Rethinking the past: Native Americans and archaeologists collaborate at Crow Canyon

Published in Indian Country Today in June 2008.

Cortez, Colo. — Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in southwestern Colorado, has put grant money to work to repair an old rift. Over the past year, using $25,000 from Qwest Corporation and $125,000 from the Colorado Historical Society, the center has continued its efforts to work collaboratively with indigenous people, with whom archaeologists have long had a contentious relationship.

            Education is a major component of this outreach. Last year, nearly 200 Native children, double the number in 2006, attended classes at the center, many on scholarship. The youngsters came from Isleta, Jemez and Santa Clara pueblos; the Hopi and Navajo nations; and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Students from the local Cortez Middle School Native American Club, which typically serves Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute children, also participated, according to Shirley Powell, grant writer in Crow Canyon’s development office.

            Going forward, increasing numbers of Native youngsters will be able take part in hands-on experiences designed for fourth grade through high school. In courses ranging from a one-day program to a three-week field school, students learn varied skills, including how to recognize artifacts and sort them into historical time periods, according to educator Rebecca Hammond, Ute Mountain Ute (shown right), who has been on Crow Canyon’s staff for a decade.

            Classes take place in a variety of settings, including the Pueblo Learning Center (a portion of it shown below), a replica of a farmstead dating from about 1200 A.D. that overlooks the center’s 170-acre rural campus. The Pithouse Learning Center, at the edge of a hillside stand of piñon and juniper on the opposite end of the campus, helps students imagine life in about 650 A.D.

            One popular activity is learning to use an atlatl, or ancient spear-throwing device — a difficult skill, the students soon learn. Generally, this reporter observed, the turkey cutout used as a target remains unscathed for most of the session.

            The children also participate in simulated and/or real excavations, on campus or during field trips to nearby ancestral sites. All of these experiences help children think critically and creatively about the Ancestral Puebloan world, said Hammond.

            Students stay in dormitory-style housing along with counselors, while adult visitors live in modern versions of a Navajo hogan; all eat the resident chef’s famously delicious food in the center’s casual dining room.

            Crow Canyon also offers distance-learning opportunities, accessed via the rich and detailed resources on its website, crowcanyon.org (click on “education” to find materials for students, along with lesson plans, maps, books, bibliographies and more for teachers). The lessons include material that’s relevant to science, math, social studies and arts courses.

            The Qwest funds are being directed toward developing the online resources and updating them from an indigenous point of view, said Powell. Crow Canyon’s Native American Advisory Group (NAAG) — including Ernest M. Vallo, Acoma; Herman Agoyo, Okay Owingeh; Eric Polingyouma, Hopi; Rose Wyaco, Zuni; Susan Malutin, Native village of Afognak; Hammond (shown right); and others — is in the process of re-shaping a range of concepts presented by the website, including origin stories and migration theories.

            For example, NAAG, which was founded in 1995, has encouraged the archaeologists to eliminate use of the term “abandonment” to refer to Ancestral Puebloans leaving their homes in the Four Corners area for points south in the late 13th century. This term gives the incorrect impression that current-day Pueblo people no longer have an active relationship — spiritual or political — to the old places.

            NAAG members are also currently reading and commenting on a draft of online text and graphics that will expand the current online publication, “From Mammoth Hunters to Farmers: The Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region.” The new material adds indigenous oral histories and the Native perspective for the period extending from 1300 AD to the present, said Hammond.

            According to Powell, Crow Canyon intends to apply for another grant to rethink earlier historical periods (from Paleo-Indian times to 1300), which are already online. Until the new information can be incorporated, text for a map of the so-called Bering Land Bridge migration tells the viewer that “when and how human beings first came to North America is a hotly debated topic.”

            “There are many other beliefs, including that indigenous cultures were always here,” Hammond commented. Soon, visitors to the website will know more about those viewpoints.

            The organization conducts continual outreach. Recently, Margie Connolly, director of American Indian activities, traveled to Hopi, Isleta and Acoma to make presentations on the education program. “We’ve done a lot, but school administrators and tribal leaders changes, so it’s always good to visit again. We want to get information about Crow Canyon out to the communities and are also working to bring elders and traditional leaders here,” she said.

            Said Deloria Dallas, Hopi, speaking during an NAAG meeting, “People don’t necessarily know this resource is there for them, and I’ve been pleased to tell them about it.” Dallas has just joined the Crow Canyon staff as an educator.

            Crow Canyon had several education seminars during 2007, including a meeting of about 60 teachers, administrators and policymakers from Jemez Pueblo who worked to develop a language and culture curriculum.  June saw visits from Santa Clara Pueblo and Hopi.

            In June 2008, 17 teachers from several Pueblos, including Acoma, Jemez, Hopi and Santa Clara, enrolled in a workshop at the Cortez campus. “We went through the existing lessons, discussed what’s useful and broke up into groups to brainstorm about what else would be helpful for them,” said Connolly. “Most of the teachers thought we only did archaeology and were interested to find out about our focus on the humanities and on the lifestyles of the Ancestral Puebloans. We live in an age that’s dominated by technology, and they like to be able to give their children a picture of life before that. The teachers also enjoyed our information on historical games.”

            The sessions are not all high seriousness, said Connolly. “There’s a lot of laughter, along with singing and dancing. We also went to visit the fields that have been cleared for the Pueblo Farming Project we have underway on the campus: three small gardens of heirloom corn, beans and squash planted in the style of the Ancestral Puebloans.”

            All participants in the seminar got a copy of the Crow Canyon curriculum, which includes teaching materials they can put to use immediately.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos by Stephanie Woodard.