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Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations
By Brad Olsen
Consortium of Collective Consciousness Copyright © 2008 Brad Olsen
All rights reserved.
There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.
-Edgar Allan Poe, The Man of the Crowd
THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST IS A LAND OF DRY and sometimes very hot desert conditions, separated by treacherous mountain ranges and intermittent streams cut by long empty canyons. The rugged terrain is ideal for small land reptiles, clumps of cactus, and dry scrub forests of juniper and piñon trees. Much of the region is semi-arid and seemingly devoid of life, but this makes it a land of stark contrasts and impressive scenery. Bisecting the entire region, the flowing waters of the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon more than a mile (1.7 km) deep in some locations on its long journey to the Gulf of California. Like a long series of cascading steps from north to south, starting at an elevation over 5,000 feet (1,600 m), expansive flat-topped tablelands break off into steep edges known as mesas and feature the spectacular stand-alone rock formations called buttes that can resemble the shape of a cathedral or ghost ship. This fantastical landscape was carved by the elements of wind, rain, volcanic activity and flowing water erosion over many millennia. The climate occasionally changed during the long march of time, with some periods being wetter and allowing a wider proliferation of life.
No area of North America and few countries of the world can boast a collection of archaeological ruins equal to that of the American Southwest, a cultural region that extends from the Great Basin of what is today Nevada and Utah, the Colorado Plateau, and the whole of Arizona and New Mexico. Only from the point of view of norteamericanos, the Spanish word for people north of Mexico, is the southwestern region of the United States known as the "Southwest." To the ancestral Pueblo Indians and Spanish conquistadors, the land of the Southwest was the Gran Chichimeca, meaning the "Great Land of Nomads." These prehistoric wanderers for a time became the settled Hohokam, Fremont, Anasazi, Mogollon and Sinagua cultures, but were considered barbarians from the viewpoint of the more refined Valley of Mexico inhabitants. Prehistoric Mexican influence can be found in the architectural style of Southwestern cliff dwellings, pottery, ballcourts, kivas, trade items, irrigation channels for the cultivation of corn, and the large central plazas in more urbanized communities. The long cultural evolution lasted over a thousand years until a prolonged drought in the late 13 century CE devastated the entire Southwest region. Anasazi villages were abandoned due to starvation, internecine strife, and migrations. Life abruptly changed for the survivors, who centuries later became the ancestral Puebloan people. Today, surviving indigenous Southwest communities have retained their cultural heritage perhaps better than any other North American Indian segment. At a time when many ancient rituals have been forgotten elsewhere, the native people of the Southwest proudly display their age-old traditions on the largest reservations in North America.
Spanish conquistadors first entered what is today Arizona in 1540 on an unsuccessful expedition to locate the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. Instead they found a land of ghost cities left by the Hohokam, Arizona's earliest known people, and the cliff-dwelling ancestral Puebloans, also called the Anasazi. Franciscan priests started building a network of missions in their effort to save souls. Thwarted in 1680 by the Pueblo Revolt, the Spanish returned in the 1700s to crush Indian resistance. Over 300 years of Spanish domination ended with the 1848 treaty ending the Mexican War, but much of Arizona territory reverted to the victorious United States government. Apache and other Native American resistance continued until the end of the 19 century, even as railroads and mining booms brought thousands into the territory. Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, the last of the Lower 48 to join the Union.
The state of Arizona supports the largest Native American population in the United States. Its name comes from the Indian word arizonac, meaning "small spring." One of the fastest growing states in the country, Arizona is home to such famous natural wonders as the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon. The Navajo and Hopi reservations corner the northeastern part of the state in a vast land marked by towering red rock formations, spectacular canyons and green, forested mountains. Navajo territory, the larger of the two, completely surrounds the Hopi land, and overlaps into western New Mexico and southern Utah. In this part of Arizona primitive Navajo hogans, Hopi mesa adobe homes, traditional attire and lively ceremonies color the atmosphere. The Navajo and Hopi reservations are a place of limitless horizons, stark mesas, and reflective inspiration.
In the high desert of central Arizona is a prototype city called Arcosanti, built as an example on how urban congestion and social isolation can be eliminated. The city is designed according to the concept of "arcology" — the blending of architecture and ecology as one integral process — to address the wastefulness of modern urban sprawl. Arcology advocates a new city design, one that maximizes the interface of urban inhabitants, and to minimize the use of energy, pollution, raw materials and land, all the while allowing human interaction with the surrounding natural environment. "In a successful arcology arrangement," says Italian-born architect and philosopher Paolo Soleri, "the built and the living interact as organs would in a highly evolved being." Thus, Soleri specifically designed Arcosanti to be "the City in the Image of Man." As such, many systems at Arcosanti work together with efficient circulation of people and resources, multi-use buildings, and a proficient application of solar orientation for lighting, heating and cooling. In this complex, creative environment all aspects of the city are accessible, while personal privacy in a resourceful use of space is paramount to the overall design. As such, Solari proclaims, "A central tenet of arcology is that the city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind."
Arcosanti is a three-dimensional, pedestrian-only urban environment developed entirely by Paolo Soleri, who studied under the eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Under construction since 1970, Arcosanti is only about 10% completed and already houses nearly a hundred construction and artesian workers. When completed, Arcosanti will house 7,000 people, demonstrating ways to improve urban conditions and lessen our destructive impact on the earth. Its large yet compact structures and solar greenhouses will occupy only 25 acres (10 ha) of a 4,060-acre (1,624-ha) land preserve, keeping the natural countryside in close proximity to urban dwellers. Visitors report a "surge of inspiration" from being immersed in the advanced esthetic of geometric forms and utopian concepts applied at Arcosanti.
The urban experiment called Arcosanti is
located near an old Indian village. Both
Arcosanti and the prehistoric pueblo are
built under the concept of arcology, that is,
architecture coherent with ecology.
Arcosanti is constructed on the top of a low mesa. On a cliff wall behind Arcosanti are two prehistoric petroglyphs of a human and mountain goat depicted in harmony with their natural environment. The petroglyphs are located near the entrance to a large cave. Native Americans presumably occupied the cave, and sustained a living in the fertile valley. Not far from the cave, atop the next mesa to the north of Arcosanti, is an unexcavated Indian settlement. The ruins incorporate the walled remains of several pit houses joined next to each other in a townhouse fashion, built into the natural contours of the mesa. It may be a coincidence that an Indian pueblo community so similar in concept to an arcology city, exists within a stone's throw from Arcosanti. Or maybe Paolo Soleri planned it that way.
Getting to Arcosanti
Arcosanti is conveniently located just off Interstate 17, only 70 miles (113 km) north of metropolitan Phoenix. The exit for Arcosanti is at Cordes Junction, where signs lead motorists a few miles to the Visitor's Center. 50,000 tourists drop in every year for a free tour of the city. For those wishing to actively participate, there is a five-week workshop program at Arcosanti to teach Soleri's building techniques and arcological philosophy, while working to continue the city's construction. The current city was built almost entirely by the more than 4,000 past workshop participants.
Canyon de Chelly
Within the four sacred mountains are a series of deep red-rock canyons intrinsic to the identity of the Navajo Nation. The sheer sandstone canyons and rock formations collectively known as Canyon de Chelly feature hundreds of Indian sites, including prehistoric pueblo dwellings and rock art murals spanning several thousand years. The two primary canyons, Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly, shelter an almost tropical oasis of trees and flowers through the high desert terrain. The two gorges and multiple tributaries create one of the Southwest's most impressive landscapes. The Navajo traditionally called the canyon tsegi, meaning variously "in the rock" or "canyon." The Spanish spelled it chegui, a Hispanicized version of the Navajo word. As they often did, American settlers later anglicized the name to "de Chelly," pronounced de shaye. Although the canyons are spiritually significant to the Navajo, the Navajo were not the first to settle in the canyon. The Navajo arrived in the late 1600s following three centuries of an intermittent Hopi presence, preceded by much older inhabitations.
Canyon de Chelly is home to several periods of prehistoric Indian civilizations dating from 2500 BCE until the Great Drought in 1300 CE. The earliest arrivals, a vague cultural classification called the Archaic, were a people who built no permanent homes but left images on the canyon walls to tell their stories. Next on the scene were the pithouse-dwelling Basketmaker people, who were attracted to the canyon by the presence of water to irrigate their primitive farms. They remained for several hundred years before the Anasazi moved into the canyon and built upon the older Basketmaker home sites. Between 1050 and 1300 CE, human habitation reached a peak in the canyon with the building of dramatic cliff dwellings, including the White House, Antelope House, Sliding Rock, and the Mummy Cave settlement. Eventually the Anasazi would vacate the canyon as mysteriously as the Basketmakers did, leaving behind abandoned pueblos, rock art murals and assorted artifacts. To the Hopi people, whose modern reservation is only 50 miles (80 km) away, some sites in the canyon are considered highly sacred, like the kachina paintings in a cave near Antelope House. The Hopi farmed in Canyon de Chelly during the summer months and erected only temporary housing. Although most of the pictographs and petroglyphs in Canyon de Chelly were created by the Anasazi, some examples can be traced to the Archaic people, the Basketmakers, the Hopi as well as modern Navajos. Each culture brought with them their own colorful and distinct style of rock art.
The Navajo people retain a mystical bond to Canyon de Chelly, considering it the physical, historical, and spiritual center of their nation.
For many years the canyon served as a refuge and fortress to the Navajo people. The Athapaskan speaking Navajos, originally a branch of the Apaches and still recognizably Apachean, moved into the Southwest from the Great Plains in the 15 and 16 centuries. The mysterious serpentine ravines allowed protection from their enemies, as well as fertile farming and grazing lands. So important was the canyon to the Navajo that it was specifically outlined in the original 1868 treaty with the United States: "(the reservation boundary) embraces the outlet of the Canon-de-Chilly (sic), which canyon is to be all included in this reservation, shall be, and the same is hereby, set apart for the use and occupation of the Navajo tribe of Indians, and for such other friendly tribes or individual Indians." When the first boundary lines for the Navajo Reservation were drawn, Canyon de Chelly was intentionally placed dead center. Navajo tribal members remain in the canyon leading a simple lifestyle herding sheep and growing crops. Many Navajos living outside the canyon and other Colorado Plateau tribes return to Canyon de Chelly on pilgrimage to make prayer offerings or perform age-old rituals as their ancestors have done for many generations.
Getting to Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located 3 miles (4.8 km) from Route 191 near the town Chinle in northeastern Arizona. The 26-mile (42-km) canyon's sheer cliffs range from 30 to more than 1,000 feet (9 to 300 m) in height, providing a spectacular backdrop for hundreds of prehistoric ruins, as well as modern Navajo farms and houses. The Visitor's Center offers exhibits and cultural displays. A drive around the canyon offers excellent rim viewpoints. A Navajo guide is required for all canyon access, except for the 2.5-mile (4-km) round trip White House Trail.
In the 15th century, the Dine (the original Navajo name meaning "The People") migrated south from the far northern tundra regions of North America into the Central Plains. A hundred years later part of the tribe migrated once again, this time to what is today northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. Here they encountered the Pueblo Indians already established on the land for many centuries. Similar to the Romans adapting to the traditions of older Greek mythology, the Navajo emulated the legends of their older Hopi counterparts. Navajo legend describes the Dine as having to pass through three different worlds before arriving on this earthly plane, called the fourth world, or the Glittering World. On this plane the Dine believe there are two classes of beings: the Earth People, and the Holy People. The Earth People are the Navajo themselves, while the Holy People are the equivalent of Navajo gods. The Holy People are said to have the power to aid or harm Earth People, and centuries ago the Holy People taught the Dine how to live correctly in their everyday life. They were taught how to harmoniously exist with Mother Earth, Father Sky, animals, plants, and insects. The Holy People assisted the First Man and the First Woman out of the third world into the Glittering World, where the first man and woman found pueblos already existing. The Holy People put four sacred mountains in four different directions: Mount Blanca near Alamosa, Colorado to the east; Mount Taylor near Grants, New Mexico to the south; the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona to the west; and Mount Hesperus near Durango, Colorado to the north. Collectively these mountains established the ancestral Navajoland of the fourth world. The Dine (named the "Navajo" by Spanish explorers in 1540) mark their emergence into the fourth world from a hole in the La Plata Mountains of southwestern Colorado. The story of Dine creation is recounted in the tribe's most important ceremony, called the Blessing Way Rite. This ritual had been given to the tribe shortly after the emergence of the Holy People who created the natural world and humans. Navajo religious doctrine holds that the first Blessing Way ceremony was performed during the emergence of First Man and First Woman. The Navajo people and the Blessing Way came into being simultaneously and symbiotically, thus establishing the ceremony's importance for all time. The two-day ceremony begins by recounting in song First Man's creation of humankind. The next day more songs are sung about other stages of the world's creation, and a bathing ritual in yucca (cactus) suds is performed to symbolize renewal. Crushed flower blossoms, corn meal, and pollen are sprinkled upon the ground to bless and bring good fortune to the Navajo people. The ceremony concludes with a 12-stanza song designed to satisfy the Holy People and reinforce the Navajo ideal of harmony between humans and nature. Blessing Way is performed at least once every six months for each Navajo family, in addition to special occasions such as weddings, impending births and the consecration of a new home. The Navajo regard this ceremony as fundamentally life-giving because the Dine founders bestowed it, defining the tribe and its world purpose. Indeed, the Navajo believe that when the Blessing Way ceremony ceases to be performed, the world will come to an end.
In a high desert climate where fresh water and wild game are scarce, the prehistoric Anasazi Indians thrived in the area for over 700 years. The Anasazi first came to Monument Valley at least 1,500 years ago, constructing cliff dwellings and carving mysterious petroglyphs before suddenly disappearing. Some Navajos claim there are a few Anasazi ruins in Monument Valley that no white man has ever seen. The Athapaskan speaking Navajo arrived hundreds of years after the Anasazi disappeared, adapting well to the arid environment. In Monument Valley, where the past seems eternal and history is all around, the Navajo have maintained harmony with "Mother Earth and Father Sky," blending what is modern with what is traditional in this fourth, or Glittering World. The valley features spires, buttes, and mesas towering over the mile-high terrain by a thousand feet (300+ m) or more. The landscape speaks eloquently of nature's own creation technique by using wind, erosion, rain and time.
Excerpted from Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations by Brad Olsen. Copyright © 2008 Brad Olsen. Excerpted by permission of Consortium of Collective Consciousness.
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