The civilization that inhabited the canyon in central New Mexico known as “Chaco Canyon” was indeed a “phenomenon”. Despite extensive archaeological study, there is little known of the society or the people that lived there. It seems to defy fitting into a known political and/or ritual society. As Lynne Sebastian, director of historic preservation programs at the SRI Foundation, puts it, “The extraordinary archaeological record of this society indicates both a strong political structure and an intense emphasis on ritual.”
So, why not look at the descendants of the people that lived in Chaco Canyon one thousand years ago? Again from Sebastian, “these descendants have not only tenaciously survived, but have, to a remarkable extent, been able to preserve knowledge of their traditional lifeways.” But, she sees their preserved knowledge as both a blessing and a curse, “. . . a blessing because it provides us with the potential for detailed, clearly applicable analogies for a wide variety of past behaviors. It is a curse because the richness of the living cultures makes it too easy to grow myopic and not consider other cultural patterns from beyond this region.”
The Hopi are descendants of the people who lived in Chaco Canyon one thousand years ago. Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma is director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and a member of the Hopi Tribe. Here are excerpts from his article “Yupkoyvi, The Hopi Story of Chaco Canyon” that appeared in the publication “In Search of Chaco, New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma” edited by David Grant Noble. “Aliksa’i. Listen, let us begin. From the four cardinal directions they came. The Hisatsinom, the ancestral Hopi, were certain that a place called Yupkoyvi, “the place beyond the horizon”, was their
destination. The appropriate signs were there. The great blue star called the Sakwasohu–the supernova of 1054–had appeared in the heavens. This portent told the migrating clans to end their journeys and await further signs.
“. . . Masaw’s [the spiritual guardian of the earth] guidance told the old ones that they had to begin a convergence on Yupkoyvi, the place known today as Chaco Canyon. It was a place where knowledge was to be shared and where the people would make final deliberations about their ultimate destination.”
Kuwanwisiwma explains that the Hopi ceremonies and traditions continue to play a key role in their lives “enabling Hopi clans to understand and respect their individual cultural histories.”
“Only recently have researchers formalized their relationships with the very people they study. Formalizing means recognizing and accepting the Hopis’ own research agendas and designs. Modern Hopi research is creative and does not arbitrarily dismiss science. Indeed, it seriously considers scientific findings and extracts information that corroborates Hopi traditional knowledge or is credible in terms of that knowledge. . . . Hopis are not surprised that scientific conclusions complement their knowledge and verify cultural continuity between themselves and cultures thousands of years old.”
Here is the story he tells of how Chaco Canyon was founded, “The beginning of the fourth way of life was one of simplicity. The Motisinom, the “first people,” whom archaeologists call Basketmakers, were planting, hunting, and harvesting wild plant foods in and around the valleys of the Chaco region. Song and social interaction were the spiritual forces that bonded these people. Their lives centered on their subsistence tasks and care of the environment. Among the Hopi clans descended from these people are the Katsina, Badger, Gray Badger, Tobacco, and Cottontail Rabbit clans. Today these people play important roles in the winter and summer katsina ceremonies.
“According to oral traditions, these early ancestral Hopis occupied a vast territory in which they cultivated corn and squash, hunted game, and gathered edible plants. Their lifeway required cooperation and reciprocity. Clan groups lived side by side and traded with one another. . . . The first people of the Chacoan landscape were travelers and traders, too. . . . These early people were not free from environmental challenges. Drought was especially feared. Hopi recollections about the past speak of hardship and suffering. Hence, the people always practiced preparedness.”
He points out that even today if you visit a Hopi household, you will find stocks of food kept so that they can survive short term shortages, “The stone granaries that are found in abundance throughout the Chacoan valleys attest to this necessary behavior, one still practiced by contemporary Hopi people.
“Thus Yupkoyvi became a gathering place for clans from local areas as well as clans who had stopped at what might be described as “staging areas” some distances away [outliers]. . . . According to tradition, this took time. Initial settlers became the ruling clans, which established order for the religious cycle as well as social responsibilities. . . . So each clan was allowed to establish itself at Yupkoyvi. Each clan chose a matriarch and patriarch to lead it. The group collected its clan knowledge and incorporated it into its own ceremony. Then the clans announced that they would share their ceremonies publicly. Some clans were allowed to construct ceremonial kivas, where the elders guided their followers.”
In his article in the publication, “New Light on Chaco Canyon,” James Judge proposed the notion that Chaco Canyon became such a regional capital because it provided a system for redistribution of food supplies. “These [food and game] and other resources could have been pooled at the sites [Chaco Canyon big houses] and later redistributed as needed. Such a system would have helped compensate for the inequalities in yields among various areas that would have been caused by the patchy moisture patterns of the time.”
This redistribution system may well have been the economic catalyst that drove Chaco Canyon to become the center for political and ritual power for the southwest for hundreds of years starting around 900 CE (AD). But then, it declined and eventually was left empty to ruin. What happened? Here is Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma again with the Hopi account, “Certain clans agreed that they must now prepare for the final journey to a place called Tuuwanasavi, the “earth center,” which to the Hopis is their present home on the First, Second, and Third Mesas. Tuuwanasavi would be their final destination and their final home with Masaw. Yupoyvi had served it purpose, and now it was proper to lay it to rest. For the many descendants of the Hopi clans that once lived in and around Yupoyvi, it will forever be their mother village. It is perhaps a distant, mysterious place beyond the horizon, but it is a place that lives in their hearts.”