Chaco Culture National Historical Park includes, in addition to the famous archaeological sites in Chaco Canyon itself, four “outlying” great houses located outside the canyon but in close proximity to it and showing considerable evidence of close contact with people there and integration into the system centered on the canyon. One of these is Kin Klizhin (Navajo for “black house”), which lies just west of the main canyon on a small tributary of the Chaco River known as Kin Klizhin Wash. The land surrounding Kin Klizhin was originally a detached unit of the park like the land surrounding the other in-park outliers, but over time the park boundaries have been expanded to connect it to the main unit. This can be seen clearly on the official park map. Also evident on the map, however, is that Kin Klizhin is not accessible directly from within the main park unit, and it is necessary to leave the park to get to the road that leads to it.
The road to Kin Klizhin is a small two-track dirt road that branches off from New Mexico 57, the south road out of the park heading toward Seven Lakes and Crownpoint. There isn’t a sign right at the junction, but there is a small one a short distance afterward, and there aren’t a whole lot of other roads around there so it’s hard to miss. The junction comes at the point where 57 curves from going east-west along the San Juan-McKinley county line to going south toward Seven Lakes.
The road to Kin Klizhin is considerably more basic than 57 (which is to say that if you think 57 is the worst road you’ve ever seen, you probably shouldn’t try to go to Kin Klizhin), but it’s generally passable with any sort of vehicle. After the summer rains it may become washed out in places, so a high-clearance vehicle would be preferable. Four-wheel drive isn’t really necessary except maybe if it’s actively raining, in which case you probably shouldn’t be trying to do this trip at all. The road goes over some fairly hilly terrain for a few miles before reaching Kin Klizhin, which is right on the edge of the park boundary.
Kin Klizhin is completely unexcavated, and it isn’t very large as Chacoan great houses go, but it’s one of the better-preserved and more impressive ones. This is due largely to its tower kiva, which is still in fairly good shape (although a look at the historic photographs at the Chaco Archive shows that it has deteriorated quite a bit in the past century). Tower kivas are among the more mysterious aspects of the Chacoan system. The term often gets thrown around a bit loosely, but it is generally used to refer to round rooms that have multiple levels with floors between them. This is in contrast to the “elevated” or “blocked-in” kivas built into the roomblocks at many great houses both inside and outside the canyon; although those can in some instances be more than one story in height, they always have only one floor.
Tower kivas, which are found mostly at outlying great houses, usually have two or three levels remaining. Some have argued that they all originally had four levels, symbolizing the four worlds through which the people passed in some Pueblo origin legends, but this is a rather extreme jump to conclusions given that we don’t actually have any idea what these tower kivas were for. There’s nothing like them in modern Pueblos.
Some have argued that the tower kivas were part of a signaling network using line-of-sight relationships between great houses. A fair amount of data on the line-of-sight relationships has been assembled, but the role of the tower kivas in it is doubtful, and some research by John Kantner has recently suggested that at least in the southern San Juan Basin (where tower kivas are pretty common) they probably didn’t serve as part of a signaling network. Whatever they were for, tower kivas are certainly impressive, and the one at Kin Klizhin is a good example. It has collapsed enough that the main parts still standing are the corners, but they are still standing quite high, and from certain angles they look like football goalposts.
The function of the outliers in general, not just those with tower kivas, is a matter of intense debate and little consensus. “Inner-ring” outliers like Kin Klizhin are particularly odd. Were they examples of Chacoan colonization out from the canyon into the surrounding area? If so, why were the Chacoans moving out? If not, who was building them, and why?
These aren’t really answerable questions given current information, but a few possibilities have been suggested. Kin Klizhin lies in a relatively promising area for floodwater agriculture, in a valley near the canyon with a wash that could be easily dammed to provide a reservoir for water storage. There is in fact an earthen dam near the great house, although it’s impossible to tell if it’s actually ancient rather than a modern Navajo construction. (It could also be both; Navajos have been known to use and modify Anasazi dams in many areas.) One intriguing thing about the area around Kin Klizhin is that despite its agricultural potential it seems to have relatively few small-house sites compared to other outlier communities, which suggests a small population that could have easily produced an agricultural surplus for export to Chaco.
Like the other outliers, Kin Klizhin gets many fewer visitors than the main sites in the canyon. This makes it a very peaceful, quiet place to visit. There are a lot of potsherds and other artifacts lying around near the great house, since fewer people come around and steal them. A visit to Kin Klizhin isn’t for everyone, and it’s particularly not for the many people who come into the Chaco visitor center furious about the lack of paved roads, but for the adventurous few who are willing to take the effort to get there it’s definitely worth a visit.
And, of course, there are some other interesting ideas out there about Kin Klizhin and its role in the Chaco system, but discussion of them will have to wait for another day.