Archive for the ‘Native Americans’ Tag

The Apache   2 comments

I wanted to show some photographs I found of Apache warriors.  I often find myself in country populated by the ghosts of the original inhabitants, and it makes me realize how little time has actually passed between their time and ours.  I also thought you should see some of the country these impressive American Indians roamed through.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

It was almost dark when I came upon the well-done placard pictured above.  It’s located near the remote Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.  It tells the story of the Apache and their battles in the late 19th century, and it does so with a perfect blend of text and pictures.  These men and women gave the U.S. Cavalry all they could handle.  Yes there were women in the war parties.  A few were fierce warriors, fighting alongside Cochise and Geronimo.  And medicine women were on hand.  They were useful as healers of course.  But at least one, a famous Apache medicine woman called Lozen, was said to accurately foretell the enemy’s movements.

Freely crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the Apaches battled just as many Mexican as U.S. soldiers.  I think they would not have been much hindered by today’s fences and SUV-bound border patrol.  They mostly engaged in guerrilla warfare.  And as long as playing field was fairly level, they usually had the upper hand.  Heavy artillery was their eventual downfall.

The warriors took refuge in rugged mountains and canyons to rest and recharge.  Ranges like the Gilas, the Chiricahuas and the Dragoons offered abundant shelter (including caves), water, game, food plants and medicinal plants for healing the wounds of battle.  The unique geologic characteristics of the mountains made pursuit difficult.  For example, the Chiricahuas have expanses of maze-like rock formations near their summits.  This allowed the Indians to easily ambush parties of soldiers.

Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

There is not much to say about the character of these warriors that cannot be understood by looking at their photos.  But that record is incomplete.  Cochise, reported to be tall, muscular and graceful, was never photographed.  Neither was Mangas Coloradas.  The only way we know of what these Apache may have looked like is their sons, whose images we often do have.  Geronimo was an exception, as he was both famous and not shy of the camera.  But even he is only known from a few photos.

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The Apache Indian wars came to an end, inevitably, when their numbers were reduced, allowing the survivors to be rounded up and sent to distant reservations.  Cochise was able to live out his life in a free state, dying of natural causes in 1874.  His body lies at an unknown gravesite somewhere in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains.  Geronimo was not as lucky.  He died in 1909 on an Oklahoma reservation, far from the mountains and canyons of his birth.

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Russia in America   2 comments

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation of North America in the early 1800s, is located on the northern California Coast.

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation in North America south of their territory in Alaska, is located on the northern California Coast.

An often-forgotten chapter of the American West’s history concerns the “Russian occupation”.  In the early 1800s, not long after Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific Coast (thus cementing America’s claim to western North America), the Russians made their way down the coast from Alaska.  At the time it was mostly about support for their Alaska territory, but it’s believed that the Tsar probably had ideas of imperial expansion.

They set up shop on the northern California coast.  On a broad terrace sitting well above the Pacific they built a very fine fort.  They established two villages, one for Russians, the other for Native Americans.  Native groups living and working there were Californians and Creoles (mixed Russian-Native).  Aleuts from Alaska were brought to help hunt sea mammals, among other chores.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

The fort and settlement were constructed not by the Russian government but by a private fur-trading company, the Russian American Co.  The site is now protected within the Fort Ross State Historic Park.  The park is located along the Pacific Coastal Highway (Hwy. 1) a bit more than two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

The roof of Fort Ross's chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The roof of Fort Ross’s chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The reason the Russians came here from Alaska?  Food.  Their settlements in Alaska were consistently running short of food, and the Spanish missions in California grew an overabundance.  They needed a market.  It was a win-win for everyone involved, and this explains more than anything else the good relations between the Russians and Californians (native and colonial alike).

This is actually a large park (3400 acres), and the coastline north of the Fort is worth exploring as well.  But the fort is the star of the show, and I recommend taking your time walking around.  Rangers there give informative talks regularly; these happen in the open grassy area inside.

One of the many cannon that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

One of the many cannons that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

Make sure to check out the blockhouse on the NE corner of the fort.  The above photo is from there, and the view of the fort from the cannon ports is fantastic.  The photo below is of the Rotchev House.  This is the only 100% original structure leftover from the Russian occupation, and the slice of life it offers makes a little walk around its interior a must-do here.  The Rotchev’s were apparently a very fine family.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev.  It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort.  It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev. It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort. It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

The fort was never really used in the way it was intended.  It was never attacked, but perhaps this was the point.  It was built to repel all but a sustained heavy naval bombardment.  Nearly all the residents lived outside its walls, because the danger from attack was so low.  The local natives saw it (correctly) as a way to gain wealth.  It offered a place to trade and work, so the Russians were largely a welcome presence.

It was a busy place for the 30 years they were here, but they eventually retreated back to the north.  Why?  The marine life near shore, including sea otters and fur seals, had been hunted out.  The enterprise was in the red, so there was not much money to purchase the extra food they needed to send to Alaska.  They could only grow enough at the site to feed themselves.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California.  These were built as a position from which to make a last defense in the event that the attackers got in through the gates.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. These were built as a place from which to make a last defense in the event that attackers got in through the gates.

John Sutter (of California goldfield fame) bought the remaining buildings and materials.  The Mexican government claimed the land, and what remained fell into disrepair.  The great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco inflicted damage as well.

We should thank the many Californians (too many to list) for this slice of history; it’s been a park for over 100 years!  The settlement’s restoration and preservation, an ongoing process that aims to restore the atmosphere present during Russian occupation, including the villages outside the fort.  It’s definitely worth a visit anytime.

The Ancient Ones V: Hopi Mesas   Leave a comment

While at Monument Valley (see previous two posts), I heard from a fellow traveler of the Hopi Mesas in northeast Arizona.  I was immediately intrigued.  I thought I had never heard of them, but later that evening I realized that the name rang a distant bell in my mind.  The reason for my interest at this moment was obvious to me.  This trip has had a theme that I never intended when I started out.  What had started out as a quest to photograph fall colors and wildlife has recently become a trip back in time, to those lonely mesas and canyons once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi).  I found only their ghosts in the stone pueblos and cliff dwellings.  While those experiences were certainly magical, they were somehow incomplete.

View from Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona.

The Ancient Ones did not disappear of course, but migrated to the west and south.  The modern Hopi, along with other tribes, are their descendants.  I realized on that last night in Monument Valley that I very much wanted to meet living and breathing Puebloans.  And so the thought of visiting the three mesas deep within the Hopi reservation had enormous appeal.  Add to this the fact that many Hopi continue to live traditionally, and the draw for me was great enough to take the long detour south. If you follow Arizona Highway 264, you will pass, from east to west, the First, Second and Third Mesas.  There are a total of 12 villages on the Hopi reservation, all centered in this region.  Further west, you’ll find Moenkopi, a village adjacent to the much more modern Tuba City.

The village of Oraibi has been continuously inhabited for nearly 800 years.

I approached the Hopi Mesas from the west, camping just before reaching Third Mesa.  In the morning, I drove into the village of Old Oraibi (pronounced “Oraivi”).  Oraibi (image above) is a unique village.  Native Americans have lived there since the 1100s.  That makes it one of this continent’s oldest continuously inhabited communities.  It was certainly one of the first places that the Ancestral Puebloans settled on their migration out from the Four Corners region. Oraibi lacks electrical power, though the lines pass a mere few hundred yards from its stone houses.  Some of the houses definitely remain as they were originally built nearly a thousand years ago.  Newer roofs, windows, and the like have been added of course, a few have solar panels on them, and there are generators.   But the walls, floors, interiors, and most of the woodwork is original.  The residents keep the interiors in a tidy original form as well.  They live in close accord with the rhythms of the sun and seasons, in peace and quiet away from modern intrusions.  I don’t want to exaggerate.  They also drive trucks, have occasional domestic and community disputes, and leave for school and jobs on the outside.

The First Mesa and the village of Walpi is visible from Second Mesa.

A Hopi man from Old Oraibi shows me one of his childhood swimming holes, a deep water pocket atop Third Mesa in Arizona.

As the lone tourist I attracted some attention as I drove in.  I quickly met a young man who directed me to a table of crafts for sale.  A few men sat carving kachina dolls and working on other artwork.  After a bit of talk, I wandered off.  I felt the eyes of the inhabitants keeping watch from their small windows.  I took a picture of an old uninhabited stone building, and was immediately approached by a woman in a Suburban.  She told me in a very stern manner that taking pictures was not allowed, nor was wandering alone.  So I apologized and put my camera away. I hitched on to a young man standing in a nearby doorway.  We spoke for awhile and I got the full story.  Some tourists have in the past abused the privilege of their visit.  They had snapped pictures of dances and ceremonies without permission, traipsed across sacred ground, and even collected shrine articles.  I was told that if I was caught taking pictures, my camera would be confiscated and held for 30 days.  30 days!  Needless to say I didn’t take any more photos.

Back at the crafts table, I was invited by one of the men for a walk to view some rock art.  Some of the petroglyphs were obviously very recent, but others looked old and were similar to those I had seen in the ancient sites.  We scrambled along the edge of the mesa, and he showed me the places where they played as children.  There are waterpockets on the top of the mesa.  These are natural depressions in the sandstone where water collects during summer thunderstorms.  Some were pretty big, and he told me they had played and swam in these natural swimming pools as children.  They hold water for quite some time after storms, and form a very important source of fresh water.

It was a beautiful morning, and it was a delightful walk.  I saw subtle features that would have escaped my notice if I was alone.  He allowed me to take some pictures, since we were away from the village.  I really enjoyed the personal and casual nature of the tour.   He showed me the old church, built by Mennonite missionaries during the Spanish expansion in this area.  Lightning had struck the church twice.  On the second occasion, it was mostly destroyed and all the worshippers inside killed.  I don’t need to tell you what this signified to the villagers who were resisting conversion.  He asked only a modest amount of money for his time, which I appreciated.

After bidding the guys goodbye, I drove down and back up to Second Mesa.  At the community center/museum, I ran into some trick or treaters (it was Halloween).  I just love native American children, the smaller the cuter.  The brother and sister posed for my camera, and the photo was not the best.  I did not re-position them in the shade, nor try for a better photo.  They were on a very important mission after all, and far be it from me to interrupt it.  I picked up a hitch-hiking older Hopi gentleman on the way back west to Tuba City.  I learned some things from him about their ways.

Two Hopi children from Second Mesa in Arizona are somewhat annoyed at having their trick or treating interrupted.

A young American Indian boy in Tuba City enjoys a Halloween hot dog and Charl knows just how often kids drop their food.

For instance, the coming of age rituals do not necessarily take place at a specific age.  The boys are initiated when they are ready; they’re not forced into it.  As in the old times, they are dry land farmers who do not irrigate their crops.  Instead they depend on natural rainfall and snow melt.  Thus their springtime rain dances and rituals still hold immense importance.  The god called Maasau (sp?), the guardian of the world, is responsible for the care of all animals, things and people, including outsiders like me.  In fact, elders will often give eagle feathers to outsiders who become close friends.  Eagle feathers are worn as protection, and one will last one year before it is replaced.   A very peaceful and gentle people the Hopi are.

When I got to Tuba City, I was approached by a slightly drunken man.  At first he cursed me, but I thought nothing of it.  I have seen enough drunk native Americans to know it is definitely the liquor with them, not their nature.  He needed a ride home, which was all the way back at the Mesas (an hour’s drive).  I didn’t want to backtrack, but was thinking of relenting when he admitted he had been coughing up blood.  So I took him to the emergency room instead.

I was going to leave Tuba City but the sight of so many cute trick or treaters made me stay awhile.  Towards sunset I visited a roadside stand that some families had set up.  They were serving free hamburgers and hot dogs to all trick or treaters, plus their parents.  I tried to pay them, having no costume after all, but they refused.  A woman even cooked me up some fry bread.  So I hung about for awhile, talking with various friendly folks.  I’m not certain but I believe both Navajos and Hopis live around Tuba City.  No matter, they are equally as friendly (though they apparently do not like each other, because of land disputes primarily).

I really hope I get the opportunity to come back and spend enough time to make real friends with some of these fine people.  They are poor but very giving, and very easy to talk to.  They are quite guarded about their religious beliefs and much of their people’s history.  But I think I could eventually be invited into their (very traditional) homes, eat with them, go horseback riding.  I might even one day be lucky enough to receive an eagle feather from an elder.  I could use all the protection (from myself?) that I can get!  Headed over toward the Grand Canyon!

Free hot dogs and burgers draw a crowd on Halloween evening in Tuba City, on Reservation land in northern Arizona.

Monument Valley   2 comments

View of some of Monument Valley’s stone monoliths from the south.

I’ve seen my share of western movies.  In fact, I have to be honest and admit that they are one of my favorite film genres.  I have always wished I was born in St Louis during the mid-1800s.  When I was young I would certainly have headed west to be a mountain man, a guide on the Oregon Trail, or simply a cowboy.  John Wayne (the Duke) was most definitely a giant of western movies.  All this preamble is to say that some of my first impressions of the western landscape are of Monument Valley.

Old portraits of John Wayne appear throughout Monument Valley.

It was an area favored by John Ford and other directors at an early stage, and from the late 1930s through the 50s, large tent camps full of movie crews popped up from time to time amongst the buttes and mesas.  The era of big westerns, such as 1938s Stagecoach (the Duke’s breakout film) eventually came to an end.  But the valley still attracts crews filming car commercials and the like.  John Wayne’s image is a more common sight here than pictures of any Navajo.

Monument Valley is big country.  Lying in the arid American desert southwest, it straddles the Arizona/Utah border.  The valley is characterized by towering sandstone monoliths.  The rocks are reddish from iron oxides. Combine this with the fact that the monoliths take on such a variety of tall buttes, towers and extremely narrow fins, and also because the area between the monoliths is flat and mostly treeless, and you have a landscape that is dramatic in the extreme.  As a backdrop to wagon trains, or to big men in cowboy hats riding horses, it simply can’t be beat.  Photographers are drawn to the valley of course, and in the right light it certainly can yield amazing compositions.

The light was not bad during my visit just before Halloween.  When I arrived in the late afternoon on my first day, there were some promising clouds in the western sky, and so instead of trying to drive through the entire valley, I parked along Highway 163 near its high point and took off walking.  The countryside is easy to hike in this area, no trails required.

Of course, you want to be cautious about where you walk, since it is all Navajo land.  There are areas where one or a few families live, sort of like very small villages.  But by and large, the land is empty of people, so there is not much chance of being hassled.  Signs will warn you of private roads, or where trespassing is particularly frowned upon.  I found some pretty nice pictures in this area just west of Mitten Buttes, primarily because I was just high enough in elevation that trees, yucca and other interesting shrubs formed nice foreground elements.

I drove out onto the vast flat part of the valley lying north of Mitten Buttes, looking for a place to park and sleep.  I was tired and did not hunt in my usual careful way, so wound up parking fairly close to lights that indicated a settlement.  Soon a pair of headlights appeared, bouncing over the sagebrush, heading my way.  I pulled up to meet them (always a good thing), and was greeted by a three young American Indian men in a Bronco.

The driver informed me that I was on their land (which I knew).  But he also added that they were just checking to make sure I wasn’t a drunk or up to no good.  I offered to find someplace else to camp, but he waved me off.  He said I was welcome to camp there, as long as I didn’t hang around too long in the morning.  I was fine with that!  In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by their attitude.  I know that, were this land owned by a white person, and I was discovered there in the dark, that I would very likely be ordered off the land unless I wanted to deal with the police.

These native guys were naturally concerned about who was driving on their land.  But they were reasonable, able to tell immediately that I didn’t pose any danger.  Why not let me sleep a few hundred yards from their modest little houses?  What I’m saying is that they were not paranoid about a stranger, unlike so many folks I run into on the road.  They were secure men, secure in their judgment, and secure in their ability to handle me if they turned out to be wrong about me.  I like that because that’s the way I am.  And to think at Ship Rock I was worried about camping on Navajo land.  I should know better by now.  American Indians are more similar to the locals I met in African villages, or high in the Nepali Himalaya than they are to white Americans.  They are real!

The wind often blows through Monument Valley. piling sand dunes up against Rain God Mesa.

Over the course of the day, while taking care of laundry and the other necessary road trip duties, and while treating myself to a rare hot breakfast, I noticed a few things.  I never knew how much tourist traffic there was in Monument Valley.  This was the time of year when things wind down, and yet plenty of tourists were here.  There is an infrastructure under the name Gouldings – lodge, RV camp, restaurant.  Obviously this is not a Navajo-owned company, but they do provide jobs.  There are plenty of tour buses filled with overseas tourists (especially Japanese), and open-air tour vehicles ply the roads.  These are very much like safari vehicles in Africa, where the passengers sit above and behind the driver.  On the the gravel road that loops through the heart of the valley, this means a dusty ride.  It costs $5 to enter the tribal park and drive the scenic but very rough loop (such a deal!).

But as I was driving this spectacular loop, getting bumped and jolted by the rocks and dips, one thing was obvious: you don’t want to do this during peak season.  I can imagine that in late spring and summer, driving through the tribal park would resemble a sort of long, dust-choked follow-the-leader game.  I can’t recommend doing this drive unless you are visiting at a less-busy time, as I did.  Or perhaps you could start out at dawn.  You can certainly see much of Monument Valley without ever entering the tribal park.  There are other roads, including the one that heads out onto Douglas Mesa, and the road that goes to Oliato Trading Post and beyond.  Both of these roads explore the far western reaches of Monument Valley.

The Tribal Park is definitely worthwhile though.  Even the view from the spectacularly located visitor center is well worth the $5 entry fee.  From here, you can easily scan the loop road to see exactly how crowded with vehicles it is.  And finally, you can take a nice 3+ mile hike from near the visitor center.  Called the Wildcat Trail, it is a sandy desert walk that loops round the Mittens.

A lizard made its way across the sand in Monument Valley, Arizona.

I braved the dusty loop road through the tribal park late on my second afternoon in the valley.  I spied some decent-sized sand dunes from the far end of the loop road. Beyond the dunes stands several tall sandstone spires, called the “totem poles”.  And so I decided this was as good a place for a sunset photo walk as any.  I’m not sure it was legal to hike off-trail, but nobody hassled me about it.  I love photographing in sand dunes, and was looking forward to some shots of the rising near-full moon as well.  For some how-to discussion on moon shots (not on a rocket ship!), and using Monument Valley as an example, be sure to catch the next blog post.  It was not as colorful a sunset as the previous evening’s was, though there was some cloud cover to the west.  I still find it difficult sometimes to identify the types of clouds that will lead to a colorful sunset.

Desert sands and backlit rabbitbrush cover the southern portion of Monument Valley in Arizona.

I ended up shooting until dark, and since I was tired and the place had literally cleared out, I decided to just park it there and sleep.  Although it is not okay to camp inside the Tribal Park, I guessed (correctly) that nobody would be out there to hassle me.  If somebody did come by, I would have just apologized and left.  I think I know the Navajos well enough now to safely assume no undue officiousness on their part.  I shot some moon-lit landscapes, then slept until dawn.  I was alone when the sun first touched the rocks, burning them orange.  That little bit of sunshine was all it took to begin warming the clear, frigid air.  It warmed to 70 degrees that day!

Though hanging around on the Navajo reservation does involve small sacrifices (modern society’s conveniences, like a cheap grocery store, for e.g.), I really am getting used to it.  It is a bit like visiting a country like Mexico.  It takes a while to get used to, but once you’re there for a time, you begin to absorb and embrace the differences.  You begin thinking like the locals.  You begin to really be in the place, to really feel it.

Monument Valley shows off rare clouds at sunset.

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The Ancient Ones IV: Hovenweep   2 comments

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

A clan symbol etched into a wall at Painted Hand Pueblo in SW Colorado is of a figure bearing a torch.

This is getting to be quite the series of posts, and it’s because the ancients and their remnants in the Four Corners is just so darn cool!  There is a large swath of empty country along the SW Colorado/SE Utah border called Canyons of the Ancients.  It is a high plateau incised by shallow sandstone canyons, and is mostly preserved as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, along with Hovenweep N.M.  Definitely you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center near Cortez, CO to plan your visit.  They were very helpful.

One of my pioneer heroes, the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson, came here in 1874.  It was he who first used the name Hovenweep, which is a Ute word meaning deserted valley.  And that is what the main site at Hovenweep is, though it is more a canyon than a valley.  Little Ruin Canyon, as it’s called, is compact and scenic.  It is crowded with the stone towers for which the place is famous.  There is a strong atmosphere of desertion, a ghost-like feel.  All of the structures date from the 13th century, and all are well preserved in the desert air.  There is a 2-mile loop trail encircling the canyon, and it starts just in back of the visitor center.

I drove from the east down the beautiful McElmo Canyon, arriving at Hovenweep just after dark.  Since there was a moon and since I had slept until 10 a.m. next to Ship Rock (late night photography there), I was wide awake after dinner.  So I decided on a whim to hike the loop trail in the moonlight.  It was a magical time, and since nobody else was around I was able to get some interesting angles on the structures.  Way cool.  I almost expected to see the faint glow of a torch in the top of a tower, as a lone brave kept watch throughout the night.

This area has been inhabited by people since the ice age, but as with other evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Four Corners Region, the 1100s and 1200s saw the population increase greatly.  At the same time, they built their elaborate stone pueblos.  At Hovenweep and in the adjacent Canyons of the Ancients, the people built a variety of towers as part of their pueblos.

The towers that make this place unique are mostly circular.  But there are also square, oval and D-shaped examples.  They are mostly built near springs, and many have a commanding view of the canyon approaches.  They also have line of sight communication with each other, at least when you consider smoke signals rising from them.  Whether they were used as lookouts (for enemies and/or prey animals), for communication, were ceremonial, or all of the above, we just don’t know for sure.  It’s hard not to be reminded of castles, however, when one sees them for the first time.  In fact, a few are named as such.  Hovenweep Castle, Cutthroat Castle, and a few others really did make me think of the tower-house castles of Europe, though on a much smaller scale of course.

Although there is not much evidence of warfare between clans in this area, it’s known that the area was, in the late 13th century, growing dry and getting crowded both.  Water, in the form of canyon-bottom springs, was a very precious resource, and worth protecting.  Although I have no doubt the towers were used for more than one thing, I think their spectacular locations (on canyon rims, on top of huge boulders, etc.) was certainly in part defensive.

The iconic towers of Hovenweep Castle, an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.

Another interesting nugget I picked up, from a Hopi source no less, was that hawks and falcons were kept in the tops of the towers.  Now I had no idea that American Indians practiced falconry, currently or in ancient times.  So this is definitely an interesting avenue to explore.

After an awesome moonlight photo walk at Little Ruin Canyon, I left the visitor center area for an area that promised to be more peaceful come morning.  Though it was past midnight, I drove up County Road 10 and camped on the rim of a canyon near the Painted Hand Pueblo.  I was in the larger Canyons of the Ancients N.M. now.  At sunrise I hiked down the jeep track to the Cutthroat Site, which is at the head of a small canyon near a spring.

Along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a petroglyph panel over 100 feet long contains many drawings from a thousand years ago or more.

Being there alone, as the morning light rapidly grew in intensity, with only a curious rock wren for company, gave rise to some interesting feelings.  It was a bit sad, reflecting that these people had taken such care to build their secure homes, only to have to abandon them after only 2-3 generations.  I thought about the turkeys running around the place, the sound of kids playing, elders sitting in the shade, unable to travel much beyond home in this rugged country.

After coffee, I strolled down to Painted Hand.  Here there are several pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (chiseled).  One symbol, the figure of a person with upraised arms, struck me as the emblem of a clan.  Later I learned this was so.  It really reminded me of  medieval coats of arms.  Again back to the castle analogy.  This is fascinating stuff!  As I traveled westward, away from Hovenweep, I followed the beautiful San Juan River into country in which it is much harder to find evidence of the Ancient Ones.  But even as I enter Navajo country, where it is modern American Indian culture you encounter, I will continue to search for their ancient art and their dwellings.

Hovenweep Castle in the Four Corners region of the U.S. stands silent under the stars. Jupiter is at lower right.

Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites   2 comments

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon fires the imagination of many, but you might also want to know what there is to do there.  It’s worth learning a bit about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before you arrive.  But don’t get crazy about that.  You want, first and foremost, an open mind.  I’ve noticed there are many people who have definite ideas and interpretations regarding the Ancient Ones.  That’s really not my style.  I’d rather arrive at a place with a fairly blank mind, and let the questions naturally evolve.  That said, here is a brief summary.

The architecture at Chaco Canyon dates from about  800 A.D., but evidence of ancestral peoples here goes back more than 10,000 years, when people were fully nomadic.  You will notice earthen mounds throughout the canyon.  Many of these lie unexcavated, similar to the Mayan sites of Central America.  It’s estimated that up to 99% of the ancient remains here are still hidden beneath the sand.  Also, archaeologists have reburied many sites in order to best protect them from the elements.

The kivas and plazas of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest ancient structure yet found in the Four Corners region.  Begun around the year 800, it continued to be expanded according to a master plan, all the way up to the late 1200s.  It’s a large D-shaped structure, originally 5 stories high, and which held perhaps 800 rooms.  Much of its interior space is taken up by a grand plaza, along with no less than 33 kivas.  The way this was built, over many generations, invites comparison to how the great cathedrals in Europe were built.

Let me take this opportunity to plug a book I read years ago, called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  There is also a miniseries that was based on the book, and that wasn’t too bad either.  The story spans generations of the people involved in the construction of a cathedral that still pierces the sky in rural England.  This long-term commitment to a vision is precisely how Pueblo Bonito, and really the whole Chacoan culture, seems to have been built up.

A pair of ravens welcome the rising sun at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Detail of the back curved wall of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Note the ponderosa pine log.

Given the size of Pueblo Bonito, there were not many people who lived here.  This is judging from the general lack of human burial remains.  Possibly it only housed the elite, or the religious leaders.  But it is clear that many thousands came here for gatherings, an ancient version of the rendezvous, if you will.  The plazas, great kivas, the layout of the place, all suggest both ceremony and fun.  If you were young you might have looked for love here, or showed off to peers your athletic prowess.  The purpose of it being so overbuilt may have simply been to wow those arriving from outlying villages.

There are other great houses throughout Chaco Canyon, and there were roads connecting outlying villages and great houses as well.  One of the most distant outliers is Chimney Rock, in SW Colorado some 100 miles away.  The great houses, kivas, reservoirs and other structures indicate these people were  master masons, cutting and shaping the local sandstone very precisely.

They used massive ponderosa pine trees too (e.g. to roof the kivas), which were cut from the nearest forest about 60 miles away.  A lucky thing this was for archaeologists.  In the early 20th century dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), was developed.  It was a boon for southwest archaeology, allowing accurate dating of the Ancient Ones’ remnants.  This is a good time to mention the silliness regarding the “A” word when it comes to southwest archaeology.  A stands for aliens.

Using the example of the trees, the idea is that there is no evidence that the trees were dragged or rolled, thus since they were transported so far, the people must have had extraterrestrial help.  I don’t know about you, but camps of young, strong bucks strung out along the route, between which they shuttled the tree trunks from camp to camp, is an obvious solution.  When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I know I could have helped carry heavy trees over several miles.  Not alone, or over the entire 60 miles, but as an organized team.

As at other ancient sites (e.g. the Nazca Plain in Peru), the alignment of structures and roads, along with irrigation ditches and other features, is interpreted by the faithful in aluminum foil hats as only making sense when seen from the air.  Well, maybe that’s true.  But it sure doesn’t mean they had alien help, or were trying to impress aliens instead of their gods.

I took the tour of Pueblo Bonito, which is led every day by a ranger at 2 p.m.  It is well worthwhile.  I also hiked up the canyon late in the day, ending near sunset at the ruins of Penyasco Blanco.  This is about 3.5 miles one way, and you’ll pass a fascinating pictograph called “supernova”.  You can see why from the image (below).  On the way, I flushed a small herd of elk.  The light was very nice at Penyasco Blanco up on the canyon rim, but it put me back at the van right at dark (as usual).

A ranger was there when I arrived, and he was the wannabe cop, officious type.  The loop road that visits Chaco’s main sites closes at sunset, so I was technically about 15-20 minutes late getting out.  Most rangers would see the fact that I had no flashlight, had been jogging back to the trailhead, did not have pockets bulging with artifacts or fossils, and just let me know they are strict about the sunset thing, and that I shouldn’t do it again.  But this character saw fit to write me a $125 ticket.  I’ll just warn everybody out there.  The N.P.S. is chock full of these A-holes.  You never know when you’ll be dealing with one, so keep clear and don’t be like me and push it.  Of course, that’ll mean you won’t get pictures of the things I get, in the light I get them.  But that’s how the N.P.S. rolls.  I’ll never contribute money to their foundation or advocate increased funding to that agency until they improve in this regard (even as I accept the consequences of trying to bend their rules).

The fascinating supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is painted on an inaccessible overhang.

I spent the night in the treeless, rather dusty campground.  On the bright side, it is spacious and cheap ($10).  It also is tucked up against one of the canyon walls, which helps.  In the morning I did some sunrise photography at Pueblo Bonito, and then hiked up to Tsin Kletzin, another great house up on South Mesa.  This hike of just a few miles passes Casa Rinconada, with its enormous kiva.  This is one of the largest kivas ever found, and is a can’t miss sight at Chaco.

A cow elk in the arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

I had no company on this hike, just like the previous day.  Being alone in Chaco is the only good way to experience the strange power of Chaco Canyon, and it helps to leave the road and hike to accomplish this.  That’s my opinion of course.

As I dropped through the steep South Gap, and walked down the beautiful box canyon (rinconada), I felt the attraction, the Chaco’s power if you will.  A place where your first impression is of drought and dust can become, if you spend some time, a place you might imagine traveling to for gatherings a thousand years ago.  The power of Chaco Canyon is only partially hidden by the sands that cover many of the Ancient Ones’ dwellings here.  It’s worth making the trek out here to see and experience this special magic.

A view from Pueblo Bonito’s grand plaza includes the great kiva’s curved wall. Note the niches, which originally contained precious artifacts, and the stone bench.

The Ancient Ones II: Chaco Canyon Intro.   2 comments

The ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan Greathouse, Penyasco Blanco sits on the rim of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

I have finally made it to Chaco Canyon.  This is one of those places I’ve been intrigued with for a long long time.  In fact, as I approached the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) site in northwestern New Mexico, on the long and torturous washboard road, I reminded myself not to expect too much.  It is far too easy, I learned a while back in my traveling days, to hype a place up in your mind, and to have inflated expectations as a result.  I did not want to be disappointed because of my own biases.

The Animas River of northern New Mexico flows peacefully through the town of Aztec as the sun goes down.

The approach, however, gives a definite impression of a dry, dusty and rather inhospitable place.  Once you are here, and in the canyon proper, it is a little nicer.  But it is dry, especially now, in the midst of a rainless late summer/fall.  No monsoon moisture has seeped up from the Gulf of Mexico in quite awhile in these parts, and the forecast shows nothing but sun sun sun.  There is an El Nino developing in the Pacific right now, and once that is in place, winter should be somewhat wetter than normal throughout the desert southwest.  If you live here, you pray for that.  But it also requires extreme caution around the arroyos, which can send a flash flood down upon you in…well, a flash.

Chaco Canyon was the center of the Ancestral Puebloans world, and it was a world not much wetter than it is now.  I’ve heard it described as their New York City.  But Chicago might be a better analogy, a Chicago during its glory days as a center for agricultural and livestock trade.  Chaco was where the ancient ones built their grandest structures.   Everything is aligned on N-S and E-W axes, and there are features of the buildings that make it obvious that these people were very much aware of the movements of the sun, stars,  moon and planets.

One thing you’ll notice is that these sights are mutually visible, by line of sight.  In fact, the Chacoans built signaling towers for communication throughout the canyon and beyond.  They used fires (the classic American Indian smoke signal), and also “reflective rock”, which I’m guessing would have been mica.  This enabled them to relay signals for tens of miles at the least, and very likely throughout their territory.

KIVAS

A constant feature of these ancient pueblos is the kiva. Similar to finding a church in even the smallest mountain settlement or ghost town, a kiva is found even in the smallest clan-sized dwelling.  Kivas are round stone structures built mostly below ground and roofed with cribbed wooden beams.  Like churches, mosques and synagogues, kivas were used for religious ceremonies.  

And yet, they were multi-purpose living spaces as well.  At Chaco Canyon, there are few to no fireplace hearths found in the rooms of the great houses, but every kiva had one.  Also, the first archaeologists found pottery, grinding stones, and other artifacts that indicate kivas were very much lived in.  

Today’s Puebloans continue to use them in a similar way as their ancestors, but they are more strictly relegated to ceremonies, not so much living rooms.  The degree of preservation amongst the ancient kivas varies greatly.  Mesa Verde has some nicely preserved examples.  At one site, Spruce Tree House, you can descend into a fully enclosed kiva.  And at Aztec Ruins, north of Chaco, the great kiva is fully restored.  At Chaco, though the kivas are numerous and some very large, you cannot enter any of the well preserved ones.

 I descended into the kiva at Mesa Verde’s Spruce Tree House.  There is a certain feeling you get doing this, sort of creepy and magical at the same time.  If there were American Indians inside chanting, with a fire going, I think my body would literally buzz off the hook with chills.  A possible goal for the future I think, to be invited into a functioning kiva.  It’s really the living, breathing American Indian that I most enjoy on a physical-emotional level.  These ancient sites are interesting on a scientific level, and they are certainly sited in spectacular locales, but the lack of native guides at places like Mesa Verde does take something away from the experience.  At Chaco, you see more native peoples, working as (I guess) seasonal park staff.

The waxing half-moon illuminates the evening sky at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

 

My next post will go into more detail about my visit, and what to see and do at Chaco Canyon.

The Ancient Ones I: Mesa Verde   Leave a comment

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is the largest such site in the National Park.

You can’t visit the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. without your attention being drawn to the area’s American Indian history.  This history goes back over 10,000 years, but possibly the most fascinating chapter took place between about 700 and 1300 A.D.  The people who lived during this time period were farmers and builders, hunters and astronomers, travelers and artists.  They are the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and a few other small tribes, and so are called Ancestral Puebloans.

The interior of an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

 

Their more common name is Anasazi, which does have a nice ring to it.  But this is a Navajo word loosely translated as ancient foreigner, or enemy.  The Navajo, when they migrated into this area from the north about 1500 A.D., found the abandoned pueblos but did not loot or even much disturb them.  They were cautious about entering the realm of dead spirits.  Also, the modern-day Puebloans and Navajo do not generally get along, it’s sad to say.  So the name Anasazi is inappropriate for both of the above reasons.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwelling Spruce Tree House basks in October sunshine.

I had been seeing the rock art of Fremont people to the north, but my first real archaeological destination on this trip was Mesa Verde.  A national park in southwestern Colorado between the towns of Cortez and Durango,  Mesa Verde is a high, forested plateau cut by rugged sandstone canyons.  It is here where some of the most well-preserved of the ancient ones’ pueblos are found.  The most spectacular sites are the cliff dwellings. but these are not the only sites at Mesa Verde.  They first lived atop the plateau, close to where they grew their crops of corn, beans and squash.  I visited a couple of these sites first, and I’m glad I did.

 

Take the Far View Sites, for example, just off the road near its highest point.  Since people come here to see the cliff dwellings, you will find few other visitors.  Here you’ll be able to closely examine the ancient pueblos at your leisure.  They used stone axes and other (non-metal) tools to precisely shape sandstone blocks.  Then, using a sandy mortar, these skilled masons built multi-room, multi-story houses, cylindrical (watch or signaling) towers, kivas and even a reservoir.  I’ll explain kivas in detail in the next post, but for now just think of them as sacred gathering places, maybe similar to churches.

 

By the 13th century, the people started moving their dwellings into the canyons.  Many are perched along improbable cliff faces.  Definitely visit Balcony House while you’re here.  Like Cliff Palace, it requires taking a ranger-led tour (stop at the visitor center to buy the $3 tickets).  You will certainly gain a respect for their mountain goat-like agility as you climb a 40-foot ladder up to the human aerie that was part home, part community center for these amazing people.

The Ancestral Puebloans’ construction of the easily defended cliff dwellings marked the beginning of the end, at least for their lives in the Four Corners region.  For reasons that are still uncertain, the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south towards the Rio Grande, fragmenting into the several tribes that make up the modern Puebloan people of New Mexico and Arizona.  Some of the dwellings were abandoned on short notice, with pots, tools, even precious works of art, were left strewn about the stone rooms.

One of the bigger factors contributing to their leaving was overuse of resources such as timber, soil and water.  Drought, a changing society, and other unknown pressures were likely causes as well.  But their overuse of environmental resources surely sticks out as a precautionary tale for our supposedly more advanced time.

In the Pacific Northwest, while leading science-oriented educational camps for native kids, I was lucky enough to share campfires with local tribal folks, drumming and singing under the stars.  Very special it certainly was.  But with respect to the dwellings and sacred places of the Ancient Ones in the Four Corners region, I am torn between the desire to respect them (i.e. leave them alone) and to experience them on a more intimate level.  To be in the company of a Hopi or Zuni elder, descending into an ancient but smoking kiva, undergoing purification, learning of these things from the source; that would get me going.  So, although I can’t recommend that you skip these archaeological treasures, I think coming into honest contact with the modern Puebloans, at any level, would beat a conventional trip to Mesa Verde National Park any day.

A forked horn buck mule deer wanders the forest atop MesaVerde in Colorado.

In 2010 my uncle and I visited Canyon de Chelly, traveling through the canyon on horseback and camping for two nights in the canyon.  We were accompanied by a young Navajo guide.  This, of course, was very cool (especially when we galloped after a wild stallion!).  One of the things that has stuck with me since then: I promised the young Navajo that someday I would visit Chaco Canyon (he insisted that I do so in fact).  So my next post will be about keeping that promise.

On Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, a recent fire has left huge areas of burned trees.

 

 

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