People of Chaco

This past year I watched an amazing series called Native America on PBS. It was narrated by Robbie Robertson of the Band.

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 here when the Europeans officially arrive in 1492. Like Europeans, there were an astonishing variety of peoples. No stereotypes fit. 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.

More than a 1,000 years ago, 500 years before contact with Europeans, Native Americans built one of the largest cities of North American New Mexico. It was called Chaco.

Most of the city has been destroyed. All that remains are largely dismantled or ruined structures that most of Americans have forgotten about. To them they are insignificant. But they aren’t.

Some Native Americans still maintain a strong connection to Chaco. People like the Hopi from Northern Arizona make pilgrimages to Chaco because it is a way of connecting to their ancestors. One of these people is Leigh Kuwandwisiwma who is an ancient keeper of knowledge. He husbands and cherishes ancient knowledge–the traditional knowledge of America’s first peoples.

The Hopi are one of the pueblo communities–the most ancient people that live in the American Southwest. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma helped lead a group of elders from the Hopi community to a cave north of the ancient city of Chaco. The Hopi are notoriously reticent to share their culture with outsiders. For the filming of the series Native America, for the first time, the Hopi people shared an ancient ceremony outside their community. They offered cornmeal and eagle feathers in gratitude.

The Chaco housed a lot of people with high spiritual knowledge. A lot of great teachings were shared and stored there. The Hopi and other native peoples see this ancient city as being still alive. The structures contained 100s of rooms and were, skyscrapers by standards of the time. “Their walls were carefully aligned to the sun and stars. They transformed the surrounding desert into gardens and fields of corn.” The Hopi believed that many people, perhaps thousands came here to learn about natural forces. As Robertson said, “It was a place of higher learning hundreds of years before Harvard University was built.” In the Chaco the people shared secret knowledge, traditional practices, about the world of nature and the natural forces that governed it. Except for being secret, isn’t that what universities are all about? They believed that in this way they learned to influence the natural elements like wind, rain, and clouds. “Here a thousand years ago in the American Southwest was a thriving center of science and spirituality.”

What people learned at this center of knowledge helped them to cope, survive, and even thrive in a harsh environment. That knowledge was not useless; it was essential. Many clans came together there to share their knowledge. Each wanted to learn from the other and each wanted to help the others for the mutual benefit of all. They shared their wisdom about how to be and act as caretakers of the earth.

Recent archaeological evidence is showing how far Chaco influenced societies and how far people were willing to travel to come there. They came from hundreds of miles away. Archaeologist Patti Crown was the lead scientist in the search.

One of the rooms is very interesting. It is called Room 28 and when it was originally excavated in 1896 it contained dozens of cylindrical pots of which scientists have only recently come to understand the significance. Crown thought they were drinking vessels but was not sure what they were drinking. She used modern forensic techniques to get at the surprising truth. What they were used for was chocolate! Chocolate comes from the Cacao bean that only grows on trees in the tropics of Central America more than 500 miles away! Obviously they had to trade with people that far away to eat drink chocolate at Chaco.

There  “Chocolate was considered food for the gods.” I know my wife would agree. It was used in ceremonies where it would be poured from one vessel to another. The shape of the vessels in Central America were similar to those found in Chaco. “Chocolate and its sacred drinking ritual must have travelled from Central America to Chaco.” It is surprising how far ideas travelled in the ancient world.

Many other sacred objects were found at Chaco. They found carved shells from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. They found precious metals and minerals that could only have come from far off mountains. They found colorful tropical bird feathers that came from Central America over a thousand miles away! All of these were objects of ritual significance that had been carried here from a great distance.

As Crown pointed out, “It made Chaco part of this very, very deep and distant belief system. The remains of an ancient city, combined with Hopi traditions of a great center of knowledge, and sacred artifacts that connect Chaco with distant cultures, have together helped create a new vision of what Chaco was all about.

“In a world of cities teeming with people, immersed in the science and spirituality of earth and sky Chaco is a metropolis of ideas and beliefs that span two continents.” That of course leads to the next question, ‘Where did these ideas come from?’

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