Archive for November, 2009

Pipe Shrine House, Mesa Verde

When I visited Mesa Verde this summer, I noticed a rather odd sandstone block at Pipe Shrine House, one of the mesa-top sites known collectively as the Far View Group.  These sites, like many others in the park, were excavated by Jesse Walter Fewkes in the early twentieth century, and documentation of the work done on them is correspondingly sparse.

Sandstone Block with Spiral Petroglyph at Pipe Shrine House, Mesa Verde

The block in question has a spiral pecked into it.  Not a whole spiral, though; rather, the middle of a spiral, with the upper and lower parts missing, as if the block were cut from a cliff face where a spiral petroglyph had been pecked.  Indeed, the only really plausible way to explain the block is that it was indeed cut from such a cliff face.

Block Incised with Zigzag Lines at Coyote Village, Mesa Verde

This is very odd.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it elsewhere.  There are a few other sites in the Far View Group that have blocks with designs on them, mostly parallel lines, but those are generally incised and they don’t bear much resemblance to common petroglyph designs.  They don’t show any particular evidence of the designs having been present on the stones before they were cut, either.  The spiral, though, is a very common type of petroglyph, and the Pipe Shrine block remains very puzzling.  Who cut that block?  Where?  Why?

Incised Parallel Lines in Building Block at Far View Tower, Mesa Verde

It’s very hard to say.  The fact that the block is at the top of the current wall strongly suggests that it was not originally part of the site.  In sites like this the top stones are generally modern capping put on with cement to protect the original walls beneath.  The spiral block, then, was almost certainly put on in the twentieth century.  It may have been put on by Fewkes himself after he excavated the site; recent dendrochronological research at the Sun Temple, which Fewkes also excavated and stabilized, has shown that he did a substantial amount of rebuilding there, and it’s quite plausible that he did the same at Pipe Shrine House.  If it wasn’t Fewkes, it was probably some later Park Service stabilization crew.

Plaque Describing Work by J. Walter Fewkes at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Regardless of who put the stone where it is now, though, the bigger question is where they got it, and how.  The mystery is amplified by the fact that Mesa Verde is known for having relatively few petroglyphs compared to many other areas with comparable ancient populations.  The stone looks like the same Cliff House Sandstone (Mesa Verde Formation) as the other stones in the wall, although its patina seems to be a slightly different color, which may or may not be relevant to its origin.  There’s no reason to think it comes from anywhere other than Mesa Verde, but that makes it all the more inexplicable that Fewkes or anyone else would have cut into one of the few petroglyph panels on the mesa for building stone when there are few things in the area more plentiful than sandstone.  I’m no expert on Mesa Verde, of course, so it’s quite possible that the story of this stone is well-known or at least published somewhere in the voluminous literature on the archaeology of the area, but if so I haven’t seen any reference to it.  It’s just very puzzling, and I don’t have a clue what the answer is.

Vent at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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Little Colorado River from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Some of the most important work on the origins of the kachina cult is that done by E. Charles Adams of the Arizona State Museum, particularly his 1991 book focusing specifically on the subject. In this book he summarizes the available evidence for the origin and early development of the kachina cult, and based on the distribution of the archaeological manifestations of the cult that he identifies he concludes that it originated in the Upper Little Colorado River area of east-central Arizona in the period between AD 1275 and 1325.

Wall at Casa Malpais, Springerville, Arizona

Adams’s reasoning for this conclusion is based on his comparison of the distribution of four types of evidence that he presents as reflecting the presence of the cult: rock art, pottery, plaza-oriented village layout, and rectangular kivas. His summaries of the distribution of all these features in space and time are very useful, but his conclusions about the origins of the kachina cult go well beyond the evidence he presents and are not very convincing. His method for determining the origin of the cult is to look at the distribution of the four features he identifies and find where they first overlap. This seems reasonable enough.

Petroglyphs at Puerco Pueblo, Petrified Forest National Park

Unfortunately, there does not turn out to be any place where the features all overlap sufficiently early to be associated with the initial development of the cult, so Adams has to resort to finding a place where three of the elements overlap. The three elements he uses are pottery style, plaza-facing village layout, and rectangular kivas, which he finds present together earliest in the Upper Little Colorado River area in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. He therefore concludes that this is when and where the cult originated and proceeds to describe its rapid spread to the north and east over the course of the fourteenth century. Unlike many other researchers, including Polly Schaafsma, he considers the cult to be fundamentally indigenous rather than Mesoamerican in origin, although he concedes that some elements of it were probably subject to influence from groups to the south such as the Hohokam and Salado.

Sign at Puerco Pueblo Showing Plaza-Oriented Layout

Adams theorizes that after its initial spread the cult was greatly elaborated at Hopi, where it acquired its strong association with rainmaking and began to be reflected in elaborate kiva murals, and that it subsequently spread in modified form from Hopi to areas that had already adopted the initial cult directly from the Upper Little Colorado, such as Zuni and the Albuquerque area of the Rio Grande valley. It is only at that point, after AD 1400, that Adams sees any influence from the Jornada Mogollon coming up the Rio Grande, and he sees this influence, reflected in the Jornada rock art style and a similar style in some kiva murals, as secondary to the Upper Little Colorado and Hopi kachina cult influence already present in the Rio Grande valley. He even speculates that the Jornada influence may not have affected the kachina cult itself at all, and that it may have had more to do with other societies present among the Eastern Pueblos having more to do with war.

Warning Sign at Edge of Little Colorado River, Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

This theory is problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, Adams relies very heavily on the distribution of pottery styles as evidence for the spread of the kachina cult, but he never establishes the association between the cult and the styles he mentions. He focuses on the so-called “Fourmile style” (named after Fourmile Ruin in the Upper Little Colorado area), a style of polychrome decoration that affected pottery types throughout the Southwest in the fourteenth century. Among the features of Fourmile style that Adams emphasizes are its use of asymmetrical decoration on the interiors of bowls, its extensive use of bird and feather imagery, and its occasional use of obvious kachina cult symbolism, particularly masks or whole anthropomorphic masked figures. It is the last aspect of the style that is clearly most associated with the kachina cult, and the presence of this sort of imagery on ceramics is certainly as clear a sign of the presence of the cult in a given area as the presence of similar motifs in rock art, but Adams goes beyond this observation to associate any use of the Fourmile style with the spread of the cult. This is not something that can just be assumed, however. It is important to note that the Fourmile style was very widespread, including in areas without any other evidence of kachina cult imagery, and it is quite possible that the distribution of the style is completely independent of the distribution of the cult. That is, the Fourmile style may just have been the style of decoration that was popular at the time that the kachina cult happened to be spreading throughout the northern Southwest, so that groups that adopted the cult may have used its imagery on their Fourmile-style ceramics without there being any particular association between the style in general and the cult. Thus, while Fourmile ceramics with kachina imagery would clearly be evidence of the distribution and spread of the cult, Fourmile ceramics without it would not necessarily be, and Adams’s extensive use of them undermines his conclusions significantly.

Petroglyph Panel Showing Mask at Puerco Pueblo, Petrified Forest

Another major problem with Adams’s approach is the way he largely disregards the rock art evidence. When he realizes that there is no place where all four of his lines of evidence come together at the proper time, it is the rock art evidence that he ignores. This is why he is able to conclude that the cult originated in the Upper Little Colorado area, where rock art evidence for the presence of the cult is very slim (probably due largely to the limited study of rock art in this area). Rock art, however, is the most straightforward and obvious evidence there is for the presence of the cult. Unlike Fourmile style ceramics, Rio Grande style rock art is full of kachina imagery, and it is very different from earlier rock art styles in the area where it appears. Schaafsma’s theory linking the cult to the Jornada Mogollon depended largely on the rock art evidence. Recall that her argument for transmission of the cult up the Rio Grande via the Jornada depended largely on the lack of rock art evidence for the presence of the cult in the Mogollon Rim and Upper Little Colorado area. Adams, although he argues for the transmission (and, indeed, the origin) of the cult in this area merely assumes that the Rio Grande style originated in the Upper Little Colorado area along with the cult and that it is unrelated to the Jornada style, which he sees as a late introduction to the Eastern Pueblos after the Rio Grande style was firmly established.

Petroglyphs at Casa Malpais, Springerville, Arizona

It is not hard to see why Adams puts so much emphasis on pottery and so little on rock art. He is trying to determine the time as well as the place of origin of the kachina cult, and to do that he needs evidence that can be securely dated. In the Southwest pottery styles are very well dated by association with tree-ring-dated contexts where they appear, and they therefore give quite precise dates even for sites that have note been excavated or dated in any other way. Rock art, on the other hand, is notoriously difficult to date. Pictographs, which are painted onto the rock surface often using some sort of organic paint, can sometimes be carbon-dated by samples of the paint or other associated organic artifacts, but this technique has rarely been used in the Southwest, and the much more common petroglyphs, which are pecked or incised into the rock surface, cannot be directly dated at all and can only be assigned very general dates based on their style and/or proximity to dated sites. Thus, associating the spread of the kachina cult with the spread of the Fourmile style, which does seem to have occurred around the same time, gives Adams much more chronological control than Schaafsma has with her rock art styles, and it even allows him to argue, in direct opposition to Schaafsma’s interpretation, that the Jornada style in the Rio Grande valley is later than the Rio Grande style rather than ancestral to it. His justification for doing so is very shaky, being based on similarities between the Jornada style and the style of kiva mural found at sites such as Kuaua, north of Albuquerque, but it is not possible to prove that he is wrong. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to prove that he is wrong to associate the Fourmile ceramic style with the cult, although he does so on similarly shaky grounds.

Casa Malpais from Above

Nevertheless, despite all these problems with Adams’s theory for the origin and spread of the cult, his model for why the cult was adopted so quickly and easily throughout the Pueblo world is quite convincing and useful. The explanation is basically the same as Schaafsma’s: the kachina cult, being a non-kin-based system with the potential to integrate whole communities easily, was very attractive to the rapidly aggregating villages developing throughout the Southwest at this time, and it was therefore adopted as a way of dealing with and resolving the many conflicts that inevitably develop within diverse and rapidly growing communities. He defines the model more rigorously and in more detail than Schaafsma, however, and presents a four-stage process for adoption of the cult, with corresponding correlates that should be identifiable in the archaeological record:

  1. Immigration: Starting around AD 1275, when major environmental changes occurred throughout the Southwest, locations that either maintained their attractiveness for settlement or became newly attractive as a result of the changes saw massive influxes of population from the many areas being abandoned at this time.
  2. Aggregation: In the locations seeing large-scale immigration, the new immigrants coalesced into large, aggregated villages, either joining previously existing populations or, in sparsely populated or previously unattractive locations, developing their own aggregated villages. These villages are often but not always plaza-oriented.
  3. Appearance of kachina cult imagery: Shortly after initial aggregation, the plaza-oriented villages begin to show signs of kachina cult imagery, either in nearby rock art or on locally produced pottery. This demonstrates the adoption of the cult by the village, perhaps in part to deal with the problems caused by rapid aggregation.
  4. Continued aggregation: As a result of the usefulness of the kachina cult in integrating the new communities, new immigrants continue to join them and are able to be successfully integrated. This part is important; previous attempts at forming large, aggregated communities in the Southwest had not lasted for long, probably because existing religious and social systems were not able to successfully integrate populations on that scale.

Adams applies this model to the cluster of sites at Homol’ovi Ruins State Park near Winslow, Arizona, where he has conducted extensive research as part of a long-term project by the Arizona State Museum. He finds that the model fits the history of the sites there quite well. Adams’s model can also be used to evaluate the impact of the kachina cult and the development of plaza-oriented village layouts on aggregation in other parts of the Southwest during this time period, and perhaps during others. Adams sets the beginning for his model at AD 1275 to correspond to the environmental changes in the northern Southwest associated with the so-called “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299, and this does correspond to the onset of major aggregation in many areas, but in other areas aggregation began either earlier or later than this, and the adoption (or, perhaps, development) of the kachina cult may have played a role in these contexts as well.

Masonry at Homol'ovi I

Adams’s model may be an effective way to address the relationship between aggregation and the spread of the kachina cult, but it still leaves open the question of why people were aggregating in the first place. This has been a matter of much dispute and argument over nearly the whole history of southwestern archaeology, and many theories have been proposed. Many of the recent theories revolve around changing environmental conditions and the need for changes in subsistence systems, and they address this idea from varying perspectives, often focusing on the need for more centralized decision-making and/or more efficient land use as the result of less reliable or more difficult conditions for agriculture. In his discussion of this issue, particularly in relation to the case study of Homol’ovi, Adams seems to endorse some version of this idea, with a particular focus on the decisions of community leaders. Unlike many archaeologists who study the ancient Southwest, Adams does not present prehistoric Pueblo society as egalitarian, and he assumes throughout his discussion the presence of a two-tiered society with a small priestly class making decisions at a community level and deriving their authority from their control of ritual knowledge. Importantly, however, he notes that this elite never managed to amass the sort of surplus wealth necessary to transform Pueblo society into a truly stratified society with significant economic inequality. Adams attributes this mainly to the marginal nature of the Southwest for agriculture, but it is likely that another major factor is the communal ideology of the Pueblos, which strongly discourages individual gain and encourages leaders to put the needs of the community above their own desires.

Walls at Homol'ovi II

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Bridge over Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

One of the more confusing aspects of the geography of the Southwest is the fact that there are two completely different rivers with the exact same name, and they’re quite close to each other.  The name is “Rio Puerco,” meaning “dirty river” in the New Mexico dialect of Spanish.  It’s an apt name, since rivers in the area tend to carry a lot of sediment and the water in them tends to look rather dirty.  Nevertheless, the use of it for both rives can lead to considerable confusion, and while in technical and scholarly contexts they tend to be carefully distinguished, in more accessible public contexts there isn’t much clarification out there.

Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

One Rio Puerco originates in the Jemez Mountains and flows south through the village of Cuba, then parallels the Rio Grande for a considerable distance before joining it south of Belen.  In contexts where careful disambiguation is necessary this river is generally called the Rio Puerco of the East, on maps and signs where highways like US 550 cross it it’s usually just labeled “Rio Puerco.”  Today the Puerco of the East forms a rough eastern boundary for the Navajo culture area, and the communities along it (especially Cuba) serve as important points of contact between the Navajos and the New Mexico Hispanic culture area.

Rio Puerco of the West and Train Tracks at Petrified Forest

The other Rio Puerco originates on the southern slope of Lobo Mesa near the Continental Divide and flows generally southwest through Gallup and the Red Mesa valley, paralleling the railroad and I-40 into Arizona.  It passes through Petrified Forest National Park before flowing into the Little Colorado River at Holbrook.  This river is generally called the Rio Puerco of the West, and it forms a very rough southern boundary for the Navajo culture area, with the area further south dominated by the Zunis along the eastern portion and by Anglos (largely Mormons) along the western portion.  The towns along the river are mostly nineteenth-century railroad towns.

Sign at Bridge over Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

Clearly, these two rivers are very different and have nothing to do with each other.  They are on opposite sides of the Continental Divides and belong to completely different drainage systems: the East flows into the Rio Grande and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico, while the West flows into the Little Colorado, which flows into the Colorado just upstream from the Grand Canyon and ultimately ends up in the Gulf of California.  Confusingly, though, they’re really quite close.  If you drive from Albuquerque to Flagstaff on I-40 you cross both of them, and each is marked only by a sign saying “Rio Puerco.”  They are also both close to Chaco, and both areas were integrated into the Chacoan system, though probably to different degrees.  The only major Chacoan site known from the Puerco of the East is Guadalupe, while the Puerco of the West has a whole string of sites that have been identified relatively recently as Chacoan outliers, including Allentown, Chambers, Sanders, and Navajo Springs.  Unfortunately, the names are so entrenched at this point that there’s little prospect of changing either (or both) to something less confusing, so it looks like this is something we’ll just have to keep dealing with.  Hopefully this post will help reduce the amount of confusion over this issue.

Bridge over Rio Puerco of the West at Petrified Forest

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Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

One of the most distinctive things about Chaco, compared to other prehistoric settlements in the northern Southwest, is its stability and longevity.  While most earlier (and, for that matter, later) villages were apparently only occupied for one or two generations, Chaco was a major center for at least 300 years, and may have been occupied at a lower level of population for another hundred or so years after the end of its regional centrality.  Despite the apparent importance of this fact, however, it has received curiously little explicit attention in the scholarly literature on Chaco.  This is probably because the stability of Chaco is easy to see but very difficult to explain.  Any explanation will necessarily have to exist within a particular interpretation of what Chaco was, and given the enormous amount of dispute over that and the number of competing theories it’s hardly surprising that Chaco specialists have spent most of their time coming up with theories and arguing with each other, which has left little time for using those theories to specifically address the issue of stability.  That is, all theories that have been proposed to explain Chaco contain implicit explanations for its stability, but explications of those theories very rarely address stability explicitly.

Bonito-Style Masonry atop McElmo-Style Masonry, Pueblo del Arroyo

To some extent the explanation for Chaco’s stability depends on the exact nature of the Chaco system and the role of Chaco itself within it, which is a topic of considerable dispute among archaeologists, but there are also some more general factors that probably played a role in the unusual stability of Chaco.

Mealing Room with Row of Metates, Pueblo del Arroyo

The most important is probably the environment.  The details are still a bit unclear, but it does seem from extensive research on the ancient climate that the rise of Chaco coincided with a period of unusually wet conditions that made farming more productive and reliable than it had been before in the arid Southwest.  This would have made the accumulation of agricultural surplus easier than it had been before, which would in turn have increased the power and prestige of areas that were able to accumulate surpluses.  This still doesn’t explain why Chaco specifically became so large and important for so long, since it’s not in a very productive agricultural area even by southwestern standards, but it may in part have just been a matter of fortuitous circumstance: Chaco happened to be where people were starting to gather, after leaving their earlier settlements elsewhere, when conditions improved and they were able to stay there longer than had been possible in other places before.

Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Another important factor was probably trade.  Chaco isn’t in a very good place to farm, but it is located in a strategic position between the productive agricultural areas further north and the mountainous areas further south, each of which may have produced things the other may have needed.  It’s not clear how much trade there was in things like agricultural products, which are rather difficult to transport over long distances without pack animals, but there was certainly a considerable amount of trade in pottery and valuable goods like turquoise, and Chaco is particularly known for the amount of material found there that originated elsewhere.  Some theories have posited that Chaco was a center for redistribution of goods, but there isn’t much direct evidence for this and it’s hard to determine how much stuff passed through Chaco on the way to somewhere else (because that stuff wouldn’t have left any evidence of ever having been at Chaco).  What is clear, though, is that whether or not substantial amounts of trade goods passed through Chaco, an enormous amount of important material came into Chaco and stayed there.  Turquoise is the best known example, but there were a lot of other things too, including exotic goods like copper bells and macaws brought up from Mexico.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

Whether from agricultural surplus or from trade, then, or possibly from both, Chaco was clearly a very wealthy place at its height, and it was probably that wealth that allowed it to last so long when other settlements had been so transient.  Favorable environmental conditions probably played a role in the ability of Chaco to accrue that wealth, but not necessarily in a straightforward way.  There may also have been other political, cultural, or religious factors that contributed to Chaco’s staying power.  One thing that’s interesting to note is that while Chaco did last a long time, its end seems to have come pretty rapidly.  Large-scale construction seems to have ended abruptly around AD 1130, and while a reduced population does seem to have remained in (or possibly returned to) the canyon until 1250 or so, the bulk of the population seems to have left for other settlements that ended up being occupied for much shorter periods.  That is, Chaco was occupied much longer than earlier settlements, but also much longer than most later settlements.  The fact that environmental conditions seem to have deteriorated as much at the end of the Chacoan era as they had improved at the beginning reinforces the impression that there’s some sort of relationship there.

McElmo-Style South Addition to Pueblo del Arroyo

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Mt. Taylor from Seven Lakes, New Mexico

In the previous post I made a distinction between “affiliation” and “identity” that may not have been totally clear.  In the context of Keith Kloor’s article on Navajo connections to Chaco, the basic point I want to make could be drastically oversimplified to something like this:

  • The Park Service’s finding that the Navajos are “affiliated” with Chaco under NAGPRA is based on the fact that the Gambler story exists, not the idea that it’s true.  While there may or may not be a kernel of historical truth to the story, the versions that have been recorded all contain enormous amounts of material that is clearly and obviously mythical.  However, the consistency of the accounts, and the strong association with Chaco Canyon and specific locations within it that they tend to share, imply a level of connection to Chaco shared by all Navajos that (along with other traditions) the NPS found sufficient to support a finding of affiliation.
  • John Stein and Taft Blackhorse, however, are claiming that the Gambler story actually is true.  That’s the crazy part.  While, again, there may or may not be some truth hidden somewhere in the story, the specific interpretations they use and the conclusions they present are almost certainly wrong.  They’re starting from a widespread tradition that most Navajos probably believe in some sense, interpreting it in an idiosyncratic way, using that interpretation to shape the way they understand and present the archaeological fieldwork they do, and ending up with an account of southwestern prehistory that hardly anyone finds credible.
  • It is true, as I just mentioned, that most traditional Navajos probably do believe that some version of the Gambler story is true.  This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that they or the Navajo Nation in its official capacity believe the version that John and Taft are presenting.  That version is unusual, at least the way they present it, in focusing on the presence of Navajos and downplaying the presence of Puebloans, even though they do admit that presence.  Most versions of the story that have been recorded present most of the characters in the story as Pueblo, with the Navajos certainly being present but in a more subsidiary role.  I don’t know if John and Taft ever explicitly argue that most of the characters in the story are Navajo, but that’s certainly the implication of the way they present their theories and contrast them with the archaeological consensus that the Chacoans were all Pueblo.
  • Leaving aside the whole issue of the Gambler story, however, there are a lot of other Navajo traditions involving Navajo connections to Anasazi sites, including Chaco, that are nowhere near as crazy as what John and Taft are saying.  These mostly involve the origin stories of specific clans, some of which claim Anasazi ancestry and refer to origins at specific ancient sites, and others of which do not claim Anasazi ancestry but do refer to contact between the early members of the clan and various Anasazi groups.  These traditions don’t get as much attention as the flashier stories like the Gambler one, partly because they are traditionally not supposed to be told to outsiders at all.  If Navajo oral traditions can be used as evidence of Navajo connections to Anasazi sites, which I would say is still an open question, these are the traditions that are likely to be most reliable.  The Navajo Nation’s official position, and the Park Service’s finding of affiliation, rely on these traditions at least as much as on the Gambler story in supporting claims of Navajo affiliation to Chaco.
  • Therefore, while Keith’s article is certainly interesting and well-done, it really only skirts the edges of the major issue of cultural affiliation.  Claims of Navajo affiliation with Chaco and other Anasazi sites do rest pretty much exclusively on oral tradition, but they don’t rest at all on the speculative theories John Stein and Taft Blackhorse have built out of that tradition.

That’s basically the argument I was making in the last post.  I recognize that so far, both in that post and in this one, I’ve just been asserting all this without backing it up beyond vague reference to published sources.  That might do in an academic context, but here we’re talking about journalism, so I figure it’s incumbent upon me to support what I’m saying with some quotes.

Sign at Turnoff to Huerfano Chapter House from NM 371

Let’s start with NAGPRA. Here’s how the official Park Service guidelines define “cultural affiliation”:

“Cultural affiliation” means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group.

That seems like a pretty high bar, and note that “identity” is right there in the definition.  From just looking at that, it would seem that the only way to establish that the Navajos are culturally affiliated with the Chacoans would be to posit something like what John and Taft are saying: that the Chacoans were Navajo, even if there may have been some Pueblos involved too.  But the guidelines go on to water it down quite a bit when they get to the actual standards of evidence:

A finding of cultural affiliation should be based upon an overall evaluation of the totality of the circumstances and evidence pertaining to the connection between the claimant and the material being claimed and should not be precluded solely because of some gaps in the record.

Evidence of a kin or cultural affiliation between a present-day individual, Indian tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization and human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of
cultural patrimony must be established by using the following types of evidence: Geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, anthropological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion.

Lineal descent of a present-day individual from an earlier individual and cultural affiliation of a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony must be established by a preponderance of the evidence. Claimants do not have to establish cultural affiliation with scientific certainty.

The effect of these standards is to make it considerably easier for claimants to establish cultural affiliation, which is a reasonable thing to do given that a lot of tribes would have a hard time finding enough documentation to conclusively prove a connection to an ancestral site.  When it comes to Chaco these standards still seem to advantage the Pueblos more than the Navajos, but they leave enough room for a plausible claim that a “preponderance of the evidence” suggests that the Navajos have “a relationship of shared group identity” with the Chacoans.  Note that it’s a bit vague on how “group” is to be interpreted.  Does it mean the Navajos have to show that the Navajo Nation as a whole is the lineal descendant of the political or cultural unit represented by Chaco?  It could be read that way, but the explanations of the standard of proof seem to imply that there are other ways to read it that are to be preferred.

Abandoned Hogan at Tsaya Trading Post, Lake Valley, New Mexico

With that in mind, let’s look at that 1999 NPS finding that Keith mentions as having been so controversial.  After a very long list of human remains and grave goods found at Chaco and in the possession of the park, the notice gets to the issue of cultural affiliation.  First, the criteria:

Evidence provided by anthropological, archeological, biological,
expert opinion, geographical, historical, kinship, linguistic, and oral tradition sources were considered in determining the cultural affiliation of the above listed human remains and associated funerary objects.

That sounds about right, given the NPS guidelines I quoted above.  So what conclusions did these criteria lead to?

Anthropological literature supports the view of many Puebloan communities that the San Juan region, which includes Chaco Culture NHP, belongs to their common ancestral cultural heritage. Archeological evidence indicates that Puebloan people were in Chaco Canyon since at least the Basketmaker period (ca. A.D. 1) and, therefore, supports the affiliation of the above mentioned human remains and associated funerary objects with many modern Puebloan communities. Continuities in architecture, ceramics, agricultural practices, food-processing technology, and rituals from Chaco Canyon’s prehistoric settlements, present-day Pueblos, and Hopi Tribe bolster claims of cultural affiliation by these communities. Furthermore, anthropological research indicates that many Puebloan peoples have additional bases for claiming cultural affiliation with the ancient residents of Chaco Canyon due to clan migrations, intermarriage, and the regrouping of communities over time. Linguistic evidence also suggests that modern Keresan speakers (Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, and Zia) originally occupied Chaco Canyon. Additionally, oral traditions specifically link the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, Zia, and Zuni, as well as the Hopi Tribe, to Chaco Canyon. Furthermore, the Pueblos of Cochiti, Isleta, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Santo Domingo have oral traditions that refer to “White House” as an ancestral place. Some anthropologists maintain that White House was located in Chaco Canyon. Tribal cultural specialists offered expert opinion to support the cultural affiliation of the Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Laguna, Nambe, Picturis, Poaque, San Felipe, San Juan, Sandia, Santa Ana, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni, and the Hopi the Tribe, to Chaco Canyon. Similar expert testimony provided by the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, Pueblo of Jemez, and the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo indicated that these three communities are not culturally affiliated with Chaco Canyon.

Makes sense.  As I noted above, the guidelines definitely suggest that the Pueblos would have a strong claim to affiliation based on cultural continuity.  The three groups that apparently claimed not to be affiliated are interesting too.  The Jicarilla Apaches were in southeastern Colorado at the time of European contact, so it’s hardly surprising that they don’t have any connection to Chaco.  Ysleta del Sur is a community near El Paso, Texas descended from Southern Tiwa and Piro people from the Rio Grande valley who accompanied the Spanish when they retreated from New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.  It’s a little odd that they wouldn’t claim affiliation but Isleta and Sandia, descended from the Southern Tiwas who stayed in New Mexico after the Revolt, would, but it’s not hard to imagine circumstances under which they would decide they don’t have anything to do with Chaco, which is quite distant from El Paso.  The most interesting of the three is Jemez.  Alone of all the New Mexico Pueblos, they seem to have actually argued that they don’t have any affiliation with Chaco despite being geographically closer to it than most.  Jemez is one of the most conservative Pueblos and one of the ones least inclined to reveal anything about its traditions to outsiders, so it’s likely that the story behind this will remain untold.  It’s certainly puzzling, though.

Jemez Electric Pole in Chimayo, New Mexico

With the Pueblos out of the way, here come the Navajos:

In addition to the above listed Pueblos and the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation was found to be culturally affiliated with the ancient residents of Chaco Canyon based upon similar sources of evidence. Anthropological sources indicate extensive intermarriage between Navajo and Puebloan peoples occurred, and that the Navajo have traditional ties to the natural and cultural resources of Chaco Canyon. Additionally, Pueblo cultural traits have been incorporated into Navajo cosmogony, ritual, and secular practices. Historical evidence places the Navajo occupation of Chaco Canyon to at least the early 1700s until 1947. It is also known that after the Pueblo revolt of 1680, refugees from the Pueblos of Jemez, Santa Clara, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Cochiti, and Zuni joined the Navajo and were incorporated into their clan system. During the same period, the Hopi of Awatovi joined the Navajo in the Chinle area. Geographically, Chaco Canyon is within the four sacred mountains that define Dinetah territory, and within the area of Navajo aboriginal use lands established by the Indian Claims Commission. Oral traditions also link the Navajo to sites within Chaco Canyon such as Fajada Butte, Pueblo Alto, Pueblo Bonito, and Wijiji, as well as to the Chacoan sites of Kin Ya’a and Aztec. Finally, Navajo cultural specialists have also provided expert opinion affirming their cultural ties to Chaco Canyon. Navajo oral traditions link the Navajo people to sites within Chaco Canyon, and stories describe their ancestors interacting with the “Great Gambler” in Chaco Canyon when Puebloan people occupied the area.

Note the order here.  First, intermarriage, which is documented both historically and ethnographically and is the least controversial way the Navajos can claim to be connected to the Anasazi.  Then, traditional ties to “natural and cultural resources” in the park, which is suitably vague that it could cover all sorts of meanings.  Next, Pueblo cultural traits adopted by the Navajos, then the Navajo occupation of the Park area in the historical period, followed by the refugees from the Pueblos who joined the Navajos after 1680.  It’s only then that specifically Navajo cultural traditions are mentioned, first the indisputable fact that Chaco lies within the area bounded by the four sacred mountains, then the oral traditions linking the Navajos to specific, named Chacoan sites.  These traditions are probably the clan origin stories I mentioned above.  Only at the very end do we get the stories about Chaco, attributed to unnamed “Navajo cultural specialists,” ending with the Gambler and traditions about the ancestors of the Navajos “interacting with” him “when Puebloan people occupied the area.”

Hogans at Salmon Ruins

Somehow I doubt this is how Taft Blackhorse would have written this paragraph.  It still seems to be playing a little fast and loose with the NPS criteria for determining cultural affiliation, but it’s definitely organizing the evidence in a way that emphasizes the connections most plausible given the standard archaeological story about Chaco, with the Pueblo connections first, then the Navajo connections deriving entirely from Navajo contact with the Pueblos, and only mentioning the Gambler stuff at the very end.  Still, does this establish a “preponderance of the evidence” that “there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between” the Navajos and the Chacoans?  Well, that all depends on what you mean by “shared group identity.”  And that, in turn, depends on what you mean by “the Navajos.”

Exterior of Hogan at Salmon Ruins

Today, of course, it’s pretty easy to say who is and who isn’t Navajo.  The Navajo Nation is a federally recognized tribe with a defined list of members.  Politically, then, being Navajo just means being a member of the Navajo Nation.  Culturally it’s also pretty easy to determine what it means to be Navajo today.  Traditional Navajo culture has been in decline for the past few decades as younger Navajos become more assimilated to mainstream American culture, but most of its key components are still in place to varying degrees, especially among older generations and in more rural parts of the reservation.  This culture and its elements are quite easily distinguished from other indigenous cultures in the Southwest.  Navajo society is unique among southwestern tribes in being based on a pastoral sheep-herding economy, and many of its other distinctive characteristics originate in that economic system, including the importance of weaving and the settlement pattern based on scattered, highly mobile extended family residential units living in distinctive dwellings known as “hogans” and very low population density.  Other aspects of Navajo society, such as the ceremonial system and the kinship system based on matrilineal clans, are shared with various other tribes, but the combination of all these features is distinctively Navajo.

Ceiling of Hogan at Salmon Ruins

Obviously, however, this society can’t be very old.  Sheep were only introduced to the Southwest in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, after all.  “Traditional” Navajo society, therefore, certainly can’t be a thousand years old (let along ten thousand), and in fact it really only crystallized in its current form in the late nineteenth century after the return from Bosque Redondo in 1868 and the spread of trading posts providing the processed foods and industrially manufactured goods that are key components of traditional Navajo material culture.  Most of the elements, including the sheep, were in place by the early nineteenth century, and they had probably gradually been adopted and transformed over the course of the eighteenth century.  The standard model of Navajo ethnogenesis used by most archaeologists in the Southwest in recent decades ascribes a major role to an influx of refugees from the Pueblos after the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico in 1692, the idea being that they introduced many Pueblo ideas and material culture items, including livestock, to the Navajos, who then developed their distinctive culture out of a mixture of inherited Athapaskan elements and adopted Puebloan elements.  Keith talks about this in his article, in fact.  Here’s how he puts it:

It’s thought that the ancestors of the modern Navajo didn’t even enter the Four Corners until about the 1500s, almost 300 years after Chaco was abandoned. Archaeologists believe the Navajo adopted some Pueblo traits after their arrival in the Southwest. Following the Pueblo Revolt against the Spaniards in 1680, some Pueblo groups sought refuge with the Navajo. The two groups intermarried and their cultures became entwined to a certain extent.

Recently some archaeologists have objected to this story and come up with alternative explanations that downplay the number and impact of Pueblo immigrants, but let’s stick with it for now.  Basically what it means is that the term “Navajo” as we use it today refers to a group practicing a culture that developed in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.  With that in mind, then, let’s look at another part of Keith’s article:

Stein and Blackhorse concede Navajo legends aren’t well represented in the archaeological record, but they counter by pointing out that there is a dearth of data on Navajo sites in general before the 1700s. So the Navajo say that plenty of earlier sites may be there; they just haven’t been found yet. But that is no longer true.

If we’re defining “Navajo” the way I just did (i.e., as referring to a culture that developed after 1680), then it’s kind of trivial to say that “there is a dearth of data on Navajo sites in general before the 1700s.”  Of course there is; there weren’t any “Navajo sites” before then.  But the last sentence in the paragraph suggests that this isn’t the only way to define “Navajo” in an archaeological sense.  Let’s continue:

The massive Fruitland gas-drilling project that’s been underway since the late 1980s just outside Farmington, New Mexico, has uncovered thousands of new Navajo sites. Richard Wilshusen, now an adjunct curator at the University of Colorado’s Natural History Museum in Boulder, was part of a research team investigating hundreds of these sites in the 1990s. In a forthcoming study, he argues that a wealth of new archaeological data, combined with other lines of evidence, show that the Navajo didn’t emerge as a distinct cultural group until between 1600 and 1650, at least 100 years after scholars once thought.

So here it seems “Navajo” doesn’t refer to the culture we today refer to by that term, but it still refers to some sort of “distinct cultural group” presumably ancestral to that culture.  Since one component of the post-1680 Navajo culture is alleged to be influences from Pueblo refugees, this pre-1680 culture must represent the Athapaskan or Apachean component of that culture.  Indeed, Wilshusen seems to think so:

Wilshusen says that southern Athabascan speakers ancestral to the Navajo and Apache arrived in the Southwest around 1450. They spread into southern Colorado, and northern and eastern New Mexico–areas that were largely depopulated after the abandonment of Pueblo sites in the Four Corners around 1350. These Athabascan people kept their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for the next 100 years, living in wikiups. By 1525, they separated into Plains and Mountain groups. It was only sometime between 1600 and 1650, Wilshusen argues, “that a distinct Navajo culture emerged in the uplands and the early Apache on the plains.”

Okay, so here we’ve got Athapaskan-speakers living in wikiups entering the Southwest in the fifteenth century, and dividing into Navajo and (Plains) Apache a couple hundred years later.  But where is Wilshusen getting these dates?

Out of thousands of sites identified during the Fruitland project, hundreds have been radiocarbon and tree-ring dated. Wilshusen is able to use these dates to trace the development of Navajo culture. He notes an “architectural shift afoot” by 1600, when residential structures became bigger. The most striking changes after 1650, he says, are the clustering of residential timber structures called forked-stick hogans, and the appearance of fortresslike pueblitos and a new polychrome pottery. It’s at this point, Wilshusen concludes, that the Navajo emerged as a distinct group.

You know what would have been really, really helpful here?  A mention of what the earliest dates actually are.  Does Wilshusen actually have radiocarbon or tree-ring dates for wikiups in the 1400s?  He presumably does have dates for the 1500s and the 1600s, since he notes a change “around 1600” involving the emergence of forked-stick hogans, pueblitos and pottery.  In any case, regardless of when these dates start, we do seem to have an answer here to what “Navajo” means in the early seventeenth century: forked-stick hogans, etc.  This complex of traits does seem to be clearly ancestral to the “Athapaskan” elements of eighteenth-century Navajo culture, so fair enough.  This does seem relevant to the question of Navajo ethnogenesis.

Brush Shelter or Wikiup at Salmon Ruins

Does it have anything to do with Navajo connections to the Anasazi, though?  Well, no.  Wilshusen may or may not be right about when and where the Navajo became “Navajo” and whether the Gathering of the Clans reflects this period (and there is actually quite a bit of evidence from Navajo oral history that is compatible with his ideas, as Keith notes), but the evidence he presents has nothing at all to do with anything that happened before 1450.  Even if he does have dates on wikiups from the late fifteenth century, that doesn’t say anything about when Athapaskan-speaking people entered the Southwest.  He seems to think it does, but it doesn’t.

Loom in Hogan at Salmon Ruins

Why not?  Well, one way to trace a migration in the archaeological record would be to look for similar sites, plausibly reflecting a single cultural group, over the area covered by the presumed migration, with earlier-dated sites occurring closer to the origin point and later-dated sites occurring closer to the end point.  In this context, that might mean wikiups starting in Canada with dates around, I don’t know, maybe 1300, and a trail of similar wikiups further and further south, ending up on the San Juan in 1450.

Forked-Stick Hogan at Salmon Ruins

That’s not what Wilshusen has, though.  He’s only looking at one small area, at the end of the presumed migration route.  He sees wikiups appearing at 1450 (apparently) and presumes that, since there aren’t any earlier ones in the area, that this represents the appearance of this group in the Southwest.  And maybe it does.  But he doesn’t have any evidence that it does.  What if the Athapaskans had just been hanging out in, say, Utah for a few hundred years, then moved into New Mexico?  What if they had actually been in New Mexico for a few hundred years, and their wikiups from before 1450 just haven’t survived, being inherently flimsy (as Wilshusen himself says, these things are hard to see archaeologically)?  What if they only started living in wikiups in 1450 and had been in the same area but living in some other sort of dwelling before that?  What if they had, say, been living in pueblos?

Interior of Forked-Stick Hogan at Salmon Ruins

Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not arguing that any of these other explanations is correct.  I don’t have any particular reason to think that.  My point is just that Wilshusen doesn’t have any evidence for his argument either.  And this is the crucial thing about the perennial question of the Athapaskan arrival in the Southwest: There just isn’t any evidence to show when or how it happened.  That’s what John and Taft mean when they talk about a dearth of Navajo sites early on, and nothing Rich Wilshusen has found changes it.  Migrations are just inherently difficult to see in the archaeological record.

Sweat Lodge at Salmon Ruins

The key word in Keith’s discussion of Wilshusen’s work is “distinct.”  It occurs several times (look back up at the block quotes above to see it).  That is, what Wilshusen is saying is that the Navajo only became a distinct culture group between 1600 and 1650.  But they, or their ancestors, existed before then.  They just weren’t “Navajo” yet.  But what does that mean?  We’ve already established that it doesn’t mean what it means now.  Wilshusen is arguing that it refers to a specific set of cultural traits that distinguished the Navajos from other Apaches.  The only clear-cut continuity that I can see is the use of an Athapaskan language.  So before 1600, there weren’t “Navajos” in the Southwest, but there were Athapaskan-speaking groups whose descendants would become the Navajos.  And we still don’t know how long they had been there.

Mt. Taylor from the Volcanoes Just West of Albuquerque, New Mexico

This is the context within which John and Taft’s theories need to be evaluated. It’s also the context within which other Navajo traditions connecting the Navajos to the Anasazi need to be evaluated.  These would be the clan histories mentioned in the NPS finding above.  Let’s look at a recent discussion of this issue that takes an approach very different from what John and Taft have been pushing.  This is a 2005 paper by Miranda Warburton and Richard Begay.  Begay is Navajo; Warburton is not, but she used to work for the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department, which is a different agency from the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department where John and Taft are based.  In their discussion of Navajo-Anasazi contacts, they barely mention Chaco, and they don’t mention the Gambler story at all.  They rely more on clan histories, although this is a bit difficult to do in this context, as they explain:

For the Navajo, their relationship with the Anasazi is complex, and not all ceremonialists agree on its history or nature. It nonetheless is a critical component of Navajo ceremonialism and thus, according to Navajo tradition, is not to be openly discussed. Although this stricture obtains among Navajo people, it is much more stringent with respect to conversation on the matter between Navajos and non-Navajos: non-Navajos are simply not privy to this information (in anything other than general summaries) in any context.To relate the history carelessly in an essay such as this, or indeed in any context, diminishes the power of the narrative, and thereby diminishes the core of Navajo belief and culture.

They also emphasize that their views are their own and not to be construed as the official position of the Navajo Nation, which is circumspect about the specifics of its position on account of the cultural restrictions on discussing these matters.  They also clearly state their position on Navajo-Anasazi relations:

We are not saying that all Navajo came from all Anasazi, but we are saying that some Navajos are the descendents of some Anasazis. It is understood that with the passage of time relations have changed with all of these people. Sometimes the relations
are friendly and at other times hostile; sometimes people have intermarried and exchanged ceremonial knowledge, and at other times these interactions have been frowned on. Culture and interethnic or interclan relations are understood to be mutable.

As I said above, I don’t think anyone would seriously dispute most of this.  Similarly with their account of Navajo origins:

The origins of the Navajos are complex. Navajos all come from various peoples (some of whom no longer exist): some small groups of individuals joined existing clans and do not know their own history beyond what they learned from the clan they joined, and other groups were localized ethnic or clan groups who joined
the coalition of what became identified as the Navajo.

This is what the “Gathering of the Clans” means.  It’s not so much a single event at a single, identifiable place and time, but a process of accretion, with various groups of diverse origins joining together over a long period of time to become the people we know today as Navajo.  Some of these were presumably Athapaskan-speakers whose legacy was the Navajo language.  Others came from the various historic Pueblos, and often maintained the name of their place of origin, and their legacy may have been agriculture, weaving, sheep, and ceremonial traditions.  Yet others, the way Warburton and Begay tell it, may have come directly from the now-ruined Anasazi pueblos.

Kin Ya'a

Again, though, they’re not talking about the Gambler here.  They give an example of a traditional narrative, one of the large group of stories giving the origins of specific clans and ceremonies, involving a family of hunter-gatherers wandering around the Southwest and interacting with various other people, some of whom are clearly Puebloan in lifestyle and live in named Anasazi sites.  They may or may not be right that this indicates that the ancestors of the Navajos were in the Southwest before the Anasazi abandonment of the Four Corners around 1300; I’m a bit skeptical, personally, especially since the specific site names they give are actually rather generic Navajo terms for Anasazi or Pueblo sites.  I do think they’re quite right in a lot of what they say about the limitations of the way archaeologists generally deal with these issues:

We want to stress that ‘‘Navajo culture and identity,’’ like all culture and identity, is an evolutionary process; that is, Navajo did not always equate to Gobernador Polychrome, hogans, or any other traits used by archaeologists today to define Navajo.

Quite right.  Cultures change, and “ethnicity” is not necessarily deducible from material culture.

Many archaeologists are tied to a trait list that they believe defines ‘‘Navajo’’ sites, and even the most open-minded archaeologists and ethnographers have thus far been unwilling to recognize or accept ‘‘non-Navajo’’ Navajo traits.

Again, right, and we see this with Wilshusen’s attitude above.  Even if he’s right that “Navajo” culture didn’t develop until the seventeenth century, that doesn’t have any bearing on how long Athapaskan-speaking groups had been wandering around the Southwest. In fact, Warburton and Begay address this very point:

With respect to architecture, if Navajos were highly mobile during this time, we should not expect to find hogans. Ephemeral brush structures would have been their shelter, and these would not be preserved in the archaeological record.

They also have some choice words for archaeological interpretations of “ethnicity”:

We assert that the ethnic divisions and boundaries drawn theoretically by archaeologists do not hold up in the same way in practice. The practical reality in the Southwest for centuries has been an intermingling of peoples, through competition, religious ceremonies, intermarriage, and economic necessity.

Archaeologists study material culture.  That’s what they do.  Archaeological theories of ethnicity, therefore, tend to be  based heavily on material culture and collections of traits.  Ethnography and ethnohistory, however, have clearly shown that material culture doesn’t necessarily correspond to ethnicity.  Different ethnic groups can have similar physical lifestyles but quite different languages, religious practices, or other aspects of culture that set them apart from each other.  Similarly, groups can practice very different lifestyle but share other aspects of culture that they may consider more important in defining their identities.  And all of this is in constant flux, particularly in the Southwest.  The Navajo are, in fact, practically a paradigm case of the malleability of culture and ethnicity.  The “traditional” Navajo lifestyle that now seems so timeless is actually very recent in origin, and understanding what, if anything, it meant to be “Navajo” before that is basically guesswork whether it’s based on material culture or oral history.

Warburton and Begay close with a plea for understanding and cooperation:

Let us broaden our understanding of the past by including the voices and histories of all the people involved in the evident culture change of this time. Let us look at this information as an opportunity to view the past within a structure that allows us to better understand and more comprehensively explain the processes we see writ large in the archaeological record. Accepting a Navajo presence in the late prehistoric Southwest does not in any way detract from other groups’ traditional histories, nor does it detract from other groups’ affiliation claims. Accepting a Navajo presence during this time acknowledges a body of traditional history that has been denied, enhances our appreciation of the complexity of cultural interaction, allows Navajos a say in the disposition of ancestral remains, and
may better explain the archaeological data concerning  demographics and abandonment.

They’re talking here both about including oral history in archaeological interpretation and about keeping an open mind about possible contact between the Navajos and the Anasazi.  Throughout their article they have presented a sober, serious case for both of these.  This is, to put it mildly, not the Stein/Blackhorse approach.

Navajo Petroglyph of a Horse and Rider

So where does this leave us?  Are Warburton and Begay right about Navajo-Anasazi contacts?  Probably not, but they certainly could be.  Are Stein and Blackhorse right?  No, their theories are still crazy for all sorts of reasons.  Were (some of) the Chacoans Navajo?  Not in the modern sense, certainly.  Did any of the Chacoans speak Athapaskan languages?  Probably not, but there’s not actually any way to tell based on the data we have now.  Are (some of) the Navajos today descended from the Chacoans?  Yes.  Is the Navajo Nation right to claim to be culturally affiliated with the Chacoans?  Hard to say.  What does it mean to be Navajo?  Everything and nothing.  It all depends on how you look at it.
Warburton, M., & Begay, R. (2005). An Exploration of Navajo-Anasazi Relationships Ethnohistory, 52 (3), 533-561 DOI: 10.1215/00141801-52-3-533

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Junction of US 64 and US 160, Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

After a longer interlude than I was intending (it turns out graduate school is a lot of work!), I have more to say on Keith Kloor’s Chaco article.  I have two major criticisms of it, and while they’re closely related, I think it will be easier for me to express them clearly if I put them in separate posts.  Thus, this post talks about one issue, and a later post will talk about the other, which I think is probably more important.


Residential Area, Shiprock, New Mexico

The issue I want to address here has to do with one of the major themes Keith uses to structure the article: identity.  He puts the controversial theories espoused by John Stein and Taft Blackhorse about the relationship between the Chacoans and the Navajos in the context of recent disputes between the Navajos and other tribes, especially the Hopis, over Navajo claims to cultural affiliation with many of the archaeological sites in the Southwest that archaeologists generally identify as being ancestral to the Pueblos but not to the Navajos.  This is definitely a major issue, although I think it probably has more to do with contemporary intertribal politics than with issues of cultural identity.


Burned Kiva at Kin Ya'a

Be that as it may, however, obviously the controversy here has to do with the idea that the Navajos are “affiliated” with ancient sites which are clearly Puebloan in material culture.  The way Keith phrases the article implies, though it doesn’t quite explicitly say, that this means the Navajos consider themselves descendants of the Chacoans, appealing to their oral traditions as evidence.  He contrasts this with the attitudes of archaeologists, who are generally in agreement that the Navajos didn’t even enter the Southwest until long after the fall of Chaco and therefore couldn’t have had anything to do with the Chacoan system.  He talks specifically about some research Richard Wilshusen has done on Navajo ethnogenesis putting it as late as the seventeenth century.  (This is problematic for reasons that I’ll go into in a later post.)


Corner Doorway, Aztec Ruins National Monument

So the claim here seems to be that the Pueblos and the Navajos both claim to be the descendants of the Chacoans, and the archaeologists, judging from the evidence they have accumulated through their research, side with the Pueblos against the Navajos.  If you look carefully at the article, though, this isn’t really what it says is going on.  Probably the best way to think about this is to ask who is claiming what about who the Chacoans were and who their descendants are.


Banded Masonry at New Alto

The position of the Pueblos, especially the Hopis, is clear: the Chacoans were Puebloans, and their descendants are the modern Pueblos.  All the Pueblos claim some connection, although some are more specific and forceful about their claims than others.  Most archaeologists basically agree, although they are rather vague about the specifics.  The Park Service, through its decision designating the Navajos as one of the tribes with an “ancestral affiliation” with Chaco, is claiming some sort of connection involving descent, although again the specifics are vague.  The only people claiming a really strong and specific connection between Chaco and the Navajos are John Stein and Taft Blackhorse.  They say that the Chacoans were Navajo, although they acknowledge that Puebloans were involved too, and that the modern Navajos are therefore directly connected to Chaco by virtue of being the descendants of the people there.  The implication is that they speak for the Navajos in general, and that the Navajos therefore make the same claim.  But do they?


Snow at Kiva A, Pueblo Bonito

Well, yes and no.  The answer to the question “Do the Navajos claim to be descended from the Chacoans?” really comes down to two more questions: “Which Navajos?  Which Chacoans?”  The Navajos are a diverse people with a population of about 300,000 divided into about sixty clans, each of which has its own origin story.  Some of these stories clearly claim that the clan was originally Anasazi and joined the Navajos at some point, and a few name specifically Chacoan sites as part of the story.  So members of those clans, assuming they believe the origin stories, certainly believe themselves to be descended from the Anasazi or from the Chacoans specifically.  Some clans derive from quite recent migrations of people from various Pueblos within historic times, so if the Pueblos are considered descendants of the Chacoans members of those Navajo clans must also be so considered.  Even below the clan level, many Navajos today are descended from women (usually) who were captured in raids on Pueblos in the nineteenth century, or from other sorts of individual-level intermarriage events in the very recent past (i.e., involving specific, named individuals from the Pueblos).  In one sense, then, “the Navajos” certainly claim descent from the Chacoans, and at least some do so in a way that even the most skeptical southwestern archaeologist would accept.


Senior Center, Beclabito, New Mexico

That isn’t all of the Navajos, though.  Plenty of clans don’t claim any Pueblo or Anasazi connections, and many members of those clans would probably not claim to be directly, personally descended from the Chacoans.  There are still the more general traditions about contact between the Navajos and the Anasazi, some of which, like the Gambler story, mention Chaco specifically, so even if there isn’t a relationship of direct descent, most traditional Navajos probably still believe that they have a close connection to Chaco based on their oral traditions.


Vent in Back Wall of Chetro Ketl

This is where Taft Blackhorse comes in.  Keith describes Taft’s theories as “straight out of Navajo oral history,” which they are, but Navajo oral history is a complicated, multifarious thing, and there is no one canonical version of any of  the stories.  Note that the clan traditions I mentioned above mostly don’t fit Taft’s theories: they generally posit a sharp distinction between “Anasazi” or “Pueblo” and “Navajo,” with the clan starting out as one and ending up as the other.  Even just sticking to the Gambler story, several versions have been recorded by anthropologists over the past hundred and thirty or so years, and while they all bear many similarities in their overall structure, they also differ considerably in both details and tone.  To give a concrete example, the version recorded by Washington Matthews in the 1880s differs from Taft’s version not in the overall sequence of events, but in the way it presents them.  While in Taft’s version the Gambler and most of the people he enslaves are implied to be Navajo, granting that there were also some Puebloans around, in Matthews’s version the Navajos show up at Chaco only after the Gambler has been there for some time and successfully enslaved many of the Pueblos.  They witness him enslave the people of “Blue House” (usually identified with Wijiji), then cooperate with a variety of animal spirits to overthrow him by outgambling him.  In this version, which is interesting and which I will discuss at greater length at some point, the cultural distinction between Pueblo and Navajo is clear, although both groups are present, and this is typical of most Navajo traditions about the Anasazi, as discussed in an important paper on this issue which I will talk about more in my next post on Keith’s article.


Walls at Wijiji

I’m not saying Keith got anything wrong, exactly, in the way he wrote the article (well, except for one thing).  In general, what he says is accurate as far as it goes.  The problem, though, is that he seems to want it to go further than it really does.  There certainly are complicated and contentious issues about identity and history surrounding Navajo claims to affiliation with Anasazi sites, but John and Taft aren’t really central to them in the way that Keith implies.  While he is quite right in noting that they are very far out on the fringe of archaeological thought, it’s important to note that they’re pretty far out on the fringe of Navajo thought too.  There certainly are Navajos who agree with their theories, at least in part, but I doubt there are very many who buy the whole thing.  There are too many other traditions out there, and they can be interpreted in too many ways.  If there is a problem with Keith’s article in this respect, it’s in the lack of other Navajo perspectives.  Taft is the only Navajo quoted or even mentioned by name in the piece.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important not to take him as a representative of the Navajos as a whole.  He doesn’t speak for the Navajos.  No one person can speak for the Navajos.


Navajo Nation Parks Department Sign at Four Corners

But who are the Navajos?  What does it even mean to be “Navajo”?  That’s a crucial question, but one that will have to wait for the next post.


Mt. Taylor from Chaco

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Back Wall of Kin Klizhin

I mentioned that I have some criticisms of Keith Kloor’s article on Chaco, and I do, but before getting to the more substantive issues I’d like to just mention a minor error of fact.  This is a very common mistake, and it’s certainly not Keith’s fault for making it, but I think it’s important to point it out when I see it precisely because it’s so common.


Hosta Butte Framed by Kin Klizhin

The article begins at Kin Klizhin, which John Stein and Taft Blackhorse are showing to Keith and interpreting in their own inimitable way.  In an aside Keith says that the name of the site means “Black Charcoal” in Navajo, which it most certainly does not.  It means “Black House,” which is a rather generic name for an Anasazi ruin that has been applied to many different sites.  I even once heard a Navajo from the Chaco area use it for Pueblo Alto, which is interesting given that site’s more common name “Gambler’s House.”  While confusions of Navajo words are very common among Anglos who only know a little bit of Navajo, this is a very straightforward, obvious name.  Navajo kin means “house” (specifically a “square” Pueblo or Anglo house as opposed to a hogan), and łizhin means “black.”  These are both common words, and there’s nothing confusing about their combination here.  The voiceless lateral fricative at the beginning of łizhin is often rendered “kl” in English transliterations of Navajo words, since English doesn’t have this sound.


Sign at Kin Klizhin

Nevertheless, the translation of “Kin Klizhin” as “black charcoal” or something similar persists, even in the official park interpretive literature, which is probably where Keith got it.  (I can’t imagine John and Taft would have gotten this wrong; indeed, Taft is known for making fun of Anglos mispronouncing or misinterpreting Navajo words.)  The description of the site on the park website gets the translation right, because I wrote it, but the official site brochure linked as a (rather slow-loading) pdf from that site still translates it as “black wood.”


Tsin Kletzin Sign on South Mesa Trail

So where does all this mistranslation come from?  It seems to come from a confusion between Kin Klizhin and another site with a similar name: Tsin Kletzin, which is atop South Mesa in the main unit of the park.  There are a variety of versions of the Navajo name for Tsin Kletzin, but they all seem to mean “charcoal” or something similar.  The standard English name “Tsin Kletzin” seems to come from tsin, meaning “wood,” and łizhin, the same term for “black” found in “Kin Klizhin” (perhaps involving some confusion with the word łitso, meaning “yellow,” as in Kin Kletso, another site in the canyon), which makes the literal meaning “black wood,” i.e., charcoal.  There are other ways of describing charcoal, however, such as tsin nitł’iz, meaning “hard wood,” which is sometimes cited as the origin of “Tsin Kletzin” although it doesn’t make much sense phonetically.


Corner of Room Containing Blocked-In Kiva at Tsin Kletzin

As I say, this is a very minor point that doesn’t make much difference to anything, especially since the Navajo names for these sites are by no means fixed.  Since it is a very clear mistake, however, and especially since it’s in the very second sentence of Keith’s article, I figured it was worthwhile to point it out and correct it before getting bogged down in more important matters.


Fallen Walls at Tsin Kletzin

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Kin Klizhin

Keith Kloor reports that his piece on Chaco in Archaeology magazine is finally online.  (Full disclosure: Keith interviewed me while he was working on the story, although I’m not quoted in it, and he gave me a free copy of the print issue when it first came out.)  Unlike most accounts of Chaco, both scholarly and popular, this one focuses on the Navajo traditions about it, which revolve around a legendary villain known as the Great Gambler.  There are various versions of the Gambler story, but the basic idea is that the Gambler came to Chaco from the south and challenged the people there to games of chance with increasingly large bets.  He won all the games and, since the people ended up betting themselves once they had no possessions left to bet, all the people ended up as his slaves.  Once he had them in his control, he forced them to build the great houses of Chaco.  The details of the end of the story differ among the various versions, but in all of them the Gambler is overthrown and the people regain their freedom.


Burned Kiva at Pueblo del Arroyo

This is a very negative, sinister view of Chaco, which is considerably at odds with the sunny idea of a peaceful ceremonial center that dominates the park’s interpretive material.  Indeed, Chacoan archaeology in general tends to avoid this story, relegating it to irrelevant oral tradition of an unrelated people, if indeed it gets mentioned at all.


Navajo Exhibit at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

There are, however, some archaeologists who take it more seriously.  Keith’s article focuses in particular on the idiosyncratic theories of John Stein and Taft Blackhorse, who have for many years been putting forth the controversial argument that the Navajos, rather than being an unrelated people who came into the Southwest centuries after the fall of Chaco, are actually the descendants of the Chacoans, and that the Gambler story is based on the actual history of the Chacoan system, which they have endeavored to confirm through archaeology.


Navajo Hogan at Una Vida

Keith does a good job of presenting this point of view, as well as the typical reaction of mainstream archaeologists, fairly.  When he gave me the magazine he expressed some concern that John and Taft would come across as crazy fringe figures in contrast to their sober, scholarly opponents, but I don’t think they seem any crazier than their theories necessarily make them sound.  Of course, I’ve been around Chacoan things for so long that I may just be desensitized to how crazy theories about Chaco can sound.  In general, Keith’s article is a very good account of the Gambler story, the implications of it for the archaeology of the Southwest, and the problems with it as a basis for understanding that archaeology.


Huerfano Mesa from New Alto

If anyone has been curious about what the name of this blog refers to, reading this article should give some idea.  One thing it doesn’t mention, interestingly, is the association of the Gambler with Pueblo Alto, often referred to as “Gambler’s House,” more than with other sites in the canyon.  The header image of this blog is a detail of a picture I took at Pueblo Alto.


Corner at Pueblo Alto

I do have a number of criticisms of the piece, but I’m going to leave those for a further post (or perhaps more than one).  For now I’ll just recommend it as a very readable and accurate introduction to a number of important issues that rarely get discussed in Southwestern archaeology.


Chuska Mountains from Tsin Kletzin

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Ridge at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

The idea that the kachina cult was not an indigenous development among the Pueblos but was instead introduced from the south seems to have originated with a 1974 article by Polly and Curtis Schaafsma.  As they note, while some previous scholars had noted some elements of the cult that suggested Mesoamerican influence, the general consensus had been that it developed in the western Pueblo area, probably among the Zunis, and spread at some point in prehistory to the Rio Grande Pueblos further east, perhaps through a migration of Keres speakers.  This model was based largely on ethnographic evidence, particularly the way the cult is highly elaborated among the Hopis, Zunis, and Keres (as well as at Towa-speaking Jemez) but much more rudimentary among the Tewas and apparently absent entirely among the Tiwas.  Archaeologists hadn’t paid much attention to it, probably because of its abstract nature and the difficulty of identifying specific material correlates of religious cults.  Another likely reason for archaeological neglect could be that so much attention throughout the history of Southwestern archaeology has been focused on the Four Corners region, which shows no evidence of adoption of the kachina cult before its total abandonment around AD 1300.


Petroglyph Panel Showing Three Quadrupeds

This all changed with Polly Schaafsma’s pioneering studies of rock art throughout New Mexico.  This is the main concern of the paper, which shows quite convincingly that the “Rio Grande style” of rock art that spread throughout the Pueblo area in late prehistoric times contains many elements that seem to clearly reference the kachina cult, particularly the masks that are worn by kachina impersonators.  This is in stark contrast to the earlier rock art tradition centered on the Colorado Plateau, which since Basketmaker times had maintained a fairly stable mix of abstract forms such as spirals, simple anthropomorphs, and images of certain animals, especially quadrupeds and lizards.  This is the style of rock art found at Chaco, and it’s quite widespread at pre-1300 sites throughout the northern Southwest.


Mask with Earrings at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Another style that bears much more resemblance to the Rio Grande Style, though in use at the same time as the Colorado Plateau style, is what the Schaafsmas call the Jornada style.  This is named after the Jornada Mogollon who inhabited what is now south-central New Mexico, but the style actually spreads over a larger area of southern New Mexico and West Texas.  It appears around AD 1000 in the Mimbres region of southwestern New Mexico, at a time when that region began to develop its distinctive culture, best known for figurative black-on-white pottery with designs that sometimes echo the rock art motifs.  By AD 1150 the style had spread east to the Jornada proper, where it developed a high level of elaboration seen especially in painted mask designs at places like Hueco Tanks near El Paso, as well as in petroglyphs at sites like Three Rivers.  The imagery in this style is strikingly similar to what would be seen in the Rio Grande style beginning around the time the Jornada people seem to disappear in the fourteenth century, which the Schaafsmas interpret as evidence for the kachina cult and its symbolism developing in the Jornada area and then spreading north up the Rio Grande.  They point to some similarities between the Jornada style and some of the rock art in the Tompiro area just to the north as evidence for the early stages in this process.


Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

That’s all well and good, and fairly convincing, although the broad application of the term “Jornada style” could be a bit problematic.  They define it to include the Mimbres as well as the Jornada proper, which suggests that the route of transmission of the style and the cult could have been to the northwest from the Mimbres to the western Pueblos rather than to the north from the Jornada to the eastern Pueblos.  It’s clear from their discussion, however, that they see the eastern origin and transmission as more likely, and they point to a relative lack of attestation of the style in the mountainous region between the Mimbres and the western Pueblos as evidence against that route.  This isn’t all that convincing, though, and my understanding is that more recently some people have indeed argued for a Mimbres origin and/or western route of transmission.


Petroglyph Panel at Puerco Pueblo, Petrified Forest National Park

All of this leaves out an important issue, though: What about the ethnographic evidence pointing to the western Pueblos as having developed the cult? If the cult came up the Rio Grande from the Jornada Mogollon, why don’t the modern Southern Tiwa Pueblos of Isleta and Sandia seem to have it at all, and why is it so much more developed among the Hopis and Zunis, further from the alleged source, than among the closer Tewas?


Sign at Homol'ovi Ruins State Park Describing San Francisco Peaks

The Schaafsmas have a response to this concern that I think is pretty convincing.  It’s important to keep in mind that the ethnographic Pueblos are the result of hundreds of years of close and often hostile relations with the Spanish and other groups, and especially early in the colonial period the Spanish missionaries were particularly aggressive in trying to stamp out the kachina cult.  This effort was not ultimately successful as a general matter, but among some groups, especially the Southern Tiwa, it may have succeeded in extinguishing the cult entirely.  Elsewhere, as among the Tewa, it may only have succeeded in encouraging the Pueblos to cut back on outward display of the kachina rites.  Among the western Pueblos, less troubled by the Spanish, the cult was able to flourish and likely to change in various ways, and many of these changes may have filtered back to the eastern Pueblos once Spanish pressure declined, creating the illusion of the whole cult being introduced from the west.


San Francisco Peaks from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

The final issue the Schaafsmas address, and it’s an important one, is why the Pueblos adopted the cult.  They note earlier explanations for the adoption of the kachina cult and other social integrative systems that cross-cut kinship connections tying them to the process of aggregation into ever-larger communities starting around 1200.  The creation of these large communities out of previously autonomous groups, probably organized along kinship lines, resulted in social stresses that could be smoothed over by the adoption of organizational systems not related to kinship.  The kachina cult, which is not at all connected to kinship, would have been a useful solution to this problem.  Earlier proposals along these lines had posited an indigenous development of the cult as a response to the pressures of aggregation, but the Schaafsmas propose instead that it was introduced from the south around the same time that the process of aggregation was really taking off (the early fourteenth century), and that its popularity was due to the recognition that it offered a solution to the organizational problems communities were facing.  It therefore spread throughout the region very quickly.


Three-Dimensional Mask at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

There’s much more to say about this proposal, of course, and I’ll get more into it later.  This initial paper, though, makes a good case for it, and my impression is that while the details are disputed, there’s a general consensus that the overall model is more or less correct.  One potential issue is that this particular paper rests entirely on rock art evidence, without considering other possible correlates of the cult such as pottery style and architecture.  But that’s a matter for later.
Schaafsma, P., & Schaafsma, C. (1974). Evidence for the Origins of the Pueblo Katchina Cult as Suggested by Southwestern Rock Art American Antiquity, 39 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278903

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Welcome Sign at North Entrance

Keith Kloor links to an interesting piece talking about history and archaeology in South Africa.  It’s short and definitely worth reading in full.  In general I think the issue of the proper relationship between history and archaeology as disciplines is under-discussed, partly because the relationship in practice varies considerably in the scholarly traditions of different parts of the world.  I found this particularly interesting:

I sometimes pity archaeologists, for theirs is a strict discipline pertaining to discovered facts. Archaeologists can only see the blades of grass; they cannot see the complete lawn.

They cannot speculate on the vastness of the other side; they can only report on the little that they see and find.

I don’t know that this is strictly true, at least in the US.  Archaeologists certainly do sometimes speculate on a large scale.  But there’s often something missing in such speculations, and they rarely read like the sort of history that historians write.  I think this quote may get at part of that, which has to do with archaeology’s conception of itself as very much a social science, in contrast to history’s more ambiguous position between the humanities and social sciences.


Plaque Identifying Chaco Canyon as a World Heritage Site

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