Archive for March, 2010

Drugstore, Trinidad, Colorado

When I was discussing the archaeoacoustics of Chaco earlier, I mentioned that I was a little dubious about some of the stuff John Stein and Taft Blackhorse had said about Navajo connections to the Chaco Amphitheater.  They associate it with a ceremonial tradition involving the ritual use of datura.  There’s an immense anthropological literature on Navajo religion, and I have read only a tiny portion of it, but from what I had read I had gotten the impression that the use of hallucinogenic substances in ritual was not characteristic of the Navajos, and I had certainly not seen any reference to ceremonies involving datura specifically.  So I was initially skeptical about this claim, although the origin legend for the ceremony that they described did fit well into the usual pattern for Navajo ceremonies.

Ghost Sign for Drugstore, Durango, Colorado

Looking into this a bit more closely, however, I found an article that sheds some more light on the issue and seems to partly vindicate John and Taft, or at least point in the direction of material vindicating them.  The article, from 1945,  is by Leland Wyman and Betty Thorne, and it mainly talks about suicide (a topic of unfortunately continuing importance on this blog) among the Navajo.  The overall conclusion is that suicide is rare and subject to at least moderate social disapproval.  Of more interest to me, however, is the finding that poisoning is virtually unknown as a method of suicide.  This is despite the presence of various poisonous plants in the Navajo country, the most widespread and well-known of them being datura.  Wyman and Thorne address the puzzling absence of datura as a means of suicide in a way that is very important to my purposes:

Since this plant is employed in medicine, in certain ceremonials, and especially in a form of witchcraft (frenzy witchcraft), perhaps this avoidance arises from a configuration which might be expressed as “avoidance of the misuse of ceremonial appurtenances.” This would be especially cogent if the appurtenances were likewise misused by “witches.” One often hears concerning Datura, “they (the Navaho) are kind of afraid of it,” and this refers to mere handling as well as to more intimate contact.

The references to the use of datura in medicine and witchcraft are footnoted, while the reference to its ceremonial use is not.  The witchcraft note refers to Clyde Kluckhohn’s classic study of Navajo witchcraft, while the medicine note refers to a work (co-authored by Wyman) on Navajo medicinal ethnobotany.  I intend to follow up on these references when I get a chance.  Just from the way they are presented here, however, it seems clear that there is in fact a tradition of ceremonial use of datura, but that it is likely relatively obscure and not well documented, probably because of the generally fearful attitude toward the plant and its association with witchcraft.  It seems there is something to this datura connection after all, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.
Wyman, L., & Thorne, B. (1945). Notes on Navaho Suicide American Anthropologist, 47 (2), 278-288 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1945.47.2.02a00070

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Sunset Crater Volcano

I’ve written a lot here recently about the Athapaskan migration(s) into the Southwest.  It’s a very interesting topic in a lot of ways.  I find it especially fascinating because although the evidence that it happened is very strong, nothing else about it can be easily determined.  We know that at least one migration of Athapaskan-speakers from northern Canada to the Southwest happened, but we don’t know when it happened, what route it took, or why the Athapaskans left the north in the first place.  Archaeology, linguistics, and ethnography all contribute some clues to this puzzle, but there’s so much ambiguity remaining that the mystery is by no means anywhere near solved.

"Birth of a Mountain" Sign at Sunset Crater

In addressing the “why” question specifically, it is perhaps most fruitful to look at the starting point rather than the ending point.  Although archaeological evidence for Athapaskan groups in Alaska and Canada doesn’t seem to appear until the early centuries AD, and even then it’s not necessarily entirely clear who those people are, this is much more evidence for Athapaskan presence in a particular place at a particular time than anything in the Southwest until historic times, and infinitely more evidence than anything anywhere in between.  Looking at the north also has the advantage of the continuing presence of a wide variety of Athapaskan groups, and their linguistic relationships and oral traditions are potentially useful evidence in understanding their past, and by extension the past of the people who once lived among them but later went south.

Bridge at Sunset Crater

A fascinating paper from 1992, though not focused specifically on the migration of the Southwestern Athapaskans, contributes considerably to this issue.  The starting point is oral traditions among some, but not all, of the northern Athapaskans describing phenomena at the beginning of time that sound very much like the events surrounding the eruption of a volcano.  This isn’t very surprising, since Alaska is an area with considerable volcanism, but it’s important to note that even in volcanically active areas volcanoes don’t actually erupt very often.  Indeed, intervals between eruptions are routinely measured in centuries or even millennia.  Since human generations are so much shorter, knowledge of volcanic eruptions in oral history, even if, as is usually the case, it’s in a very heavily mythologized and allegorical form, in most cases probably results from direct experience of specific eruptions that can be dated geologically and correlated with the human occupation of the area.  A well-known Southwestern example is the eruption of Sunset Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona in the late eleventh century AD.  This event remains well-remembered in Hopi traditions, and it has also played a considerable role in the development of archaeological ideas about the Sinagua people who inhabited the area prehistorically.

Sunset Crater Visitor Center

Turning back to the northern Athapaskans, the only volcano to have erupted in the (rather extensive) areas they have traditionally occupied in the relatively recent past is Mt. Churchill, in eastern Alaska very close to the border with the Yukon Territory.  There appear to have been two major eruptions of this volcano: one around AD 20, which resulted in a major area mostly to the north being covered in volcanic ash, and another much larger one around AD 720 which resulted in a very large area to the east being covered with a thick layer of ash.  If, as seems probable, Athapaskan-speaking people were living in the area when these eruptions occurred, they would surely have made a profound impact on their lifestyles.  Indeed, either or both of them could have made such large areas uninhabitable that the people who had been living there migrated elsewhere.  And that, of course, is where the relevance of all this to the Southwestern Athapaskans comes in.

"Volcanoes All Around You" Sign at Sunset Crater

So, assuming the oral traditions of the northern Athapaskans record a memory of an actual volcanic eruption, which one was it?  The authors of the article conclude that it was most likely the AD 720 eruption.  For one thing, this is the more recent one, and it would be more likely to be remembered simply on that basis.  It was also more powerful than the earlier eruption, which would also make it more memorable.  Indeed, it was a very powerful eruption.  It had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 6, the same as Krakatoa and Mt. Pinatubo.

San Francisco Peaks from Sunset Crater

There’s also the matter of which specific groups have the traditions in question.  It turns out that the volcano traditions are not present among all northern Athapaskan groups, but are highly localized among the peoples of the Mackenzie River region of the Northwest Territories, due east of Mt. Churchill and the ash fall from the AD 720 eruption.  Some of these peoples have traditions mentioning a mountain that exploded in fire, while others mention conditions that sound like the ash fall and the subsequent period of cold weather.  There are also references to the discovery of copper, which occurs in elemental form in the general area and may have been dislodged by the eruption, around this same time, and some of the stories even link the copper directly to a fiery mountain.  In historic times the people who lived in the area of Mt. Churchill controlled a substantial amount of the trade in native copper, which only occurs in a few parts of North America.  These groups, however, although they do speak Athapaskan languages, apparently do not have any traditions referring to a volcanic eruption, which suggests that they were living elsewhere at the time and only moved into the area after it had recovered ecologically from the effects of the ash fall.  Similarly, a recent study has suggested that the caribou populations in the area today are not related either to surrounding populations or to the caribou that lived in the area before the eruption, suggesting that it was uninhabitable for caribou for some period after the ash fall.

"Life and Landscape Transformed" Sign at Sunset Crater

Thus, the article concludes that it is very likely that the AD 720 eruption made the area uninhabitable and so traumatized the inhabitants that they moved to the east, past the mountains into the Mackenzie River valley, to become the various peoples that the article refers to collectively as the “Dene” (something of a confusing term, since most of the Athapaskan-speaking groups call themselves by a cognate of this term, such as Navajo Diné).  The traditions also refer to a divergence of languages after the time of the eruption, before which all the people could understand each other.  This is certainly intriguing, since this is apparently what did happen, but it’s important to note the similarity to the Tower of Babel story here.  These stories were recorded by a Christian missionary who spent many years in the area, and the people he ministered to would certainly have been familiar with the Babel story and may have incorporated parts of it into their own traditional stories.  Nevertheless, they may have done so specifically because the story of the eruption already involved a divergence of languages.  There is, of course, no volcano in the story of the Tower of Babel, so there’s something more going on here than a straight adaptation of a biblical story to a native context.

Cinder Hills Overlook Sign at Sunset Crater

The connection to the Southwestern migration is somewhat subtle.  Since the Navajos and Apaches don’t have anything like these volcano traditions, it doesn’t seem likely that the eruption forced people to migrate all the way across the continent.  Rather, it’s more likely that the migrating Dene from the ash-fall zone entered territory previously occupied by other Athapaskan groups and set off a chain reaction of migrations that eventually led to the Pacific coast and the Southwest.  The details and dates remain vague, of course, and will continue to do so until the elusive archaeological evidence for the migration itself appears.  If the eruption was the ultimate cause, however, it does set a terminus post quem for the migration, which couldn’t have happened earlier than AD 720 and probably would have been some time later, after the early parts of the chain of population movements had occurred.  Note that this doesn’t say anything in particular about when the Athapaskans arrived in the Southwest; pretty much all dates that have been posited so far would work with this scenario.  Nor does it give much insight into the route the migration would have taken, which depends on who was living where and which way they went after being pushed out.

Lava at Sunset Crater

All of this evidence points to the era after the breakup of Proto-Athapaskan as the time of the eruption, which makes sense for other reasons as well.  The most divergent Athapaskan languages (i.e., the ones likely to have broken off earliest) are to the west, further into Alaska, and they don’t have any volcano traditions.  Nevertheless, and more speculatively, the authors suggest that the earlier, smaller eruption of Mt. Churchill might have played a role in the initial breakup of the protolanguage, despite not being impressive enough to be remembered.  If the protolanguage was spoken in the area around the volcano, which some have suggested on other grounds, then even a small eruption could have sent some groups away early, resulting in the striking diversity of northern Athapaskan language groups.  Some of those people might even have come back and resettled the Mt. Churchill area after the AD 720 eruption.  Again, though, this is all speculation without much evidence behind it.

"Power to Symbolize" Sign at Sunset Crater

Overall, I think this is a fascinating subject.  The interaction between people and the environment gets a lot of attention these days, but it’s mostly in the context of people’s effects on the environment.  Sometimes, however, the environment gets to call the shots, and it does so in the form of flaming mountains and showers of ash.  People just have to deal with it the best they can.
Moodie, D., Catchpole, A., & Abel, K. (1992). Northern Athapaskan Oral Traditions and the White River Volcano Ethnohistory, 39 (2) DOI: 10.2307/482391

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Heritage House, Kanab, Utah

I was surprised to see how much of the discussion in the comments to my post on Ed Abbey focused on the idea that being born in a place is the only way to truly understand it or have a legitimate voice in decisions about it.  There are of course people who believe that, but it’s not the idea I was trying to talk about.  Clearly I wasn’t expressing myself very well, so here’s another try.

Houses in Blanding, Utah

The mindset that I was thinking of, and associating with my dad and his family, sees being “local” to a place, and therefore understanding it, as having more to do with familiarity than with origin.  That is, it’s not that someone has to necessarily be born in a place or live there for a whole lifetime to understand it, but that someone who does actually live in an area and who interacts with it on a constant basis knows more about it and has more invested in its future than someone who lives somewhere else and only visits that place occasionally.  This isn’t as exclusionary as it might sound, because it acknowledges that someone can move from one category to the other by moving to the area and becoming a local.  One metaphor that might help to elucidate what I’m saying here is that these people see the landscape as a house occupied by them and some, but not many, other people. As occupants of the house, they have a vested interest in keeping it in good shape.  Thus, the idea of stewardship.  In real life this can be interpreted in various ways, of course, and other values influence its expression, but that’s the core of the idea as I see it.

Victorian House in Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico

At this point I’m well into the realm of speculation and I don’t want to imply that this is exactly how my dad saw these issues, but I think this is the general attitude that a lot of people in the West have toward the land there.  I also definitely don’t want to imply that I, personally, agree with this idea.

Playground near Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado

In contrast to landscape-as-house is landscape-as-playground, which is the outlook that the “house” people attribute to the people who only visit occasionally.  I think it’s a bit of a strawman in the ways it’s generally presented, and these days it’s so heavily infused with culture-war ressentiment that it doesn’t reflect any sort of reality very well.  Nevertheless, I think it does explain the hostility of a lot of Westerners to people from outside coming in to visit, being enchanted by the landscape, and thinking they understand what’s best for it.  The “playground” people advocate for policies that they see as best for preserving the land, while the “house” people see the same policies as attempts by the outsiders to keep the land for themselves and restrict the freedom of the people who actually live there to use the land.  The house people, of course, see their priorities for the land as being better for the land itself than the playground people’s, and vice versa.  It often comes down to a fundamental clash of values.

Playground on Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado

In practice, of course, there are a wide variety of perspectives within both these camps, and the fact that “playground” people can become “house” people by moving to a place tends to muddle any clear distinction in policy preferences.  Certainly many of the strongest voices today in favor of tough federal policies to preserve wild areas are people who do actually live nearby, and some of the strongest voices against such policies are corporations that are headquartered far away.

Houses in Colorado Springs, Colorado

The way I’ve described this distinction here seems to show a bias toward the “house” side, but that’s just because that’s the side that I’m trying to describe here.  I think this whole dichotomizing way of viewing these issues comes from within that perspective, and that the people the “house” side classifies as belonging to the “playground” side generally don’t even think of themselves as comprising a coherent group with common aims.  There’s also an issue of scale, which is important given the vast land areas involved.  How close to an area does someone have to live to qualify as “local”?  Hard to say.  And, again, I don’t mean to endorse any of this myself.  I’m just describing the mindset as I see it.

Arnett-Fullen House, Boulder, Colorado

Finally, I don’t mean to associate any of this with Abbey himself.  While he would certainly be classified into the “playground” group by the “house” group, I’m not going to try to either justify or refute that characterization.  As I mentioned before, I haven’t read any of Abbey’s stuff, and I don’t plan to.  I find this whole issue very unpleasant to think about, and life’s too short to bother with it any more than necessary.

Well with "Children at Play" Sign, Springerville, Arizona

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Sign at Turnoff from Navajo Route 16, Inscription House, Arizona

Earlier I discussed an article in the Navajo Times by Cindy Yurth about the many difficulties standing in the way of paving roads on the Navajo Reservation.  She has another article elaborating on one of the problems, namely problems within the agencies of the Navajo government that can stand in the way of getting anything done.  This is a constant problem in the complicated and impenetrable bureaucracy that is the Tribe.  This particular article focuses on allegations by one Navajo archaeologist in the Historic Preservation Department that her Anglo supervisor made things difficult for her in a variety of ways that ended up keeping roads projects from going forward.  The allegations are serious, culminating in physical intimidation and assault charges against the supervisor.  As always with this sort of thing, it’s hard to tell who to believe and what was really going on with all the conflicting accounts by different individuals involved, but Yurth does a good job of presenting the different perspectives.  One important thing to keep in mind when reading the article is that there are two separate departments within the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources that handle archaeology: Historic Preservation, which handles a lot of different things (including the Chaco Sites Protection Program, which is where John Stein and Taft Blackhorse do their work) but in the context of infrastructure projects serves as a regulatory agency, and the Archaeology Department, which does contract archaeology on large projects and functions like a commercial cultural resources management firm.  The two have a complicated history, and in general do not get along.  Although both are part of the tribal government, the relationship between the two on specific projects is contractual and subject to all the usual tensions and conflicts inherent in compliance situations.  Yurth’s article contains a lot more information on the specifics, but it’s important to have this background information to understand it.  Overall the article, like the previous one, is informative and definitely worth reading.

Road to Navajo National Monument from Shonto, Arizona

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No Way Out

Overlook of Westwater Cliff Dwelling, Blanding, Utah

Via Keith Kloor, I see that the undercover operative at the heart of the Blanding pothunting arrests has apparently committed suicide.  This is the third suicide of someone connected to the case since the indictments were issued.  I mentioned a while ago that this is a difficult position for someone to be in, as shown by the threats to the informant by a Blanding resident who was recently sentenced to jail for them.  I don’t have much more to say about this development except that it’s very sad.  Some problems have solutions.  Others don’t.

Westwater Canyon, Blanding, Utah

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