your father, Uchtsiti made you, and it is he who has made the world, the sun which you have seen, the sky, and many other things which you will see. But Uchtsiti says the world is not yet completed, not yet satisfactory, as he wants it. This is the reason he has made you. You will rule and bring to life the rest of the things he has given you in the baskets.” The sisters then asked how they themselves had come into being. Tsichtinako answered saying, “Uchtsiti first made the world. He threw a clot of his own blood into space and by his power it grew and grew until it became the earth. Then Uchtsiti planted you in this and by it you were nourished as you developed. Now that you have emerged from within the earth, you will have to provide nourishment for yourselves. I will instruct you in this.” They then asked where their father lived and Tsichtinako replied, “You will never see your father, he lives four skies above, and has made you to live in this world. He has made you in the image of himself.” So they asked why Tsichtinako did not become visible to them, but Tsichtinako replied, “I don’t know how to live like a human being. I have been asked by Uchtsiti to look after you and to teach you. I will always guide you.” And they asked again how they were to live, whether they could go down once more under the ground, for they were afraid of the winds and rains and their eyes were hurt by the light. Tsichtinako replied that Uchtsiti would take care of that and would furnish them means to keep warm and change the atmosphere so that they would get used to it.
At the end of the first day, when it became dark they were much frightened, for they had not understood that the sun would set and thought that Tsichtinako had betrayed them. “Tsichtinako! Tsichtinako! You told us we were to come into the light,” they cried, “why, then, is it dark?” So Tsichtinako explained, “This is the way it will always be. The sun will go down and the next day come up anew in the east. When it is dark you are to rest and sleep as you slept when all was dark.” So they were satisfied and slept. They rose to meet the sun, praying to it as they had been told, and were happy when it came up again, for they were warm and their faith in Tsichtinako was restored.
Tsichtinako next said to them, “Now that you have your names, you will pray with your names and your clan names so that the Sun will know you and recognize you.” Tsichtinako asked Nautsiti which clan she wished to belong to. Nautsiti answered, “I wish to see the sun, that is the clan I will be.” The spirit told Nautsiti to ask Iatiku what clan she wanted. Iatiku thought for a long time but finally she noticed that she had the seed from which sacred meal was made in her basket and no other kind of seeds. She thought, “With this name I shall be very proud, for it has been chosen for nourishment and it is sacred.” So she said, “I will be Corn clan.” They then waited for the sun to come up. When it appeared, Tsichtinako once more advised them to sing the first song and to pray, not forgetting their name and their clan name in starting their prayer. After the prayer they were to sing the second song.
When the sun appeared it was too bright for Iatiku and it hurt her eyes. She wondered if Nautsiti’s eyes hurt her, too, so she put her head down and sideways, letting her hair fall, and looked at Nautsiti. By doing this the light did not strike her squarely in the face and her hair cast a shade. Tsichtinako said, “Iatiku, the sun has not appeared for you. Look at Nautsiti, see how strongly the light is striking her. Notice how white she looks.” And although Iatiku turned to the sun, it did not make her as white as Nautsiti, and Iatiku’s mind was slowed up while Nautsiti’s mind was made fast. But both of them remembered everything and did everything as they were taught.
When they had completed their prayers to the sun, Tsichtinako said, “You have done everything well and now you are both to take up your baskets and you must look to the north, west, south, and east, for you are now to pray to the Earth to accept the things in the basket and to give them life. First you must pray to the north, at the same time lift up your baskets in that direction. You will then do the same to the west, then to the south and east.” They did as they were told and did it well. And Tsichtinako, said to them, “From now on you will rule in every direction, north, west, south, and east.”
They now questioned Tsichtinako again so that they would understand more clearly why they were given the baskets and their contents, and Tsichtinako, replied, “Everything in the baskets is to be created by your word, for you are made in the image of Uchtsiti and your word will be as powerful as his word. He has created you to help him complete the world. You are to plant the seeds of the different plants to be used when anything is needed. I shall always be ready to point out to you the various plants and animals.”
The sisters did not realize that they were not taking food and did not understand when Tsichtinako told them they were to plant seeds to give them nourishment. But they were always ready to do as Tsichtinako, asked, and she told them to plant first that which would maintain life, grains of corp. “When this plant grows,” said Tsichtinako, “it will produce a part which I will point out to you. This will be taken as food.” Everything in the basket was in pairs and the sisters planted two of each kind of corn.
The corn grew very slowly so Tsichtinako told them to plant ĭsthĕ (the earliest plant to come up in the spring; gray with a small white flower; dies quickly) and to transmit its power of early ripening to the corn.
They were very interested in the corn and watched it every day as it grew. Tsichtinako showed them where the pollen came out. “That you will call kū’ăch’tīmu,” she said, “there the pollen win appear. When the pollen is plentiful, you will gather it, and with it and corn meal you will pray to the rising sun each morning.” This they did always, but Nautsiti was sometimes a little lazy.
After some time the corn ripened. Tsichtinako told them to look at it and to gather some. They saw that the corn was hard and they picked four ears. Iatiku took two ears carefully without hurting the plant, but Nautsiti jerked hers off roughly. Iatiku noticed this and cautioned her sister not to ruin the plants. They took the ears of corn to Tsichtinako saying, “We have brought the corn, it is ripe.” Tsichtinako agreed and explained that the corn ears when cooked would be their food. They did not understand this and asked what they would cook with. Tsichtinako then told them that Uchtsiti would give them fire. That night as they sat around they saw a red light drop from the sky. After they had seen it, Tsichtinako told them it was fire, and that they were to go over and get some of it. They asked with what, and she told them to get it with a flat rock because it was very hot and they could not take it in their hands. After getting it with a rock, they asked what they were to do with it, and were told they were to make a fire, to go to the pine tree they had planted, to break off some of the branches and put them in the fire. They went to the tree and broke some of the twigs from it. When they got back to the fire, they were told to throw the twigs down. They did so and a large pile of wood appeared there. Tsichtinako told them this wood would last many years till there was time for trees to grow, and showed them how to build a fire. She told them that with the flames from the fire they would keep warm and would cook their food.
Tsichtinako next taught them how to roast the corn. “When it is cooked,” she explained, “you are to eat it. This will be the first time you have eaten, for you have been fasting for a long time and Uchtsiti has been nourishing you. You will find salt in your baskets; with this you will season the corn.” They began to look for this and Tsichtinako pointed it out to them. As soon as they were told this, Nautsiti grabbed some corn and salt. She was the first to taste them and exclaimed that they were very good, but Iatiku was slower. After Nautsiti had eaten part, she gave it to Iatiku to taste. When both had eaten, Tsichtinako told them that this was the way they were going to live, and be nourished. They were very thankful, saying, “You have treated us well,” They asked if this would be their only food. Tsichtinako said, “No, you have many other things in your baskets; many seeds and images of animals, all in pairs. Some will be eaten and taken for nourishment by you.” After they had used the salt, they were asked by Tsichtinako to give life to this salt by praying to the Earth, first in the North direction, then in the West, then in the South, and then in the. East. And when they did so, salt appeared in each of these directions. Tsichtinako then instructed them to take always the husks from the corn carefully and to dry them. They were then instructed to plant tobacco. When the plant matured, they were taught how to roll the leaves in corn husks and to smoke it. (Even now in ceremonies the corn husks must be torn with the fingers and tied in the center with a little strip of corn husk. It may not be cut by artificial means. You smoke in order to make your prayers merge into the minds of the gods to whom prayer is addressed. This will also compel obedience. If a man smokes when a request is made of him, he must obey that request.) They were then told to place the tobacco with the pollen and the corn meal and to remember that these three were always to be together, and to be used in making prayers.
Now they were told that they were to give life to an animal whose flesh they were going to use for food. Tsichtinako named this animal as Ba’shya (kangaroo mouse) and also taught them the first song to be sung to animals. She told them to sing this song in order to make the images alive, and pointed out the images to them in the basket.
They did everything as they were taught. They sang the song to the image and with the word, “Come to life, Bashya.” It came to life. As it did so it asked, “Why have I come to life?” Tsichtinako told it not to ask any questions because, “It is you that is going to give life to other life.” After this was done, Nautsiti and Iatiku, told this animal that it was going to live on the ground and said to it, “Go now and increase.” After the animal increased, Tsichtinako told the sisters to kill one of the animals. “Now eat the two together, the corn and the field mouse, and also the salt to see how it tastes.” She had already told them never to let out the fire which had been given to them. They acted according to Tsichtinako’s instructions. They roasted their corn and roasted the flesh of the field mouse with some salt on it. After it was cooked, Tsichtinako told them to pray with the food, not with all of it, but with little pieces from each–corn, flesh, and salt. Each sister did this and prayed to Uchtsiti, the creator of the world, who lives up in the fourth sky. Tsichtinako told them they were to do this always before eating. After this they ate the food. There was not very much of the meat, but it was good. They did not know that there were to be bones but these were not hard and they broke them with their teeth. They liked the flesh so well that they asked Tsichtinako if they might have something larger that would yield more flesh. Tsichtinako answered that they would find other things in their baskets. They went back to them, and Tsichtinako said they would find Rat and another animal Mole and also Prairie dog. “Go, make these images alive,” said Tsichtinako, pointing them out according to their names. They were to do this in the same way as with Bashya. Tsichtinako also told them that these animals were to be used as food and that they must tell each of these animals to live in the ground because as yet there was no shade on earth to live in. “But before you give life to them,” said Tsichtinako, “it is necessary that you plant seeds of grass which will be the food for them.” Tsichtinako pointed out the seeds they were to plant, and they took the seeds of the grasses and scattered them first to the North, next to the West, then some to the South, and then to the East. And immediately grass covered the ground. They then took the images and prayed to the cardinal points, and, according to the instructions of Tsichtinako, gave life to all of these animals, giving them names as they came to life. Each one as it came to life asked why it had come to life but Tsichtinako told them not to ask questions, that they would give life to other life. As before, the sisters told the animals to increase. After all of this was done, they proceeded to eat the new animals after praying with them, doing just as they did before. The two sisters were now very happy, they had plenty and some to spare. “It is not yet time for the larger animals to ‘be given life,” said Tsichtinako, “first the world must have sufficient plants and small animals to feed them.”
After a long time, Tsichtinako spoke to them, “What we are going to do now concerns the earth. We are going to make the mountains.” She told them to remember the words she was going to say. They were to say, North Mountain, appear in the north, and we will always know you to be in that direction.” Tsichtinako also pointed out an article in the basket that she named stone and instructed them to throw the stone to the North direction as they spoke the words. When they did so, a big mountain appeared in the North. After they had done this, Tsichtinako instructed them to do the same thing in the West, but to name this mountain Tsipīna koti, and in the South, naming it Da’ōtyuma koti, and in the East, naming it G’ūchana koti.
After all this was done, Tsichtinako spoke again and told them, “Now that you have all the mountains around you with plains, mesas, and canyons, you must make the growing things of these places.” Tsichtinako told them to go back to the trees which they had planted underground, lakhok, geietsu, wanuka, and lanye. She told them to take the seeds from these trees, and they did so. Following her instructions they spread some to each of the four directions, naming the mountains in each direction, and saying, “Grow in North Mountain, grow in West Mountain, etc.” Tsichtinako said to them, “These are going to be tall trees; from them you will get logs. Later you will build houses and will use these.” They asked if that was all that was going to grow on the mountains, and Tsichtinako said, “No, there are many other seeds left in your baskets. You have seeds of trees which are going to yield food. You will find piñon tree, cedar, oak acorn, and walnut.” She again instructed them what to do and taught them the prayer to use, which was: “From now on, grow in this mountain and yield fruit which will be used as food. Your places are to be in the mountains. You will grow and be useful.” When everything had been done well, Tsichtinako told them that there were many smaller seeds left in the baskets and she gave a name to each, telling them to fill the rest of the land. These seeds were planted on every one of the four mountains and in the rest of the world. Tsichtinako spoke to the sisters again and told them, “You still have seeds in your baskets which you will know as wild fruits. These trees you will grow around you and care for.” But they mistook the instructions and instead of instructing them to grow nearby, they named the mountains, and that is where they grew. But there were also some that grew close around. It is not known how long they had to wait for these things to happen, but it was a very long time. They noticed that the wild plants grew very fast and produced much fruit, but Tsichtinako had not told them whether or not to eat these, so they left them alone.
They saw that there were still seeds and images in their baskets, and asked Tsichtinako how many more kinds there were. Tsichtinako, said there were yet many other seeds which would also be important food. They would grow quickly and easily and she named them squash and beans. They were instructed to act with them as with the other seeds, and these also grew into plants. After a time, when they were ripe, Tsichtinako pointed out the parts of the plants which they, were to use as food.
Iatiku later asked Tsichtinako, “What remains in my basket?” and she was answered, “You have still many animals; these will be multiplied to populate the mountains.” And as the two grew larger, they required more food. Tsichtinako saw this and told them that they were now to bring to life larger animals. She said they would find in their baskets cottontails, jack rabbits, antelope, and water deer. They were told to give life to these animals and to send them into the open plains. Everything was done as before, and when they killed the animals for food they were always careful to pray to their father as before. As they again asked Tsichtinako what remained in their baskets, Tsichtinako said, “You have images of the still bigger game. You will find deer, elk, mountain sheep, and bison.” Iatiku asked where these animals were to be told to live and Tsichtinako told them that the elk and deer were to live in the lower mountains and the mountain sheep higher and in the rougher places. The bison, however, were to live on the plains. They followed the instructions and gave life to these animals and told them to go to these places to live and multiply. They again tried all these different animals for food. Their flesh was very good and always they prayed to Uchtsiti before tasting them.
In Nautsiti’s basket there were many more things left than in Iatiku’s. Nautsiti was selfish and hoarded her images, but Iatiku was ready to let her seeds and images be used. She was more interested in seeing things grow. They again asked what remained, and Tsichtinako replied, “You will find lion, wolf, wildcat and bear. These are strong beasts; they are going to use as food the same game that you also use. There is now game enough for them.” When all these had been selected they were brought to life in the same manner as before.
The sisters again asked what was in their baskets, and they were told, “You will find birds which will fly in the air. These birds also use small game for their food. You will find in the basket the eagles and the hawks.” Tsichtinako pointed these out to them and they brought them to life. The birds flew up into the high mountains and over the plains. The sisters told the birds to use small game for food, and again Iatiku asked what was in the basket. Tsichtinako pointed out smaller birds which would populate the country, each living in a different kind of region. They were then given life, as the animals before them. The birds were of many and bright colors, some were blue. The wild turkey was among them and they were instructed to tell it not to fly easily like the others. They were told to tell these birds that their food was to be the different seeds on the mountains and the plains. And all these, animals were sampled for food after they had been given life. Again Iatiku asked what remained in the baskets, because she found things there that were thorny. Tsichtinako told them their names. They were the various cacti and were said to be very good for food. But Tsichtinako explained that most were intended for animals to eat. All these were planted as before and tried for food, and they found that some tasted good. After they asked again what was left, Tsichtinako pointed out to them that there were still fish, water snakes, and turtles, of which there were many kinds of each. They gave life to them as before and told them all to live in the water as instructed. Tsichtinako pointed out several that were to be used for food. They tried them all for food, and they found that some were good, and others poor, but offered prayers to all and gave thanks to Uchtsiti. So it happened that many animals came alive in the world and they all increased.