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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz