We continue to find beautiful and surprising places to visit near Flagstaff. Perhaps the unusual weather is helping -- we have had a succession of bright, sunny days, to the consternation of Flagstaff Sunset Crater volcano residents who miss the snow sports and who fear next summer's fire danger.
About 30 miles east of the city we found a pair of National Monuments just perfect for a midday excursion: Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki Pueblo.
Approaching the volcano we passed through large lava beds. Entire hillsides are covered with lava and cinders. This is part of a chain of volcanic outcrops, some of which are currently being quarried. National Park Service (NPS) materials tell us that in 1928, filmmakers wanted to create a landslide using Sunset Crater and activists, fearing the destruction of this dramatic site, lobbied successfully for the creating of national monument status for its protection. With the NPS' inclusion of nearby Wupatki Pueblo, this historic place has also been protected, after ecades of pot-hunting and scavenging.
The volcano, which erupted about 1100 may have been partially responsible for the brief settlement of the Wupatki Pueblo. The thick ash from the volcano protected the thin soil layer, and trapped some of the scarce rainwater, allowing at least minimal agriculture. A small community grew and remained long enough to build and maintain the complex pueblo, and smaller buildings, some of which can be spotted at a distance, Overlooking Wupatki Pueblo site grew up as well. According to the literature, at one time about a thousand people lived within a day's walk of the Pueblo.
These open-space communal buildings are much more common than the cliff dwellings which capture more publicity. The cliff-side dwellers of Walnut Canyon may very well have mingled with the Wupatki people and with others as well, for there are signs of trading in the relics found at each location.
Over time, the spring which supplied the pueblo dried up. The residents moved elsewhere, possibly joining neighboring Hopi or Navajo communities. Others visited the site and made use of the buildings: Basque shepherds used the pueblo for shelter, enlarging one of the doors. Navajo shepherds built shelters and grazed their flocks in the area, but in 1930 were evicted by the NPS. "They don't have the trace of any title to the property," said one fatuous NPS report to Washington, showing that after 300 years of contact, Americans of European ancestry still had not grasped that Native Americans did not believe in the concept of private property. NPS rangers then moved into the pueblo and fitted out two of the small rooms with propane stoves and heaters and lived there for a short time.
Today, visitors to Wupatki walk a paved trail which passes close to Wupatki Pueblo the structure. We could see the shapes of manyof the rooms and imagine what the community life was like. Some areas, like a small square room, may have been a kiva for private ceremonies. The separate ball court and community rooms are described with caveats -- nobody knows for sure what use was made of them.
At Wupatki Pueblo is a blowhole, where air moves in or out of a large underground cavity, depending on the differences in temperature and pressure. We put our hands over the hole and felt a strong breeze.
The current flap between the NPS and Native American tribes has to do with the archaeologists' desire to dig up what the Native Americans say should be left alone. And they have a good point, for the dead were typically buried in the pueblo, so the archaeologists would be robbing graves. Perhaps when archaeologists freely dig up western graveyards they can claim there is no bias. For now the Native Americans are winning, and the archaeologists are frustrated, possibly because they might lose their jobs if there's no place to dig.
When the NPS took over most of Waputki Pueblo was buried in rubble. They excavated down for about two stories, revealing much of the intricate construction. They rebuilt many walls based on archaeological evidence, and the ball court and community room were reconstructed just from the outline of the curving walls. CCC workers built an attractive trail which circles the Natural and man-made walls pueblo and an excellent trail guide explains the possible uses of the site and the different parts of the pueblo. Permission has been obtained for visitors to enter one of the 100 rooms.
In Flagstaff, Native Americans are becoming westernized -- attending Northern Arizona University to become qualified for higher-paying jobs in the hotels and stores in the city. Often they are providing financial support for the older generation, their parents who choose to live on the reservation. Their education makes them see the desire to study the culture of their ancestors, many generations back, but their sense of tradition and their well-established beliefs makes them respect the sacred nature of the old places. They too are torn between competing values.
Absent support from the tribes for archaeological digs, scientists might do well to studying Native American languages and oral histories to try to obtain clues to their past. Such an approach might spur a cooperative and friendly approach between tribal leaders and anthropologists.