A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Reporting on the Navajo theory of Anasazi origins
Aztec Ruins in northwestern New Mexico was the site of a major
Anasazi center that may have grown in importance after Chaco began
to lose influence after A.D. 1100. (Courtesy National Park Service)
If Hollywood ever makes a movie about an odd pair of archaeologists investigating the ruins that haunt the Four Corners area of the Southwest, Taft Blackhorse and John Stein could be the real life inspiration. Imagine Blues Brothers crossed with The X-Files.
I spent a whirlwind three days with the two Navajo Nation archaeologists in early August, touring Chaco Canyon and other famous archaeological sites in the Four Corners, such as New Mexico's Salmon Ruins and Aztec. Virtually alone among their peers, Blackhorse and Stein argue that the Navajo are connected to these famous sites, and have a deep history in the Four Corners region that stretches back thousands of years.
By contrast, the conventional archaeological view is that the Navajo migrated to the Southwest from Canada sometime in the 1500s. Blackhorse insists this couldn't be further from the truth. "We have always been here," he tells me at one point during my trip.
Blackhorse, whose maternal grandparents were shamans, is not your garden-variety archaeologist. When discussing Navajo history, he recounts famous oral stories in a matter-of-fact fashion. I'd get snippets, such as the one when were driving across the Navajo reservation in Shiprock and he'd point to a particular mesa and say: "That is where the hero twins shot down thunderbird with a lightening arrow."
This sort of thing happened everywhere we went, with Blackhorse describing key events in Navajo oral tradition, involving the Hero Twins, Changing Woman, and other mythical figures central to Navajo creation stories. The easy, conversational manner in which he communicated these stories puzzled me until I came across this passage in literary scholar Paul Zolbrod's book on Navajo oral history: "Navajos commonly point to landmarks on the reservation made prominent by episodes in the creation story." Zolbrod went on to explain: "If Navajos relate to their landscape in a special way it is because one version or another of the creation cycle is immediate and familiar to them, whether they are young or old, modern or traditional."
Blackhorse, for his part, makes a distinction between oral history and ceremonial history when making his case that the Navajo--along with Pueblo tribes--can point to the Anasazi as their ancestors. He says that many Navajo ceremonies contain songs and references to specific landscapes, such as Chaco Canyon. The same holds true for many other famous ruins in the Four Corners, including Mesa Verde. I'm surprised to hear that the Navajo are also affiliated with Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings. "They are our people," he tells me, "people called the crevice people, the bat people."
Cutthroat Castle is one of the famous towers at Utah's Hovenweep,
which were built by the Anasazi, or the Ancestral Pueblo, between
A.D. 1200 and 1300. Navajo also claim a deep connection to the site. (Courtesy National Park Service)
I asked him why would they move up there in to those highly defensive sites. Why live there? Blackhorse didn't agree the dwellings were necessarily defensive oriented. "Those people had different skills, different knowledge." Still, he reminds me that that the Gambler--who was the evil wizard that built Chaco Canyon with Navajo slaves, was still in power then. "So Mesa Verde was under the Gambler's providence."
In fact, Blackhorse argues that the Gambler "held a big space out here. If you look at it in terms of royalty, he probably had dukes, princesses, duchesses, that were responsible for different regions of the Four Corners."
What about the towers of Hovenweep, I ask? "Let me put it this way, when the gambler came, he met the 12 gods and he learned what he could from them and he mastered all the techniques and secret stuff, how things worked, the stars, the sun, the dark forces...and after he started using that against the gods, the ultimate goal was control all of the elements of mother nature. So placing these [Hovenweep] buildings out in different areas, you had a better chance of controlling the elements. So it didn't matter: Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, he did that...and he also had another connection with the mound builders in Louisiana. I'm looking for that road that connects Chaco to the mound builders...they all have intersecting connections to it. So think about it, if you're a wizard and you're evil enough, wouldn't you want to control all the elements?"
Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about the archaeology of the Southwest for Science and other publications.