Living Connections to an Ancient Past at Wupatki National Monument
Almost a thousand years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions in what is today north-central Arizona blanketed the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau in lava, cinder, and ash.
The destruction transformed the landscape, creating arable terrain where once there had been none. Spurred by these new agricultural opportunities, the population grew. Scattered communities gave way to much larger settlements, economic prospects expanded, and the area now enclosed within the boundaries of Wupatki National Monument arose as a multicultural trading center, dominating the region for over 150 years. Then in 1250 C.E., for reasons not entirely clear, its inhabitants moved on.
Today many of those who visit the area find it difficult to imagine how this region once supported several thousand people. While Wupatki, as the monument is popularly known, lies at the crux of a varied and dynamic landscape, it does not appear to be a particularly hospitable place. Sweeping mesas, basins, and grasslands, all in varying shades of rust red or faded green, overwhelm the topography. There’s little rain beyond the occasional summer thunderstorm, but that scarcely seems to bother the hardy saltbush, sand sage, and threadleaf snakeweed, which grow in relative abundance.
Here the ancient buildings of Wupatki stand as living witnesses to the ingenuity of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples who built their homes and lives out of the copper-colored earth. Evidence of over 2,500 manmade structures and features—multi-room pueblos, pithouses, hearths, stone quarries, burial grounds, shrines, reservoirs, and fieldhouses—has been recovered. Pottery, shells, copper bells, the feathers and bones of macaws, and countless other material goods indicate the existence of a trading practice that extended well into contemporary northern Mexico, and perhaps even further to the west and north. The abundance of archaeological resources prompted the designation of Wupatki as a National Monument in 1924, less than twenty years after the passage of the Antiquities Act made such designations possible.
However, for the Native American communities with ancestral ties to the site, Wupatki is significant for far more than its archaeological contributions. Cecilia Shields, Chief of Interpretation and Education for Flagstaff Area National Monuments, which includes Wupatki, attributes the area’s importance to the oral stories and traditions attached to the site.
“For many groups there was no written language, so history was preserved orally,” she says. “These oral histories are so important that they’ve become song, they’ve become prayer, they’ve become ceremony. It’s a way of preserving the culture.” The same ceremonies, songs, and prayers have also helped to preserve Wupatki—not as a ruined relic of times gone by, but as a place very much alive.
The National Park Service (NPS) consults with many of the local indigenous communities to ensure that the exhibits and programming offered at Wupatki are sensitive to the living connections that many maintain with the site.
“We want to make sure that visitors to Wupatki understand that the people who lived here didn’t abandon this place or vanish from it, they simply moved,” Shields notes. “These places are still respected and visited by descendants.”
Thirteen different Native American communities are traditionally associated with Wupatki: the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, the Navajo Nation, the Zuni Tribe of the Zuni Reservation, the Havasupai Tribe, the Hualapai Tribe, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe, the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe of Arizona, the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona, the Kaibab Band of Paiutes, and the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe of Arizona.
Each community has its own distinct connection to the sites found within the monument, and NPS has worked to help maintain these connections. “National Parks and National Monuments are preserved so that others can go and see these places,” Shields says, “and it’s just as important to the tribes that these places are protected—they play such a huge part in the oral traditions.”
In addition to partially restoring some of the pueblos and other structures at Wupatki, NPS works with area schools to bring indigenous students to the monument. They also host guest speakers and special events at the site throughout the year.
Shields hopes that developing more opportunities for different indigenous groups to visit the site and for indigenous students to intern during summers will further strengthen the relationship between NPS and local communities.
Accurately imparting the significance of the area to non-Native guests can be a challenge for those entrusted with programming at the monument. Many of those who visit Wupatki do so on their way to or from the nearby Grand Canyon, and often have not budgeted the time necessary to fully explore the 35,000-acre monument.
The solution to such a problem is variety. Visitors to Wupatki can participate in any number of the talks, brief programs, and exhibits offered at the monument. Many choose to explore the largest pueblos—Wukoki, Citadel, Lomaki, and Wupatki, for which the monument is named. Those with more time have the option of partaking in one of the guided tours offered throughout the year, which range from half-day walks to overnight hikes.
All the programs emphasize the living connections Native communities have to the site, and often incorporate what those communities have shared with NPS—indigenous uses for local plants, for example, or information on indigenous ceramics and construction methods.
According to Shields, many are struck by how the Ancestral Pueblo peoples were able to survive, much less flourish, in a landscape shaped by the forbidding forces of erupting volcanoes and reluctant rain: “The majority of visitors ask why anyone would have lived here, but the longer you’re at the site, you see how they were able to thrive.”
Ultimately, the hope is that guests will understand that the lives the residents of Wupatki led then were not so different from the lives we live now. As Shields puts it, “the sense of community and survival that existed then is the same we experience today. The views people see today are the same the ancestors saw.”