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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By working with archaeologists and spending time in the abandoned homes of their ancestors, the advisory group members are also sticking their necks out. "Old traditional people want to go to places like Mesa Verde, but they don't want to go," says Reyna. "That's the place where the ancestors are. We cannot go where there's any human remains. So, we say our prayers, say why we're there, and say, ‘We're sorry for disturbing you.' Everyone knows that we take our cornmeal and make blessings. But it's hard, you know. It's like you're walking on the edge."

This relationship has not been without its rough spots. Tito Naranjo tells a story about finding some human bones during a field trip to one of Crow Canyon's sites. "One of the other advisory group members said, ‘Gather some food for our people. Even if the body is gone, the spirit is still here.' We had to attend to that first, so I went through the process of gathering the edible plants that I knew, then we dug a shallow pit and put the bones and the food in for nourishment. But the archaeologists were impatient because we were holding up their progress. That's an example of how they don't understand our worldview."

Then, in 2004, Crow Canyon staff planned to build an underground kiva as part of a learning center modeled after a 13th-century Mesa Verde pueblo. It didn't go over well with some advisory group members. "That kiva represents the emergence place," says Reyna. "You don't build kivas for the hell of building kivas."

In the end, they all survived that test well, says Reyna. The kiva was never built, and the advisory group has become a vital part of Crow Canyon's work. Native wisdom and history that were not part of the story 20 years ago infuse all of the organization's projects and approach, and are now slowly making their way into the Park Service's interpretive dogma.

"(Archaeologists) have become more sensitive to Native Americans," says Tito Naranjo. "It's a new idea. In the old days they never thought native people had much to contribute."

For all this effort and the new and fruitful relationships growing out of it, professionals and Indians both acknowledge its limitations. "The Pueblos have a lot to offer humanity at large," says Ortman. But, he concedes, "There's no way you can do (archaeological) work that all Indian people will agree with. All you can do is pursue what you think is important, knowing what you do about native sensitivities and guided by native priorities and your own sense of integrity about what's right."

"This is like a big old puzzle," says Reyna, "and we've got the piece you'll never have and we'll never give it to you. Everything we've ever given you you've ruined."

"With ground-penetrating sonar they don't even have to excavate now and it's totally amazing to me," says Naranjo. "But it also gives them the sense that they can use sonar to get into the Pueblo head."

That will never happen, he says.

Then Naranjo looks up and continues his song to the clouds.