The missing puzzle piece

Bringing native perspectives into archaeology for a more complete picture of the past

  • Sleeping Ute Mountain lies beyond Hovenweep National Monument, where some interpretive signs now include American Indian viewpoints.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Ernest Atencio
  • Santa Clara tribal elder Tito Naranjo has seen archaeologists become more sensitive to the Native American worldview. "It’s a new idea. In the old days they never thought native people had much to contribute."


About a century ago, a man from Santa Clara Pueblo sat down with an archaeologist named Jean Jeancon and told a story. He spoke about his ancestors migrating from their Teguayo, or ancient homeland, far to the northwest, to the present location of Santa Clara in northern New Mexico. He described the old homeland based on stories that had been handed down over six centuries, and spoke of mythical-sounding landforms that in his Tewa language mean "Yucca Mountain" and "Valley of the Yucca Mountain." He also drew a detailed map of an ancient pueblo that he said lay in that same valley.

There was nothing mythical about the man's story. It turned out to be a remarkably accurate description of a place 170 miles northwest of Santa Clara, a place the man had never before visited. Valley of the Yucca Mountain is now known as the Montezuma Valley in southwestern Colorado, and Yucca Mountain is the Sleeping Ute, at the base of which sits the remains of the pueblo that the man described. Today, the pueblo, last inhabited by the Anasazi over 700 years ago, is called Yucca House, an immense mound of rubble and a kaleidoscope of potsherds scattered among sage and chamisa.

For generations, the general public was misled, or at least misinformed, about the fate of the Anasazi. Even park rangers have, until recently, perpetuated the myth that the ancient inhabitants of the Southwest mysteriously vanished. But archaeologists have long understood that the Ancestral Puebloans, as they are called now (the term "Anasazi" has fallen out of favor), left the region in a series of migrations over many generations, eventually ending up on the mesas of Hopi, Acoma and Zuni, and up and down the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, where their descendants still live.

"Where did the people go who used to live here? For us Pueblo people, we are them," says Tessie Naranjo, a Santa Clara Pueblo tribal elder. "That is as certain as I am sitting here, we are them. We have not gone away."

Archaeologists know this, yet they have long ignored the perspectives, concerns and history of the direct descendants of the people whose remains and ancient homes they dig up and study.

"To us, as Indian people, we've always seen (archaeologists) coming into our communities with their own agendas, with total disregard for our beliefs and customs," says Marie Reyna, an educator at Taos Pueblo and executive director of the Oo-oonah Arts Center.

Today, however, there are signs of a thaw in the chilly relationship between anthropologists and Indians. An innovative new wave of archaeologists is paying more attention to modern Pueblo perspectives, and Reyna, Naranjo and other Indian people from around the region are willing to work with them to rehabilitate a strained relationship. One of the most visible signs of this shift is the Native American Advisory Group for the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, located just outside Cortez, Colo., in the heart of the Anasazi world. A far piece from Santa Clara and Taos, but this is where many Pueblo Indians trace their roots.

Four Corners story
Michael Welsh
Michael Welsh
Dec 08, 2008 11:47 PM
Interesting how this story does not study the people from whose language came the term that archaeologists thought they heard as "Anasazi." These people might help round out the story that Crow Canyon seeks to tell.
Four Corners Story
Eric Skopec
Eric Skopec
May 24, 2009 04:35 PM
Very informative and well written, Readers may also be interested in my recent book, The Ancestral Puebloan Primer, which puts Crow Canyon's research in a slightly larger context. The book is available from,, and specialty book stores.

Comment from James Potter
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Aug 06, 2009 01:46 PM
> I applaud
> the basic tenet of the article and agree that Crow Canyon
> Archaeological Center (CCAC) has been important in the effort to
> bring native perspectives into archaeology. I do have some quibbles
> with some of the facts presented in the article, however,
> specifically, Shirley Powell's quote that “during the
> archaeological work on the Animas-La Plata [ALP] project near
> Durango, several tribes declined to participate because they knew
> decisions had already been made, and that their involvement would
> only be used to rubber stamp the project but make no real
> difference."
> First of all, there were no tribes that refused to participate in
> the ALP project and who were not consulted on a regular basis.
> Different tribes chose to participate in different ways, and chose
> varying levels of involvement with the cultural resources project
> team. In fact, 26 tribes were consulted with respect to resources
> which fell under the purview of the Native American Graves
> Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), as well as those under
> Section 106 for the National Register of Historic Places (as
> Traditional Cultural Places). Each of these tribes was given the
> opportunity to visit the project area, and many came on several
> occasions to offer their suggestions on the treatment of human
> remains, provide native interpretations of material culture, and
> provide a larger indigenous context for the archaeology of the
> project area. These suggestions were incorporated into the
> interpretive framework of the project and were seminal in devising a
> plan for how to best repatriate all human remains and associated
> objects.
> Second, the cultural resources work for the ALP project was
> conducted by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. In fact, the ALP project is
> the first large-scale archaeology project in the country to have
> been conducted by a Native American tribe under Public Law 93-638
> (the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975,
> Title I, and its amendments) on federal land. The magnitude of the
> success of this achievement for a tribe cannot be over-emphasized.
> Furthermore, as the lead on the project, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
> mandated that much of the project workforce be Native American (at
> one point 40% of the team was Native American), that a college
> internship for Native Americans be implemented as part of the
> project, that Native American subcontractors be given preference,
> and that a Native American training program be part of the
> fieldwork. In addition, the primary person conducting the tribal
> consultations for the project, "the ethnographer and tribal
> liaison consulting for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe", was Maxine
> Seletstewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe. She worked closely with
> representatives of each of the 26 tribes to ensure that all of their
> concerns were being addressed.
> There may be other reasons to oppose the ALP project, as anyone
> familiar with the project can attest, but a lack of native
> involvement in the archaeology is not one of them, and to suggest
> that Native Americans made no real difference on the project is
> preposterous.
> Finally, I agree that it is important that native perspectives be
> included into the process of archaeology. But I disagree that today
> it is rarely being done. I think Mr. Atencio would be hard pressed
> to find a single archaeologist working in the American Southwest who
> is not consulting with and incorporating the views of any tribe
> interested in her or his work, regardless of whether that
> consultation is mandated by law.
> James M. Potter
> Principal Investigator, Animas-La Plata Archaeology Project