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Know the West

The missing puzzle piece

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


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.

Not so long ago, archaeologists dug away in their remote trenches, painstakingly cataloging artifacts and keeping a narrow focus on the material remains of past civilizations, while paying little heed to native people or their rich oral history, or even to other anthropologists working with contemporary Pueblos. "They were studying us but didn't want to hear from us," says Santa Clara tribal elder Tito Naranjo, Tessie's brother.

Miguel Vasquez, a professor of applied anthropology at Northern Arizona University, has worked extensively at Hopi, in Arizona. His work is more about service than research, helping with projects like restoring historic terrace gardens and encouraging youth to get involved in traditional agriculture, so he has better relations with the tribe than most. Still, he says, "Anthropologists are not always welcome on the reservation … for good reason. Anthropologists published books, got tenure, while native communities haven't gotten anything."

In past years, tribes were involved in archaeology only to satisfy federal law, says Crow Canyon archaeologist Shirley Powell. Powell says that during archaeological work on the Animas-La Plata 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. "Native people are always asked for help," she says, "but never given any compensation, even though they're really the cultural experts."

Tito Naranjo, a social worker by training and an accomplished scholar in his own right, agrees that federal consultation on archaeological projects has never been very sensitive to Native American concerns, and says that anthropology in general has not been much use to native people.

Naranjo is a lively and athletic-looking man of 70 who lives with his Taos Pueblo wife, Bernice, near the Mora Valley in northern New Mexico, far from their home villages. At a picnic table outside his mountain home, Naranjo pauses from a woodcarving project, looks up at the billowing summer clouds, and tries to explain his people's world: "Our ancestors, right there they are, going by. The clouds, wind, water, air, trees. That is our way and our belief."

He talks about how his ancestors infuse the natural world, and even sings a short song to the clouds in his native Tewa language -- his way of saying that the Pueblo worldview is something so foreign to archaeology and Western science that they will never comprehend it. Later, he translates the song: "Cloud flowers are blossoming. The spirits of our people are coming to visit again." This is not the kind of thing archaeologists normally talk about.

"There's an anthropological definition of Native American worldview, and they think that they can decode our worldview, but they can't," he says.

Up at Crow Canyon, however, Scott Ortman is doing his best. The director of research for the center, Ortman shows me around one of its dig sites on public land late this summer. Afternoon cloud cover has done little to cool things off, and a group of schoolteachers under broad-brimmed hats carefully work trowels in shallow, dusty pits, sifting the material through screens to search for tiny artifacts.

Ortman, a thoughtful and soft-spoken man, says he started thinking about archaeology in a different way some years ago, after a meeting with tribal representatives discussing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The law requires researchers to consult with tribes that might be affiliated with human remains or sacred objects found in archaeological sites, and it ensures that those remains and artifacts are returned to their rightful place.

"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."

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.