Farmington, New Mexico is the closest major town to Chaco Canyon. With a population of around 40,000, Farmington is by far the largest community in San Juan County, and the sixth largest in the state. As a result, it dominates the northwestern part of New Mexico, which is otherwise very rural. Farmington is where the staff at Chaco go when they go to town. It’s not the most pleasant place, at least in my opinion, but that’s a story for another post. It’s also where I was born, which is yet another story for later.
One thing that’s notable about Farmington is that a lot of things there are called “Three Rivers.” There’s the Three Rivers Restaurant and Brewery downtown, which has good beer and decent food, as well as other businesses of various types. The reason for this is nicely explained in a plaque downtown, which notes that the Navajo name for this area is Tóta’, which is commonly interpreted as derived from the words for “water” and “three,” hence “three rivers.” This interpretation is helped by the fact that there are in fact three rivers that come together in Farmington: the Animas and the La Plata flow into the San Juan within a few miles of each other right where Farmington is now.
The problem with this interpretation, logical as it is, however, is that it’s simply wrong. The Navajo word for “water” is indeed tó, and the word for “three” is táá (the accent marks indicate high tone). The first part of Tóta’, then, does mean “water,” a common element in Navajo placenames, as is evident from looking at a map of the Navajo Reservation. The second part, however, is not táá, with a high-toned long vowel, but ta’, with a low-toned short vowel and a glottal stop, which is a verb form meaning something like “coming together.” Tóta’, then, means something more like “waters coming together,” which does refer to the rivers joining, but it doesn’t specify three of them at all.
This is a good example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Anglos have a very hard time learning Navajo, which is a very different sort of language from English, so many people in the Farmington area know a few words of Navajo but don’t really speak the language in any meaningful sense. This lack of fluency doesn’t keep many of them from trying to interpret Navajo placenames and other words, so spurious translations like this are pretty common in the area. Nevertheless, despite its inaccuracy, the “three rivers” idea has by now become firmly entrenched, and it’s not going anywhere.
There is, however, another place in New Mexico that actually is called Three Rivers, and it’s a very interesting place. It’s way across the state, in the southeastern part, near White Sands and the Tularosa Basin. This Three Rivers is best known for having the most spectacular collection of petroglyphs in the state. Mark Hinton’s recent post showing pictures from his recent trip there inspires me to put up some of the pictures from my own recent visit.
The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is a BLM recreation site, with a few limited facilities but otherwise pretty basic. It’s basically just a ridge covered in igneous boulders which are themselves covered with thousands upon thousands of petroglyphs. It’s hard to date petroglyphs, but from the iconography and the association with a nearby village site it seems they were made in the late prehistoric period by the Jornada Mogollon people, who inhabited southeastern New Mexico and west Texas and are known for their many spectacular rock art sites.
The Jornada Mogollon were definitely on the fringes of the prehistoric southwest. They didn’t settle down into permanent agricultural villages until quite late, after AD 1100, and didn’t keep up that lifeway for very long either. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s they were gone, and it’s not at all clear what happened to them or what connection there might be between them and the hunter-gatherer groups the Spanish did find in the area.
In Chacoan times, then, the Jornada people were hunter-gatherers who perhaps practiced a bit of small-scale horticulture and moved seasonally from place to place. Their land was a definite backwater compared to the major cultural centers to both the north, in the core areas of the southwest, and the south, in Mesoamerica.
By the time the Jornada began to aggregate into villages and rely on a more agricultural subsistence system, after the fall of Chaco and at a time of major changes and disruptions throughout the southwest, they were no longer so peripheral. The major regional center at Casas Grandes, or Paquimé, in northern Chihuahua seems to have rather suddenly risen to prominence around this time, and while it’s hard to figure out what, if any, connection there may have been between the rise of Casas Grandes and other developments in the southern southwest, the Jornada and other nearby groups were presumably at least aware of developments at Casas Grandes.
Casas Grandes is odd in a southwestern context because it shows much more direct and obvious Mesoamerican influence than any other southwestern center. There have been various proposals for Mesoamerican influence on Chaco, the Hohokam, and other southwestern societies, but the signs of contact and influence in these cases are pretty subtle, though in some cases (such as the chocolate at Chaco) of obvious importance. At Casas Grandes, however, all the elements of Mesoamerican civilization are right there: ballcourts, macaw breeding, and much more.
Given their position between Casas Grandes, with its strong Mesoamerican connections, and the apparently rather chaotic Pueblo world to the north, the Jornada Mogollon were in a prime position to transmit new ideas of Mexican origin to the northern people, who given their problems were probably particularly open to ideological influence at this time. And indeed, the petroglyphs at Three Rivers show a lot of Mesoamerican symbols and influences. The most common single symbol at Three Rivers, in fact, is a cross in a circle surrounded by dots, which is a well-known Mesoamerican symbol often interpreted as a cosmogram representing the division of the world into the cardinal directions. Interesting, this sign is very rare at petroglyph sites other than Three Rivers, even other Jornada Mogollon sites, while at Three Rivers it makes up about 10% of all the known petroglyphs. Perhaps Three Rivers specifically, even more than other Jornada villages, was a center for Mexican influence and ideology.
The Jornada Mogollon may also have played a key role in the transmission of the kachina religion to the Pueblos. This cult, which is now present in all the Pueblos and of extreme importance at some of them (especially at Hopi), is generally agreed to be ultimately of Mesoamerican origin and to have reached the Pueblos sometime in the Pueblo IV period, probably after around AD 1300. It is most obvious in rock art, where kachina masks become very common rather suddenly at Pueblo IV sites after being totally absent at earlier sites. The symbolism seems to move from south to north, having been found in the upper Little Colorado River area relatively early and later spreading to the Rio Puerco of the West and ultimately to Hopi, Zuni, and the Rio Grande.
While the Mexican origin of the kachina cult is widely accepted, the exact route of transmission it took to reach the Pueblos is a matter of more dispute. The two main candidates for having initially introduced it are the Mimbres people of southwestern New Mexico and the Jornada Mogollon. The Mimbres connection seems to be based largely on some iconography on the famous Mimbres pictorial pottery that is reminiscent of both Mexican ideology and later kachina symbolism. The Jornada connection, on the other hand, rests on the identification at sites like Three Rivers of mask petroglyphs very similar to those found later at Pueblo sites further north.
It’s quite possible that both routes of transmission were active, of course, and I certainly don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge of this area to judge. I will say, though, that the Jornada connection makes a lot of sense to me given both the timing and the really striking imagery at Three Rivers.
In any case, Three Rivers is definitely worth a visit for anyone passing through the area, as is the nearby Valley of Fires lava flow. That site, which Mark Hinton also seems to have visited recently, used to be a New Mexico state park but is now a BLM recreation area like Three Rivers. That whole area is really interesting, although certainly pretty hard to get to. Worth the trip, I would say.