Category Archives: Indigenous Issues

Farming in the New World


At the time of first contact between Indigenous peoples in North America about AD 1,000 most of the people in the New World were hunter-gatherers, but they were just starting to use a new technology—farming.

As Dickason and Newbigging explained in their wonderful book A Conservative History of Canada’s First Nations, “Agriculture seems to have developed independently, within a span of few years at the end of the last Ice Age, in several widely separated regions of the globe: the Near East, the monsoon lands of Southeast Asia, China, Mesoamerica, Peru, and the Amazon.” The reasons are not yet clear, but an increase in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide that occurred about 15,000 years ago may have played a role in this important development.  This increase made photosynthesis more robust and increased the growth rate in plants and this might have triggered the emergence of farming around the world. I think it is significant that this important achievement was widely shared.

It did not start in all areas however. Logically, farming developed first in warmer areas where the great variety of plants made experimentation more viable. From those areas the farming skills spread out across the continents. “New World domesticated plants that made the largest contribution to world agriculture were all of undisputed American origin, developed by Amerindian[1]farmers. Corn (maize) and potatoes were the best known, although tomatoes, peanuts, pineapples, and cacao (from which chocolate is made) are not far behind. Amerindians originally grew more than a hundred species of plants that are still farmed today. Amerindians grew the most famous of all Amerindian crops, tobacco, for diplomatic, ritual, and some medical uses.”

In the Northeastern part of what came be called North America agriculture was introduced with the cultivation of squash at about 4,300 BP probably as a result of trading from the south. The first plant that was local to the northeast that was cultivated was probably sunflower in about 3,000 BP. This should make Mennonites happy. Knackzoot came first!  When the Huron in the Great Lakes region first contacted Europeans they were already growing 17 varieties of maize and 8 types of squash. As well they gathered more than 30 varieties of wild fruit and 10 kinds of nuts. Corn was the first cultivated crop to reach southern Ontario in about AD 500. For 500 years it was the only crop raised there. Tobacco showed up about AD 1,000. When squash arrived in about the 1300s this completed the famous triad of the 3 Sisters—Beans, Squash, and Maize. By the 16th  century the 3 Sisters were being grown around the western continent.

The technology behind the 3 sisters was amazing and showed how smart the Indigenous people of the Americans were. “As crops, the three sisters benefitted the soil when grown together: beans capture nitrogen in the air and release it into the soil; squash roots are extensive and help prevent soil erosion; and the tall corn stalks provide the other plants with some protection from hail, damaging wind; and excessive sunlight. This gave the ‘three sisters’ a sustainability and permanence lacking in modern agriculture. As food they reinforced each other nutritionally when combined in diets.”

Of course the switch to agriculture was not entirely an unmixed blessing. Wendell Berry called it the worst disaster ever! For example the over reliance on starchy foods has led to nasty dental problems. Even worse, agriculture has led to some of the monstrosities of modern industrial agriculture.

[1]“Amerindians” is the expression that Dickason and Newbigging settled upon to describe Native Americans (of both western hemispheres)

Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco


Time was important to the people at Chaco. Again, this is not that different from the Maya who were obsessed with time. It is was extremely useful to the people of Chaco to determine when they should gather seeds and plant crops. They also used it to decide when certain ceremonies should happen.  As Robbie Robertson, the narrator of Native America said, “At the very center of Chaco, builders built a sacred space to unify time and place. Pueblo Bonito. It is the largest of the city’s 12 great houses with over 800 rooms and 30 ceremonial kivas.”

G.B. Cornucopia, a Park Ranger at the Chaco Culture National Park, said the structure could be interpreted as a large storage facility or a ceremonial center or as a clock! “To GB Cornucopia Pueblo Bonito and the sky are intricately linked The Great House is aligned to the 6 directions. One wall runs east-west and another north-south. Each day as the sun gets higher in the sky its shadow creeps closer to the north-south wall.” As Cornucopia pointed out, at solar noon when the sun is at its highest point in the sky is directly on the wall.

Pueblo Bonito is a clock that tracks the sun during the day. It’s also a calendar that tracks it during the year. Every day the sun sets on a different place on the horizon. The solar year starts out on the winter solstice when it sets in the south. On the summer solstice it sets in the north the two days half way in between are called equinoxes. And today on the fall equinox the suns lines up with the east-west wall. The north wall tracks the day; the west wall tracks the year. Built to the 6 directions Pueblo Bonito unites place and time.”

People naturally tell time by their relationship with the sky. Most of us have forgotten this because we have innumerable devices that tell us what the time. Devices such as watches, computers, and smart phones. Before the ages of these devices people would look at markers on the horizon and the place of the sun in relationship to those markers and they could tell the time and the season.

Native American people like those who lived at Chaco, looked at the sky to tell them when to plant and when to harvest. They also looked at the sky to determine when their various ceremonies ought to take place. This gave it spiritual significance. “Their city is the physical embodiment of their world view. It is a way of living that is both scientific understanding of the cycles of the earth, sun, and the stars and a spiritual quest to find their place within it.” In my view that is what religion is all about. It is a means of healing the alienation we feel towards the world, and replacing that feeling with a feeling of connection to the world. That is what finding our place within that world means. It tells us how we are connected and that we are not alienated or severed from that world.

It is of great interest to me that this belief is found in so many different spiritual belief systems. So many belief systems fundamentally seem to have the same beliefs. I think that shows how we are all one.


Native America


I thought I should let people know where I am headed with series of blog posts about Native Americans. I probably should have done that sooner. I hope some of you are interested in the subject. I think it is important. In fact it is one of the most important issues and is complicated by the great variety of Indigenous groups and the long a complicated history between colonizers and colonized.

The more I learn about Native Americans the more I am surprised by them. By Native Americans I mean the people of North, Central, and South America that lived in what we call the Western Hemisphere and they call Turtle Island when the Europeans officially arrived in 1492. Like Europeans, there were an astonishing variety of peoples in the Americas. They did not think and act alike anymore than humans from Europe, Asia or Africa did. Diversity is the most important key to understanding Indigenous people. And that diversity is their greatest asset.

We can learn a lot from them. But to do that we have to ditch our inbred sense of superiority. We  have to look at them without bias and with empathy. If we can to that we will be blessed.

I want to look at some specific Indigenous groups, both Canadian and American from a historical perspective before contact with Europeans and then look at the effects of European colonization and finally some modern issues. Of courses, as always I will be meandering and even switch to other topics as I see fit.

I hope some of you accompany on these meanderings.


Pueblo Traditions

I am still exploring what the Americas are like before Europeans arrived. Until fairly recently we did not know much about those societies. Partly that was because by and large the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (North and South) often did not keep written records.  And partly that was because the Europeans and their descendants believed they had nothing useful to learn from Indigenous People. This is part of what I have called the original sin. This attitude had a profound effect on subsequent relations between the Europeans and their descendants and the Indigenous people. Attitudes of superiority stood in the way of learning of Indigenous people and as I am trying to show, there was much of value to be learned from the Indigenous people. They had lived in the Americas for thousands of years and had gain vast important knowledge about how to live there. had Europeans not been so blinded by feelings of superiority things could have been very different.

There are about 20 tribes of Pueblo people in the American southwest. They include, among others, the Zuni and Hopi in Arizona . Pueblo people share many (but not all) religious beliefs but have different languages. Most modern Pueblo tribes trace their ancestry to the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the American Southwest.

Pueblo traditions are different from some Christian traditions. Their traditions tell the Pueblo people that they must honor Mother Earth by taking care of her. Would you not take care of your ultimate reference? In the film series Native Americaa a Hopi woman who was not shown, recounted in Hopi the following myth (and I use this word carefully not to reference something that is not true, but rather something that is important, very important):


“Massaw told us this world is a gift to us

And we must care for this place

He said, ‘To find your home you must find the center place,’

So we made a covenant to walk to the world’s farthest corners

To learn the earth with our feet

And to become one with this new world

And to find our center place”


In the origin story of the Pueblo people they were given a sacred quest after they emerged from the earth. They were told to find the center place. Some went clockwise and some counter clockwise. They built an image in the rock to show where they were. It was a spiral around a center spot. “Finding the right place–the center place–lies at the heart of Pueblo belief. It is more than a physical location. It is about living in balance with the natural world.”

For example, as Robbie Robertson said in the television series,  “The search for the center place is built right in to the kivas.  Every kiva is aligned to the 4 compass directions.” Of course there are 2 more sacred directions, namely up and down. When the people climb out of a ladder in a kiva it is symbolic of their journey where they emerged from the earth. The Hopi believe the 6 directions give the Kivas great power.

I believe that this belief played an important role in life of ancient people in the America southwest (and elsewhere). At the same time, the fact that it was largely ignored by Europeans when they arrived was also important. Things could have been different.

Tohono O’odham/Hohokam


San Tan Mountain Regional Park on the edge of Tohono O’odham territory

According to their own website Hohokam origins are linked to their homeland in the Sonoran Desert. Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of the Hohokam, settled along the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers in southern Arizona.

In the 1990s, archaeologists identified a culture and people that were ancestors of the Hohokam. They grew corn and lived sedentary lives in villages all year round. It is now believed that they might have occupied the territory now known as Arizona as early 2000 BC! They originated as archaic hunters and gatherers who lived on wild plants and animals, and eventually settled in permanent communities and produced their own food instead of living a more mobile life and gathering what nature provided.

The Hohokam culture included  an astonishing skill to build very sophisticated water storage systems and irrigation systems to water their crops.

The Hohokam were master dwellers of the desert, creating sophisticated canal systems to irrigate their crops of cotton, tobacco, corn, beans, and squash. They built vast ball courts and huge ceremonial mounds and left behind fine red-on-buff pottery and exquisite jewellery of stone, shell, and clay.

Following their ancestral heritage, they became what they call “scientists of our environment.”  Like other nations in the Americas they used and continue to use meteorological principles to establish planting, harvesting, ceremonial cycles and they developed complex water storage and delivery systems. Those principles also continue to have spiritual resonance.

They learned to make the best of their environment, migrating with the seasons from their homes in the valleys to cooler mountain dwellings. Over time they learned to raise a wide variety of crops including tepary beans, squash, melon, and sugar cane. They also gathered wild plants such as saguaro fruit, cholla buds, and mesquite bean pods, and we hunted for only the meat that they needed from the plentiful wildlife, including deer, rabbit, and javelina. They continue to live this proud heritage today as 21st century Tohono O’odham.

The Hohokam were the only culture in North America to rely on irrigation canals to supply water to their crops. In the arid desert environment of the Salt and Gila River Valleys, the homeland of the Hohokam, there was not enough rainfall to grow crops. To meet their needs, the Hohokam engineered the largest and most sophisticated irrigation system in the Americas.

The canals were perfectly laid out on the landscape to achieve a downhill drop (or gradient) of 1 to 2 feet per mile. Many of the canals were massive in size. The Arizona Museum of Natural History discovered a prehistoric canal in the Phoenix Valley that measured 15 feet deep and 45 feet wide. As a result of irrigating up to 110,000 acres by AD 1300, the Hohokam irrigation systems supported the largest population in the prehistoric Southwest, and until I came to visit Arizona I had never heard of them before. My ignorance was profound.

The Hohokam traded goods widely across the American Southwest and even into Mesoamerica (what is now called Mexico).  The Hohokam produced cotton and woven goods that were highly desired by other Indigenous nation Hohokam cotton and woven goods from which they made things like blankets could be traded for very good prices

There continues to be a significant and thriving O’odham population living in the region. The members of the Salt and Gila River communities celebrate their heritage as descendants of the ancient Hohokam.


When we are in the San Tan Valley we often go to San Tan Mountain Regional Park for hikes and outings.  Although not in Maricopa County it is administered by them as part of that marvellous County Park system, the finest in the United States, they claim.  It is beautiful country and it is on the edge of current territory of the O’odham nation and inside the historic territory of the Hohokam Nation. All who go there should respect that.

Decline of Hohokam


The remnants of the Great House at Casa Grande

For reasons that are subject to debate, during the period of 1400 to 1500 A.D. large community centers  of the Hohokam were abandoned, as were many canals. The people did not die out, they moved instead to smaller villages. They adapted to some changed conditions in other words. What really interests me is why this occurred. It is one of the genuine mysteries of North American archaeology. I believe it has continuing important significance for our modern societies. There are lessons for us to learn here. Will we learn them?

When Spanish missionaries arrived at the end of the 17thcentury they found only an empty shell of the once flourishing village of Casa Grande (as the Spanish called it). Over the next two centuries, many visitors visited the site and damaged it over and over again.  In the late 1800s scientists pressed for its formal protection and in 1892 Casa Grande Ruins National Monument became America’s first archaeological reserve. To this day, the Great House keeps the secrets of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert within its protected walls.

At one time 2,000 people lived in Casa Grande and it had the most extensive canal system in North America, if not the world. It required an amazing amount of human labor and engineering to create the Great House, the remnants of which we saw in the park.

The main building material was caliche (cu-LEE-chee), a concrete like mixture of sand, clay, and calcium carbonate (limestone). It took 3,000 tons of caliche to build the Great House.

Caliche mud (water was added to the caliche) was layered to form walls that were about 4 ft. thick at the base, tapering toward the top. Hundreds of juniper, and fir trees were carried or floated down the Gila River to the village. Timbers were anchored in the wall for ceiling and floor supports.

Caliche is found as hard pan in most areas at depths of 6 inches to 2 feet. It is hard like concrete. I often saw it on my hikes in San Tan Mountain Regional Park, about 10minutes from where we lived for the winter.  It can be softened in water, however, and that is why the ancestral people created mud with the addition of water to the caliche. That was stacked on to the buildings and then allowed to dry to a very hard material.

How civilized were the Hohokam? There is no evidence that the ancestral people invented the wheel. Since they had no draft animals, and since usually the rivers did not flow to their agricultural lands, they had to carry all of their building materials.

Since 3,000 tons (6 million pounds) of materials were needed for the construction of the Great House, that meant that 100,000 bags each with about 60 pounds of mud had to be carried up to the Great House.

The Great House consisted of a 4-storey structure on a mound of about 4 feet. The mound was used for the same reason that judges sit on a high bench and preachers stand above the congregation at their pulpit. It is a sign of prestige to be high up. The Administrators of the region likely wanted to be seen to possess authority. The first floor of the Great House consisted of a mound or platform. It was there solely for purposes of building it up so it looked more impressive.

The second floor contained 5 rooms as did the 3rdfloor. The 4thfloor consisted of just one room.  As a result timbers from the mountain trees had to be brought in by hand. It is likely that the ancestral people subcontracted the job by trading for such materials. 640 logs were needed for the Great House construction. The timbers came from about 50-75 miles away. Arduous hauling was needed to get them to the site.

The roof was made by spreading saguaro ribs across the beams with reeds covering them, and then topped with a final layer of caliche mud. Despite centuries of weathering and neglect the Great House remnants still stand testifying to the nature of the society of Ancestral People. In recent years the canopy was built to protect the Great House. The doors of the Great House were quite small, not because the people were so small, but to keep out warm air.

Like so many Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Hohokam were careful to align their structures with celestial bodies. They did that, I think, to connect to the large world “out there.” The Great House at Case Grande was carefully aligned with the sun. But that was not all. In fact 17 different astronomical observations could be made from the house.  First of all, the house was carefully aligned between North and South.

There was also a round hole “window” that once each year lined up perfectly with the sun on the day of the summer solstice. Another rectangular hole carefully marked the spring and fall equinoxes. As well one square window lined up with the Lunar Standstill that occurred every 18.6 years. No one is sure exactly why these alignments were produced, but they do show the sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that the Ancestral People had.

These odd alignments are all part of the mystery about the purpose behind the Great House.  It took an astonishing amount of human labor to create the house, but it was abandoned within about 75 years, even though the Ancestral People inhabited the area for more than 1,000 years. According to Rose Houk,

“Modern archeologists have observed such an alignment of the sun through a “window” in an upper room of Casa Grande, marking the summer solstice. They have suggested that the “great house” may have been used as an astronomical observatory, one of several ideas about this enigmatic, imposing structure that stands out in the desert of central Arizona. Others have seen the four-story building as a fort, a granary, or a silo.  Whatever the truth, the Casa Grande’s significance was recognized early on when it became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892.”

A steel and concrete canopy was built in 1932 to protect the Great House from the elements.

As I mentioned the great puzzle is why were these magnificent structures and elaborate towns abandoned in favor of smaller communities after about 1450 A.D.?  Some have speculated that some catastrophe caused the people to leave. There is evidence that the area experienced significant floods between 1300 and 1450.  Those were followed by intense periods of drought.

Archeologists use multiple kinds of evidence to answer such questions, or at least shed some light on the questions posed. As a result they have been studying salt discharge on the Salt and Gila rivers, as well as the increasing soil salinity, diseases, and evidence of malnutrition. It is likely that environmental conditions changed and the Hohokam people do what all smart people do, they adapted to changed conditions. That is how people survive.

The evidence does show that the extreme flooding deepened the Gila River Channel making it more difficult for canals to carry water to fields where water levels were low. Part of the canal system was abandoned while other parts were extended miles upstream to maintain proper water flows. Around 1350 A.D., the time of the Great House, a combination of factors may have triggered a breakdown of Hohokam society and undermined their leadership.

It is probable that as a result of all of these factors, the survivors of the floods and droughts abandoned large sites like Casa Grande in favor of smaller settlements along the Gila River. Today’s O’odham people (as they are now called) believe that they are the descendants of the Hohokam people. As a result, Hohokam society never disappeared it just adapted and changed to a lifestyle that was better suited to the changed conditions. This change was likely to one more similar to their ancestors. They changed to a simpler life. Perhaps that is what we will be compelled to do.Yet as so often is the case the abandonment was likely triggered at least in part by environmental factors. Often people over do it and the land can no longer sustain the people. This has happened countless times in the Americas. To me it looks like it is happening again, but this time on a much grander scale. Large parts of the world and vast numbers of species are being degraded by human activities. This lesson seems so hard for Homo sapiens to grasp. Why is that?

Hohokam: Casa Grande Ruins National Historic Site

In the centre of this photo is the Great House of the Hohokam Nation.

When we have stayed in Arizona the last few years we have been or on the edge of there territory of the Hohokam Nation. They are the descendants of the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People (“Ancestral People’).

Our visit at Casa Grande Ruins National Historic Site, which is just a few miles from where we stayed in the San Tan Valley,  started with a short film that explained the site to us in simple and graphic terms. It showed great respect for the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People . After that we went on a guided walk/talk led by volunteer Mark Houser.  Mr. Houser was a very knowledgeable, interesting and enthusiastic volunteer. We enjoyed listening to him very much.

When Spanish missionaries arrived in the American Southwest in 1694, before Europeans had seen much in the eastern part of what is now the United States, they asked who were the people who had built this structure that you can see in the photo above underneath the modern canopy built to protect it from the elements.  The Native Americans who were present at the time of first contact with the Spanish answered that these were their ancestors and they ought to be called Huhugham.  Sadly, this word was mistranslated, as so often happened, to Hohokam (ho ho KAHM).  Today archaeologists use the term Hohokam to refer to a cultural period. The name Hohokam means “all used up” or “those who have gone before.”

According to one archaeologist the Ancestral People were the “First Masters of the American Desert.” I like that term. It gives them the respect they deserve. They did in fact learn to live and even thrive in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert for more than a thousand years.  They built brush-covered houses in pits that at first were loosely arranged. Later they built more organized villages around courtyards.

The Hohokam learned to live in harmony with the desert. They harvested the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, including  saguaro fruit, mesquite beans, mule deer, rabbits, turtles and fish among others.

The climate in the region was hot and dry with very few all-year water sources and very sparse rainfall, so the desert provided very challenging conditions for permanent settlement. That was a challenge that the Hohokam were up for during their 1,000 years of occupation here. They grew crops that could withstand the harsh conditions. That included crops such as corn that matured fast enough that the plants were not exposed to the elements for too long. Some of their crops could be grown twice per year. They also planted beans, squash, tobacco, cotton, and agave. In their fields they also encouraged the growth of several local wild plants such as amaranth.

In addition to farming, the Ancestral People also gathered food, medicine, and building materials from the surrounding wilderness. They collected wood, fruit, buds, and seed from plants such as Palo verde, mesquite, ocotillo, ironwood, creosote, Bursage, and saltbush among others. They even ate saguaro, cholla, hedgehog, and prickly pear cactus.

Small animals such as rabbits, mule deer, and bighorn sheep were hunted for food. They found fish in the rivers as well as waterfowl and turtles. The lush riverside Cottonwoods and willow provided materials for baskets and ropes, while they used reeds for straws, spindles, blowguns, and flutes.

The Hohokam culture is thought to have begun at about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. a couple of thousand years after the Ancestral arrived in the area.  During this period of time the Hohokam began local agriculture and it is for this that they became most famous–justifiably famous I might add. They established villages with pit houses, storage pits, grading tools, baskets, and pottery. The Hohokam were the descendants of hunter-gatherers who had lived in Arizona for several thousands of years. They also drew from the Mesoamerican civilization. It is fairly clear that by about 300 CE (Common Era) the Ancestral People lived in permanent settlements along the Salt and Gila Rivers both of which ran permanently during this time before dam construction.

From about 300 A.D. to 775 A.D. the Hohokam improved their agricultural system and began cotton production. During this time they started large communities.  These contained lodges and plazas. They produced clay figurines, Plain Ware, Red Ware, Red-on-Buff decorated pottery, and began construction of their famous canals that became the marvels of North America. That canal system in time became the most elaborate and well engineered in all of North America if not the world.  The Ancestral People had cooperated to build and manage a vast canal system that diverted waters from the rivers to irrigate their croplands.  Because these croplands were located in land that was lower than the surrounding rivers the canals were started about 17 miles away to divert water by gravity flow. Where there were croplands without nearby rivers, they diverted storm run-off or tapped groundwater.

The canals were amazing. First of all, they were constructed entirely by human labor without any draft animals. The ground was true hard pan that made digging very difficult. The slope of canals was 2 ft. for 1 mile. That is a very gentle slope, but it is more than enough to lead the water to where they wanted it. The canals were also surprisingly large. They were about as tall as a man.

As a result of this technology, the Hohokam were able to establish  very sophisticated agriculture. They farmed the area for about a thousand years. At its height the canals irrigated 1,900 acres of land. The canals stretched for 220 miles in this area alone. What amazed me was that these Ancestral People were extremely successful farmers. They produced higher yields than modern farmers with modern equipment and techniques. Modern Hohokam farmers see people as their main resource. They were smart farmers.

Following their ancestral heritage, they became what they call “scientists of our environment.”  Like other nations in the Americas they used and continue to use meteorological principles to establish planting, harvesting, ceremonial cycles and they developed complex water storage and delivery systems.

I was also astonished to learn that there is evidence that the ancestral people were about 2-3 inches taller than the Europeans who arrived in the 17th century. That meant they were better fed than the Europeans who came here to civilize them! Perhaps the ancestral people ought to have civilized the Europeans! After all, the period of 300 to 1450 A.D. was the period of the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe.

Ancestral farmers saw water as their most precious resource (after people). As a result ancestral farmers farmed diverse crops. Modern farmers plant monocultural crops. Ancestral farmers often planted what they called “The Three Sisters” on one hill.  That meant that they planted corn, beans, and squash. Each crop helped the others by providing shade, shelter, or nutrients.

Ancestral farmers concentrated on conserving water. They were not labour efficient, because to them labor was cheap. Water was expensive. As a result they were very efficient with water, their most critical resource. Modern farmers employ elaborate modern equipment that mechanizes the work and conserves human energy, thus conserving or minimizing their primary resource. They use massive water systems to bring in massive amounts of water to the desert. As a result they are inefficient with water and very efficient with human labor. Modern farmers could learn a lot from ancestral farmers and vice versa.

From 775 to 975 A.D. the Hohokam expanded their territory and their canal system. During this time they established an elaborate trading network. Villages were established along natural trade routes between the people of what we now call California, the Great Plains, the Colorado Plateau, and northern Mexico.

Successful farming led to successful trade. In the American Southwest the people produced enough cotton, beans, and corn for the entire area of what we now call the United States. They traded these products across North America.

As well they developed high artistic achievement. Because of the success of their agricultural system, they had time to devote to artistic achievement and they used that time for that purpose. The Hohokam loved beautiful things and created them and traded for them. Platform mounds and ball courts were developed as well during this time.

The Hohokam traded mainly pottery and jewelry for a wide variety of items that others collected or produced. Shells from the Gulf of California were common. With people from Mexico they traded for macaws, mirrors, copper bells, and other items.

Oval pits have been unearthed on Hohokam sites that suggest they were used for ballcourts for games such as those played by Aztecs. Smaller ballcourts have been found near Flagstaff and Wupatki and this suggests that the area of influence of the Ancestral Peoples was quite large.

From 975 to 1150 A.D. the Hohokam abandoned many of their smaller ancestral sites in favor of larger sites like Casa Grande. As well the ball court system ended, but new above ground structures were built instead to replace them. This is when the Classic of Hohokam culture began.

The period of greatest achievementby the Hohokam was from 1150 to 1300 A.D. Their canal system reached its greatest extent during this time. There were probably 3,000 miles of canals in the Southwest. As well, during this time platform mounds and compounds dominated their architectural style. This was a period of outstanding achievement.

As a result of their sophisticate farming techniques, during this time this part of the American Southwest supported a high density of people. Estimates vary from 100,000 people to 1,000,000 people. I was shocked at these numbers.

From 1300 to 1400 A.D. the Hohokam continued to develop large irrigation based communities, with great houses like we saw before us, and other structures on top of platform mounds like we also saw before us today. The Great House in Casa Grande, the ruins of which we saw today, was built about 1350. This Great House as well as other Great Houses in other villages that were sited along large canals played a major role in the irrigation community.  They were likely not used as residences, since there is little evidence of things like hearths. They were likely administrative and ceremonial centres instead.

This is another case of the surprising civilization created by Indigenous people of the Americas.

Hopi Spirituality

The San Francisco Peaks are the hugest mountains in Arizona and they can be seen from nearly everywhere in Northern Arionza. The Peaks are sacred to the Hopi, an Indigenous People of the American Southwest.

The Hopi Reservation is entirely surrounded by Navajo lands.  The landscape is harsh and barren, so at least it appears. Actually it is far from barren. The Hopi have cultivated crops here for a thousand years.

The Hopi are deeply religious people. Their religion is a big part of their ordinary lives. Their religious ceremonies often focus on kachina which are spirit figures that symbolize nature in all of its forms. Carver wooden dolls, called kachina are ubiquitous in gift shops in the area. During the growing season kachina dancers get in on the act by representing the spiritual figures.  Through the kachina the Hopi worshipped the living plants and animals that they believed arrived each year to stay with the tribe during the growing season.

Most of the Hopi villages are on or near three of the three flat topped mesas. They are name First, Second, and Third Mesa. We drove by the first two. When we were in the area a couple of years ago we drove by 2 of them and took note of the homes at the top but we had been advised it would not be a good idea to stop and photograph them from in town as friends of ours who had lived with them for a year had told us we would not be welcome. We did photograph them from a distance and I included a photograph in an earlier post.

Currently, the Hopi  continue the agricultural practices and many of the ceremonies of their Anasazi forebears.  Hopi villages still contain underground chambers called kivas which are said to represent the hole in the ground through which it was believed people emerged into the world.  There is also a  Hopi legend, that makes a lot of sense to me, that  humanity has 3 times led to the destruction of the natural world by failing to honour the Creator’s divine  laws. However, 3 times humanity has come back into being. Let’s hope they (we) do a better job this time around.


Pueblo People of American Southwest


There are many beautiful places in the American Southwest. It is easy to feel connected to them.

One of the things I learned from the television series Native America, was that the Pueblo people of the American southwest were doing the same thing as the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest thousands of miles away. As Robbie Robertson the narrators said, “The Pueblo people seek the same thing: to find their place in the world. They discover it in America’s Southwest.” Many times living out there, I thought I found it too. This is my place too. Maybe not my only place, but certainly my place.

The Hopi have a very complex religion with a rich mythological tradition. Just as it is with so many other religious groups, including Christians, it is not easy to find any customs or beliefs that all Hopi accept. Each village or mesa may have slightly different versions of their central myths. Some also suspect that stories told to outsiders are not genuine but merely told to tell curious people something, while holding the real versions close to themselves. Hopi people are often reluctant to share their sacred doctrines. Hopi are also often syncretic. They are willing to adopt sacred practices or beliefs from others when they find them helpful. For example if a practice helps bring rain why not use it?

Many Hopi creation stories revolve around Tawa, the sun spirit. Contemporary Hopi continue to petition Tawa for blessings for their newborn children. Tawas is the creator who formed the “First World” and its original inhabitants.

They also have interesting accounts of Masauwu or Skeleton Man who was the Spirit of Death and Master of the Upper World, or Fourth World  so that people who escaped the wickedness of the Third World could be safe in the Fourth World. Sometimes Masauwu was described as wearing a hideous mask. At other time Masauwu was described as handsome.

Maize or corn is central to Hopi subsistence and also religion. It is a central bond among people. In essence Hopi often see corn as physical sustenance, spiritual renewal, ceremonial objects and instruments of prayers. Often corn is seen as the Great Mother. In a literal sense this actually true. People who take in corn convert it into their own flesh inside their bodies.

The Hopi found their center in the American Southwest. It was the end of their migrations. They believe they are doing what Masauwu told them to do–connect to the world. Be a part of it. Indivisible from it.  This is a theme I shall return to over and over again as I discuss Indigenous religious experiences or doctrines. By finding the center place Hopi believe they have honoured the commitment they made when they entered the world.

Along the way on their spiritual journey Native Americans created Chaco, balanced between the underworld and the heavens. They found 6 directions aligned to the movement of the sun and stars all aligned to the cosmos. This is another central concept of many Indigenous religious beliefs and practices. That was why Chaco drew people from thousands of miles away. Visitors brought hallowed objects like turquoise stones, tropical bird feather, seashells, and chocolate.

In the television series, Patricia Crown said, “Both cacao and scarlet macaws are tropical species that were brought from a great distance into Pueblo Bonito. There’s no question that there was this very large area of shared beliefs in ritual activities.” Chaco was a place where people came from vast distances to share with each other what they had learned. What could be more holy than that? “People share knowledge and beliefs based on thousands of years of observing their world. They have ceremonies to influence the very forces of nature that are still practiced today.”  Hopi traditions say that Chaco was a special place to study the forces of nature. “It grows out of a deep connection with the earth, planted in time immemorial, developed over tens of thousands of years and shared across 2 continents by the pioneering people who created this world. They are Native Americans. Their teachings remain as relevant today as ever.”

Navajos looking for art and peace and finding death


On our tour of Canyon de Chelly  we saw two different types of indigenous art.  We saw pictographs (which are also called pictogramme or pictogram)  which are icons that convey their meaning through a pictorial resemblance to a physical object. Pictographs can be considered an art form or a method of communication such as language or symbols.

Petroglyphs (also called rock engravings or carvings) are a form of pictogram created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, abrading, or carving. Petroglyphs are found around the world and are often associated with prehistoric people.   Petroglyphs were also used by Ancient Puebloans to provide astronomical markers for the different seasons.

The difference between the two is that a petroglyphs are images drawn on rock or painted on a rock surface whereas petroglyphs are actually cut out of or carved out of rock.

Our tour guide, Dan also drew our attention to the fact that both petroglyphs and pictographs are fading.  Like old men. That is a natural process caused by weathering and slow deterioration through time. Like the First Nations of the west coast of Canada who are allowing their totem poles to rot into oblivion rather than artificially preserving them, the Navajo have decided to let nature take its course. Sometimes that just makes sense.


Our tour guide, Dan, explained to us that the tribes had been peaceful until the Spaniards arrived in Canyon de Chelly .Things changed when the Spaniards arrived. After that wars broke out between the Navajo and other tribes as a result of competition to trade with the Spanish. According to Dan, many of these skirmishes were intended to gain favor with the Spanish whose main goal was gold and silver. It seemed strange to Indigenous people, but the Spaniards lusted after gold and silver for some inexplicable reason. Raids occurred and were inevitably followed by reprisals. The long peace was over.

Of course skirmishes broke out with the Spanish as well. These were usually quick raids, and reprisals over animals and land. After all, the Spanish were invaders. They did not discover the Canyon they invaded it. The days of peaceful co-existence were over.

The Navajos took refuge in the Canyon de Chelly’s winding canyons, sheer walls, small caves, and rock outcroppings. They fortified trails with stone walls, shelters in rock alcoves, and stock-piled food and provisions including, importantly water.


It is difficult to see on this photo, but I wanted to show the scale of how small the cliff dwellings were compared to the massive cliff. The homes are about 1/3rd of the way up from the ground.

At different times the Spanish, the Utes (another tribe) and US cavalry breeched the Navajo defences, leaving death in their wake. In 1846 the US Army had claimed the land that is now Arizona and New Mexico from Mexican forces. It was a typical battle between colonizers fighting for control over a country without asking the inhabitants what they wanted. No one cared about them. After all the inhabitants were savages weren’t they? Exactly what the Europeans did in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  As a matter of fact, they also did it in Canada during the 7 Years War of 1756 to 1763.  Although efforts at peace were made, they were largely unsuccessful. Conflict followed for 17 years with frequent American intrusions into Navajo territory.

In 1863 Colonel Kit Carson, considered an American hero, began a brutal campaign of what we would now call ethnic cleansing or genocide. The American government wanted to remove the Navajos to New Mexico and Carson was its instrument. Forced removal of people is one of the indicia of genocide according to the United Nations definition. In the winter of 1864 he and his troops entered Canyon de Chelly and pushed the Navajo toward the canyon mouth. The Navajo were not able to resist the overwhelming forces against them for long. as a result most of the Navajo were killed or taken prisoner.

A modern hogan

In the spring, Carson and his men returned to complete the destruction of the Navajo nation. They destroyed the remaining hogans in which the Navajo lived, ravished their orchards and crops, and killed their sheep. After that, the Navajo could do nothing to avoid starvation.

Those Navajo who survived the massacres were forced to march (‘The Long Walk’) in humiliating fashion, more than 300 miles to Fort Sumner New Mexico. Many died along the way from hunger, thirst, or fatigue. The years of internment at Fort Sumner were no less brutal. Poor food, inadequate shelter, and disease ravished the survivors who refused to give in.  After all this was not their home! They wanted to go back home to Canyon de Chelly and other places in Arizona. In 1868 the American government gave in and allowed the Navajo to return to Arizona and Canyon de Chelly.

Of course, when the Navajo returned to Canyon de Chelly, their crops were ruined, their livestock gone, and their orchards destroyed. Why did the Americans destroy their orchards?  Life was harsh all over again. Many of those who made it all the way back faced starvation again!

Dan casually mentioned to us that he had gone to “boarding school.” When we cross-examined him on this statement, he acknowledged this was an involuntary residential school. His parents had no choice but to send him. He went far away from his family to California to attend school as a young lad. In his understated manner, he said that the school was “not enjoyable” and the people who ran it were “strict.” He was not permitted to use his language and was told to forget it. He rebelled and managed to retain his language. He was justifiably proud of that achievement. In the face of brutal oppression, people like Dan have preserved their culture.

Once again I have to ask: who was civilized and who were the savages?