Post for 11/29
I’m currently writing an archaeology paper that discusses the relevant theories regarding the abandonment of Chaco Canyon by its Ancestral Puebloan inhabitants around 1200-1300 CE. In researching the topic, I learned that after several hundred years of semi-permanent use, settlement in Chaco became fixed, and Chacoan society thrived from about 600-1200 CE. During the next century, the people of Chaco (and other surrounding areas) migrated to new parts of the Southwest, including the Rio Grande area and Mesa Verde. This conclusion is supported by strong archaeological evidence; however, when Chaco society is described, it is often referenced as an example of “collapse”, “failure”, or “downfall” of a society. I would like to investigate why so many scholars view it this way, and what implications that frame might have for understanding the lasting influence of Chaco.
Before beginning my research, I didn’t consider how problematic this portrayal could be. When thinking about Chaco, I, like many others, tended to focus on the huge structures and impressive architectural feats that have made the site so popular in recent decades. As I reviewed sources, many emphasized a contradictory aspect of Chaco, presenting it as an environment that was both usable by the Puebloans and simultaneously harsh and unyielding. Jared Diamond, Joseph Tainter, and many others seem to suggest that the Puebloans were able to adapt to this environment for a time, but were ultimately defeated by the difficult conditions, leading to a complete destruction of their society. Tainter (1998, pg 178) says that any information about Chacoan society can be gained “only through its archaeological remains,” further reinforcing this idea that there are no living sources or lasting impact that can be distinguished. Finally, the idea of a migration is rarely (if ever) mentioned.
Thankfully, Michael Wilcox provides an eloquent counterargument in his essay “Marketing Conquest and the Vanishing Indian”. As a Native American archaeologist who has done extensive fieldwork at Chaco, he is able to provide a more nuanced perspective of the link between historical narratives and native reality. He outlines the facts of the migration and some eventual results, discussing how the descendants of Chaco interacted with Christianity and Spanish colonizers, but his primary concern is the treatment of the site by other scholars. There seems to be a separation drawn between Native Americans of the past and those of the present; when a link is acknowledged, it is explained in terms of some abstract, tenuous connection rather than one of direct descendants. In his book “Anasazi America,” David Stuart not-so-helpfully explains to the reader that following the collapse of Chaco, the Puebloans “adapted” to avoid experiencing similar problems in the future. He gives no explanation of this apparently instant adaptation, and provides no evidence to support such an incredibly general claim.
Wilcox suggests that this kind of language, even if used unconsciously, contributes to a cultural narrative in the United States that legitimizes colonization. When the reality of the Puebloans’ situation is not accurately portrayed, or the evidence for hundreds of years of thriving, creating, and adapting are labeled essentially “fruitless,” it helps to form the idea of what he calls “indigenous failures” (Wilcox 2010, pg. 138): circumstances that are said to contribute to the Puebloans’ eventual displacement and mistreatment, while affording very little responsibility to the people who actually drove such actions (namely, the Spanish and US government).
These narratives will likely become even more important in the coming years. As the fight at Standing Rock continues to rage, existing discussions of Native rights are being made increasingly clear to Americans who may not have confronted similar issues in the past. A simple comparison of the stories of protesters and statements of the police at the site will demonstrate the two different narratives that are being offered to the public. In this, as in all situations, we must be extremely wary of accepting a certain narrative simply because it is supported by the government or mainstream media; instead, we should consider the implications of any narrative we choose to adopt, and rely on facts to come to a just and accurate conclusion.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005.
Wilcox “Marketing Conquest and the Vanishing Indian,” Chapter 5 of McAnany, Patricia A. and Norman Yoffee. Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, 2010.
Stuart, David E. Ancient Southwest : Chaco Canyon, Bandelier, and Mesa Verde, 2010.
Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988.