Given the obvious continuity in material culture between ancient and modern Pueblos, one potential source of information on the connections between prehistory and history in the region is the traditions of the modern Pueblos themselves. The florescence of Chaco was about 1000 years ago, so the events since then that led to the modern distribution of Pueblos are more recent than that, and potentially within the time depth for which the accuracy of oral traditions has been demonstrated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, the Pueblos do indeed have extensive oral traditions documenting how the various groups now residing in a given Pueblo got there, where they lived before, and what made them move. This seems on the face of it like an ideal situations, and indeed anthropologists at various points in the past hundred years or so have tried to match up the events in the oral traditions with what the archaeology shows. The efforts of Jesse Walter Fewkes with the Hopis in the early twentieth century, Florence Hawley Ellis with the Rio Grande Pueblos in the 1950s and 1960s, and various archaeologists associated with the Center for Desert Archaeology (now known as Archaeology Southwest) in the past few years with the western Pueblos are particularly noteworthy along these lines.
However, there are some big challenges to this type of work. First, it’s not clear how accurate the oral traditions are, and many anthropologists have distrusted them. Elsie Clews Parsons in the 1920s and 1930s pushed back strongly against the approach taken by Fewkes and others, pointing out that the traditions include many obviously mythical or legendary elements that must be brushed aside to treat them as “history” in the Western sense. Similarly, the rise of the “New Archaeology” in the 1960s and 1970s led to a tendency to downplay this kind of research on the archaeological side in favor of more “scientific” types of research focused on ecological factors. Lately the pendulum seems to be swinging back again, and many archaeologists as well as sociocultural anthropologists have begun to take oral traditions seriously as a source of information that can bridge the gap between prehistoric archaeology and the ethnographic present. Personally, I think these researchers are on the right track; the difficulties pointed out by Parsons and others are real, and the traditions can’t be accepted uncritically as fact, but they do very likely contain much information that is useful for historical reconstructions when interpreted carefully in context.
That more general issue aside, there are a lot of specific characteristics of the existing narratives that make them hard to work with, especially in the case of Chaco. For one thing, there aren’t that many of them that have been documented, and those that have overwhelmingly come from the western Pueblos of Hopi and, to a lesser extent, Zuni. The eastern Pueblos, which on geographical and other grounds are the ones most likely to have close ties to Chaco, have produced far fewer narratives, and those that are available are much less detailed and relevant. There are two main reasons for this, both stemming from the much more intense experience of Spanish colonization in these areas versus Hopi and Zuni:
- The Rio Grande Pueblos, especially, have been in such close contact with Spanish colonists that many traditions have been lost due to population loss and cultural change, and those that have been preserved have been influenced to some extent by European folklore elements. This is probably less of a concern with origin and migration stories than with more “informal” folktales.
- Due to the extreme repression of Native religion and culture by the Spanish missionaries, the eastern Pueblos are much more reluctant to share whatever traditions they have with white anthropologists than the western Pueblos are. This is probably the biggest reason for the lack of eastern Pueblo data, but its scale is impossible to estimate because we just don’t know how many traditions there are that have never been shared.
As a result of these two factors, we don’t have anything comparable to the extensive and detailed accounts of Hopi clan migrations that have been collected by numerous researchers, starting with Fewkes. There are a fair number of general creation stories from the eastern Pueblos, including those collected from the Tewa by Parsons and from Keresan Pueblos of Acoma and San Felipe by C. Daryll Forde and Ruth Bunzel respectively. These tend to be somewhat abbreviated, and sometimes also confusing in a way that suggests important parts have been omitted. Migration stories are much rarer, but a few have been recorded at least in a general fashion. George Pradt gave a brief overview of a western Keres migration tradition in introducing a story about Acoma:
THE oldest tradition of the people of Acoma and Laguna indicates that they lived on some island; that their homes were destroyed by tidal waves, earthquakes, and red-hot stones from the sky. They fled and landed on a low, swampy coast. From here they migrated to the northwest, and wherever they made a long stay they built a “White City” (Kush-kut-ret).
The fifth White City was built somewhere in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico. The people were obliged to leave it on account of cold, drought, and famine.
Now this is of obvious interest in discussing Chaco and Mesa Verde connections to modern Pueblos! The first part is of unclear relevance and likely has little or no historical content, but the part about moving around and building a series of communities, the last of which was in “southern Colorado or northern New Mexico” (i.e., north of Acoma and Laguna and in the general area of Chaco, Mesa Verde, and other important late prehistoric Pueblo sites), matches up pretty well with what is now known of the archaeological record. Furthermore, the “White City” or “White House” concept recurs in other Keres-speaking Pueblos as well. Here’s the San Felipe version recorded by Bunzel, starting just after the Emergence:
Then the people came out and walked towards the southwest. There they built a little town, Kackatrik (White House). This was their first village. Then from there came every nation. All the different kinds of Indians had their language and their songs and their ceremonies. There were many people there. Then the people were starving. There was no food to eat at this time. Then they had a meeting to talk about it. “Why are we starving?” all the head men said, “We have stayed here a long time. We should move on to some other place.” So then they started to move again. There were all different kinds of people, and they had all different kinds of languages. So then from there they scattered. Some went to the east and some went to the west, and some came through the middle.
Again, this is pretty consistent with the archaeology of Chaco, and to some extent of Mesa Verde as well. The “White House” story seems to be specific to the Keres, which implies a particularly strong connection between that groups and the ancient sites of the Four Corners, as many anthropologists have concluded. That’s not to say they were the only ones up there, however. There’s also evidence among some of the other groups’ traditions indicating an origin in this area.
For the Tewa, Scott Ortman has done extensive research using several lines of evidence, including what little is known of Tewa migration traditions, to conclude that Tewa-speakers migrated to the Rio Grande Valley from the Mesa Verde region. He has a new book, which I have not yet read, making this argument in detail. He could well be right, in which case there may have been both Keres- and Tewa-speakers in the Mesa Verde region, and perhaps at Chaco as well given the close but complicated ties between the two areas. This would be similar to the modern situation in the central part of the Rio Grande Valley, which is also divided between Keres- and Tewa-speaking Pueblos.There are also clear ties between Chaco and the Zuni area, which has an unusual degree of settlement continuity extending to modern times compared to other Pueblo areas, which may imply that Zuni-speakers were involved in Chaco as well. Ties to the Hopis are more tenuous despite the larger corpus of Hopi traditions, which tends to trace most Hopi clans to the south or west rather than the east (with the exception of clans from other Pueblo regions that moved to Hopi and became assimilated to Hopi culture fairly recently).
So, tentatively, the limited information available from oral traditions suggests particularly strong ties to the Four Corners among the Keres, which makes sense since they are still the closest Pueblos to the area geographically. There is some evidence for connections to the area among the Tewa and Zuni as well. Little is known about Tiwa or Towa (Jemez) traditions, but it is noteworthy that Jemez is the only Pueblo that has not claimed cultural affiliation with Chaco under NAGPRA, which implies strongly that Jemez traditions point to a different history. The Hopi connection seems to be more distant, and primarily through groups that were not originally Hopi-speaking but immigrated to Hopi from other areas further east in recent centuries and became assimilated over time.
I think there’s a lot of potential for further research along these lines, mostly using the scattered and fragmented eastern Pueblo traditions collected decades ago. Individually each of these may not be very enlightening, but piecing them together may reveal some useful connections. It’s very unlikely that any of these groups will reveal any more of their traditions to outsiders; many are still angry at the early anthropologists who recorded and published traditions revealed surreptitiously by individual community members at considerable personal risk. Parsons comes in for particularly harsh criticism for publishing the names of her informants in some of her early work. It’s possible that in the future the relationship between anthropologists and the eastern Pueblos will improve to the point where the Pueblos are more comfortable revealing information, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Pradt, G. (1902). Shakok and Miochin: Origin of Summer and Winter The Journal of American Folklore, 15 (57) DOI: 10.2307/533476