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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beyond The Barrier Part 2: At The Center

The visitor center is small yet still provides a helpful staff, books and other learning materials, comfortable chairs, water, and isolation from the outside wind. As I walk about the exhibits, I find new stories, adding them to what I’ve learned on prior visits. They come alive as I look out the windows to the wider park paths.

Against a section of north wall is a relief map, showing many of the sites within the park boundaries. It provides a raven’s eye view that is helpful for orientation but tends to reduce the scale of what was built at Chaco, the amount of activity and time required to build it, and the influence that these buildings had throughout the region. 

Ancestral Puebloan peoples built small communal villages at Chaco two thousand years ago. Larger building projects started around 500 AD. and reached a crescendo from 850 AD to 1150 AD, a three hundred year span, and then fell rapidly into disuse. What they built during the boom times, the great houses, were crucial to the those ancestral peoples and they still reverberate in our time. They are what defines the “Chaco Phenomenon” and are what my folks and I have come to see. 

Now it is time to see the real Chaco and listen to what it has to say to us. Before I usher the visitors out of the visitor center, though, I think on how understanding names can start to unlock the nature of a place. Consider, for example, Point Sublime in the Grand Canyon. What  did geologist Clarence Dutton see when he stood there the first time? He must have been thrilled, given the value of that word during his time. 

Knowing that Chaco has been an attraction for many years, it seem logical the the name would similarly mean great things. Unfortunately no,  the name actually comes to us from a path now veiled. We know that the Hopi call it  yupköyvi, “the place beyond the horizon”, the Acoma call it W’aasfba shak’a, “the place of greasewood” and other Pueblo peoples have their own names. Modern Navajo have a name meaning “the meeting place.”  The name we’ve chosen to use, Chaco, could have been shortened from the Acoma name or derived from a Spanish translation of the Navajo word Tskoh, meaning “rock-cut” or  “canyon” or Tzak aih, meaning “white string of rocks.” In general, the word, chaco, is used in the Americas to describe flat, dry, treeless plains. We’ve no idea what the original Chacoans called their home place.

The question of naming is further confused as we head for Pueblo Bonito, a Spanish name. I find it ironic that an iconic locale, Chaco, for an iconic people, Ancestral Puebloan, is now described using languages foreign to Chaco’s original time and place. The site names found in the park are Spanish (Chaco, Pueblo Bonito), Navajo (Kin Kletso), mangled Hopi (Hungo Pavi), and English (Chaco Culture National Historical Park). Even the label “Pueblo” is Spanish. Today the Chacoan descendants, the peoples of the Pueblo cultures, speak six different languages in four different language families, and there’s no reason to believe that the Chacoan situation was any simpler. Yet we don’t use any of these people’s languages to describe this iconic place. 

We’re back in the van and driving toward Pueblo Bonito, the best known and most studied of Chaco’s “Great Houses”, so named because of their scale. On the way, we’ll pass three more of them, Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, and Chetro Ketl, in a short distance. There are six on this side of the wash and on the other side is Casa Rinconada, a great kiva, a large version of the round structure used the ancestral puebloan world to host key religious and civil functions. In all there are more than thirty recognized sites within the park. We are in “downtown Chaco”, the center of all the sites, the center of the center.

Pueblo Bonito can tell the story for all of these sites. So my passengers and I exit the vans and start along the short trail to visit it.  The structure grows in size as I walk toward the southeast side, the wall getting taller with each stride. If I’d been moving through here a hundred years ago, I would have seen a few short walls rising in front of me. The rest of what is seen now would have been buried in pools of sand and silt. Little of its story would have been visually evident. Since then much of the pool has been drained and its contents risen again. As the invading land was moved out, high walls rose around a single large outline.  Researchers have collected stories and artifacts. From them numbered viewpoints have been established and explained in a readily available trail pamphlet.

Walls & Windows
The trail continues on the east side along a wall with empty roof timber holes. Then it climbs up and over blocks of cliff sandstone that broke free from the cliff wall  in 1941 and rolled into the back side of the structure, it’s masonry under attack from the rock of the cliff from whence it had come. I follow the trail past the tall remnant of the back wall, still standing after nine hundred years, and then into one of the plazas. I stop in this plaza for a bit, listening. The wind blows earth around, short shrubs sway, a stray paper bounces into a wall and stops. None of this produces much sound, but it seems to fill the open space.

Chacoans lived and worked here—not to build someplace for us to visit but to make their lives better. They no longer remain to hang out, selling handiwork, and they can’t pass out guidebooks. But they have left clues, pieces of their lives, to tease us with snippets of their story. 

Pueblo Bonito gradually awakens in me a sense of ongoing life.  I see doors and wonder if someone might emerge at any moment or if residents may be watching me, wondering what I want, ready to challenge me. I sense the sounds and maybe the smells of former lives—of religious leaders chanting, drumming, and dancing in kivas and plazas, clad in shells, parrot feathers, and turquoise, working to hasten the appearance of life-giving rain in this arid land; of pots clattering, corn being ground; of children running; of trading stalls and negotiations carried out in multiple languages; of ravens sneaking goodies, of construction for walls, roofs, pits, earthworks, and canals; of people who left a part of themselves behind to keep their campsite alive. 

I have a similar sense when I return to my childhood home. Seeing the house brings back memories of events that still seem real: playing catch in the front yard, washing my father’s red work pickup after a camping trip to the desert, growing vegetables in the back yard, eating a Sunday meal outside on the driveway, driving along the street on the day that John Kennedy was shot, and many more. These sensations are real. But they are generational. The sense that I get from Chaco is much more expansive and powerful, a bit of the eternal kept alive.

As I turn around, I hear real drums, rattles, and monotone voices off in the distance, calling out a ritual story. Zuni people have returned to their sacred site to celebrate their Buffalo Dance. The dancers are likely descendants of Chaco. On another day, they could also be from Acoma, Hopi or other Pueblo peoples come to tell of their ancestors’ migrations, of campsites in both Chaco and then Mesa Verde, important places that preceded their modern village sites. They tell stories at the heart of their Pueblo life.  They don’t tell us all; the mystery remains. 

Some understandings are sensitive and can’t be told. But there is still much to be learned, if we are sensitive and patient. I’m told that an archaeologist was struggling to understand a kiva configuration: why are there two halves? Finally, he went to a leader of one of the Pueblos and asked for help. The leader simply said, that one side is for summer people and the other for winter people, a sharing of governance still maintained in these cultures. 

Stories are told because they help people make sense of the world. They relate truth and stick to us like cockleburs. Truth doesn’t have to be scientifically rigourous; but it must be life-giving.

Of course, there are stories from folks who have studied Chaco from a scientific standpoint. These are the folks who’ve mapped, dug, sifted, categorized, and synthesized the results for over one hundred years and especially since the 1970s. Like so many other southwestern Native American sites, Chaco has been extensively raided over the years, artifacts pilfered and structures destroyed. The roof beams have been used to construct new buildings or just burned for firewood. The pots have been sent to the collections of individuals or museums, or just put on a local shelf. Against the odds, archaeologists have still managed to synthesize stories and theories. Large amounts of research money has been spent and and significant professional conflicts have resulted. Now we have more stories, some generally accepted, others not so much. 

So Chaco can and does give us stories, if we are quiet and listen. When we hear them, we must remember to treat them in the context of all that we know. Sometimes stories turn out to have been insightful and other times they turn out to have been outrageous. There isn’t always an abundance of evidence and at times it seems to conflict with other evidence. Humility, caution and a willingness to say “I don’t know” are the best approach.

Pueblo Bonito’s stories also arise from its physicality. It is a place of staggering scale, especially by ancestral standards. It reminds me how big the world is and how small I am in it. As I walk up the trail toward it I can see its expanse along the wash and toward the cliff rising above it. It is a single structure occupying two and a half acres, one hundred and nine thousand square feet. And don’t forget that this was one of several such structures.

Its shape regularly changed, over at least five generations. Houses today do get remodeled but few would be occupied for as long as Pueblo Bonito, or their space so dramatically increased in height and complexity. Yet that is what happened at Pueblo Bonito. There are five versions within its current walls, each larger than its predecessor. Its plan must have been carefully thought out, because as it grew in size between 900 and 1115 AD, it maintained its same D-shape, rose five stories, and ended up with over five hundred rooms. Its walls changed significantly in structure to accommodate the new space, growing from a thickness of single stones carefully stacked to thick cores(nearly three feet) of rubble with thin veneers of facing stones. This dynamism resulted in five unique masonry styles. 

As I spin around looking at the expanse in front of me, I find myself counting— and quickly giving up— how many stones must be included in just Pueblo Bonito. They were likely removed from the surrounding cliffs and then painstakingly chipped to size and carried to the building site. I then I find myself remembering that there are six great houses just on the north side of Chaco Wash. That would have required millions of stones for walls, walkways and site preparation.

And the masonry of these structures isn’t the only amazing part of their scale. Roofs were also crucial. They had to have many of them, between floors, on the top floors, and over kivas. Since Pueblo Bonito alone had at least five hundred rooms, try to imagine how many roofs needed covering. More than two hundred thousand roof beams were used (over twenty-five thousand in Pueblo Bonito alone) and at least sixty thousand of them had to be the size of large ponderosa pines. I don’t see a good candidate anywhere in my sight. At best there are some junipers, not nearly tall enough to provide good roofs. And they would be quickly used up. The majority of the beams came from the Chuska Mountains in eastern Arizona, sixty miles away. Additional sites likely included Mount Taylor(sixty-five miles away), and the Naciemento Mountains (eighty miles away). Each of these beams likely weighed six hundred pounds. Chacoans didn’t have beasts of burden or even the wheel. Given their likely stature, maybe five feet tall, I wonder how they could have downed, prepared, and transported so many beams so far?

So who chipped rocks, built walls, prepared building sites, and carried tree trunks, not to mention grew food and maintained buildings and families? The only reasonable answer is: lots and lots and lots of ordinary people, at least four hundred thousand person-hours of labor. Where did they live and how did they survive? They likely came from far and from near, making pilgrimages and then returning home. Were they conscripts? Not likely. They were participants in a vast network that was the Chaco world. Archaeologists tell us that these people didn’t live in the great houses and must have lived in traditional unit pueblos consisting of  six rooms and a kiva. Ninety percent of the structures in Chaco are these pueblos or are pit houses. After seeing the scale of structures around me, I can only gaze in wonder. 

I’ve walked Chaco paths and I’ve looked at the vegetation. There is little to eat here, from my perspective. So what did these anonymous people eat in this land of apparent scarcity? They relied on their traditions and found native plants: Indian rice grass, globe mallow, wild buckwheat, cactus fruits, yucca pods, piñon nuts (before they cut all the trees), purslane, tansy mustard, amaranth, goosefoot, bee plant, blazing star, sunflower, and four-wing saltbush (its ashes are still used with corn to improve the niacin content and reduce protein deficiency), to name but a few options. And like their compatriots through what is now the Four Corners region, they were adept at finding ways to grow crops, especially corn. 

On the short drive to Pueblo Bonito we passed a canyon with an earthen dam. What we didn’t see was the network of stone channels emanating from that dam. Rain falling on the hard surfaces of the northern mesa would likely flood into the canyon, down to Chaco Wash. The ancient people attempted to capture it for use on fields below. The south mesas are different, having more soil. There, little individual fields were developed, like those found in modern Pueblo lands. Farming was tough, but so were the people, tough enough to last awhile.

If the farmers and builders didn’t live in these large houses, though, who did? Looking up the five stories, I can see the remains of rooms, stacked on top of each other. Could they all be residential rooms? Doubtful. Many have no vents, not even places for cooking or heating fires. Could I live in completely bounded spaces without vents for cooking and heating fires or even visibility of the world around them? No. They appear more like storage spaces than living spaces. I’ve gone between rooms, squeezing my six-foot-plus body through doors two-thirds that size. These people weren’t tall, maybe five ft on average, and they would have had to crawl through the tiny doors in order to live in the rooms or just manage the contents.

These great houses were all likely lordly dwellings, perhaps palaces, housing maybe a few thousand people at most, some kind of elites, possibly priests, meant to visually enforce the power and importance of Chaco.  They likely had large living spaces for these leaders. Many of the other rooms were probably for the storage of their regal treasures, especially large amounts piles of turquoise. 

I’m told that if you stand at Pueblo Alto, on the cliffs above Pueblo Bonito, you have a better view of the Chaco world. It was large, maybe ten thousand square miles. More than two hundred sites, “outliers”, across this Chaco world show signs of Chacoan influence, from Colorado to Utah to Arizona and nearly to the Mexican border. The big three great houses seem to have been Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Alto, the heart of downtown Chaco.  The first was the oldest, the second the largest, but the third one, Pueblo Alto—according to later tribal accounts—was the center of power, where the supreme rulers lived and swayed. Other houses lined the north side of the wash, but they were more princely than lordly.

There are notably no cherry blossoms, but make no mistake, this was a capital. It was a place meant to humble and reinforce a belief in the necessity of power and its accoutrements. It was a place to embody the wide sway of the elites that it housed.

Why did Chaco elites need this sway? Perhaps survival. People needed food, the ability to trade goods, safety, communication, and an enabling ritual story. Chaco provided all of them. It was likely a large food bank meant to help folks ride out the storms of scarcity caused by weather, conflict, and bad luck. It was also a place of trading. Merchants from Mexico to Colorado, California to Texas likely congregated multilingually at Chaco to provide both commoners and elites with what they needed to maintain their place in the Chaco cosmos. It was also a place of security. As threats impinged from east, north, west, and south, the “Pax Chaco”—like the “Pax Romana” of the Roman empire— kept the Chaco world humming along. To do all this required a communication system. Roads, signal sites, and runners were needed. 

All these needs likely also required a ritualistic foundation. Walking in the great houses, one would likely have smelled incense and heard chanting and drumming arising from the kivas, great and modest. “God is with us, keep the faith,” they might have been saying.  

Great houses were monumental, new things. They were not, as had been normal building practice of ancestors,  glue-on extensions over time. They were purposefully designed, engineered and implemented by people who had a purpose in mind the whole time, people who weren’t going anywhere, people who were building a new center for a Chaco world, people building a capital for monumental purposes, people building a center to hold the Chaco world together.

Ancestral Pueblo traditions centered around a story of emergence up into this world from another earlier world, followed by migrations and returns of from large distances, from Central America and even the tip of South America. As agriculture moved north from central America, they became less migratory. Farming required the allocation and maintenance of static land, the collection and generation of seeds for future crops and to carry folks over through lean times. As populations increased, villages became larger and more permanent. Yet climate patterns were still uncertain and resource overuse still a problem, so migrations occurred even among these more sedentary folks, sometimes after only a generation or two.

There is still the belief among modern Pueblo peoples that migration was central to their heritage. Villages are to be seen as more campsites than destinations. Looking back these peoples believe even Chaco was such a place. They know that their people moved on to other sites before arriving at their current locations. As grand as Chaco was, it was also changing.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part post. Please enjoy these words and look at the other posts:

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