In the Hopi language, Nayavu’waltsa is a place name, meaning “Clay Gap Place” and refers to the region known as Black Mesa, located in Northern Arizona. This mesa of the high desert is a geologic uplift of the much larger Colorado Plateau which covers a large area of the 4 Corners region; Southeastern Utah, Western Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico and Arizona. The Northern edge of Nayavu’waltsa ends abruptly, looming several hundred feet above the valley below and from a distance rises like a dark shadow; a vanguard of time, space and culture.
If you were to stand on one of its many vistas and look North, you would catch far-off views of Monument Valley to the Northwest, the snow-capped peaks of the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado and to the East, the landscape fades into the Chacoan homestead of Northern New Mexico. Surrounded by pine and fir tree forests, if you turned to the opposite point of the compass, the land gradually slopes away to the Southern escarpments of Black Mesa, some 60 miles as the crow flies. The vegetation transitions to juniper, pinyon pine and sage brush flats where eventually you find the Hopi villages, perched atop mesas where we have lived for over 1,000 years. Here, Nayavu’waltsa ends and gives way to the Little Colorado River valley, with the outline of Nuvatak’yaovi, the San Francisco Peaks, on the horizon, rising to 12,000 feet in elevation.
It is in this landscape that finds 6 archaeologists, 3 Hopi tribal members and 3 contractors, who for 8 days have been conducting archaeological survey up on Black Mesa. We have endured the still stormy spring weather that is common in Northern Arizona. Facing rain, snow, hail and lightning, turning the ground into a slip-sliding mess of clay, true to its Hopi name. This first session was our introduction to a landscape that many of us as archaeologists have heard, read about and studied in our academic training. It is a fabled land in archaeological history. An origin and stronghold of a prehistoric culture first known by the foreign name of “Anasazi” (a word of navajo language) and now re-labeled as “Ancestral Puebloan” (a term that still lacks the true reflection of who these people were, and who they later became).
This is ancient land of Hopi ancestors, the Hisat’sinom, “The People of Long Ago”, inhabited since Time Immemorial we would say. The science of archaeology states that human use and occupation of the area extends back 10,000 years. Back to a time when Hopi ancestors were pursuing mega-fauna such as mastodon, bison and other large game, hurling spear points as long as my hand at these great beasts. Although the traces of those times are difficult to discern in the archaeological record, the spirit of that history continues to be felt as one gazes out on the distant horizons. I wonder if those very early people would recognize this land as it appears now? In between the mega-hunters and today, many other Hopi ancestors have passed through and lived upon this landscape, leaving behind the traces of their existence.
One of the more unique aspects of the Hopi ancestors who lived here, are the ceramics they created, beginning as early as 500 A.D., over 1,000 years ago. Pottery types such as Tusayan Corrugated, Tusayan Whitewares, Polychromes and many others can be traced to this region and nearby areas as a “birthplace”. Here the early potters refined these various styles which would become synonymous with Black Mesa and were traded far and wide across the Southwest.
In our survey work we come across numerous outcroppings of clay, of various colors and textures. During our lunch and dinner conversations, we wonder if these sources were once gathered by Hopi ancestors in making their pottery. We encounter the broken sherds by the thousands, some showing experimentation of style and design, mixture and variation as these artisans developed what would become the “diagnostic” or tell-tale signature of these ceramics. As one of my fellow archaeologists stated, “these families were creating these styles, there were no rules, they could do whatever they wanted”.
Generations later, descendants of these early potters would migrate hundreds of miles south, to the deserts of central and southern Arizona and New Mexico. They would take with them their designs and techniques, lending their genes and creativity to the birth of a new culture, the Salado. There they would establish new villages, developing yet another set of ceramics, Roosevelt Red Ware. After a few generations, these groups would once again migrate, this time back north to Hopi and Zuni, completing their migrations (a topic for yet another blog).
The immediate purpose of the Class III archaeological survey we are conducting is to identify and record the “footprints” of Hopi ancestors; ceramics, lithics, architecture and any other tangible evidence found within the archaeological record. The area we are working in is located at the far northern edge of the Hopi reservation (approx 1.6 million acres). The survey section is an area approximately 2,000 acres and is leased by the Hopi Tribe to Peabody Western Coal Company, which has been strip mining coal in the Black Mesa area for well over 40 years. In fact, the presence of large coal deposits are what give Black Mesa its name.
The overall purpose of the survey is to provide data for inclusion in a future Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). An EIS is meant to be a “full disclosure” public document, and will determine whether or not Peabody can continue mining operations in this section. This area is one of the last within Hopi leases, while other lease areas exist on Navajo Reservation lands, literally across the fence. Although the ultimate decision has yet to be made about future mining in this area, it is no secret that Peabody covets the coal deposits in this area, despite their recent plunge into financial bankruptcy. Thus there is subtle, yet noticeable pressure to have this survey completed and the EIS process begun.
Some may argue that it is necessary to allow Peabody to continue mining on Hopi lands, given that a large portion of the Hopi Tribe’s operating budget relies on the royalties generated from mining activities. If the mining stops, where will the money come from to keep the Tribe afloat? They may argue that it is an example of Tribal Sovereignty at work, showcasing this as a process of Self-Determination. In one sense, this is all true.
While I do not wish to delve into the economic outlook of the Hopi Tribe (at least right now), I will agree to a point that this is one example of Self-Determination & Tribal Sovereignty. Yet from my perspective, this example is an out-dated one, relying still on outside influences and decision-makers to bring about the results. Energy entities such as Salt River Project (SRP), Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and Peabody Western Coal Company all have a hand in this process and in one way or another, use their political and financial resources to influence the outcomes.
However, and let me be very clear on this issue, this survey is not about granting “clearance” to allow continued mining. In the first place, that is not what Cultural Resource Management is about. There is a mis-conception that archaeologists somehow wave a magic wand and grant the “OK” for a project to move forward. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we do as archaeologists is provide real in-field data and information to enable decision-makers in government (in this case the Hopi Tribal Council and other elected officials) to hopefully make informed decisions about proposed development. Yet as archaeologists, at the foundation of our training and intentions, we carry a philosophy of preservation and protection, which can have various manifestations and results (more on that in later postings).
As the rain, snow and hail fall around us, we walk survey transects, spaced 15 meters apart, looking for the footprints of Hopi ancestors. In addition to these prehistoric signs, we are also looking to identify the more recent and modern evidence of Hopi use. This land is a living part of Hopi culture and as such, there are places that remain actively used; shrines where offerings are deposited, gathering areas for minerals and plants, and trails that are remembered in history, song and prayer. These we record as Traditional Cultural Places (TCPs), a designation that seeks to encompass their meaning beyond the science of archaeology. Included in this documentation is ethnographic information collected by knowledgeable Hopi persons representing various clans, societies and villages. Thus our field survey combines not only archaeological data, but that of the “living culture”, providing a dual perspective that strives to be holistic and respectful of Hopi ancestors and their modern descendants.
As we continue our survey work, I hope to present not only insight into our discoveries, but I also to use this as an attempt to provide for a greater call to preserve this cultural landscape. We are all too aware of the negative side-effects of strip mining; contamination of groundwater, loss of wilderness, the erasing of Indigenous histories off the map. If mining operations are allowed to continue, not only will we lose the rich archaeological and cultural history, but also the immense bio-diversity found in this area, including pristine forests that are hundreds of years old.
Ultimately, as we prepare to head off for another 8 day field session, I view this and future blog posts as one way to educate the reader on what we stand to lose. That if anything, beyond our culture, this maybe the only “thing” we preserve in our lifetimes that we pass onto future generations. Only time will tell….
For additional information see: https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-black-mesa-syndrome/