The drumming is inescapable. It’s a sound you feel in your gut, like thunder from a summer storm. Its rumble fills the pueblo, resonating off adobe walls, shimmering in the white-hot sun, guiding the moccasined feet of the dancers. It asks the clouds looming over distant mountains to come closer. It calls to them for rain.
The drum bodies are made of cottonwood, sanded to a smooth blond and stretched over with cowhide. A line of men beat them with drumsticks — tumbe feh in the Tewa language. Some of the younger men wield their tumbe feh with a fervor that makes the muscles in their arms stand out, but Arthur Cruz’s style is different. He lets his right arm fall with the weight of gravity, so measured that after hours of drumming and singing in 100-degree heat, he barely breaks a sweat. After more than two decades of this, he still gets lost in the rhythm.
On this, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, northern New Mexico’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo is filled with people — extended family, friends, Anglo and Hispanic visitors. The pueblo is one of six in the Tewa Basin, a bowl in the high desert intersected by the Rio Grande, and although the day’s festivities ostensibly honor a Roman Catholic saint, they are just as much a celebration of the summer solstice. All weekend, people gather in homes to share bowls of posole, enchiladas, red chile, yams with marshmallows, chocolate chip cookies, potato salad. There’s a footrace one afternoon, and a carnival hums just outside the pueblo, the Ferris wheel drawing neon circles above 500-year-old adobe buildings.
But the defining event of the weekend is the dancing. Again and again, Tewa drummers, singers and dancers make their way around the kiva, a ceremonial building at the center of the pueblo. Sometimes the dancers move like shambling buffalo; other times they imitate Comanche warriors from the east, hollering and whooping in feathered headdresses and bone breastplates. Always there is the drumming, accompanied by songs as staccato as the drumbeats themselves. I watch with other guests on Arthur Cruz’s shaded front porch, absorbed in the music but understanding nothing of the lyrics.
It’s only later that Cruz explains their significance. We’re sitting in his living room under a fan, the curtains drawn, the air cool. As he talks, Cruz removes the accessories he donned for the feast — the leather wrist cuff, the dangling shell earrings, the yellow moccasins — until he’s once again a regular guy in an easy chair, weaving his way through a thousand years of history as casually as if he were relaying last week’s baseball game.
Many Tewa songs ask for rain, Cruz tells me, but one song in particular alludes to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. It was then — following a century in which invading Spaniards enslaved and tortured Pueblo people, burned their religious objects and tried to suppress their culture — that a leader from Ohkay Owingeh united Pueblo tribes to drive the Spanish out of the northern Rio Grande. The atrocities that precipitated the revolt are still felt so deeply that in 1998, a group of Pueblo artists removed the foot from a bronze statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish governor who cut off the right feet of 24 Acoma Pueblo men.
The Pueblo Revolt remains relevant to Cruz and other Tewa people because it illustrates how deftly they’ve withstood hundreds of years of colonization. The Tewa are one of five linguistic groups that fall under the umbrella of Pueblo Native Americans, and like other Pueblo groups, they speak a distinct language and have a unique culture. And because they were never forced off their land or corralled onto reservations, their place-based religious, agricultural and oral traditions have continued unbroken. Generations of Tewa storytellers have kept the history of the Pueblo Revolt alive, whispered and sung in a language that invading Europeans couldn’t understand. They repeated stories of the revolt the same way they repeated even older stories, ones that told of their great migration from the north and the formation of Tewa clans.
Growing up in Ohkay Owingeh, Arthur Cruz heard these stories. He learned the songs. They helped shape his identity. And now, they’re helping reshape scientists’ understanding of the pulse of human life across the Southwest. Combined with new data analyses and a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates linguistics, genetics and other fields, archaeologists working closely with Pueblo people like Cruz have begun to fill in the gaps of migration patterns that have long puzzled Western scientists. The story that’s emerging is a testament to the resilience of culture — and the scientific value of Indigenous knowledge.
In the mid-1200s, an estimated 25,000 people lived in an 1,800-square-mile area surrounding what’s now southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Over the 700 years they lived in this area — known as the central Mesa Verde region — the people built huge villages of stone and adobe. They traded for turquoise and obsidian from across the Southwest and for shells from the Pacific Coast. They raised turkeys for feathers that were used in blankets and ceremonies, and mastered the art of growing corn, beans and squash in a landscape that receives around a foot of rain a year.
And then they left. By the 1280s, there’s no evidence that anyone remained in the region. In some places, homes were abandoned as if their occupants had walked out the door one morning to tend the fields and never returned — pots left on earthen floors, intricately patterned mugs hanging from pegs on the wall. Elsewhere, smashed skulls and hints of cannibalism suggest that some people met a violent end. In a place called Castle Rock Pueblo, some 41 men, women and children appear to have been massacred, their bodies left unburied, their kivas burned. In still other places, kivas may have been burned ceremonially, a ritualistic farewell as people walked away from a place where they had roots stretching for generations.
The first non-Natives to find and study these ruins speculated about where the original inhabitants had gone. Nearby Utes claimed no ancestral connection to the people who once called this place home, while Navajos said the civilization had belonged to the Anasazi, a term that translates as “ancient foreigners.” Early settlers figured the Anasazi had either died off or vanished without a trace — a romantic notion that persists to this day.
Hundreds of miles away, though, Tewa and other Puebloans knew they were descended from the people who built Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. Their oral histories told them so.
Tewa origin stories, however, aren’t backed by the kind of hard evidence that archaeologists traditionally rely on. Often when people move, they take their “material culture” with them — styles of architecture, tools or pottery that can be tracked across a landscape, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading from one site to the next. But the trail out of the Four Corners quickly peters out. Although the area around the Tewa Basin saw a rise in population around the same time that Mesa Verde’s population waned, scant traces of Mesa Verde-style architecture and pottery have been found in New Mexico or Arizona’s Pueblo villages — certainly not enough to account for a large migration of people. Today, while it’s widely accepted that Pueblo people are in some way descended from Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellers, there’s no scientific consensus on exactly how the two are related, or what paths Mesa Verde’s inhabitants took as they spread across the Southwest.
In the Tewa Basin in particular, scientists continue to search for architecture or pottery definitively linking the region to Mesa Verde, and they continue to come up empty-handed, fueling a debate that’s divided archaeologists for over a century: Did large numbers of Mesa Verde’s final inhabitants migrate south and set up a new society in the Tewa Basin? Some prominent scholars, such as New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies Director Eric Blinman, maintain that they did not.
Archaeology exists “because our stories are intended to be criticized,” Blinman says. He doesn’t deny some connection between Mesa Verde and the Tewa Basin, but he and others in New Mexico’s state office believe that a few families trickling out of Mesa Verde integrated with Tewa who had already been living in the Northern Rio Grande for two thousand years.
This might seem like an academic quibble, but it has real repercussions for people like Arthur Cruz, who serves as a consultant for archaeological surveys and regularly makes personal pilgrimages to the Mesa Verde region. Not only does it undermine Tewa oral history, but without consensus from archaeologists — typically considered the experts in legal cases involving land rights or historic preservation — the Tewa people’s power to weigh in on what happens to ancestral sites in southwest Colorado remains tenuous.
As new technology unravels the mysteries of the past, though, that’s starting to change.
Driving west from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, it’s difficult to believe you’re in the middle of one of the world’s densest concentrations of archaeological sites. A nearby dam has turned the sagebrush desert into a quilt of irrigated green fields, stitched together by gravel back roads and dotted with tidy houses. Here and there cows graze alongside newborn calves.
Crow Canyon Vice President Mark Varien has a knack for peeling back the veneer of modern agriculture to see things most people don’t notice. Once, at a seemingly random spot on the road, he stops and points to a cluster of trees indistinguishable from dozens of others we’ve passed. “You see that little stand of junipers?” he asks. “A Chacoan road ran right through there. Ran right through Leslie Black’s old place. And see that sagebrush? That’s a collapsed archaeological site. The farmers can’t plow it because of the rocks, so they just plow around it. Those clumps of sage are the remains of a pueblo. The big one’s probably the kiva.”
Although this region seems to stretch to the Utah border in a plain, it’s crevassed with wild canyons. Together, the canyons and uplands harbor a staggering 18,000 sites where Ancestral Puebloans lived, worked, hunted, worshipped and fought. Some, like the kiva Varien points out in the middle of a red-dirt field, are on private land. Others are protected by national parks, monuments or other federal land. And each of the thousands of archaeological sites here has been captured through pages upon pages of data, meticulously recorded by generations of archaeologists.
Until recently, the sheer quantity of data flowing from this country made it difficult for scientists to assess landscape-wide patterns. It was easy enough to conclude, for instance, that up to 800 people lived in Yellow Jacket Pueblo, in modern-day Montezuma County, over a 200-year period. But fitting that lone puzzle piece into the bigger picture of how the population waxed and waned across time and space was nearly impossible, which meant correlating peoples’ movements with changing environmental conditions was also riddled with uncertainty.
Now, data-crunching software and computer modeling are helping scientists mine Mesa Verde’s trove of archaeological data like never before, revealing new details about the conditions that precipitated southwest Colorado’s mysterious depopulation.
In 2001, Varien and a team of archaeologists, geologists, hydrologists, geographers, computer scientists and economists formed something called the Village Ecodynamics Project. From 2001 to 2014, the researchers analyzed all known habitation sites in the Mesa Verde region, as well as 7,000 more in the Northern Rio Grande. They used site-specific information to piece together the population history of the two regions, then combined the demography with granular climatic and soil data to reconstruct past environments, including year-by-year, place-by-place estimates of agricultural yields and natural resource availability. The researchers then compared computer-generated yields with those from studies in which Hopi farmers grew corn using traditional methods, and found them to be believable.
Next, they plugged the human and environmental history of the 4,500-square-mile study area into a computer simulation — a sort of Sim City for the ancient Southwest. They ran the simulation more than 500 times, each time tweaking parameters such as how far hunters were willing to walk to find game.
As they studied the results, patterns began to emerge. Scientists noticed, for instance, that people moved out of certain canyons and into more agriculturally productive uplands around the same time that wild deer populations would have declined from hunting. As deer declined, the number of turkey bones in midden heaps increased, suggesting that people had started to butcher and eat the birds instead of using them only for feathers. This had sweeping repercussions: Corn already accounted for up to 80 percent of the people’s caloric intake, but as corn-fed domestic turkeys surpassed deer as the main source of protein, the entire system became dependent on a single crop. Putting all their kernels into one basket meant that if there wasn’t enough rain to grow corn, people were in trouble.
This seemed to fit with the dominant explanation that a drought in the 1200s drove people away from the Mesa Verde region. But the Village Ecodynamics Project also cast doubt on this theory. Hydrologists found that groundwater seeps and springs were more common in the region than previously suspected, and that such water sources probably didn’t dry up during even the most arid years. Nor did people deplete piñon-juniper woodlands so badly that a lack of wood would have forced them off the land. And the soil’s ability to hold moisture meant that the land was still more than capable of producing enough food to support the population.
In other words, after centuries of successfully adapting to and surviving the mercurial weather of southwest Colorado, it’s unlikely that drought alone was responsible for driving people away from a place to which they had deep spiritual and emotional ties. After all, they’d withstood earlier droughts that were even harsher. And even more striking, the Village Ecodynamics models show that many of Mesa Verde’s inhabitants were already gone by 1276, when the infamous drought really took hold.
There are still numerous plausible explanations for why people left, including that it was simply time to go: In many Pueblo cosmologies, the Pueblo people’s true home was in the south, and they were always meant to end up there. But the evidence of social strife in the years leading up to the exodus is hard to ignore.
That’s led Scott Ortman, a University of Colorado Boulder archaeologist and Village Ecodynamics researcher, to develop a theory based not just on the scarcity of resources, but on the social fabric that dictated how people shared them. Between 900 and 1200 A.D., the population of the Mesa Verde region tripled. Still, each family seems to have farmed its own plot of land, its members centering their lives around a family-sized kiva. This may have worked when there was enough space for each family to stake out a productive plot, but as more families were forced to support themselves on marginal land, it created a system of haves and have-nots. That, Ortman believes, “is where the whole thing blew up.”
Ortman, a tall man with sandy hair and a measured, thoughtful manner, became an archaeologist for the same reason as many of his colleagues: because he was fascinated by the past. But early on, aspects of the field troubled him. On tours led by Anglo archaeologists in the 1990s, he noticed they presented themselves as the experts, even when Native American elders were present. Once, Ortman watched a Southern Ute man address a room of archaeologists at a workshop. “We’ve been trying to explain to you why we find excavating archaeological sites offensive,” the man said. “We tried to ask, ‘Why do you think archaeology is worth doing, given that we feel this way?’ Doing it because it’s interesting isn’t enough.”
That observation shaped Ortman’s career. So when the Village Ecodynamics Project showed that the number of people who “disappeared” from Mesa Verde during the 1200s was roughly the same as the number of people who moved into the Tewa Basin shortly thereafter, Ortman began searching for other evidence linking the two regions. But rather than studying potsherds and midden heaps, he turned to the Tewa people themselves. He studied modern Tewa language and culture, and invited elders to join him at ancestral sites to compare traditional knowledge with archaeological evidence. Instead of viewing Tewa stories merely as metaphor or myth, he began combing through them for clues harking back to Mesa Verde.
“His work deals with taking Pueblo perspectives seriously,” says Patrick Cruz, one of Ortman’s graduate students and a cousin of Arthur Cruz. “It’s not just dismissive of oral history. That’s hugely important to me.”
Ortman is part of a growing cadre of scientists who are beginning to use oral histories to help answer some of their fields’ most puzzling questions. In coastal British Columbia, for instance, geologists unearthed evidence of an earthquake that First Nations people had long told stories about, revealing a seismic history that may help predict future earthquakes. In the Canadian Arctic, a 2014 analysis of ancient DNA corroborated Inuit accounts of a vanished tribe that lived in the region for thousands of years before the Inuit’s own ancestors arrived.
“Native people have been telling us what they knew all along,” Ortman explains, “and it’s proving to be closer to the reality than many of the stories archaeologists have developed.”
Unlike the Inuit, though, Puebloans in the American Southwest haven’t consented to a DNA analysis. So to investigate the roots of Tewa oral history, Ortman compiled measurements of human skulls taken from 858 people who lived across the Southwest between 1000 and 1600 A.D. (The remains of many of these people have been repatriated, but measurements recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries are still available.) The results “suggest that the ancestral Tewa population was, biologically, essentially identical to the people of the Mesa Verde region,” Ortman says. He also studied turkey bones from both regions and found strong evidence that a genetically distinct population of turkeys appeared in the Tewa Basin in the 1200s. The turkeys’ DNA differed from that of earlier Tewa Basin turkeys, but it perfectly matched the DNA of turkeys that had lived at Mesa Verde.
The most intriguing findings, though, came from less tangible sources like the Tewa language. The word t’uuphadi, for example, which refers to the roof of a church, literally translates as “a basket made of timber.” While the roofs of modern Pueblo churches look nothing like baskets, the timber-framed roofs of ceremonial kivas from Mesa Verde bear a strong resemblance. And although several Tewa words describing pottery derive from older words for woven objects, Tewa pottery doesn’t incorporate aspects of weaving. Mesa Verde pottery, however, with its designs “woven” onto clay, does.
As Ortman followed this line of linguistic inquiry into deeper etymological analyses, he began to hypothesize that Tewa didn’t emerge as a distinct language in the Northern Rio Grande, as was commonly believed, but further back in time — likely in southwest Colorado. “There’s a pattern of the contemporary vocabulary of the Tewa language that seems to explicitly express the symbolic material culture of Mesa Verde,” Ortman says. Or, in layman’s terms: Mesa Verde people may have spoken the same language that Art Cruz speaks today.
Ortman is careful to emphasize that the people who left the Mesa Verde region spread far and wide across the Southwest, so all 21 modern Pueblo tribes are in some way descended from them. But the six Tewa-speaking tribes, he now believes, are the “most direct cultural descendants,” with up to half of Mesa Verde’s famous cliff-dwellers migrating to the Tewa Basin over the course of the 13th century.
The final link between the two regions came from accounts recorded by anthropologists nearly a century ago. In one book, Tewa people cited names for places in southwest Colorado that they themselves had never been to. Another story described a place that perfectly matched an archaeological site called Yucca House. “All of these things center on this one area in southwest Colorado that centers on Yucca House,” Ortman says. And Yucca House, it turns out, is one of the most unique sites in the Mesa Verde region.
Yucca House National Monument is six miles as the raven flies from Mesa Verde National Park, but it feels a world away. Instead of paying a visitor fee, joining a line of cars snaking up a big green mesa, and signing up for ranger-led tours of exquisitely preserved cliff dwellings, you drive uncertainly down a unmarked gravel road littered with old irrigation equipment. The official directions guide you past a “No Trespassing” sign and toward a white farmhouse with a red roof. Parking appears to be in the farmhouse’s driveway, and you wonder again if this can possibly be the entrance to a national monument. It is. Sitting just beyond the house’s green lawn is a creaky metal gate leading to what was once a bustling village.
Unlike Mesa Verde, Yucca House has never been excavated, which is how many Pueblo people prefer to keep their ancestral sites. Today, it looks like a thorny patch of desert surrounded by plowed fields, interrupted by a few mounds and a glimpse of crumbling stone masonry. The paths peter into saltbush and cacti, and as I pick my way through it, an ominous rattle causes me to leap back in terror. Once, there were 600 rooms and kivas here, corn and squash growing all around, children playing and shouting, juniper smoke from cooking fires lingering in the air. Now it’s silent except for the clicking of grasshoppers and the tsk-tsk-tsk of sprinklers watering the nearby lawn. A thumbprint of moon hangs in the afternoon sky.
When Scott Ortman looks at Yucca House, though, he sees something extremely rare in the Mesa Verde region: a communal plaza, similar to the plaza in Ohkay Owingeh that hosts Tewa dancers on the village’s feast days. Recent pottery and tree-ring dating shows that Yucca House was one of the last places occupied by Ancestral Puebloans before they left the region, and Ortman suggests that one reason it may have lasted so long was that people there were already trying out a new way of living, one less centered on the family and more on the entire community. “It looks like a prototype of the typical Tewa village,” he says.
As Mesa Verde’s people realized their society was unraveling into starvation, violence and death, Ortman believes they decided to leave for the Northern Rio Grande, a place they already knew of from obsidian traders. Oral tradition says it took Tewa people “12 steps” to travel from their ancestral home to their current one, which Ortman interprets as the 12 days it may have taken to walk the 250 miles separating the two regions. And once they arrived in New Mexico, the people may have been so traumatized by Mesa Verde’s final years that they discarded the art and architecture associated with that period and replaced them with something more closely resembling the Yucca House model.
This rings true for Tessie Naranjo, a 76-year-old Tewa scholar from Santa Clara Pueblo. “Those who came in the late 1200s were, I think, ready to begin again,” she says. “It was all about adaptation. The clay might be different here, the vegetation is different, the medicinal plants are different. So naturally they had to learn new things. That’s what I have to think about why their pottery and architecture were different once they came here.”
Eric Blinman of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies finds this difficult to swallow. For Ortman’s model to be true, it would mean that when a tide of some 15,000 Mesa Verde refugees arrived to augment the 6,000 or so original inhabitants of the Tewa Basin, the refugee population smothered the original population’s genes, language and oral history but not their styles of art, pottery and architecture. He maintains that most surviving Mesa Verde emigrants went elsewhere, to Pueblo tribes where the Keres language is spoken. Other scientists who favor conventional archaeological evidence over religious or linguistic connections agree, and recent papers have begun to cast doubt on some of Ortman’s conclusions.
Still, Ortman’s approach has earned him some of archaeology’s highest awards, and today, most archaeologists in the region indeed believe what the Tewa have asserted for centuries.
This reaffirmation of Tewa beliefs may not matter to every Tewa person, but Naranjo finds it validating. Although she herself never questioned the truth of the stories she’s heard since childhood, it’s intellectually fascinating for her to see those stories interpreted by someone outside the community. “It’s very important for those of us who are curious about such things,” she says.
The support could also provide contemporary Tewa-speaking communities with a legal tool to protect ancestral sites in Colorado, says Naranjo’s nephew, Porter Swentzell, a history professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts. And it could give more credence to oral histories from other tribes, even those that have not yet been “proven” by science.
Swentzell says his own belief system has enough space to incorporate both Ortman and Blinman’s models. Tewa people may have migrated en masse from Mesa Verde, he says, but they may also have lived in the Tewa Basin since time immemorial, as Blinman claims. “The Eurocentric philosophy is that there’s some kind of true version of the past that can be found out — that there’s the actual thing that happened,” Swentzell explains. In Tewa culture, though, “multiple versions of the past can exist simultaneously. People can go through the same event and experience it in different ways. I think it’s important to throw out there that Native peoples don’t necessarily need archaeology to construct the past for us. We already have our own equally valid ways of understanding it.”
There are many ways to get from Mesa Verde to the Tewa Basin, but geographers believe that ancient people would have likely headed south, through territory that’s now the Navajo Nation. It wouldn’t have been an easy journey — this part of the reservation seems to go on forever, the horizon unchanging, the land muted and parched. As the Jemez Mountains appeared in the distance, the Ancestral Puebloans would have turned east toward them, perhaps climbing through groves of aspen and ponderosa pine or trudging over passes carrying jugs of water and babies. Most had never been to the place they were going.
“At that time, there were no boundaries or borders to inhibit them,” says Tessie Naranjo. “It was about finding a better place. Maybe in terms of water, maybe in terms of rainfall, maybe in terms of beginning again and creating communities again. Maybe all of those reasons.”
Coming out of the mountains, the people would have had their first view of the Rio Grande: the green ribbon of cottonwoods swaddling the river, the broad valley, the storm clouds shadowing the mountain range now called the Sangre de Cristos. When I saw this view for the first time, it reminded me of the date-palm oases in Morocco where people have settled for thousands of years. These are the kinds of places humans are drawn to, no matter when or where we live.
Yet droughts in the Southwest are cyclical, and the Tewa Basin, too, was eventually crippled by the same bouts of aridity that may have contributed to the demise of Mesa Verde. Here, though, the challenges seemed to only strengthen local communities. Although villages grew far more populous than any in Mesa Verde had been, the region shows little evidence of violence. The societies and traditions that developed were so strong they persisted through waves of colonization and through industrial development and the large-scale mining of the earth. Like the people who lived at Yucca House, Puebloans in the Northern Rio Grande structured their communities around a central plaza where work was shared, religious dances and rituals were held, and the harvest was equitably distributed.
Some of Arthur Cruz’s most vivid memories are from these plazas. When he was young, every family in Ohkay Owingeh worked together to grow corn and wheat, carrying the crops on horse-drawn wagons to the pueblo to be husked and threshed by hand. Fewer families farm today, but on feast days, the plazas look much like they did when Cruz was a kid. Especially on the feast day of St. John the Baptist, it’s clear that the songs and dances that keep the Tewa universe spinning still live on. The essence of what it means to be Tewa lives on.
All day, Cruz and the other drummers make their way around Ohkay Owingeh’s kiva, pausing to face each of the four cardinal directions. The drumming and dancing go on until I lose count of how many how many times the songs are repeated, of how many people come and go from Cruz’s house, bending over to greet his 93-year-old mother on the porch, ducking into the dark home to eat bowls of food served by his daughters. The day becomes a blur, like the spinning lights of the Ferris wheel.
But one moment is fixed in time. By late afternoon, though thunderclouds have gathered in the distance, the sky above the pueblo is achingly blue, the air still and hot. There’s a break in the dancing, and people crowd onto Cruz’s porch to seek shade and sip watermelon agua fresca from Styrofoam cups. Teenagers wearing headdresses and body paint from the Comanche Dance mill around. A group of artists clusters around Cruz’s brother, a ceramics expert.
And then, from a lone cloud that’s wandered across the infinite sky, I feel a drop of water on my arm. I look around — other people, too, are glancing at their bare skin in disbelief. Within minutes it’s raining, actually raining, though there’s not a single shadow marring the sun. People say in joking voices that the rain dance has worked. And in the middle of the commotion, a young man silently steps off the porch and stands in awe, his face tilted to the water coming out of the blue sky.
Correspondent Krista Langlois lives near Durango, Colorado. This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.