Katelyn (Katie) Jacobson, University of California at Santa Cruz
(July 1, 2016)—Listening to an origin story is a commitment. Migrations, war, a fall, an exodus, generations, exile, and a homecoming; crawling out of the sludge took 3.2 million years and if you want to stand out in the desert and tell someone how it went, tell them to find a nice tree to sit under. It only takes five minutes to start a sunburn.
We heard our story at the Zuni site of Hawikuh from Kenny Bowekaty, a leader of the religious community who received permission to tell us a piece of the Zuni tale. The site itself overlooks the valley floor, rubble covering the ancient walls. We crowded under a juniper tree on the way to the site while Kenny leaned back in his black sunglasses for a recitation that took forty minutes to tell, and probably years to learn.
It started with three groups who followed three paths away from each other. The elevator version is that one group went south and never came back, but the other two remained to look for the Middle Place, a home designated by the Zuni war gods. After a rough journey out of their reptilian forms and a thousand years of migration, Hawikuh was settled by people still looking for the center place. It was a spot along the way, with a permanent water source and ringed by mountains, but it wasn’t The Spot, and in the end the middle place wasn’t something they found on their own. It was when Water Strider put its four feet in the ocean and put down its chest that the people saw its heart was in Zuni.
The story is similar among many ancestral Pueblo people. They don’t choose the place—they are shown the place.
The Sky City of Acoma is on top of a mesa. There are cisterns, but they go dry. Waste disposal has been eroding the mountain. People fall off. Children fall off. Their fields are at the bottom of the mesa. Before the road was built, people carried water in pots on their heads, using worn handholds up and down a near vertical path generously referred to as “stairs.” It has since been cut into actual steps, but I’d bet a nickel they load water into their trucks now.
Acoma is the middle place that was revealed by yellow-haired Corn Girl. They tried the Enchanted Mesa across the valley, but a storm knocked the stairs down while the men were in the fields, leaving women and children stranded on top. They eventually leapt to their death, and the survivors knew it was high time to listen to the Corn Girl and move up to Acoma.
The small community that lives there today has chosen a life with no electricity, sewage, Wi-Fi, or running water. It’s the way they want it, and many people live on proceeds from their art. They make pottery the way their ancestors did, and bead patterns modeled after the Acoma ceramic traditions. Our young guide grew up there, in an adobe house that has lace curtains now and opens up to a packed earth street leading to the edge of the mesa.
One of the funny things about archaeology is that we spend a lot of effort looking for the ways people came to be the way they are, but for people descended from these groups, they know where they came from, and they know how they got there.