The Hidden History of Anasazi Ruins

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Anasazi RuinsThe sky is the characteristic cobalt blue and the blushed, red clay monoliths reach up through it, toward the stark white clouds that dot the view from horizon to horizon. Here, about 50 miles northeast of Tuba City, in the heart of the Navajo Indian Reservation is the Navaho National Monument, gateway to the ancient Indian cliff dwellings known as Betatakin and Keet Seel…Or more probably NOT known.

“Although these ruins are probably the best preserved anywhere in the country, and Keet Seel is indisputably the largest such cliff dwelling in Arizona, they are the most restricted of all the ancient Indian cities, and so the least known,” says Jim Brandi, park ranger. “Because you have to make a special effort to see these ruins, we don’t get that many visitors, and the ones we do get are a special breed of person. That suits me just fine.”

Indeed, those touring these ruins feel a certain pride for having made the journey, and feel a close sense of camaraderie with the rangers and with the spirits of the long departed inhabitants.
“The name Betatakin means ledge-house in the Navaho language,” Brandi explained. “Though, the Navaho people have very little to do with the dwellings today, except that the ruins exist at the very center of what is now the Navaho Indian Reservation, but the Navaho were a nomadic people and there were no borders and boundaries, as there are today. These cliff houses were built and inhabited by a tribe we now call the Anasazi.”

The term Anasazi, also derived from a Navaho word, shows the relationship that Navahos feel toward the former inhabitants. Anasazi closely translates to “enemy ancestors” or “alien ancestors.” This has led some to believe that the Hopi—a traditional adversary of the Navaho—may be closely related (or may BE) the Anasazi, since this is not what the Anasazi would have called themselves. It is only what the Navaho call them. To further this belief, the Hopi claim that they are indeed the former inhabitants of these dwellings. Modern archeologists, not wanting to take sides or get too involved in tribal conflicts (past or present) translate the word Anasazi to mean, generically: The Ancient Ones.

Anasazi Ruins

As one descends the 700 feet to the floor of the canyon where the ruins are found, the rangers fact with fantasy to bring the long sleeping city to life. “As you look down into the canyon, you can see a few white aspens amidst the Douglas-fir and box elder. You notice too, how halfway down the canyon everything just seems to stop growing. It looks like a battle line between the green and the desert. We can only guess that the whole area looked just like the green part at one time. It must have offered a fertile soil and other lush, naturally growing vegetation to the farming and agricultural people of the Anasazi. The advancing desert was probably one of the reasons that the people left here over 700 years ago.”

Why they left may be unclear, but the reasons they built here are obvious. The monstrous cavern that covers the entire city serves both to shade from the sun in summer and protect from wind and snow in winter. Today’s architects who conceive cities covered in plastic domes with southern exposures are simply taking ideas conceived over send centuries ago and expanding upon them. “The reasons why the inhabitants suddenly got up and moved are not known for sure,” Brandi said. “There are probably a number of reasons. There was the encroachment of the desert, changing climate, soil erosion, too many people in one place, or maybe it was a religious quest. In any case, they were nice enough to leave things exactly as they were when they were here.” He reached down and picked up a tiny corncob from the soil at the base of the cliff. “This cob has sat here for 700 years, just waiting for us to pick it up and take a look at it.”

The tour through the Betatakin ruins (closest to the campsite and ranger center) is a leisurely one. Betatakin could be passed through in a matter of minutes, but days, months or years would not be enough to uncover all the secrets hidden here. “It’s hard to believe,” said one visitor. “All the logs, the mortar, the thatching used in the construction of the city are all original. They say that the preservation is due to the dry climate, but when you see that the roofs of the little houses are still black with the soot from the fires that were built so long ago, you feel like you’re walking through a time warp, like your Alice in Indian Land.”

The tours to both sites are restricted to just a few per day, and limited by season. In fact, you can rarely visit both sites at the same time of year. A woman stood silently and just looked. “It’s like having a great work of art come to life,” she explained. “you’re permitted to walk through it, smell it, tough it, but it’s so fragile. I’m afraid I might disturb it.”

The Betatakin tour usually serves only to whet the appetite for what rangers feel is the crowning jewel of a visit to the Monument…Keet Seel.Anasazi Ruins

“A stay at Keet Seel is like nothing else,” said Elizabeth Oster, a ranger, speaking of the remarkably well-preserved cliff dwellings at the other end of a rugged, eight-mile long canyon. “As rangers, we take turns guiding the tours at the dwelling. We stay out there, alone, for up to 10 days at a time. It takes about three days to stop doing things the on the same schedule as when you’re in civilization. You realize you’re totally alone, and your perceptions change. Your normal awareness begins to shut down and a new kind of awareness kicks in. Things that seemed important before lose their priority. Jobs like hauling water for firewood become rituals. And, your thoughts start to come in loud and clear, almost like music through the silence.”

Because tours of the ruins at Keet Seel are, understandably only by the truly adventurous, visitors are very few and far between. This sporadic dealing with humanity by rangers is interrupted by long passages of time, filled only by introspection. The result of these ten-day stay-overs is a kind of prolonged, forced meditation similar to that experienced by great philosophers—albeit job related.

The following excerpts are from the logbook kept by the rangers at their lonely Keet Seel hogan (a traditional Navajo roundhouse), and illustrate how Keet Seel affects someone who might be forced to face it alone:

Sept. 3, 1980—“September. Lovely word. Long sweet, hot September afternoon. If light had solid form, just ordinary light, not molecules and photons and prisms, but the light you conceive of when you think of sunlight entering a window, if that kind of light had solid form, it would be the rock walls of the canyon.”—Ranger Kath Anderson.

Sept. 17—“Folks, let me remind you that I am the world’s leading expert on squirrel communication. Last evening I heard strange sounds from the kitchen. When I went to investigate, a squirrel starred at me from the center of the tabletop. I opened the door and vainly tried to muck and qua (that’s squirrel talk back east), but this was a western squirrel and maybe only spoke Navaho. Anyway, he wasn’t about to be talked outside. Just at this very minute, as I write, a squirrel peers though the open door. I feel as if, even though I don’t understand Navaho squirrel language (NSL) that the little devils are laughing at me!”—Ranger Richard Bryant.

Sept.18—“Just yesterday morning I wrote about life in Keet Seel, and in the afternoon, a French tourist (lovely, I might add) asked me how I imagined all the things I was telling the group. My mind flashed—they couldn’t see the Villagers! But, I could! There they were: Laughing Boy, Man-with-the-bent-leg, Sun-watcher and the medicine man; all of them just waiting for me to leave so they could continue with their lives. I felt sad, but not sure if I was sad because the tourists couldn’t see the villagers, or sad because I was interrupting the activities of all these beautiful farmers.”—Ranger Richard Bryant.
It’s possible to visit Keet Seel on foot if you are in excellent shape. It’s an all-day hike, if you start early. There are campgrounds near the ruins for an overnighter. It is suggested that horses (which make the trip easier) be obtained from a local Navajo family that has guided tours to the ruin site for generations. The horseback trip, with traditional Navajo guide, offers a new dimension to the experience.

The perception of cultural differences is accentuated at the ruins, especially when one stays for days, as rangers do. Ranger John Loleit noted this: “When I’m at Keet Seel, a feeling comes over me that I’m very close to The Ancient Ones. Alone in the dwelling, your imagination starts to take over and you can almost see the people of Keet Seel. You start to realize that in some ways these people were just like you and me; yet, in other ways they were totally different. These people never saw a lightbulb, a car, or a juicy T-bone steak. They never heard a siren, smelled Old Spice aftershave, or touched a piece of paper. What they saw was the hawk flying overhead; They smelled the rain and the animals, and the songs of birds and crickets were always heard.”

Charlene Bones, a visitor to both sites, gives further insight into how the Navahos respect and revere the area. When she braved the four-hour horseback ride to Keet Seel, her guide was a young Navaho Boy of about 10 years of age. Charlene said of her experience, “The little road along side of the two in our party, talking and laughing and carefree. At one point, the little boy stopped in a field of mustard and told us that he’d wait in a nearby grove of trees until we were done. I found out later that the Native people don’t like to go near the ruins, because of the ghosts that they believe still live there. Often, I was told, children are sent as guides to places that have many spirits because they are innocent and therefore immune to any harm or evil. Anyway, when we topped and got our first glimpse of the city, a white falcon swooped down from the mesa top and whistled at us. I’ve never seen a while falcon before and I was very impressed. I wanted to believe that I was being welcomed in some way. My friend and I walked to the gate at the base of the cliff and the ranger met us there. He asked us if we had seen the falcon and said that it was a new sight to him, too.”

If one is not lucky enough to see a while falcon at Keet Seel, they still will experience a well preserved, relatively untouched version of an ancient cliff city. The only access to the village is a tall, log ladder, ruggedly made to resemble the ladders of the ancient ones. There are no crowds, no schedules. Visitors can stroll and explore the dwellings of 160 rooms and six ceremonial chambers (kivas) at their leisure.

Fully formed pots and bits of pottery are scattered about or set on shelves, exactly where left by the previous inhabitants. The name Keet Seet, means Broken Pottery in Navajo.

Pictographs (picture writing) of the Anasazi decorate the walls and roof of the cave. Back at Monument headquarters, at night, the stars fill the sky with a haze of luminosity. After seeing the ruins during the day, tourists sit during evening program and look up at the stars with a new understanding of what they meant to the Native people who made them.

Ranger John Loleit commented, “When you see that look in the visitor’s eyes, that he is visualizing life 700 years ago, then I know I’ve been successful. This is my most rewarding experience, knowing that when these people head back to the civilized world, a part of Betatakin and Keet Seel will be with them, a feeling that they actually knew the people here. And, maybe they’ll have a little more appreciation for some of the luxuries of the modern world. The story will live in each one of their hearts, and in each one a little differently.”

Editor’s note: Gordon Richiusa took that journey to Keet Seel over thirty years ago and still receives mail from children who are researching the ruins. This experience and others that he’s had in the Four Corners area of the Southwest have influenced his 2010 award-winning novel, Shidoshi:The Four Ways of the Corpse.

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Gordon Richiusa is an Italian American who has been a martial artist for some 50 years. He teaches the Five Bird System. Gordon earned a Master of Arts degree in English and has written numerous articles, stories, books and scripts under his own name and his pen-name, Gordon Rich. He has been a teacher of English Composition, Film as Literature, Creative Writing, and Scriptwriting and He holds two teaching credentials.

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