Friday, July 1, 2011

Ancient Answers to Modern Questions: Lessons from the Puebloan Culture

The wind whipped up in a subtle gust, pushing dust in swirls, ruffling the feathers of an eagle caged with chicken wire and wood. The hot sun beamed down further baking the dry mesa, cracking the already dried mud intermixed with polychromic pottery shards. A mangy mutt barks, and whines then whimpers and as if trying to welcome the students emerging from the van squinting in the bright daylight.Students from the Sustainable Communities Masters program at NAU have arrived at the United States oldest continuously inhabited settlement of Orabi on the Third Mesa on the Hopi reservation. They are there to learn lessons from an ancient people, who have survived and preserved their culture in the same location for over 1100 years.
Dr. Miguel Vasquez proceeds to lead them on a brief tour through the village accompanied by the friendly dog that greeted them upon arrival. The students move into the plaza, surrounded by low stone housing with flat roofs and wooden beams protruding. “This is where the clans of Orabi have their ceremonial dances. The spectators sit around, sometimes 4 deep on the ground, and 4 deep on the roofs to watch. The ceremonies are also a time for the villagers to give. They share what they have, and make sure that everybody goes home with food. You have to be careful, though, one time I was hit in the nose by a flying orange.”
The students move through the plaza toward the end of the Mesa, and stop short of two Kivas, or subterranean places of worship. The kivas are identified only by the ladder that protrudes from a hole in the ceiling of the pit house. There, tribal members gather by clan to perform ceremonies, each clan having their own kiva. The mesas offer long views from three sides, which served as an early warning device for villagers against invaders. It also allows them to see their crops growing on the valley floor, and protect the structures against floods.
“You can see behind us the ruins of a Spanish mission, there at the edge of the mesa.” Dr. Vasquez motions with his head toward an incomplete stone structure with half of a tower still standing, “The Hopi destroyed the mission during the Pueblo revolt of 1680, when they eradicated the Spanish from the village. Again, it is we are not allowed to visit the ruins, so we can’t get any closer.” The Puebloans have had a rocky history, from the invasion of Spanish Conquistadors looking for the legendary gold ridden El Dorado then Spanish settlers and missionaries, to modern anthropologists and archaeologists, each force threatening their very survival. The town appears to be abandoned, except for a small shop vending cultural wares. There is, however, a small enclave of residents that continue to live there year round, usually elders spending their last days of retirement. Most villagers live on the valley floors, close to running water and electricity, but clan members occasionally return to the mesas for special ceremonial dances and re-inhabit the small structures.
Small raindrops fell from a partly cloudy sky in the village of Bacavi, home to the people “of the reeds.” The students are there to visit the ancient spring irrigated terraces that once flourished with corn, beans, melons and orchard crops. In the early 1990s the Hopis approached the NAU anthropology department with a reciprocal arrangement to restore their terrace gardens in exchange for cultural fellowship. This was a great opportunity for both parties. Historically anthropologists haven’t been well received by the Hopis due to their insensitive infiltration of their communities. “Intruders were not welcome, especially if they were dressed as anthropologists.” (Vasquez and Jenkins 1994) This was mostly due to the fact that the Hopi haven’t been on the receiving end of the academic study. No compensation was directed to the Hopis as a result. Since the leaders of Bacavi were trying to rekindle their agricultural traditions, they sought a reciprocal arrangement. The students had the opportunity to study an ancient culture first hand, and help the Hopi reinvigorate their terraces. The students worked together with the Hopi youth rebuilding walls, digging out spring fed pools, stabilizing the footpaths and documenting plot tenure and horticultural practices. They were able to motivate the villagers from a few families working tiny plots to as many as eighteen families cultivating gardens. But, alas, their efforts again became un-stainable. Reeds were planted, their pueblo symbol, ultimately began to draw moisture from the springs. This combined with declining interest in traditional horticulture practices, reduced the terraces to some tomato plants, and a few unproductive fruit trees.
The Native American work ethic is oriented toward necessity (Van Otten and Vasquez p7), and since the onset of the twenty first century it has become easier to shop for groceries, than to laboriously farm in hot fields for a meager yield. This along with the temptations of the modern world, the Hopi as well as other Native Americans, are starting to take another look at not only the preservation of their culture, but their continuance.
These problems are what the students have come to examine. Having looked at the problems of their own society and the growing disparity between the rich and poor it is becoming obvious that our habits are unsustainable. They have seen the writing on the wall and are looking at not only how to preserve what they have, but to continue and sustain itSmall puffy white clouds speed by as two elk and their calves hang closely to the arroyo cut by the muddy Chaco river. Slightly startled by gawking tourists they stand their ground, unwilling or unable to give up their meager source for moisture. The students emerge into the hot sun and sand to visit the Ancestral Puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon, in the northwest area of New Mexico. They have come with the hope of understanding what mistakes this ancient civilization made causing their rapid decline. Here archeologists have discovered a striking similarity with the Ancient Chaco civilization, and modern society.
Once an intricate network of farms, roads and pueblos complete with multi-level structures rivaling the great civilizations of Central America, Chaco lays in ruins, producing little more than archaeological evidence to describe their rise and fall. The Chacos were in a delicate balance with their environment. When the rains came life was good. Across the Chaco farming districts, the farmers pursued this opportunity with all the obsession of those absolutely certain that good fortune will not last. With reliable rains, one good harvest became many. They were able to produce a surplus, and began to store corn and expand farmsteads to new even more precarious spots within the San Juan basin (Stuart p65-66).
Lasting from approximately 1020 to 1130, the Chaco phenomenon, as it is referred, was based on clusters of far-reaching communities interconnected by trade, ritual, and sharing (Stuart p.66). Farming, storing, trading, sharing food and pottery with other farmers allowed them to have more babies and finally separated them from the hunters and gatherers. Their whole identity was intertwined with their expansive community and their religion. The formation of Kivas, their ritual house, became an integral part of local family life. Between 1020 and 1080 “Great Houses” began to be constructed. These pueblo style houses began with 10 to 12 rooms. Without windows or doors they had to enter through a ladder in a hole in the roof, which doubled as a chimney. Soon these great houses expanded, and multiplied. Many became multi-storied and some included over 100 rooms. Much of the space in these Great Houses was used for storage of varieties of corn that were carefully separated. Combining ritual space, storage capacity, and some living quarters, the Chacos were able to maintain connections and trade among the expansive farming communities in the area (Stuart p107).
So, why did the ancient Chacos walk away from their civilization? Climate change and drought is what brought the civilization to its knees. Something happened in the early 1090s. There was no answer from the heavens to their rituals and prayers. The huge storage rooms lay empty and rains had begun tapering off. For four years the rains became more and more unreliable. In a stunning but final effort to “boost the economy” the Chacoan elites began to erect their grandest buildings and roads (Stuart p121).
The explosion in kiva building in about 1100a.d. indicates a ritual life that had become bloated and stopped nurturing the communities. The religious elite had grown increasingly demanding and obsessive and were requiring more and more resources to survive. The land was becoming over-hunted and the agriculture unsustainable, with the decreasing rains. Ritual alone was not feeding the babies or adapting new food-producing techniques. Failure to address these problems destroyed Chacoan society (Stuart p123). So the farmers walked away and returned to hunting and gathering or migrated to further upland communities. Their failure brought forth, however, a success story, that of the highly efficient Pueblo civilization. Stuart says, If we “listen carefully to their past, we can retrieve an important message for all surviving traditional societies, for the rest of us, and for all of twenty-first-century society to come (Stuart p. 8).The lessons that the students were able to take away are four fold. Foremost is that a successful community is egalitarian and unified (Stuart p163). The Hopi share their possessions and accumulation is seen as threatening and counter-productive. The well-being of the individual relies on the cohesion and reciprocity of the group at large (Van Otten and Vasquez p7).
Second is that a compelx and diverse economy is more sustainable. By the 1400s the puebloans had dozens of corn varieties that displayed selected characteristics such as cold and drought resistance, fast and slow maturation, deeper roots, and a variety of sizes and colors of kernels (Stuart p164). In modern times the puebloans have had to diversify economically in order to survive. The Acoma Pueblo may be the best example of using tourism to boost their economy, with their large visitors center, museum and bus tours. The Hopi have gone into the coal business with the Navajo, and even own shopping centers in Flagstaff. Other tribes are building casinos on their lands and use the gaming revenues to provide opportunities for their members.
The third lesson is that any investment into the infrastructure must focus on producing necessities and preserving their culture and environment. This is immediately evident on the less than aesthetic condition of their housing. Appearances are low on the list of priorities, and organized labor that was used to support great building projects for only one segment of their society was never used again. This dictum kept the religious leaders from imposing or gaining too much power (Stuart p165). Business decisions are made by consensus; if anybody disagreed the topic would be tabled for further discussion. This dramatically slows the possible economic development of the tribe, but at the same time reduces the possibility of being taken advantage of and making hasty decisions that could lead to mistakes.
Lastly the Puebloans realized that efficiency was more important than power. Efficiency was valued and enhanced in their high un-irrigated fields. They planted corn, beans and squash in microenvironments where the bean vines could climb the cornstalks, and the squash could retard weeds with the shade of their leaves (Stuart p167). By having a more egalitarian society it reduces the power that an individual can have, and by reaching a consensus for big decisions it keeps power out of the hands of the corruptEven though the Puebloans can teach us valuable lessons about sustainability, the threats of modern society have effected their very survival. The Hopi are concerned with their ability to weave ancient traditions with the modern lifestyle and continue to battle controversies over the environment, resources, joblessness and the erosion of their culture (Vasquez p83). These issues are same issues that threaten the sustainability of our entire civilization today, and if we cannot learn from our past we are destined to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

Stuart, David E., Anasazi America, University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Vasquez, Miguel, The Hopi in Arizona, unknown.
Van Otten, George A. and Vasquez, Miguel , Economic Development On Arizona’s Native American Reservations.
Vasquez, Miguel and Jenkins, Leigh, Reciprocity and Sustainability: Terrace Restoration on third Mesa, Practicing Anthropology Vol. 16 No 2, 1994.

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