Posts Tagged ‘SW Anthropology’

In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park, the first to expand the parks concept beyond exclusively preserving scenic natural wonders (like Yellowstone), to include the “works of man.”

Cliff Palace ©SR Euston

In 1888 the Wetherills, a local ranching family, stumbled upon magnificent and mysterious cliff dwellings perched in caves up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls. Throughout the 1890s commercial pot hunters looted these ancient ruins; many original artifacts now reside in private collections. This widespread destruction led to the drive, spearheaded by Colorado women’s clubs, to preserve Mesa Verde for posterity.

Although the cliff cities remain the park’s major attraction, there are vast mesatop ruins in Mesa Verde too. Today, within its 52,000 acres, there are the over 4500 identified archeological sites, only about 600 of them cliff dwellings.

One of the most accessible of the mesatop complexes is Far View, an agricultural community which encompasses a cluster of small unit family housing within a stone’s throw of each other. There are larger pueblos too: One of these is Far View House, a two-story 40 room building enclosing four kivas. Because of its size, archeologists speculate that Far View House was more a town hall than a housing development, serving public purposes for the extended Far View community. Along with four other partially excavated sites, the Far View complex give a flavor of ancestral puebloan agricultural life.

But there is also a different kind of surprise at Far View. Unnoticed by most visitors are the remnants of Mummy Lake, a specially engineered reservoir to the north of the community. A network of upstream ditches served as catch arteries for runoff which was channeled into this 90 foot diameter stone walled and lined depression. Mummy Lake could hold as much as one half million gallons of water. Besides providing water for Far View’s 500 residents, it also was used to irrigate nearby fields of corn, squash and beans.  In the late 1200s, when Far View inhabitants moved over the edge to cliff dwellings below, they built a ditch which continued to provide water for fields and drinking.

This now dry, sediment-filled reservoir was certainly a remarkable feat of coordinated planning and construction. In 2004, a millennium after its construction, Mummy Lake received a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as “One of the earliest public works projects in North America.”

How was all this planning and construction—cliff cities, mesatop towns, huge reservoirs—accomplished with tools of only wood and stone? It’s those kind of questions that make Mesa Verde such a haunting place.

Edge of Chapin Mesa ©SR Euston


Read Full Post »

West of the Thirties, written 60 years after the events it records, chronicles the four summers a barely adult Edward T. Hall spent working on the Hopi and Navajo reservations of northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. He was only 19 when he arrived to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933.

Hall went on to become a world renowned cultural anthropologist.  In his college classes and his State Department foreign service officer training, he taught his central theory: Because individuals in one culture are unaware of, or insensitive to, differences in how other cultures perceive and act in the world, fundamental misunderstandings and miscommunications occur all too easily and all too often.

As the subtitle, Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi, suggests, Hall’s groundbreaking ideas were shaped in those four years he acted as a camp manager in the Native American equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps, overseeing work crews of Navajos and Hopis as they improved reservation roads—which were in deplorable condition—and built check dams, important to reservation agriculture.

The reservation years most certainly provided him direct experience of his now widely accepted anthropological concepts: the importance of proxemics, how various cultures define and organize space; the essential nature of nonverbal communication; the likely misunderstandings between high context cultures (much background information is taken for granted) versus low context cultures (little background information is assumed) ; and the difficulties arising between monochronic cultures (those who do one thing at a time with emphasis on planning and time management) versus polychronic cultures (those who emphasize human interaction, allowing results to evolve in their own time.)

Hall admits he thought long and hard about the title West of the Thirties and what it might convey. Not only was he talking about the 30s as a pivotal time in our collective history. He was also aware that he was describing one of the last true frontiers—the empty, stunningly beautiful land, red and sculpted, resting in the sun under the bowl of azure sky. The mud and sand, horses and wagons, sandstone canyons and dry arroyos, Indian traders and reservation agents. This was the Real West, not the cheap imitation created by Hollywood and horse operas. A West that still existed in Hopi and Navajo land in the 1930s.

That descriptive vigor and obvious infatuation with the harsh southwestern landscape makes West of the Thirties sing and gives it a lasting place on my Western bookshelf. I’ve read all of Hall’s popular works and this is my favorite, the most personally engaging and illuminating. It is a paean to an almost mythic place, a time, and a way of being in the world that has been all but lost. It is a Western in the truest and finest sense of the word.

Edward T. Hall, anthropologist extraordinaire and New Mexican to the core, died July 20, 2009 in his Santa Fe home.

West of the Thirties: Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi.

by Edward T. Hall.

Doubleday. New York. 1994. 187 pages.

Read Full Post »