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The Navajo stake a controversial claim to an ancient legacy


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Kin Klizhin, an Anasazi "great house" in northwestern New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, plays a sinister role in Navajo legends about the ancient sites in the area. (Courtesy National Park Service)

Welcome to the dark side of the moon," says Taft Blackhorse. He and fellow Navajo Nation archaeologist John Stein are showing me the desolate and windswept site of Kin Klizhin, or "Black Charcoal" in Navajo. The lonely, multistory masonry structure, or "great house," is our first stop in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. The two have brought me here to explain the origins of the ancient people known as the Anasazi, a sophisticated culture that thrived in the Four Corners region from about a.d. 500 to 1300. Blackhorse and Stein tell a story about Chaco Canyon's dozens of great houses that you won't find in any archaeology textbooks. It's also a story that today's Pueblo people, including the Hopi--who claim the Anasazi legacy as their own and have historically strained relations with the Navajo--reject out of hand.

"This is the barbecue pit," says Blackhorse, pointing to the foot of a well-preserved, two-story building that archaeologists have interpreted as a rare, above-ground religious chamber known as a tower kiva. Unlike most Navajo who have strong taboos against dealing with the deceased, Blackhorse is not afraid of burials or places associated with the dead, such as ancient sites like Kin Klizhin.

"Yep," agrees Stein. "They be cooking up some stuff here." He walks carefully around the tower kiva's perimeter as if he were examining it for the first time. A beanpole with a droopy mustache, Stein is an Anglo who has spent the better part of his life safeguarding archaeological sites for the Navajo Nation. He has put in 40 years studying Chaco alone and is the supervisory archaeologist for the Chaco Sites Protection Program, which represents Navajo interests in the management of sites associated with the canyon.

Both are well regarded in Southwestern archaeological circles, but I'm confused by their talk of cookouts. The National Park Service (NPS) signpost at the path's entrance vaguely describes Kin Klizhin as a place of "ceremonial function." But Blackhorse explains that the kiva served as a human sacrificial altar and a center for ritual cannibalism. His story, like everything else about Chaco according to Navajo belief, is about the Gambler, an evil magician with a hooked, crooked nose who enslaved the ancient Navajo and forced them to build the great houses of Chaco.

According to Blackhorse, the Gambler rode out to Kin Klizhin on a large reptile that was his guardian. His priests sacrificed humans at the site, and the Gambler, says Blackhorse, came here "to swallow their souls." This is not the tale the NPS tells visitors to Chaco.

Much of Chaco's history remains shrouded in mystery, but the orthodox interpretation is that by 1050, it had become a ceremonial, administrative, and economic center. The massive great houses, the largest of which stood more than three stories tall, were connected by roads linking 150 of them in the Four Corners region.

Most scholars agree Chaco served as a special gathering place, where many Pueblo peoples and clans converged to share their ceremonies and traditions. But Blackhorse and Stein disagree with this benign view of Chaco. They also don't think that the modern Hopi of Arizona and the Rio Grande Pueblo groups of New Mexico are the sole heirs to Chaco's cultural heritage. Instead, the two contend that Chaco was a melting pot of various Native American groups, and argue that Navajo cosmology, oral tradition, and Chaco's building design all point to a strong link between the Navajo and the Anasazi. Blackhorse's master narrative is straight out of Navajo oral history: Chaco was designed and built by the Navajo at the behest of the Gambler, a Lex Luthor-type villain who came from the south and enslaved the Navajo after beating them at games. He then used Chaco's dark energy to gain control over nature and build a sprawling empire in the Four Corners. According to the Navajo legend, the Gambler also enslaved the Pueblo people.

But the evidence for this story in the archaeological record is slight. When I ask NPS archaeologist Roger Moore if he knows anything about Kin Klizhin being used for human sacrifice and cannibalism, he tells me the site hasn't been officially excavated. "There's no way of knowing," he says. "From an archaeological standpoint, we can't substantiate it and we can't deny it." Stein concedes the theory that the Navajo descend from the Anasazi is "incredibly unpopular" among Southwestern archaeologists. (The very word Anasazi, a Navajo noun Blackhorse translates as "ancient ones," is controversial.) The NPS, despite its Pueblo-centric narrative, is more receptive. Prompted by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the NPS ruled in 1999 that the Navajo--along with 18 modern-day Pueblo tribes--had ancestral affiliation to Chaco Canyon, which borders the Navajo reservation. The decision came after federal researchers completed an exhaustive inventory of Chaco's collection of human remains and ceremonial objects.


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First built around 1700, Three Corn Ruin is one of many pueblitos, or small masonry dwellings, that the Navajo constructed on mesas and other defensible locations in the Four Corners area. (Courtesy National Park Service)

But no archaeological evidence for the Navajo's prehistoric ties to Chaco was cited in the decision. Rather, the NPS relied largely on Navajo oral history. The story of the Gambler, and its significance in Navajo culture, was cited specifically.

The decision stunned the archaeological world. The scientific consensus is that the Navajo belong to the Athabascan language group, whose members are found mainly in Alaska and Canada (the Apache are also Athabascan). 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. "The Navajo weren't Navajo until they started integrating Pueblo traits," contends Michael Yeatts, an archaeologist with the Hopi tribe. As an example, he points to the Navajo Yeibechi healing ceremony, which he says resembles certain Hopi rituals.

There are other intriguing cultural similarities between the Navajo and Pueblo tribes. The Acoma, a Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, have a similar Gambler story that explains the ruins of Chaco, but omits the Navajo. Additionally, numerous mythological characters, including the Hero Twins, also found in Mesoamerican lore, figure prominently in both Navajo and Pueblo origin stories.

Unsurprisingly, the Navajo chafe at the notion that they co-opted Pueblo history as their own. "We have always been here," says Blackhorse, referring to the Four Corners area.

After the NPS's 1999 decision on Chaco, which legitimized the Navajo claims to prehistoric links to Chaco, Blackhorse became intent on shoring up the evidence to cement the Navajo's standing. One of the projects he's working on now is connecting place names in Chaco to significant Navajo events and ceremonies. The Navajo named many sites in Chaco, such as Kin Klizhin, and are known to have periodically occupied the canyon since the 1700s. But Blackhorse insists that some Navajo ceremonies can be traced much farther back to show that his people have Anasazi lineage.

The NPS, for its part, has been forced to walk a tightrope between science and respect for Navajo traditions, whatever their origins may be. But, Moore says, "Archaeologically, it's hard to see their argument."

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.

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.

During his surveys of the scrubby desert outside of Farmington, Wilshusen started noticing remains of early Navajo dwellings, brush-covered structures called wikiups, and earth-covered homes known as hogans. Twenty years later, Wilshusen still marvels at his good fortune. "It was an accident. I was looking for Pueblo I sites," he explains, referring to the a.d. 700-900 era of Pueblo culture. Instead, he may have found the genesis of the Navajo. 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."

It is the new archaeological data that makes Wilshusen certain he is on to something. "We had nothing like the dates we got from the Fruitland project," he says, alluding to the sparse record of early Navajo sites. This partly owes to the difficulty of recognizing those ancestral Navajo sites. "They're very subtle," he explains, and very hard to see." All that might remain of a small wikiup or hogan is a scattering of charred timbers. With sweat lodges, only piles of stone are left. "But we've gotten really good at seeing them," Wilshusen says.

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.

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Excavations of early Navajo residences, known as forked-stick hogans, reveal earthen, saucer-shaped floors (top). Sometimes, archaeologists find these structures still standing, even though they date to the early 1700s. (Courtesy National Park Service)

Ironically, Wilshusen uses the Navajo's own oral history to buttress his case, particularly one famous legend known as the Gathering of the Clans, which tells how different clans joined together and traditional Navajo social and cultural mores developed, such as rules about marriage and treatment of spouses. Wilshusen has linked accounts about the Gathering of the Clans to incidents recorded in 17th- and 18th-century Spanish documents. These include a massive famine that caused the partial abandonment of many other pueblos. According to oral history, this event resulted in new Navajo clans. In addition to matching the calendar dates of new clans with mentions of them in Spanish records, Wilshusen was able to reconstruct enough history to determine that local architecture, language, clothing, weaponry, farming practices, and pottery become distinctly "Navajo" between 1605 and 1645.

As late afternoon storm clouds cast Chaco Canyon in a steely gray hue, Blackhorse, Stein, and I drive seven miles northeast of Kin Klizhin to Chaco's most prominent landmark, the great house known as Pueblo Bonito. The dark forces of Kin Klizhin originate there, say Blackhorse and Stein. Some Chaco scholars have come to believe that Bonito was where the Anasazi elites dwelled. "That's bullshit," says Stein when we arrive at the D-shaped great house, which once stood as high as five stories and contained up to 600 rooms. "This place is astronomical," he says. "The alignments that we're seeing out there all converge on this building." He points to the network of narrow "roads" out on the stark desert landscape that have been the focus of much debate in recent years. Some scholars think that the roads served as a transportation network connecting outlying communities for trade purposes. Others believe them to be ceremonial passageways.

Stein sees the alignments and architecture as part of the same "cosmological timepiece." When I ask to what end, Blackhorse responds in a low whisper, "Controlling the elements. It's always about controlling the elements." In terms of their astronomical perspective, Stein and Blackhorse are not that different from other scholars who have come to interpret Chaco Canyon as a ritual landscape infused with astronomical meaning: an ancient metropolis organized around sun and moon cycles.

NPS interpreters at Chaco sometimes speculate as much, too, but they will attribute the arrangement to ancient Pueblo cosmology, which, of course, bears some similarities to Navajo cosmology.

What sets Blackhorse and Stein apart from their peers is not so much their embrace of archaeoastronomy, which long ago muscled its way into scholarly debates about Chaco. It's that they tie the celestial theory of Chaco's construction to Navajo oral history to tell a Navajo story. But, as Wilshusen delicately points out, they're missing one piece of crucial evidence. "I'd be very interested to see the archaeology," he says. "There just isn't evidence that Athabascans were there."

The NPS, forced to accentuate the positive when asked about the Navajo connection to Chaco, has little choice but to be officially polite. Says Russell Bodnar, chief of interpretation at Chaco, "The work [Blackhorse and Stein] are doing is very interesting and adds to our knowledge and to our perspective about what happened at Chaco."

When the NPS recognized the Navajo's prehistoric links to Chaco, it stepped into an epic debate over ethnic and cultural origins. But as Wendy Bustard, curator at Chaco, recalls, even at the time an NPS lawyer was astute enough to realize the decision might have larger political implications: "He recognized that our decision under NAGPRA could be used to address other matters of dispute between the Hopi and Navajo."


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The Navajo call Pueblo Bonito, the largest of Chaco's great houses, tse biyaa anii'ahi, or "leaning rock gap." The name refers to a 30,000-ton rock that separated from the cliff above and eventually fell on the site in 1941. (Courtesy National Park Service)

The Hopi and Navajo have a contentious history. The reservation boundaries for the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation have been in dispute ever since the original U.S. treaties and executive orders that created them in the late 19th century. The lines have been redrawn multiple times, owing, in part, to arbitrary Congressional decisions as well as input from tribal oral histories. The resulting arrangement has since led to a steady succession of court battles between the two tribes over water rights and land use issues. It also left the Hopi landlocked within the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the country at 25,000 square miles.

Given this backdrop, it's easy to see how NAGPRA has become a proxy battleground for grievances that have nothing to do with burials. After all, if a group's historic land claims are legally enshrined by NAGPRA, they could have greater standing in a court of law. Bustard acknowledges this potential, but is quick to add, "One would think that the court might recognize evidence used for NAGPRA is pretty weak. It's a pretty loose standard."

Nonetheless, each tribe is maneuvering to exploit NAGPRA for its own advantage. For example, the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department requests a statement acknowledging the nation's affiliation to Anasazi sites be included in official reports of research done on Navajo land.

The Hopi, for their part, often put the squeeze on Southwestern archaeologists to publicly criticize the Navajo claims of links to Pueblo sites. This makes archaeologists, who are still trying to repair their historically tense relations with Native Americans, deeply uncomfortable. Either way, it seems, scholars get caught in the crossfire. University of Colorado at Boulder archaeologist and Archaeology contributing editor Stephen H. Lekson, who has spent many years working at Chaco, is still singed by his experience on the hot seat at an NPS-sponsored "Four Corners Affiliation Conference" at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. At one session, "I was literally in the middle of it, sitting in a chair with the Navajo on one side and Hopi on the other," he says. "I became the surrogate for punch-counter-punch arguments between the tribes. Instead of going after each other, both sides went after me. I was asked to come down on one side and I wouldn't."

Even Blackhorse and Stein don't agree on everything. I found it interesting that they emphasized different opinions when I asked them about what caused the collapse of Chaco. Stein referred to drought as probably being one of the triggers that led to the abandonment of the area. Blackhorse, meanwhile, finished telling me the Gambler story, how the Hero Twins defeated the Gambler to free all the Chaco slaves. According to Navajo oral history, all the tribes left the area except the Navajo, who agreed to stay behind as the guardians of Chaco to prevent its power from being exploited again. "We have a ceremony related to this event," Blackhorse says. "It's called 'Speaking it back into the ground to never let it rise again.' "

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about the archaeology of the Southwest for Science and other publications.

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