Monday, June 17, 2013

Walking: Tsankawi, New Mexico


     I'm sitting in Dave Munsell's green pickup beside New Mexico's State Highway 4, the route to Bandelier National Monument, feeing a pockmarked plateau framed by a blindingly blue sky. The topographical map of this "p-j" country (piñon pine and juniper) that I bought at the Travel Bug in nearby Santa Fe shows mesas, mountains, wooded valleys, and canyons. Much of it lies within overlapping cultural and federal jurisdictions that define this unique state: Santa Fe National Forest, Caja Rio Grant, San Ildefonso Indian Reservation, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as Bandelier.
     Dave plants a large finger in the middle of an inky whorl that is the unexcavated pueblo of Tsankawi, abandoned some 500 years ago, and says, "This is where we are." The site, he adds, is laced with innumerable potsherds, obsidian flakes, bits of jewelry, and other artifacts
     Looking up, I can see darkened caves - "cavates," in archaeological parlance - in the soft pumice cliffs that were enlarged by the people who once used them as ancient condos, with exterior rooms added, a scene thaf s both intriguing and a bit unsettling. Before we set out, Dave extracts the old cigarette lighter from the dashboard and dribbles crushed sage leaves onto its hot coil. Bluish smoke rises.
     "Thanks for this day," he intones, wafting the pungent smoke toward us, "and for this place," speaking to no one in particular-Dave's an archaeologist, not a medicine man-just paying tribute to those who once occupied this beautiful, daunting, inherently spiritual land.
     At six-foot-six, in jeans, cowboy boots, and snap-pocket shirt, Dave looks the classic Southwesterner, although he grew up in Seattle and studied Native Americans at the university there. But in the dozen years he's spent in New Mexico, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations assessing archaeological sites, he has learned a great deal about Pueblo cultures. A bit of a maverick among archaeologists, he has also acquired many friends among existing tribes and is often invited to Indian ceremonies off-limits to others.
     We get out and pass through an opening in the barbed wire fence, pausing beside a marker put up by the U.S. Park Service: "The Tsankawi (San-ka-WEE) spoke Tewa, while those in Frijoles Canyon, the main section of Bandelier, spoke Keres." They were all so-called Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning "enemies of our ancestors," although that collective term is controversial among Pueblo people these days.
     We climb toward their ghost town, along an eroded rut that has borne human traffic for thousands of years, bordered by blooming Indian paintbrush, globe mallow, yucca. A ladder made of skinned piñon boughs and set in place by the Park Service takes us up to the rock ledge above, where grooves in the pumice indicate that stone axes were sharpened here. Higher up, designs- petroglyphs-have been etched into the cliff walls. They depict snakes, crosses, spirals, and a man apparently playing a flute-Kokopelli, a common figure on cliff walls throughout the Southwest, alternately referred to as flute player and fertility deity. No one knows for sure what Kokopelli and many other petroglyphs and pictographs mean, all of them unanswered, stony questions left in the wake of a once lively, vanished race.

     Essentially pueblo dwellers, the ancient inhabitants migrated originally from Chaco Canyon to Mesa Verde, up in Colorado, and then down to these parts. Hunter-gatherers, they depended upon piñon nuts harvested in the fall and on corn, beans, tobacco, and maybe amaranth, grown on hundred-foot-square plots down on the sage flats, also wintering ground for elk "Most of them here lived on top of the mesa," says Dave, as we reach the rim. There, big stones have been arranged in a rough circle some 20 yards across, overgrown now with brush, what's left of a multistoried structure once housing hundreds.
     "It was probably the oldest pumice block building in America," Dave says, "with 300 to 400 rooms. No one knows how long it took to build it. Let's sit awhile, and try to imagine what it was like, living here."
     Sleeping quarters were on top, the food stored below. "The plaza would have been swept clean. People would have been cooking down here, bartering, maybe dancing, while others were out gathering food. And all around were the ldyas"-subsurface, cylindrical pits belonging to various clans, where only males were allowed to enter. There the men wove blankets and cloaks of cotton and turkey feathers, in the presence of the sipapu, a Hopi word designating the hole in the floor, symbol of human emergence from the earth.
     "Their society was matriarchal and matrilineal. The men may have controlled religion, but the women controlled life, because of childbirth."
     It was Dave who uncovered the six-footdeep hole off to one side that was once a catchment basin for rainwater. "It's logical. The nearest water was a mile away, and that was a long way to carry it." Now that he has identified the basin, it seems obvious, but for a long time it escaped official notice. "Academic archaeologists are always looking for big architectural features," he adds, smiling. "I just poke around."
     And he asks questions, like "Why did the Tewa abandon this site in the early 150Os? Was it drought, or overutilization of resources, or some messianic cult demanding that they move out? After that time, why did other kinds of settlements develop all around here-scattered pueblos, linear villages? Maybe they were defenses against invaders, maybe not."

     Partial answers certainly lie beneath the ground, which has never been excavated and catalogued. Dave picks up a piece of knapped flint. "This is from the Cerro Pedernal, 30 miles away, where there's a band of chert three feet thick." This flinty rock was traded all over, and made into arrowheads. Coral and abalone shells came all the way from the Pacific coast, and turquoise from Cerrillos, 50 miles distant. None of this is readily evident here, although occasionally artifacts are exposed by the wind and rain-and by fire ants, great excavators in their own right, as well as fierce defenders of their turf.
     We sift through sand in one of their mounds. "Ouch," says Dave, inspecting his bitten finger. "They're supposed to be hibernating." But I have spotted something pale blue reflecting the pure New Mexican sunlight, smaller than a nail head. Close inspection proves it to be a broken turquoise bead, a groove worn into the side by a cord long since destroyed by rain and the desert sun.
     Much of the Tsankawi's garbage and rubble was dumped over the north side of the mesa, where it lies today under more earth and sand. The cliff dwellings were all on the east and south sides, where they caught the sun in winter. Another ladder is to take us down, but before descending, Dave opens a pouch of tobacco and scatters some on the wind, another gesture of respect 'Tobacco was sacred, and still is."
     On the ledge below we examine holes dug into the pumice above the cavates for wood roof supports-vigas-that extended outward for the creation of exterior rooms. Many of these dwellings had second stories. Householders could stand on the roofs and chip petroglyphs into the cliff face: more spirals, stick figures, animals real and imagined, animate this place. "I think some of these were fairly mundane," Dave says. "Like, 'Turkey seller lives here.'" However, what may look like casual doodles in stone, or ancient graffiti, was all related to the natural world. Today its mystery and immediacy still mesmerizes.
     Some of the cavates served as kivas, which was typical among Pueblo people. We crawl inside one. The ceiling has been blackened by ancient fires, the hard-packed dirt floor once sealed with animal blood, an ancient substitute for floor wax.
     We lean against the wall. "Wait a while," Dave says. "You'll feel the power."
The November wind plays over the eroded cliff face, rattling brush. Dave says he has seldom seen anyone inside the kiva, just an occasional tourist, cautious with the darkness. He speculates that men once played drums in here, and begins to rhythmically pound the floor. The pumice walls resound like a hollow log. He begins to chant I have no idea what the words mean, and Dave never says, but this hidden domain reverberates with the combined voice of man and stone, distinctly otherworldly.

     Afterward, we walk back to the pickup in silence, careful to avoid the prickly pear cactus. Before climbing back into his pickup, Dave says thoughtfully, "I know a lot about this place. But I still feel like an interloper."

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