The Native Southwest

Courtesy of the Visitor's Center at Arches National Park, Utah
There are many historic sites on our trip that highlight the presence of native people in the Southwest, and our first stop in New Mexico, Pecos National Historical Park, introduced us to the Ancestral Puebloans.

The Anasazi, or Ancestral Pueblans, were a hunter-gatherer society, finding nutrients in piƱon nuts, juniper berries, and other natural sources. At the same time, they also developed farming techniques to cope with the scarcity of water in the arid climate of the Southwest, including irrigation for raising corn, beans, and squash. The Ancestral Puebloans dispersed sometime in the fifteenth century and intermingled with other prehistoric groups, eventually developing into modern tribal groups including the Pueblos, Hopi and the Zuni.

 Our first stop in New Mexico was the Pecos National Historical Park, featuring the remains of a pueblo built by and for the Pecos people in the 15th century, though archeological evidence suggests human habitation at the site for hundreds of years prior, as early as 800 A.D. From our guided tour of the site, we learned about the kivas, subterranean round rooms used for ceremonial purposes, the 4-5 story pueblos themselves, and the network of trading which stretched from South America all the way to the West Coast.

Alcove House, Bandelier National Monument. Halfway up!
The Ancestral Puebloans are known for their distinctive adobe building style, including structures built into the cliffs themselves. At the Bandelier National Monument, in New Mexico, we saw remnants of the ancient cliff-dwellings which dotted the canyons of the Four Corners region. Getting to climb into the cliff rooms was a great experience, giving visitors a deeper appreciation for what life was like for the ancient peoples. (Climbing the 148 feet up into Balcony House was absolutely incredible, and made the climbs into the other cliff houses pale in comparison!) The Bandelier National Monument museum provided a great counterpoint to the hiking portion of the site, with lots of interactive features looking not only at the human habitation of the site, but also at the natural history and geology of the cliffs.

Whitney at Balcony House, Mesa Verda
At Mesa Verde in Colorado we saw several of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest, climbing down into Cliff Palace, an unusually large settlement, and Balcony House, where we admired the ingenuity and physical prowess of the Ancestral Puebloans as they used the sparse natural resources of the high desert to live off of, and protected themselves using the natural features of the rock and narrow passageways.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
In my research into the Ancestral Puebloans and their modern day descendents, I came across two different numbers of tribal groups today who identify the Ancestral Puebloans as their ancestors. One source says 21 tribal groups, and the other says 19. During the tour of Cliff Palace, our park ranger guide told us about life in the pueblo village from the cradle to the grave, and talked about the 19 tribal groups who still live in the Southwest today. Later in the afternoon, we learned from the park ranger at Balcony House about the 21 tribes that descened from the Ancestral Puebloans. While the number, 19 or 21, likely depends upon the definition of tribe, whether state or federally reconigzed or simply self-identified, the number is significantly large in either form to warrant consideration.

Unlike the Pueblo Indians who shared a mix of ancestral groups from the Southwest the Navajo, who lived throughout the Four Corners region, are the descendents of Athabascan peoples who came down Southward along the Rocky Mountain range, approximately in the fourteenth century. The Navajo, unlike the Pueblo peoples, historically did not build cliff dwellings of adobe, but instead built houses on the ground. The Navajo traded with the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, and because of the close contact between the groups, adopted some of their traditional crafts such as weaving techniques though the Pueblo and Navajo had distinctive designs. Like the Navajo, the Apache were an Athabascan group with a more war-like culture, and as settlers began moving into the Southwest in the late 1800s, the Apaches frequently raided the white people's settlements as well as other Native American villages for cattle and supplies.

Despite pressure from the Spanish in the early years of white encroachment onto the land, and American military aggression throughout the nineteenth century, the native peoples of the Southwest held on to many of their traditions and languages, adapting and growing in the midst of oppression. 

Yard of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, NM
The Southwest indians, such as the Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo, are not lost in the past or shelved alongide artifacts from the cliff dwellings, but are vibrant living cultures and their presence is seen throughout the Southwest. In New Mexico crafts people sell turquoise jewelry outside the palace of the governors, and native artists continue to experiment with color and form to capture the majesty of the high desert. The shops were full of examples of the traditions of the living native cultures (as well as many tacky and kitschy items), and contemporary art endeavors as well. In Mesa Verde, Colorado, not only did we see the remains of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization, in the gift shop there were many examples of contemporary Navajo sand-paintings, inspired by the traditional designs but modified by the individual artists. 

Today there are numerous tribes in the Southwest, up to 21 of whom trace their heritage to the Ancestralo Puebloans, and driving through the Four Corners states drives home the reality of these cultural enclaves. Driving around the Southwest is an eye-opening experience in many ways, but I was able to appreciate the wealth of Native American peoples that have retained their distinct cultural identity much more simply be being aware of the many reservations the highways pass through, and the historic sites which indicate their integral role in the development of the region.

The United States of America is far more diverse than the “melting pot” ideal could concieve, and the traditions of the Southwest American Indians endure in spite of oppression, truly illustrating the “American” ideals of endurance, freedom, and the dream of a better life for future generations.

-Claire K-S

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