Serial Bus

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Into the Sepapu They Went

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Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

The stones are stacked upon each other in a very ordinary fashion. Per se, nothing impresses except for the round sunken pithouses (called kiva) which have an ingenious ventilation system and a mysterious small hole on the floor (called sepapu). In a poor rural area of a developing country, the above-ground structures would easily pass off as present-day dwellings. However, we are in the richest country of the world where people no longer live like this. That partly explains the awe and admiration with which visitors around us react when they see these places. The otherness of these structures is pronounced by their provenance (700 years old), place of construction (under a rock overhang in a remote mesa) and our ignorance about the dwellers (the Anasazi left suddenly and left no records).

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is a curious American destination – unlike most other historical sites, it does not hark you back to the Swinging Sixties, the Gilded Age, the Civil War or the War of Independence. Instead, it takes you back much deeper into America’s past – the 13th century, about 700 years before Arizona even became part of the Union. That gives Mesa Verde an ambivalence that this nation of migrants took a long time of rationalize and assimilate. The question is how do you treat the relics of a people who were hunted and nearly obliterated by your own ancestors. Thankfully, by the time Mesa Verde’s ruins were ‘discovered’, such a denouement had ceased to vex the American people and their government. The Indian question no longer caused a furrow in the brow of the President and the frontiers of America had expanded beyond the lands envisaged by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Its citizens, derived from a multitude of European nations, sought to create national monuments that would evoke their rise in the Land of the Free. However, such a narrative would still be just over 100 years old and fall far short of the broad strokes of millennia of history they left behind in their ancestral lands. It was time to adopt another set of ancestors – not joined by a bloodline but by the footprints they shared on a land they chose to call home. Guilt and remorse were gradually channeled into a respect for diversity and cultural heritage – and a few sites that survived plunder were marked for preservation.

These ancestors went by numerous names – Dine, Hopi, Cherokee, Lakota, Mohegun, Chaco et al – some of them had survived sequestered away in reservations, some had been wiped out in the last 2 centuries and many had long gone at the beginning of the Columbian era. The Anasazi belonged to this last category. They had prospered in the mesas of Colorado and Arizona until the onset of the 14th century and then, they disappeared suddenly. They did not leave behind castles or scriptures – instead they left behind humble dwellings that were given embellished names by archaeologists, like the Cliff Palace and Balcony House.

Today the mesa tops as well as the alcoves are under the guardianship of National Park Service (NPS). White rangers from far-flung states like Ohio and North Carolina lead curious groups of tourists down the winding steps cut into the hillside and up the wooden ladders lined with metal chains. The rangers asked us to observe several precautions for our safety as well as the safety of the ruins. Black and white pictures of the ruins from early days of excavation suggest that the dwellings have been painfully restored to what might have been their full splendor when they were abandoned with lock, stock and barrel intact. Yes, that’s what they did. Apparently, one fine day around 1300 AD, the colony of cliff dwellers decided that it was time to leave. A very rare artifact that you can see on display in the Chapin Mesa Musuem near the Park Headquarters is an earthen pot along with dry corn that was discovered buried in the park a few years back. Aside from granaries that formed the top stories in their dwellings, the Anasazi hoarded excess food into the ground so that it was available in times of bad harvest. This earthen pot was left behind too.

They lugged only some bare essentials as the dwellings and kivas were full of ‘artifacts’ when they were excavated in the early 20th century. Cliff Palace has 23 kivas – round sunken rooms of ceremonial importance and also the place for people to hang around in the hot summer or freezing winter. The sepapu on the kiva floor symbolized the navel of the Earth from which the ancestral Puebloans were said to have emerged when they entered the world. In recent times, scientists have learnt that the Anasazi did not vanish into thin air, instead they migrated south and the Puebloans in New Mexico today are their descendants. When this was discovered, along with the mystery of their disappearance, even the name ‘Anasazi’ was also laid to rest. This Navajo word meant ‘enemy ancestors’ – the present-day Puebloans as well as WASP Americans looking to exorcise their Indian chindis chafed at the term. Now, the politically correct establishment uses ‘Ancestral Puebloans’ to describe the cliff-dwellers while ‘Native Americans’ has fast replaced ‘Indians’ in the vernacular.

The ranger told us that Mesa Verde was the only park where NPS does not like even the small controlled fires. While fires have been recognized as a natural tool of renewal in forestry management, they threaten the existence of the over 4000 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings within Mesa Verde. On the other hand, when the pinyon pine and Utah juniper layer on the mesa burns, it sometime uncovers previously undiscovered dwellings and artifacts.

In the spring of 2006, all Native American human remains and associated grave goods in the park’s collection which were excavated within park boundaries were reburied. The reburial ceremony was a result of 12 years of consultation with the park’s 24 associated tribes, and was performed by both park staff and the Hopi tribe. Due to the sensitive nature of the event, and out of respect for the tribes, the reburial was closed to the general public and took place in an undisclosed park location. Out of sepapu they came and into the sepapu, they went.

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Written by serialbus

December 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

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