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When Answers Don't Really Matter


Daphne and Stephanie visit Pueblo Bonito
Truth, I found out, can be hard to uncover. I had spent the last few days trying to learn more about the Pueblos of New Mexico, but had gotten few answers. The Pueblos, it seemed, were private and wary of tourists. Most restricted what could be photographed or filmed, and all gave little clue as to what went on during traditional ceremonies and ritual dances. I decided I might have better luck studying their past, and so I went to Chaco Canyon looking for facts, dates and clear answers about the ancestral Puebloan people and their culture. What I got instead was a story punctuated by question marks, uncertainties and what-ifs. And, depending on who was talking, very different takes on the truth behind the rise and fall of this grand place.

This much we know: Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, was once the trading and commercial hub of the ancestral Puebloans, a regional center that thrived for 300 years, from 800 CE to about 1150 CE. Chaco put the "Mall of America" to shame! People came from miles around to shop, trade, barter, hang out with friends, and even make new ones. It was the place to see and be seen!

The ancestral Puebloans went all out-they built massive structures, such as Pueblo Bonito, the largest building excavated so far in Chaco, which contained hundreds of rooms, multiple stories, and huge subterranean ceremonial chambers called "kivas." These structures were built over a period of 200 years, but after the ancestral people left the area, all of the buildings were abandoned. It was not until the 1890s that excavations began and archaeologists started to discover these hidden treasures.

But the discovery of Chaco by non-Native Americans led to many questions. Why did the ancestral Puebloans build such a complex and intricate center? Why did they do so in northwest New Mexico, an area of high desert and unforgiving terrain? And, perhaps most importantly, why, after spending so much time and effort building this place, did they desert it in the end?

One of the many doors of Pueblo Bonito
These questions are almost impossible to answer because the ancestral Puebloans didn't leave any written records. Theirs was an oral culture, and as such, everything was passed down from person to person by word of mouth. The architects who built Pueblo Bonito, for instance, did so without any written instructions or blueprints-they memorized everything! So instead of relying on old journals, manuscripts and letters (which don't exist) to make sense of Chaco, archaeologists have to try and guess about the ways of the Chacoans.

Does that sound hard? It is. Take, for example, the mounds of broken pottery. At several places in Chaco, archaeologists found piles and piles of pottery, all broken to pieces, and for a long time, no one knew why. What's more, many people who steal the pieces are said to develop severe cramping on whichever hand first touched the pottery, while others encounter some very bad luck. And what about the Great North Road, a 30-ft wide road that runs for 35 miles from Chaco into the Badlands Canyon and seemingly leads nowhere?

Fajada Butte stands alone
The most baffling mystery has been, without a doubt, the petroglyphs found on Fajada Butte, behind three slabs of rock. Fajada Butte, a rock formation visible from Pueblo Bonito, was the first thing Stephanie and I saw when we arrived in Chaco. (It is rumored that a female ghost called "She Who Dries You Out" lives on top of the Butte and lures lonely men to her.) We found out later that etched on the rock behind the slabs are two spirals, a large one and a small one, and that at noon on the summer solstice (the longest day of the year), the sun shines between the stone slabs and creates a dagger of light that pierces the large spiral right in the middle! And that's not all-during the spring and fall equinoxes, dagger-shaped beams of light appear at various points on the spirals, marking perfectly the sun's passage through the year.

Someone tried to explain this to us when we first got to Chaco and we didn't get it. Maybe you don't either. But trust me, this is big! Imagine being able to track the trajectory of the sun so perfectly that you can create a calendar with a spiral drawing on a rock! And, what's more, without using computers, maps, GPS or a calculator. I admit, I was blown-away.

OK, so you're still not impressed. How about this: another petroglyph was found at Fajada Butte that depicts Pueblo Bonito and the sun. When researchers studied this a little closer, they found out that Pueblo Bonito was built entirely in relation to the sun. That means that for over 200 years (the time it took to build Pueblo Bonito), the ancestral architects planned the building so that its walls were exactly North-South and East-West. What does that mean? It means that during the spring and fall equinoxes (while dagger-shaped beams of light are appearing on Fajada Butte), the sun rises and sets exactly over the East-West wall of Pueblo Bonito. And remember, they built this without writing anything down.

A bird's eye view of Pueblo Bonito
You're STILL not impressed?! Are you crazy? OK, last chance. The same researchers who determined Pueblo Bonito's relationship to the sun also found that seven other buildings at Chaco were built around the sun's cycle. And, what's more, several of these buildings were also constructed in accordance to the moon's cycle. I can't even begin to explain to you the cycle of the moon-it's very complicated and even after watching a movie on it twice, I'm still a little confused. But what I do know is that the moon has a 19-year cycle, so it takes generations of people to track it, and many more to build structures in such a way that every 9 ¼ years, the moon sets just over its walls. And that's just what these amazing ancestral Puebloans did! Scientists were just as baffled by this astronomical and architectural feat as I am. To them, the truth about Chaco is hard to grasp.

But here is another truth-one told by Native Americans about their Puebloan ancestors. Chaco was a sign from the Creator, and a place deemed to be the center of their world. The people who built it viewed the Heavens as a place with order and thought that Earth needed some order too! So Chaco's elaborate design mimicking the patterns of the sun and the moon was a way to transfer the orderly nature of the cosmos to the chaos of Earth. Why would the ancestral Puebloans think that Earth was messy and chaotic? Well, they'd experienced droughts, extreme cold, bad crops and torrential rains. Instead of calling this confusion "El Niño" (like we did a few years ago), they decided the best way to restore order was to try and imitate the orderly cycles of the sun and moon through the construction of their buildings.

Kivas look like muffin tins
Much of their rituals also revolved around the celestial patterns. During certain times of the year, perhaps at solstice, ancestral Puebloans broke pots on purpose, as an offering to the Heavens. So many pots were broken that their bits and pieces made a pile taller than some of the smaller buildings at Chaco! Other spiritual rituals, conducted in the "kivas," also coincided with the cycles of the sun. By being (almost) underground, people who entered the "kivas" could connect to Mother Earth in a way that they couldn't if they were to stay above the ground.

The Great Road North also tells another truth. Although in my eyes it leads to the middle of nowhere, to the ancestral Puebloans (and their descendents) it connects them to their point of origin. According to Native Americans, north is where they came from and this road thus leads them to the Creator and to their beginning. After walking this road and symbolically arriving at their beginning, many Puebloans would break pots as an offering to the Heavens.

And what about the fall of Chaco? For Native Americans, the people of Chaco abused the powers that had been granted to them by the Heavens. They caused things to change in ways that we may never understand. Which is OK, because according to Native American tradition, some things are never meant to be fully understood. What's more, everything that is built is meant to go back to Mother Earth, so the end of the Chaco era is part of the natural cycle of things.

For Native Americans, Chaco holds many truths, some of which shed light into their past and help define their identity. After walking through its ruins, hiking its trails, and soaking in some of its magic, I too began to appreciate its sacredness and its place among the natural cycle of things. I realized that uncovering the whole truth was not as important as simply understanding the significance of this place to those whose history is inextricably tied to it. Although I went to Chaco looking for facts and answers, I left-pointing north - with much more.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - The wild and wacky world of Seminole Indian alligator wrestling
Irene - Take me to the river! Slippery salmons swimming upstream
Neda - A ghost town turns into a whirling dervish dance festival
Nick - Getting in touch with the Native American past through the heart of a woman
Teddy - Whale hunting and the art of preserving traditions
Team - The first inhabitants of North America: A picture of a proud and strong people
Team - Tomorrow's leaders, today's American Indian youth