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.

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