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Colorado Sacred Places

Distant times felt like yesterday at tribal sites on the Colorado Plateau.

AS MICHELLE EAGLE BOYER and I entered the medicine wheel garden she had constructed on her property eight miles south of Cortez, CO, I stumbled slightly. It was as though an unseen hand had given me a little shove. "The energy coming off the mesa is a bit too strong right in this spot. I've got to re-arrange some of the poles," explained Michelle, indicating the tall totemic stakes that were evenly spaced around the perimeter of the circular plot. This installation in southwestern Colorado was her interpretation of the ancient rock arrays found throughout Native American lands; most are spiritual places that marked the movements of various celestial bodies.

Michelle, a Native American attorney from Santa Clara Pueblo, and her husband, a dentist, run a bed & breakfast at the base of Mesa Verde, the vast tabletop that encompasses both Mesa Verde National Park and Ute Mountain Tribal Park, with their many famous Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and sacred places.

I discovered during a five-day visit to the area that interactions with the sacred are commonplace here—as likely to occur at a b&b as at an ancient ruin—thanks to the people who inhabited this arid landscape nearly a millennium ago and left their imprint on it. They were "filled with a longing for perfection in their society [and] harmony with their environment," according to Jemez Pueblo scholar Joe Sando. As a result, in Sando's view, they moved from time to time in search of a place that would satisfy this yearning. Today, some of their descendants, like Michelle, may live in the area, but most live in the modern Pueblos of New Mexico.

In siting their villages, the ancestors clearly loved a good view. Some chose to overlook cozy, wooded, stream-fed canyons. Others preferred more severe beauty; they woke up each day to the sight of rock-strewn desert sweeping up to distant mountains.

Ute Mountain Tribal Park. One day, I explored the ancient places of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, owned and run by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, about 20 miles south of Cortez. To protect the fragile sites in the 125,000-acre park, tourism is limited, and every visitor is accompanied by a guide. Though the tribe stabilizes the old structures, it does not excavate or rebuild them or install sidewalks and other facilities you might find at a national park. Because of these policies, the area remains pristine.

As the tour group I joined approached the park in the tribe's van, we circled around the massive volcanic thrust that guards the entrance and proceeded into broad, flat-bottomed Mancos Canyon. A creek bubbled along to the right of the road. When we got out of the van to look at some petroglyphs, we saw red, black-and-white, and gray pottery sherds lying simply everywhere. Wild horses trotted by to peer at us, and eagles surfed the thermals overhead. It felt as though the ancients had barely packed up and left.

Our guide told us that the Ute Mountain Utes had wintered in this very canyon for many centuries; his familiarity with the place made the experience a bit like poking through Granny's attic with a member of the family. Just as Grandma might let you to look through her jewelry box or try on her old party clothes, he invited us to pick up pieces of pots and touch rock engravings—not something I'd have done without permission.

Creation Panel Rock Art. A highlight of the tour was an early rock art display called the Creation Panel. Each year on the winter solstice, the guide explained, a lizard-shaped shadow, cast by a nearby stone outcropping, crosses the panel. As the lizard crawls past Spiderwoman, the flute player Kokopelli, and others, it reveals the world's beginnings, interactions of gods and humans, an epic migration to the North Pole and back, prophesies for the future and—because the sacred and the temporal are intertwined in Native America—predictions for crop germination in the growing season to come.

The guide had an immediate answer for the lasting question of Southwest archaeology: Why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave the area at the end of the 13th century? It wasn't famine, drought, or warfare, as scholars have postulated, he told us; rather, they were completing a spiritual pilgrimage.

In the Company of Experts. On another day, for a trip to Sand Canyon Pueblo, a 13th-century site about 12 miles west of Cortez, I joined three specialists from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center: vice president of programs Mark Varien, a prominent archaeologist; and two Native American advisors, Ernest M. Vallo, a tribal council member from Acoma Pueblo, and Hopi cultural historian Eric Polingyouma. As we hiked among the dwellings, kivas, food storehouses, and watchtowers in this beautiful and remote valley, the three men shared information, debated, concurred, and occasionally agreed to disagree on ancient building techniques, the purposes for certain structures, and more.

Most of all, they communicated their affection for the old places. For Vallo and Polingyouma, they're ancestral homes; for Varien, they're his life's work. The three knew every beam, stone, and rock art panel. They noticed if an old wall had sagged slightly since a previous visit and recognized plants the original dwellers would have used.

Our respectful peregrinations around the village felt like an offering: a recognition of the care that the ancients had lavished on their homesite, even if it was just a way station on their pilgrimage to a more perfect place.

Stephanie Woodard is a senior articles editor at Ladies' Home Journal and a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today.

Watch for new stories every Thursday inLive & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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