Over a thousand years ago, native Americans lived in dispersed homesteads and hamlets across the southwestern United States, in what is now northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Archaeologists called this the Pueblo II period (about 1025 – 1075 AD) when the Chacoan culture thrived in this part of the country, and was one of several large native cultures in North America at the time (the Mississippian and the Fremont being the others). Agriculture had become a large part of the culture by then, with corn, vegetables, and grains being cultivated, harvested, and stored by communities. People watched the weather, contemplated the night sky and established astrological patterns, had ceremonial gatherings and rituals around farming, and established roads and communication networks to trade with other communities.
Chimney Rock, an archaeological site set on a high mesa in the southern part of the San Juan National Forest in southern Colorado, is believed to have been one of the small hamlets that date back to this era. There’s conjecture that this place was associated with Chaco Canyon in New Mexico–the larger population center and cultural source at the heart of this culture. One theory has it that Chaco Canyon itself was resource-deficient and almost entirely dependent on outlying communities for providing various non-local trade goods. Around Chimney Rock, people could harvest timber and hunt game animals (such as elk, deer, etc.) Archaeologists have established communication lines and pathways between the Chimney Rock hamlet, other communities, and the center of Chaco Culture in New Mexico. It’s believed that there was ongoing trade between them, as well as a re-distribution system organized by the central powers at Chaco Canyon, that buffered communities when they faced shortages due to natural events and weather.
A big factor here at Chimney Rock was the presence of prominent rock outcrops along a ridge. These rock features framed the rising of the moon and the setting of the sun at certain times of the year, and this site was seen as astronomically significant for that reason.
As a result of this and other supporting evidence, archaeologists postulate that Chacoan ceremonies and pilgrimage festivals took place here, where dances and rituals were conducted in the large gathering place or kiva. It’s stone boundaries are still here at the top of a wide plateau with commanding views of the surroundings.
Many modern Puebloans such as the Zuni and Acoma tribes believe their ancestors lived at Chimney Rock. Zunis who have lived in northern New Mexico for 3,000 to 4,000 years continuously, resisting Spanish colonists and proselytizers, signed a treaty with the fledgling United States in 1848 to establish their autonomous regions. Being at a place where native Americans have lived for thousands of years and seeing the rocks they put together as walls for shelter was tremendously moving for me. But it was even more of an unexpected treat for me to be at Chimney Rock on a day when a group of Zuni dancers had traveled here to celebrate a gathering with ritual dances.
Some dancers imitated animals
Other dancers focused on the agriculture of corn and celebrated the pottery which they have produced for hundreds of years.
These dancers were aided by a little Jasmine, who was ready to step in and dance just as soon as she could balance the pot on her head.
Ms. Xyla Johnson was particularly striking against the Colorado landscape and skies, which were pregnant with clouds that day and threatening to unleash a summer monsoon lashing on us.
Their costumes, clay pots, their jewelry, and their use of corn fascinated me because they reflected a long cultural association with this landscape. Everything was centered around their sources of sustenance and the creatures that they shared their environment with; the animals, plants, and soil of this environment.
A Long Cultural Memory
It was magical to be around people with a long cultural memory of this land. It was their identity. Everything around them, the hills, the trees, the rocks, and the animals spoke deeply to their continuity with the place. Their ancestors were here in these places, their language evolved here in response to the needs of the community living here. (Zuni is believed to be 7,000 years old). Little wonder that I felt so moved and spellbound by the power of their expression, in this ancestral settlement.
The children’s participation in the dancing was perhaps one of the most inspiring things I saw. Children being raised to learn the steps and vocalizations of the songs, to feel the power of the costumes, the imaginative associations with the meanings of the dance, was a powerful testament to the continuity of this culture.
The day did end with a thunderstorm. I caught a quick picture before I dashed back to the car.