As anyone who has ever been there knows, the western part of North America is a very special place. It was also special to the original inhabitants. This summer we drove through a small part of it. In 2001 we visited the more northerly part of British Columbia. Both are beautiful and interesting.
The shoreline that extends from Alaska in the north to northern California is actually slowly sinking into the ocean and this has created thousands of islands, channels, and fiords. It is warmed by the Japanese current that flows southward from Alaska, making the climate much more temperate than its location would suggest. This also helps to assure plentiful rainfall. And rainfall brings abundance.
One way that this area was special to Indigenous people was the abundance of food that could be obtained and the mild climate that made living relatively easy. This allowed for more permanent sites than were often found on the plains or elsewhere. That was how they coped with abundance.
Through millennia a distinctive Northwest Coast culture has developed and much of that has a direct relationship in which the Indigenous People there grew and flourished.
I was surprised to learn that the archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest people who lived there were very similar to the people in the interior. A hunting tradition developed at least 10,000 years ago. Many Indigenous People say they have been there for longer than that. They enjoyed elk, deer, antelope, beavers, rabbits, and rodents as prey. Gradually they learned to hunt river mussels and most importantly salmon.
Ass David Hurst Thomas explained,
“Northwest Coast people considered salmon to be a race of eternal beings who lived in underwater houses during the winter. In the spring they took on their fish form and swam up the rivers in huge numbers, bestowing themselves upon humans for food. The first salmon caught each year was placed on an altar, facing upstream, and prayers were said. After each villager sampled the roasted flesh, the intact skeleton was returned to the river, and it swam back to the underwater world of the salmon people. One day, this skeleton would return as a whole fish.”
Major villages were often located at the shoreline on beaches that were convenient for landing large canoes. They also had some smaller encampments. In the north the houses were square. In the south, such as near Whistler, the houses were long and narrow and occupied by several families. As Hurst Thomas said, “Large wooden houses like these have been constructed here for more than three thousand years, suggesting the development of an extended family organization.”
The more I learn about Indigenous people, the more I realize they were amazing.
At the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) which Chris and I visited in Whistler B.C., we learned that the Indigenous People of the west coast, the Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation and Liĺwat7úl Nation believe they are the land. That is about as close as a connection between land and people that we can get. It is what I see as the essence of the aboriginal attitude to nature. It is very different from the attitude of most Non-Indigenous people. It is my belief that we have a lot to learn from such people.
Josh, our Lil’wat interpreter at the Cultural Centre, explained that the two nations who created the centre at one time shared a village in their joint territory before it was destroyed by volcanic forces. The nations have learned to share rather than fight over it. As a result they recognize each other as family. Again, we have a lot to learn from these people.
They also believe that they learn through stories that teach their values of generosity, humility, and compassion. Frankly this reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Bible, namely Micah 6:8, where the prophet said, “He has told you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” I don’t think religion gets any more profound than this. Or consider when the Prophet Isaiah said, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, abolish oppression, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” I think such words get at the essential good things about spirituality. The best of religions are invariably complementary, not antagonistic. In fact, I would say, they are fundamentally the same!
Cedar often plays an important role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of many West Coast Indigenous peoples. They even have a creation story about cedar. It is that important to them. As explained by Alice Huang,
“According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. The Creator recognized the man’s kindness, and declared that once the man dies, a Red Cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for Yellow Cedar. According to their stories, Yellow Cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, Yellow Cedar trees are found on the slopes of subalpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of woman’s hair.”
In addition to everyday use, which I described in my previous post to this blog, cedar is used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Families often commissioned a carver to create cedar figures for a potlatch, usually as a welcoming gesture to the guests. Ceremonial dancers’ regalia might include head rings, neck rings, wristlets braided from cedar, as well as cedar masks. I will have more to say about potlatches later in this blog, but for now, we must realize that they were a means for individuals or communities to demonstrate their generosity. Generosity was the sign of greatness to West Coast aboriginal people. It had spiritual value. It was so important that some leaders actually impoverished themselves to demonstrate their generosity. The exact opposite of the attitude of the current American President.
Given the importance of cedar in everyday life, it is clear that cedar also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs and practices of coastal First Nations. These beliefs recognize that the cedar tree has its own life and spirit. According to Alice Huang, “Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” to protect them.”
The Coast Salish is a group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the west coast of North America that live in parts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. They are a large loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. The territory claimed by various nations within the group include the northern limit of the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait), on the inside of Vancouver Island including most of the southern part of Vancouver Island, and most of the lower mainland of what is now called British Columbia and much of Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula in what is now called the United States. Major cities now included in this territory are Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle.
Cedar was also widely valued for its healing abilities. Yellow Cedar bark, which has anti-inflammatory properties, was frequently applied as a dressing for wounds, as a tourniquet, or to ward off evil. Many beliefs and taboos are also associated with the cedar tree. For example, a person who killed a tree through improper harvesting would be cursed by other cedar trees. Similarly, some believed a pregnant woman should not braid baskets, lest the umbilical cord would twist around the baby’s neck. As the cedar is a long-lived tree, some Coast Salish groups ensured a long life for their infants by placing the afterbirth in the stump of a large cedar.
As a plant that has ensured the survival of people for thousands of years, cedar has become a powerful symbol of strength and revitalization. The deep respect for cedar is part of a rich tradition that spans thousands of years and continues to be culturally, spiritually, and economically important.
Canoes, often built of cedar, were considered living beings. They had to be blessed before being launched. That was believed to breathe life into the canoe. That is in fact the meaning of spiritual: breathing life. The canoe was considered by the Indigenous people to be a gift from the forest. It allowed them to move through their land and connect to it. Similarly, the Indigenous people considered the bear, and other animals, their kin.
All of this spirituality is part and parcel of the belief of many Indigenous peoples in this region that all of them were deeply connected to the land (environment really) in which they were located and to all life in it and even non-life such as rocks. That is the basis of their spirituality and I would submit the spirituality of all of us.
The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. It is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.
As David Hurst Thomas explained,
“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people. For forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”
The more we learn about these varied groups of peoples who populated America (and by that I mean North, South, and Central America) and the more we learn about them the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. But it is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.
As David Hurst Thomas explained,
“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people. From forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”
Scientists are not in complete agreement about how these first Americans arrived in the western hemisphere. They do agree on how or exactly when they came from the “Old World,” but the most common theory, for which there is significant evidence, is that they crossed from Asia on foot when the sea levels were much lower than they are today because so much water was captured by the incredibly massive continental ice sheets that covered North America. Some have speculated that they came by boats from Asia. Both theories are incredibly interesting.
As Thomas said, “We do not know when they left their ancient homelands, what conditions they experienced along the way, or even why they first came to America.”
Yet we do know that these people were not savages. Only ignorant prejudice would make anyone think that. As Thomas said,
“Without doubt, the first Americans arrived as fully developed human beings. They were definitely not “primordial” or “primitive,” not stooped and shambling, had no heavily ridged brows. They walked upright and looked much the way American Indians look today. They brought with them an Ice Age patrimony, including many basic human skills: fire making, flintknapping, and effective ways to feed, shelter and clothe themselves. As early immigrants, they lived in close-knit kin groups, enjoyed social interactions, and shared beliefs about magic and the supernatural. They spoke a fully human language. As they dispersed throughout the Western Hemisphere they lived in diverse and sometimes unstable environments. But they continued, to feed their families and to safeguard their new homeland. Over the generations, the first American ancestors confronted and solved colossal challenges.”
In time they developed advanced cultures. After a long while on the continent they spoke more than 2,000 languages. Later migrants who came after the first Americans, brought with them new languages, new cultures, that were well adapted to the environments in which they were inhabiting. It will be a consistent theme of this blog that the philosophies of these people were intimately connected to the environment in which they arose. That close connection has formed their ideas and made them so resilient.
Though these people inhabited the Western Hemisphere for a 1,000 generations before Christopher Columbus “discovered” them, a mere 25 generations have succeeded them since that time. The time in which this hemisphere has been occupied by Native Americans was the time in which the hemisphere has been shared with the European invaders. I don’t call them discoverers.
During this time, As Thomas said, “native Americans domesticated dozens of kinds of plant foods. They charted their farming cycles through complicated cosmologies involving solar calendars, astronomical observations, prayerful rites, and celebrations. Indian people learned to use wild plants for healing, strengthening, and restoring health. Native American architecture matched anything Columbus had seen in his travels.”
Since their first arrival the Native American population increased dramatically. As Thomas said, “The native Americans modified their traditions and ideas to suit changing conditions. They crafted efficient, down-to-earth solutions to the unforeseeable. Their struggle for survival—the countless individual agreements and compromises, solutions and inventions—gave rise to the thousands of American Indian traditions and beliefs that so amazed the European explorers.”
The story of these peoples is, I submit, deeply interesting and worth some attention. I hope some people stay along with me for the ride as we exploring these incredible people and their incredible history.
As Robbie Robertson said in the television series Native America, which he narrated, “Sky watching, the 6 directions, and a search for people’s place in the world. These ideas are found throughout the Americas. They are part of a foundational belief system shared between distant and diverse cultures. Where does this common belief come from? The Chumash, an Indigenous nation of the southern west coast of the United States, may have an answer. Their ancestors were the first coastal settlers of what is now Southern California.”
First of all, they were great paddlers of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ecosystem on the planet. Alan Salazar a member of the Chumash/Tataviam First Nation knows that his ancestors were much better paddlers and navigators than he will ever be. Their ancestors travelled the ocean in a flat-bottomed canoe. Reginald Pagaling, another member of that nation, understands this too. “Water is life. It is such a great teacher of respect. It’s a great teacher of power. It’s a great teacher of calmness.” Similar beliefs were found in other Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.
“Long ago water taught the Chumash a lesson they still practice. The best time to paddle is at night.” That was a very important lesson, but it was not intuitive. The ocean is of course much calmer at night. Even though its dark and you can hardly see the paddler ahead of you, that is the best time to paddle a canoe on the ocean. They would feel the paddle hit the water and come out. As Robertson said, “Far at sea in dark of night the Chumash look to the stars to guide them. Just as their ancestors did.” They used the Milky Way as a means to chart their way across the islands of the South Pacific. To me that seems impossible. But they did it.
They built canoes that could travel great distances across the forbidding Pacific Ocean. “Their mastery of the stars and seafaring enabled the very first Americans to move quickly down the coast and across the continents. Can the way America was settled explain why Native Americans share so many core beliefs?
Beringia is defined today as the land and maritime area that is bounded on the west by the Lena River in Russia, on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada, on the north by 72 degree latitude in the Chukchi Sea and on the south by the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea and Bering Strait are all part of Beringia. Basically what separates Asia from North America.
Part of Beringia is international waters, part is in Russia, part in the Untied States and part in Canada. At one time it formed a land bridge between Asia (Russia) and the western hemisphere and it is believed that humans used it to walk from Asia to North America when the sea levels were much lower than they are now because of the immense amount of water taken up by the massive continental Ice sheets during the last Ice Age. Today a few parts of it are visible as islands.
As Robertson said, “New DNA evidence suggests that all Native Americans are descended from one people. They lived together for 25,000 years stuck behind a wall of Ice in area called Beringia. Perhaps here for thousands of years people observed cycles of the earth, sun, and stars and plant the seeds for a world view that will be shared across the Americas. Can these ideas really have been developed so far back in time? If so they may be expressed in the earliest art found here that dates back 13,000 years to the very beginnings of Native America.”
The iniskim or “buffalo stone” played an important role in the spiritual life of Plains People. They used stones that often contained fossils with a spiral shell for thousands of years. According to legend, a woman was trying to find food for her family and her band during a time of famine when an iniskim talked to her about how to use prayers and ceremonies to find buffalo and bring them to the people to hunt. As a result Blackfoot children, whose tribe lived on the Plains of North America, wore iniskim necklaces, while warriors wore them woven into their hair, and shamans carried them in bundles. Often the dead were buried with them to provide sustenance after death.
Another important spiritual instrument was the medicine wheel. I have seen at least one in Saskatchewan. I believe it was at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an internationally-acclaimed historic site just north of Saskatoon where my sister and brother-in-law took me a few years ago. For millennia medicine wheels have been a part of Indigenous spiritual life among people of the plains. These stone structures were usually centred on a pile of rocks (cairn) often located on a prominent hill. Spokes of the wheel radiated outwards.
For the Indigenous People of the plains the circle and the number 4 had spiritual significance. The circle had no beginning and no end. They also said that people hunt the buffalo for survival and then return it to the earth to nourish the grass, which then fed the new buffalo. This made the circle complete. As I said about the Anishinabe, the number 4 is also sacred to the Indigenous People of the plains.
At the visitor centre in Wanuskewin Heritage Park the number 4 is prominently on display in the four-pointed roof of the visitor centre, which can be seen from a distance. The roof represents four directions, four peoples, four seasons and four times of life.
A famous medicine wheel was built at Majorville about 5,000 years ago. 40 tonnes of rock were used to bu ild it. The medicine wheel was frequently utilized when Europeans first made contact with the Indigenous People on the plains. At the centre of that wheel was soil 9 metres in diameter and 1.6 metres high surrounded by an oval ring of stones about 29 metres by 26 metres. It contained 26 to 28 spokes.
The main spiritual ceremony of Plains people was the Sun Dance. I found it interesting that it was usually led by a woman. Women were allowed to be leaders on the Plains at a time when the Christian religion by and large, relegated women to a secondary role. Who thinks the Europeans were the civilized ones? A woman usually decides when the dance was to be held. Often it was held in order to allow a woman who had a male relative or husband in danger. She vowed publicly that if this person were spared she would sponsor a Sun Dance.
The Sun Dance was later outlawed by Canadians who did not appreciate any competition from native spirituality for the religion they wanted to impose. That of course was Christianity.
Peter Nabokov in his book Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992,reported an anonymous Blackfoot response:
“We know that there is nothing injurious to our people in the Sun-dance…It has been our custom, during many years, to assemble once every summer for this festival…We fast and pray, that we may be able to lead good lives and to act more kindly to each other.
I do not understand why the white men desire to put an end to our religious ceremonials. What harm can they do to our people? If they deprive us of our religion, we will have nothing left, for we know of no other that can take its place.”
The abolition the Sun Dance was finally removed from the Indian Act in 1951 when I was 3 years old. It took Canada that long to become civilized!
My daughter-in-law Debbi is part Anishinabe. I have learned a lot from her and her sister Kelsey. Kelsey is a teacher of Ojibwa culture and history. I have learned a lot from them , though not nearly enough.
Kelsey taught me that like so many Indigenous Peoples, Anishinabe (Ojibwa) people pay particular attention to directions. This reminded me a lot of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Central America. Paying attention to the 4 directions helps orient them to the world around them and ground them in a place—a sacred place. This too is a recurring theme among many Indigenous nations. They often believe that their beliefs and spirituality arise naturally from their home place. I really like that idea. Wallace Stegner, a fantastic writer believed the same thing.
Kelsey taught me that the number 4 is sacred in their culture. I also learned from my friend Carl Smith of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation that the Ojibway people have 4 fundamental interrelated concepts—Respect, purpose, balance and interconnection.
Kelsey also explained to me the importance of the Sweat Lodge. As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains it, “Sweat lodges are heated, dome-shaped structures used by Indigenous peoples during certain purification rites and as a way to promote healthy living.”
Inside the structures intense heat is generated usually from pouring water onto heated rock. That is done specifically to promote sweating because Anishinabe believe this will help to expel toxins and negative energy that creates imbalance and disorder in life. They believe it can help to cleanse the soul, mind, and body. This process may take several hours, but there is no set procedure that must be followed.
The Sweat Lodge is considered a sacred place compared often to a Mother’s womb. In fact that is what it is shaped like. The entrance to the Sweat Lodge usually faces east to symbolize a new day. In order to enter one must bend low to encourage humility. More religious people should practice humility. No let me correct that. More people should practice humility, including, me. Then one can exit the Sweat Lodge reborn. Many people can gain deep spiritual experiences from the engagement with the lodge. It is hoped that one exits reborn. A new person. this is sort of like the Christian concept of being born again.
The person who operates the sweat lodge is often called the keeper. Often that person is an elder or healer. Usually no charges are incurred for the experience, though people are encouraged, but not required, to offer a gift of something like cloth or tobacco. Gift giving itself is often an important spiritual experience for people. This too is a recurring theme among Indigenous people. Sometimes tobacco is exchanged for advice.
The purpose of the sweat lodge is not to generate revenue, but to heal and cleanse body and soul. Non-trained operators are discouraged because it can be dangerous. In 2009 three sweat lodge participants in a New Age “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Arizona died.
Sweat Lodges were strongly discouraged by European settlers of Canada as part of their efforts to suppress Indigenous spirituality in favor of their own Christian belief system. It was part of that wholly unjustified sense of superiority again.
One of the things I liked best about the Sweat Lodge ceremony was that anyone could participate. No particular beliefs are required. No particular beliefs about whom or what one is worshipping is a pre-requisite either. Anyone who is respectful can participate. I believe that is how all religions should operate.
I hope to learn much more about Anishinabe culture from my new family.
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.
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.
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?
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.”