The popular perception of the American Indian has to be one of the most malleable concepts in our history, adapting at will in parallel with the westward course of the U.S. empire. Wrapped up in fear and guilt, modern-day perceptions of the Indian have been everything from exterminable threat, to endangered “noble savage,” to hippie-like ecological warrior. It doesn’t matter that none of them were at all accurate, but at least the active placement of Indian culture somewhere in American thought has to be preferable to their current status as an invisible afterthought, a victim of apathy. Walking around on a ranger-led tour of the abandoned cliff-dwellings at Mesa Verde, I took a number of notes regarding history, construction, climate, etc., but the two big takeaways were difficult to reconcile: 1) as an archeological and architectural site this place is amazing, and 2) this is an incredibly empty and lonely place. The people who built it are gone, no one knows why, and no one knows how they lived.
1) Architecturally and tectonically Mesa Verde is beautiful, Cliff Palace especially. The masonry has a wonderfully tactile quality and the seamless edge where the cut blocks meet and merge with the cliff face is incredible. The Pueblos were obviously master craftsman. It’s the stuff of science fiction, fantasy and legend. People built and lived in miniaturized towns, forsaking the wildly more accessible mesa tops, for an existence cleft out of rock on the side of a canyon.
2) But the sense of unreality distances the visitor from having any meaningful connection to the people who lived here. All historical artifacts that weren’t plundered in the late 19th century have been thoroughly removed and crated by the Park Service. This leaves a completely anesthetized space of pure architectural form devoid of any function. Also, original paths that were crumbling and inaccessible have been recreated into smooth concrete streets safe for tour groups (see picture here of Mesa Verde in 1891). This uncanny mix of new and old, without any clues to habitation makes the Pueblo culture seem only more remote and lonely. At least at Pompeii you can see the ash covered tables and plates and other trappings of quotidian life — the gulf of time doesn’t seem quite so vast because of its recognizability. But here, things are more enigmatic without any pat answers. It didn’t help that I towered over the cramped spaces. An average Pueblo Indian of 1200 was around five feet tall. This gives the whole place the feel of a scaled-down stage set where doors seem smaller than windows and it’s incomprehensible to judge how — or how many — people lived in a 120sf space. I could appreciate the abstraction of the piled-up stacks of cubes and cylinders as elemental architecture, but it’s difficult to leave it at that. Was this actually a successful way to live? If so, why did they leave?
The Park Service museum isn’t much help. The ’70s-era dioramas of Indian life in the museum were rendered pretty ridiculous by their blatant attempts to Westernize Pueblo life in the 13th century, making it more accessible to contemporary culture. (C’mon really NPS? Bar-B-Ques around the kiva and playing fetch with dogs…on a cliff? For shame.) I felt more removed from Indian culture than ever. The rangers were more knowledgeable and, in their mini-lectures, they rejected any definitive answers but proposed that everything had dual spiritual/function purposes. Kivas were used for religious ceremonies, but also for living in during the winter. Vents were cut to allow smoke to exit and spirits to enter. But in the end, it’s all speculation. The last Pueblo cliff-dwellers who left around 1400 assimilated into other tribes and weren’t big on keeping any type of written historical record. Their only references to Mesa Verde are proclamations that it was simply time to leave, which, to an archeologist, must be somewhat frustratingly inadequate. But the Pueblo see time as cyclical. Time matters less than location when a belief in continual or infinite time creates a casual air or disregard for the quantifiable number of years. Time is like the seasons, not Western linear time – where this event happened at this time which in turn caused this proceeding thing to happen – so conceivably Mesa Verde could be inhabited again.
I wish I could imagine that. But as the steady stream of buses unloaded another batch of brightly-colored tourists, nothing seemed farther from reality. I made the short hike back to the car, trying to beat the rush back to Highway 160. The 30-mile, winding, two-lane road out of the park can seem like forever if you’re stuck behind a mini-van.