We must defend Chaco Canyon

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In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, it is still possible to wander the maze of rooms of an ancestral Puebloan village erected roughly 1,000 years ago.

Visitors use the same staircases and duck through the same T-shaped doorways as residents did at the time. A jigsaw puzzle of rocks form walls that stand several feet thick and multiple stories tall. Where rooftops are gone, windows now let in glimpses of sky. It’s a simultaneous experience of vast space and marvelous connection.

Hundreds of such dwellings sprawl over the south-west, from New Mexico to Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Each is a testament to the determined faith of their inhabitants, who aligned the walls of structures with the axis of the rising sun on an equinox, and etched petroglyphs the sunlight bisects only on solstices.

Chaco Culture national historical park, created in 1907, contains a concentration of these ancestral Puebloan structures abandoned around 1200 AD. Unesco recognized it as a world heritage site in 1987 for its “monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture – it has an ancient urban ceremonial centre that is unlike anything constructed before or since”.

It’s as close as the US gets to Egypt’s pyramids and Peru’s Machu Picchu, but recent years have seen drilling pressing closer to the park’s boundaries, now aided by the Trump administration’s work to accelerate oil and gas development.

If not stopped, those developments could spell the end of a myriad of clues archaeologists and anthropologists are still unraveling about Chacoans’ way of life.

A ‘Great House’, in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

A ‘great house’ in Chaco Culture national historical park. Photograph: VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images

Anthropologist Ruth Van Dyke is trying to unveil what visitors would have seen and heard on their way into the canyon and the epicenter of their civilization. But while she made a visit last fall, a dozen oilwell pump jacks interrupted her view of landmarks that still figure in Native American stories. The nearest one, less than a mile away, could be heard working.

“It very much feels like an industrial park,” Van Dyke says. “They haven’t put any of these pump jacks on an archaeological site, and yet the overall effect is really horrific.”

For Native Americans descended from these ancestral Puebloans, the ability to pray in places their ancestors prayed is not just significant; it’s sacred.

“If you speak to any other pueblo cultural leader, they will likely tell you that none of these places were abandoned, that these places were always meant to be places that we simply refer to as ‘home’, and that we continue to have a responsibility as stewards of these places to maintain a connection to them,” says Theresa Pasqual, former historic preservation director for the Acoma Pueblo and a consultant to the All Pueblo Council of Governors, an alliance of 20 pueblos in New Mexico and Texas.

Recent years have seen the landscape around Chaco changing in ways that worry natives and archaeologists.

The San Juan Basin seeped natural gas for decades, a sleepy little play that drew modest interest. Then in 2013, energy companies took new technology to a nearby shale formation, and a previously unyielding layer began to spout oil. The ability to drill wells a mile deep and a mile and a half long and to hydraulically fracture those rock formations spurred development, and has drawn it toward Chaco.

The local field office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), responsible for leasing many of those mineral rights, has conceded the pace of drilling exceeds anything their planning documents foresaw. They’re at work on updates.

Meanwhile, lease sales continue.

While the park itself may be protected, it’s only a portion of what remains of ancient Chacoans. Many outlier sites or ceremonial roads may not even yet be identified.

“If we destroy our ability to study these outlier communities and we destroy our ability to study these connections, particularly these connections in terms of these roads and visibility, we’re never going to understand Chaco,” says Van Dyke. “We need to take care of all of the pieces of that system and the connections among those pieces, not just the center of it.”


Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.

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Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

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About Kurly Tlapoyawa (1010 Articles)

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