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Monday, July 28, 2014

Beyond The Barrier Part 3: And Then?

Over my visits to this land, I’ve started to understand the Chaco phenomenon and hope I that my people are starting to do the same. There is more to see, but we must go. The day has been full. Our skin is showing the effects of bright western sun, walking at a six-thousand-foot elevation, and silty gusts. But Chaco is a moody land, often allowing access, but always on its own terms. The trip out is just as challenging as the one in—even more so when the conditions shift. 

I’ve tried the road when it was slimy wet, lining the wheel wells with caked clay.  And I’ve had a flat tire as evening and a likely rainstorm approached, when I spent an hour crawling in the dust and dirt to work bolts and watch the concerned faces of my passengers. Getting stuck in the San Juan Basin can be dangerous: cold, hot, slick. Snakes and other prickly things can threaten. Time to drive. Isn’t it ironic that this place that took hundreds of years to so carefully build keeps visits so short? Chaco preserves it own mystery.  

Similarly, the Chacoan people had to leave at some point, and they seemed to have done so quickly.The boom times gave us the Great Houses, but after their peak, Chaco rapidly fell into disuse. What happened?  After taking the time to painstakingly build this greatness, why was it abruptly left? Why did the stories change?

We know that regional factors were at play at the end of Chaco’s dominance. Resource depletion likely occurred. Populations in the latter Chacoan days had increased, putting more pressure on the web of life. An extreme drought, lasting for fifty years, starting in 1130 AD, likely played havoc with the vulnerable parts of the Chaco web. This could have increased instabilities and weakened the Pax Chaco. While Chaco populations were decreasing, those in other areas were increasing. People were migrating to new places. A perfect storm was blowing and the Chacoan ship of state was coming apart.

Hopi Gambler Katsina
The regional factors were external. There are also legends, told still today among the native peoples, about the end time for Chacoan dominance. It is a kind of morality play that speak against the concentration of power and the degradations that it can produce. It seems that there was a strong figure, a gambler, who appeared on the scene, possibly occupying Pueblo Alto, and quickly managed to enslave the people. To the Hopi, he was Hasoqata, a wicked, merciless, magical figure who targeted women. To the Navajo, it was Noquoilpi, He-Who-Wins-You-Over. He took their property, their wealth, and their children. He likely turned neighbor against neighbor. Eventually it is said he caused the collapse of Chaco.

What lessons were learned? Listen to the words of two modern descendants, first a man from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico: 

"In our history we talk of things that occurred a long time ago, of people who had enormous amounts of power: spiritual power and power over people. 
I think that those kinds of people lived here in Chaco...Here at Chaco there were very powerful people who had a lot of spiritual power, and these people probably used their power in ways that caused things to change and that may have been one of the reasons why the migrations were set to start again, was because these people were causing changes that were never meant to occur...There are some things in our migration histories that we don't understand, but I think that some of those things were never meant to be understood. They served a purpose when they were needed and now that purpose is, or that need is no longer there. It's no longer necessary to repeat that portion of the story." (Lekson, Stephen H. A History of the Ancient Southwest, 199)

A woman from Santa Clara Pueblo, also in New Mexico, adds to the subject:

"[Chaco was] full of energy, a different energy that before or after...a hierarchical structure: it was the idea of Pueblo society that we know today, where everybody is equal...a different ideology." (Lekson, Stephen H. A History of the Ancient Southwest, 199)

Pueblo people today don’t build palaces and they resist elites. They have been at the living of their lives for over a thousand years, and they’ve learned about what is important to them. Shared governance is to them much better than establishing elites. They’ve learned what has and what has not worked. To these folks, Chaco was an important campsite on their migratory path. Then there were problems and it was time to move on, learning and seeking new remedies which were perhaps actually old remedies. It was time for them to follow the clouds to new places, to rethink their solutions, and to build new ways. Pueblo people don’t shun Chaco. They embrace it, and they have learned from it.

Now I’m back in Gallup, my folks freed to their enjoyments. I sit on my motel bed drinking road coffee and thinking about the day. Once again, Chaco enlightens and challenges. 

I started my Chaco times by driving to an isolated set of ruins in a desolate place, having no idea how special it was. I’ve learned that the structures, what many call ruins are rare great houses, carefully built, and I feel honored that they’ve been shared with me. 

Chaco was a response to the needs of the time. Its fate was something that has happened to many other societies, and continues to happen. Combining economic, political, military and ritual power too closely is a dangerous practice, easily becoming a toxic witch’s brew. I will never be Puebloan, but I can understand the lessons they learned as they migrated their chosen paths. So Chaco really lives on for all of us, as a monument of achievement and of caution.

This is Part 3 of a 3 part post. Please enjoy these words and look at the other posts:

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