This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. There are over 411 areas in the National Parks System, including monuments, historic sites, and memorials around our country. Many of these wonderful places feature the evidence of First Americans and their culture.
Archeologists have documented the migrations of many groups of peoples moving into what is now North America. Some of the migrations occurred many tens of thousands of years ago, and the evidence of their settlements is sparse.
But within the past few thousand years, the peoples moving into North America, particularly those in the Southwest part of the continent, began building stronger and more durable structures of the local building materials – mostly stone.
And each of these settlements tells a part of a story – the story of the settlement of North America by the First Americans. Over a thousand years ago, the Casa Grande settlement between modern-day Phoenix and Tucson was built by the Hohokam peoples, involving extensive irrigation canals to grow their crops. Further north, the Sinagua peoples built Tuzigoot, Montezuma’s Castle, and similar settlements. In northwest New Mexico, the Chacoan peoples built a massive network of stone settlements in Chaco Canyon, with hundreds of miles of arrow-straight roads facilitating a trading network in the region.
Sometimes, the weather patterns changed and the settlements had to be abandoned. Other times, as was the case of the Sinaguan settlement at Wupatki (Sunset Crater east of Flagstaff), a more dramatic event happened – an exploding volcano a thousand years ago certainly qualifies for that!
Often the settlements have some records – petroglyphs and daily life implements like metatas (corn grinders). But even the records can be open to interpretation. Does the bird symbol mean that it was a local animal, or a spiritual symbol, or just a tasty treat? That is part of the challenge facing the archeologists, who are often aided and sometimes confounded by the current Native American descendants of these ancient peoples.
But there are two existing settlements that go back over a thousand years of continuous occupation. These are the Taos Pueblo in north central New Mexico and the Zuni Pueblo in southwestern New Mexico. Each has a rich and dramatically different tradition. The Taos Pueblo peoples are linked to a Northern Tiwa-speaking culture, and carefully guard their traditions, values, and way of life.
The Zuni Pueblo has also been continuously occupied for over a thousand years, but the Zuni peoples have been in this part of North America for many thousands of years. Unlike other Puebloan peoples, or descendants of the Sinaguan or Chacoan peoples, the Zuni culture evolved largely isolated from other peoples, resulting in a unique language that doesn’t’t have roots in the base languages that many of the Native American tribes and Puebloan peoples speak – Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Navajo, Apache, etc.
The National Park Service has been working for the past hundred years to preserve the ancient settlements and treat them with the immense respect they deserve for these settlements are the beginning of the story of the North American peoples, with the European invasion only happening in recent history. Many Native American peoples are working with the National Park Service to help preserve their stories, and many cultural centers and Native American museums work hard to do the same. This effort is necessary, for even if we have no Native American blood in our veins, the First Americans are still a vital part of the story of who we are today. How we preserve, respect, and treasure these elements of our heritage speaks volumes about our value system and culture.