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Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

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.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

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.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pradt, G. (1902). Shakok and Miochin: Origin of Summer and Winter The Journal of American Folklore, 15 (57) DOI: 10.2307/533476

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Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

As I mentioned in the last post, I don’t think the linguistic relationships among the modern Pueblo languages shed much light on the details of the relationships between ancient and modern Pueblo groups. However, that’s not to say that linguistics is totally useless in addressing this issue. There’s another type of linguistic evidence which has received less attention from researchers but has a lot of potential here: contact linguistics, especially loanword studies.

Due to the close historical connections and cultural similarities among the Pueblos, they form what linguists call a “Sprachbund”: a linguistic area where borrowing of both words and other linguistic features is common among unrelated (or distantly related) languages. Oddly, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of study of this phenomenon among the Pueblos. Individual loanwords from one Pueblo language to another have been pointed out in descriptive accounts of the specific languages, and instances of unusual lexical or grammatical influence from one Pueblo language to another have been noted. There has been some research on loanwords from Spanish and English into various Pueblo languages (e.g., Hopi), mostly in the 1950s and 1960s when the process of acculturation was a major topic of anthropological interest. Nevertheless, there has still never been a systematic, comprehensive study of linguistic contact between Pueblo languages. My discussion here will therefore have to be limited to pointing out individual instances of contact that have been noted in the literature and suggesting possible implications for prehistoric relationships.

Known examples of loanwords tend to relate to ceremonial  concepts, and often are from Keres into other languages. For example, and of interest for the question of the origins of the kachina cult, the word kachina itself is apparently a loan from Keres into Hopi. That’s not necessarily evidence that the Keres originated the kachina cult, but it could be interpreted as evidence that they transmitted it to the Hopi, which would argue for an eastern rather than western origin for the cult. On the other hand, the Zuni word for “kachina,” koko, is apparently a loanword from a Piman language, which would seem to argue for a western origin of the cult, possibly even outside the Pueblo world itself. Teasing apart the implications of the various terms associated with the kachina cult in different languages would be a promising way to try to address the issue of origins, but it would be a huge and difficult task, and as far as I know no one has attempted it yet.

Similarly, I’ve previously mentioned Jane Hill’s argument from alleged Uto-Aztecan loanwords in Proto-Kiowa Tanoan that agriculture was introduced to the Southwest by migrants from the south speaking a Uto-Aztecan language. In that case the evidence for borrowing is more tenuous and less widely accepted than in the kachina case, but it’s still an interesting approach that could be fruitful if applied more broadly to both this and other puzzles of Southwestern prehistory.

It’s not clear if either of these examples sheds much light on Chaco or its relationship to the modern Pueblos, however. The introduction of agriculture, however it happened, was thousands of years before the era of the Chaco Phenomenon (although recent evidence has shown that agriculture at Chaco itself began much earlier than previously thought). The kachina cult, on the other hand, is generally thought to have originated in the post-Chacoan era, perhaps as one of many societal responses to the chaotic conditions in the aftermath of the decline of Chaco. There are some archaeologists who see some form of the kachina cult as having existed at Chaco, in which case the linguistic evidence about kachinas would be more important for understanding it, but I haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So what can loanword and other linguistic contact evidence tell us about the relationship between Chaco and other prehistoric sites and the modern Pueblos? Given the limited research along these lines so far, not much. As I said above, though, there is still a lot of potential for studies of this issue, so I wanted to highlight it as a separate line of evidence from the more commonly used evidence from linguistic relationships.
ResearchBlogging.org
Dockstader, F. (1955). Spanish Loanwords in Hopi; A Preliminary Checklist International Journal of American Linguistics, 21 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464324

Hill, J. (2008). Northern Uto‐Aztecan and Kiowa‐Tanoan: Evidence of Contact between the Proto‐Languages? International Journal of American Linguistics, 74 (2), 155-188 DOI: 10.1086/587703

Shaul, D., & Hill, J. (1998). Tepimans, Yumans, and Other Hohokam American Antiquity, 63 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694626

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Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Given the diversity of languages spoken by the modern Pueblos, and the diverse archaeological “cultures” of Pueblo prehistory (as described in the previous post), one obvious line of inquiry in making connections between past and present focuses on language. Specifically, the fact that some Pueblo languages are part of larger families and others are not seems to open the possibility of some Pueblo groups being relative newcomers to the Pueblo lifestyle, which leaves others as more likely to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric groups who inhabited sites like Chaco and Mesa Verde.

There have been several attempts to reconstruct Pueblo culture history along these lines, but I’m not going to discuss them in detail because I think the whole approach is unlikely to work. A closer look at the specifics of the relationships involved shows why.

There are two Pueblo language groups whose languages are part of larger families: Hopi and Tanoan. The Hopi language belongs to the very large Uto-Aztecan family, stretching from the Great Basin south into Mexico and beyond. The Tanoan family is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan family, along with the single language Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The other two Pueblo languages, Keres and Zuni, are isolates not known to be related to any other language (including each other).

Starting with Hopi, at first glance this seems like a good candidate for a language spoken by a mobile hunter-gatherer group, like the modern Numic speakers of the Great Basin, who only settled down to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle relatively recently. However, it’s important to note that Hopi forms its own branch of the Uto-Aztecan family (or possibly of the Northern Uto-Aztecan subfamily, the existence of which is a matter of dispute). It is no more closely related to Numic than it is to, say, the Piman languages spoken by the O’odham agriculturalists of southern Arizona. Depending on how the overall Uto-Aztecan family is reconstructed, it may even be equally close to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s not possible to assign specific dates to divisions of language families, but on a qualitative level, Hopi is sufficiently divergent from the rest of its family that it is very unlikely that its speakers entered the Pueblo culture area in the past few centuries. Archaeologically, there is abundant evidence that modern Hopi society emerged from the amalgamation of many different groups from different parts of the Southwest who migrated to the Hopi mesas in the post-Chacoan period, and the same impression is given by Hopi oral history. Which of these groups spoke the language ancestral to modern Hopi is impossible to determine from archaeological evidence, of course, but it’s reasonable to think at least one of them did, and had been speaking it while practicing a basically Pueblo lifestyle for many centuries before that.

Turning to Tanoan, the archaeology is a lot murkier but the general point still stands. The relationship to Kiowa suggests the possibility that the Tanoan-speakers only entered the Southwest fairly recently, presumably from the Plains. In a small language like this is it is even harder to quantify divergence than it is in large language like Uto-Aztecan, but again, the Tanoan languages are quite different from Kiowa. They are so different, in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the relationship between the two was established to the general satisfaction of historical linguists. The oral history of these groups is also murky, but what is known of Tanoan traditions doesn’t seem to point to origins outside the Southwest, and Kiowa traditions also don’t seem to record any knowledge of a relationship to any of the Pueblos. Who moved where when is hard to determine in this case, but nothing about the linguistic evidence points to a particularly recent adoption of Pueblo culture by Tanoan speakers. The eastern Pueblos, including the Tanoans, do show a lot of evidence of Plains cultural traits, but this is most likely a result of close contact with the Plains during the late prehistoric and early historic period, for which there is plenty of evidence.

That leaves Keres and Zuni, about which nothing can be said about external relationships. It is likely that both groups have been culturally Pueblo for a very long time, but there is no way to tell based on the linguistic evidence whether they have been so for longer than their neighbors to the east (Tanoan) and west (Hopi).

So basically, I think linguistic relationship is a dead end in determining historical connections between ancient sites and modern Pueblos. That’s not to say that linguistics is entirely useless, however. There are other, more subtle aspects of the linguistic relationships among Pueblo groups that may well have historical value. That’s a topic for another post, however.

Hopi Buttes from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

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Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

As a first step in evaluating the connections between prehistoric and modern Pueblo societies, it’s necessary to define exactly which societies we’re talking about here. This post is a brief overview of the prehistoric cultures and modern ethnolinguistic groups in question. As noted below, these are not necessarily equivalent units, and failing to recognize this has been a frequent problem with previous reconstructions of Southwestern culture history.

On the ancient side, we are primarily dealing here with  a handful of “branches” within the overall Anasazi “root.” (See my previous post on lesser-known prehistoric Southwestern societies for more on the “root and branch” system that has traditionally been used to organize Southwestern prehistory.) These branches inhabited various parts of the drainage of the San Juan River prior to AD 1300; how far back they go before that is unclear. These are the traditional branches:

  • Chaco Branch: The primary center of this branch is of course Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, but it extended over the entirety of the southern San Juan Basin and further south into the drainage of the Rio Puerco of the West. There are various distinctive characteristics of this branch prior to about AD 1200, when it seems to converge with the Mesa Verde branch before disappearing entirely.
  • Mesa Verde Branch: While Mesa Verde proper is historically the area of main research focus for this branch, recent research has shown that it was much more widespread, extending thoughout much of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The exact nature of its relationship with the Chaco branch is still unclear, but there has been increasing evidence for cultural similarity and historical connections between the two. There is a clear pattern of alternating population concentration implying migration between north and south on a scale of centuries prior to the depopulation of the entire area before AD 1300.
  • Kayenta Branch: Located in northeastern Arizona, this branch shows some clear cultural differences from Chaco and Mesa Verde, but certain sites do show evidence of influence from Mesa Verde especially during the Tsegi Phase from AD 1250 to 1300. The cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly are probably the best known Kayenta sites.

On the modern side, there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, plus several on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and a few communities of Pueblo ancestry in the vicinity of El Paso, Texas. They belong to six known linguistic groups, listed below.

  • Hopi: This language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the more widespread and well-documented families of North and Central America. As the name implies, the family includes both the Great Basin hunter-gatherers of the Numic subfamily (Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone) and the complex agricultural Aztecs of the Basin of Mexico, as well as many groups in between. As a result, this family is among the best examples in the world of a lack of correlation between language family and economic orientation. The Hopis fall in between the extremes of the Numa and the Aztecs, and their language forms its own branch of Uto-Aztecan sufficiently different from the others to make it very difficult to draw any culture-historical conclusions. The three Hopi mesas (unimaginatively named “First,” “Second,” and “Third” in English) have distinctive dialects that further complicate the situation.
  • Zuni: Today this is just a single pueblo, speaking a language generally considered an isolate unrelated to any other. Prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 there were several Zuni pueblos, however. In addition to language, there are several other aspects of Zuni culture that tend to distinguish it from the other pueblos, although there are also enough similarities to Hopi to distinguish the two as “western” pueblos in contrast to those further east.
  • Keres: This is another language isolate, but spoken by several historically autonomous pueblos that still retain separate identities and speak slightly different dialects of a single mutually intelligible language. The Keres pueblos form a “bridge” in some respects between the western and eastern pueblos. Acoma and Laguna tend to pattern more with Hopi and Zuni, while Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Cochiti, and Santo Domingo are located further east and tend to have more similarities to the Rio Grande Pueblos.
  • Tanoan: This (sub)family is located entirely in the Rio Grande Valley and is divided into three languages/subfamilies, which are in turn related to a fourth language, Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The Tanoan subfamilies are:
    • Tiwa: This subfamily is in turn divided into Northern and Southern divisions, which occupy the extreme north and south portions of the modern Pueblo domain. Northern Tiwa is spoken in Taos and Picuris, while Southern Tiwa is spoken at Sandia and Isleta in the vicinity of modern Albuquerque. Tiwa was also spoken historically at Ysleta del Sur near El Paso, Texas, which was founded by Southern Tiwas displaced during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. There is some evidence that the Piro pueblos south of the Southern Tiwa also spoke a language closely related to Tiwa, although this language is poorly documented and is now extinct.
    • Tewa: This subfamily occupies the portions of the northern Rio Grande valley near modern Santa Fe, in the pueblos of San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque. A closely related dialect was also spoken further south in the Galisteo Basin until approximately 1700, when the remaining residents of that area moved to the Hopi area of Arizona and founded the pueblo on First Mesa known as Hano (or Tewa), which continues to speak a dialect of the Tewa language to this day.
    • Towa: Today this language is spoken only at Jemez Pueblo on the western edge of the Rio Grande region, but until the 1830s it was also spoken at Pecos on the eastern edge. When the pueblo of Pecos was abandoned its remaining inhabitants moved to Jemez, where their descendants still form a distinctive segment of the population.

So that’s the present situation. The picture is complicated, and it’s hard to figure out what the historical events that resulted in this arrangement would have been. The fact that Tiwa occupies both the northern and southern ends of the Rio Grande culture area, while Towa occupies the eastern and western peripheries and Keres occupies both a core part of the center of the region and an area further west that is more similar culturally to Hopi and Zuni, makes it difficult to fit the known facts into a simple scheme of migration or cultural diffusion. Clearly the story must be more complicated, and digging into those complexities will be the purpose of the following posts in this series.

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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Sunset over Mount Susitna from Anchorage, Alaska

Overall, the five books on my reading list were all very interesting and I’m glad I read them. Their usefulness to someone interested in Alaska but not in my specific situation varies, however. I think the most useful single book on the list as a general introduction to Alaska is McPhee. Also good as a general introduction to the Arctic, but not focused on Alaska specifically, is Lopez. For those with a more historical interest in the state, Marshall is great; conversely, for those more interested in the idea of how someone might live “off the grid” in the Alaska wilderness, Proenneke would be a better choice. Finally, Miles is good for those interested in the details of National Park Service history, a small group to be sure but one probably heavily overrepresented among my readership.

I’ve read a lot more about Alaska than these five books, of course, but I’ve decided that further discussion of Alaska is probably best suited for a different blog (or possibly more than one). From now on this blog will focus specifically on the prehistory of the Southwest and related issues, although I will of course let my readers here know of any additional blog projects I start on other topics.

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Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

The fifth and final book on my reading list was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. This book occupies a distinctive place on the list not so much because of its subject matter, which overlaps various of the other books to varying degrees, as because of its tone, which is quite different from all the others. The tone here is not journalistic or scientific but literary, with extended passages of lyrical reflection on landscapes and ecosystems that make reading it a very different experience from the other books. Lopez writes novels in addition to his nonfiction, which puts the tone into its proper perspective, I think. It’s a very interesting book in a variety of ways. The focus is on the North American Arctic as a whole, so Alaska plays a role but considerably more attention is given to Canada, which encompasses a larger geographic area and has been more central to a lot of the history Lopez describes as context for contemporary issues. Nevertheless, the issues Lopez discusses in the Canadian context generally have parallels in Alaska (as well as in Greenland, and for that matter in the European and Siberian Arctic, which Lopez barely mentions), and it makes sense to discuss the Arctic as a whole despite its internal diversity.

Despite the aforementioned literary tone, this is definitely a work of nonfiction, which might be classed as popular science for want of a better category. Lopez describes various aspects of the Arctic, mostly focusing on the animals, the landscapes, and the indigenous peoples, with an overall emphasis on the fragility of all these systems and the way they are threatened by modern Western society and its recent interest in industrial development in the North. This fits right in to the tradition of environmentalist writing represented by the likes of Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, but Lopez gives it his own distinctive stamp. He is clearly enchanted by the landscapes and wildlife he sees, and worried about how they will fare in a world of oil drilling and strip mining, but he also clearly recognizes the ambiguities of the situation, the importance of the perspectives of indigenous hunters even when their ideas might be incompatible with those of white environmentalists, and the inevitability of a certain amount of development given the prevailing circumstances. He points to previous incidents of inadvertent environmental destruction in the Arctic, such as the devastation of whale populations by nineteenth-century whalers, as important cautionary tales for those who would ponder tapping the resources of the North, but he stops short of a blanket demand that no extraction take place. He recognizes the power of industry at the same time that he fears it, and seems to ultimately offer only a caution to be careful and consult with the locals before making any hasty decisions. He makes a big deal out of a visit the CEO of an international shipping company happened to make to an Inuit hunting camp while he was staying there. The CEO had heard about reports that the company’s ships were disturbing the wildlife the hunters depended on, and he asked them about the issues and listened to what they said. This obviously sounds like a publicity stunt, but Lopez interprets the way it was done as an important contrast to the superficial way such stunts are usually done, and points to it as a hopeful sign for the future. Whether he was right to do so is unclear, but it’s an interesting, nuanced approach to issues on which he clearly has strong opinions.

Lopez published this book in the mid-1980s, and from the perspective of today one of the most striking things about it is that for all his pessimism about the environmental future of the Arctic he never once mentions anthropogenic climate change. The idea of global warming was certainly around at the time, but it had not yet emerged as a major concern even in environmental circles, and the threats to the Arctic environment that Lopez describes are all the result of human actions on ecosystems that are fragile but otherwise stable. Nowadays it seems pretty striking that threats to the Arctic environment could be envisioned this way; the effects of climate change are already quite apparent in Arctic regions, and such effects as melting permafrost and accelerated coastal erosion are already having substantial effects on communities in Alaska and elsewhere. Furthermore, some of the effects of climate change, such as lower sea ice extent (which hit a record minimum this past summer), open the door to increased shipping, mining, and other industrial activity in the Arctic. These are precisely the local threats Lopez focuses on in the book, but there they look like isolated phenomena, whereas now they seem to be part of a larger and more dire picture. Obviously this is not really a criticism of Lopez. He wrote when he did, and his perspective was based on the information then available. It’s only now, with more information and a changed perspective, that climate change looks like such a major background presence shaping a changing North.

Overall, this is an interesting book, and a useful supplement to the others I read. I can see why it was at the bottom of the list: it doesn’t focus on Alaska specifically, and the part of Alaska it does relate to is a relatively small part of the state (though a very important one). As a stand-alone volume, however, it would probably be a better choice for the general reader than some of the others that ranked higher on my list.

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