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."


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"We were negotiating how we would implement NAGPRA," Ortman says, "and the response from one American Indian leader was something like, ‘You guys don't get it, you're coming at this like a lawyer trying to find technical loopholes around it. But what motivates you to want to desecrate our ancestral places?' It was a good question I hadn't really thought about before."

Today, Ortman is doing some of the most innovative research in the Southwest. He uses genetics, oral history and linguistic analysis of modern Tewa to help understand the connections between Four Corners-area Ancestral Puebloan sites and modern pueblos in New Mexico. This work would be impossible without the help of the living descendants.

Through this research, Ortman uncovered the Santa Clara man's story linking Santa Clara to Yucca House. Ortman points out that though the structure is now in ruins, there is enough left to positively match it up with the map the man drew a century ago. And that architectural layout is unlike anything else in the region, he adds, but very similar to 14th-century structures near the modern pueblos in New Mexico.

Residue of historical events and historical context are imbedded in modern language, he explains, creating a sort of "fossilized world view." The Tewa for "pitched roof," for instance, is a combination of the words for "basket" and "timber," which describes something more like prehistoric pit house or kiva roof construction than the pitched roof people use today. The Tewa word for "plaza" or "town" comes from an old term for "bowl." That doesn't sound like the modern Tewa villages in the flats of the Rio Grande Valley, but evokes the topography of Yucca House and other cliff and canyon villages in the area.

All this information does more than further archaeological knowledge; it has helped reconnect Santa Clara's people to their Teguayo.

"I care about doing archaeology that's relevant and resonates with the most direct descendents," says Ortman. "It's the right thing to do, to listen to their point of view and what they want to learn about."

Today, the Crow Canyon staff relies on the advisory group to help design educational curriculum and research projects, and to keep the organization honest in its depiction of Pueblo life and culture. The group weighs in on everything from what questions to ask and how to conduct research to find the answers, to official policy regarding how to deal with human remains. This summer, advisory group members and other Pueblo leaders worked with Crow Canyon on its Pueblo farming project, which replicates and analyzes ancient farming methods.

"Archaeologists have become a lot more aware of how important these sites are and their spiritual significance to people today," says Marjorie Connolly, Crow Canyon's director of American Indian activities. "Previously it was just data." Connolly's position alone is testament to that changing relationship; even though almost all the archaeology on this continent deals with American Indians, few archaeological institutions have a position such as hers.

And advisory group members have come to appreciate the value of archaeology in helping them tell their story. "We want to show the world that we were not cave people, that we had complex civilizations and sophisticated societies," says Reyna, a founding member of the group. When the advisory group was founded in 1995, she says, "I'm sure there was some resistance to the idea, because we're talking about science, which is very black-and-white. But (former Crow Canyon archaeologist) Bruce Bradley always believed there should be Native American involvement. This was an organization willing to stick their necks out."