A couple weeks ago I was vacationing in the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Parks that adjoin in western Arizona. The views were so remarkably stark, the landscape generally so bare and flat, that I was surprised to see a scenic walkway through a prehistoric village, and more surprised to see, among the displays, a sign that explained that the occupants of the little village had been “prehistoric homesteaders.”

I had to know more.

The first source I turned to was a new book called Eating the Landscape by Enrique Salmón. I had gotten the book for review because its title, like the concept of “prehistoric homesteading,” just wouldn’t let me alone. I had to know more about the southwestern peoples who established little villages in the harsh, extremely arid landscape, and then ate what they found around them.

Since I had only a few hours to spend in the Parks, and many hours on the road after we left, my pursuit of this knowledge became something like a meditation.

Beautiful as the Painted Desert and its adjunct park, the Petrified Forest are, I couldn’t imagine living there. Even in mid-March it was hot and the air was devoid of moisture, making for magnificent sky-scapes and annoying dry coughs. I could picture little bands of hardy nomads wandering through this barrenness seeking water or shade and moving on, but—staying?—and farming? I knew of course that there is such as thing as dry land farming, but here? Really? Much of the National Park region is “badlands,” where to enter on foot without a significant water supply is to court the Grim Reaper. Gazing at the endless stretches of sand, the occasional bizarre rounded hills of striped ore, and the few small wretched plants that can hang on in such a clime, it amazed me to think that anyone ever bothered to do more pass through as quickly as possible.

Being an East Coast dweller, I kept thinking, “Why wouldn’t everyone just keep migrating til they go to some REAL water, and some big green forests?”

So I turned to Salmón, whose book is subtitled American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience. He is head of the American Indian Studies Program at Cal State and part of the Rarámuri culture of Mexico, and has taken a special interest in the native peoples and their agricultural practices, making connections with Hispano (his word), Navaho and Hopi cultures in Arizona. He describes the lessons learned from his grandparents about how to grow food and how to eat it; he was raised to understand in a profound way that the “landscape” is connected to the people, and the people are part of what they see and what they eat. For Salmón, growing food is a radical (rooted) activity (especially these days when so few people choose to), and what we eat is political, that is, it speaks volumes, metaphorically, about who we are.

What became clear from reading Eating the Landscape was that migrations of American Indians (again, the author’s word choice) were not, as it seems if one reads history books, a slow almost static process, with groups gradually moving across the map over the course of centuries. No. At any given time, Indians moved rather like Europeans did, indeed, like we do—often suddenly, sometimes rationally and sometimes on impulse: to take advantage of better conditions, to leave a place where resources had run out, or just on a whim to move on, to see new places.

Indian groups in the American southwest homesteaded many times.

And what do we mean by “homesteading”? By my definition, we mean that people were seeking change that would lead to permanence, and that to do so they were willing to take a certain amount of risk. Homesteading is risk and change leading to permanence. It has no fixed position, because once permanence is established, there will be those who want to change again. Like Europeans, like Americans today, the Indians who were settled in one place would take a notion to go, so they would send out scouts to gather reconnaissance of the new territory. The important thing to acknowledge is that these groups were not “hunting and gathering.” They were planning to stay in one place.

Why did they want to stay? The big answer is corn, which has at least a three-month season. The native peoples revered corn above all other foods. The Rarámuri, who have now been largely Christianized, retain a flood legend (who knows if it is influenced by the Christian version?): the first people were lazy and didn’t follow the righteous ways, so the Creator, in disgust, wiped them out in a huge flood, leaving only two children. The children were instructed to plants maize seeds, and the resulting plants, when they matured, were a new race of Rarámuri. “One day the children noticed human heads emerging…this was happening everywhere the corn plants grew.” The Rarámuri people and others in the southwest and Mexico consider themselves to be “people of the corn.”

Indigenous Indian cornfields bear no resemblance to the familiar images from Indiana, Iowa or Nebraska where F1 hybrid corn covers hundreds of acres with tightly packed green stalks as high as an elephant’s eye. Instead, what we see in the desert are plants widely scattered, each plant, it appears, devotedly tended, giving what it can. Dry land agriculture takes advantage of any little flaw in Mother Nature’s plan for preserving aridity: a whole corn field might slope just slightly from a corner at the top to the bottom edge, so that the thin rains that do come will roll downhill spreading the beads of moisture evenly. Or crops, mainly corn and beans, will be planted in a line along an overhanging cliff where moisture collects. It was these happenstances in the landscape that would have attracted the Pueblo groups to an area. Having come from dry desert conditions, they were not seeking green lands, just regions that offered more small ways to turn the landscape to their advantage. In the case of the Puerco village, this advantage included proximity to the Puerco River.

The Pueblo people who built rock houses in the Petrified Forest region (called Puerco Pueblo) were both organized and artistic. One of the lovely features of the village walk-through was a chance to look down from above to a rocky pile that contained petroglyphs, presumably made around 700-800 years ago or earlier. The visitor is positioned to photograph, but not to touch, these simple but emotive drawings. According to the National Park website, “A unique feature at Puerco Pueblo is best viewed in late June, around the time of the summer solstice. Petroglyphs (images carved into a rock surface) and pictographs (images painted onto a rock surface) throughout the Southwest have been found to mark astronomical events during the year, such as the summer solstice, winter solstice, and both spring and fall equinoxes. One such petroglyph can be easily viewed at Puerco Pueblo. For about two weeks around June 21, an interaction of light and shadow passes across the rings of this small, circular design as the sun rises.” Wow.

The petroglyphs became part of my meditation. Were they all scientific markers? Or were some the work of free-hand artists leaving their creations on the surface of the rocky world?

According to historians, the homesteaders of Puerco Pueblo were settling by the river to share the most vital resource during a major drought in the 1200-1300s. Salmón characterizes the will of the native peoples to band together and grow crops as “resilient persistence.” He warns us not to take written history too seriously as it tends to calcify our view of these very flexible people, who, we should realize, had aspirations not so different from our own.

In Puerco Pueblo, there were probably at most about 200 people. I recently saw a documentary about a small group of Amish from Indiana who were scoping out land for sale in Colorado (a major change of climate and resources). Water was a big concern, and open space to travel in their traditional way. From four families they projected that in about 20 years, with a few new families joining, the little Amish colony would have about 200 members, and to the colonizers, that seemed like an ideal community size. It occurred to me that these modern Amish were doing what the Pueblo people undoubtedly did: they sent out a party of wise and experienced tribespeople to look at the region, and based their projections for a well-functioning community on the sustainability of the land. If it would sustain an eventual group of 200, then the purchase (or in the case of the Pueblo, the occupancy-ownership) was deemed sensible.

The dwellings of Puerco Pueblo included interconnected houses made of ordinary stones and that remarkable material, petrified rock, remnants of trees turned to quartz, thrown out by Mother Nature in a huge continental shift that brought a great variety of vegetation to rest and dry and turn to brilliant colored stone on the desert plains of southern North America. To quote from the Park Service again, “Petrified Forest National Park contains one of the best Late Triassic fossil assemblages in the world. The forces of deposition and erosion have shaped this a strangely beautiful landscape.” Think of that! My meditations on the power of Mother Earth, and the enormous changes she has already wrought with no help or interference from us little humans, seemed particularly appropriate in the vast sweep of desert where the Pueblo people chose to live for a couple centuries. While there I found myself longing to spend the night in the desert, just one night to look at the panorama of millions of stars never visible in the small East Coast town where I live.

Standard history books tell us that the people in Puerco (probably not their name for the village!) were farmers. In addition to corn and chilies, they grew cotton, which they used for basket making. They grew tobacco but smoked only at night, fearing that producing smoke in the daytime would divert rain. The petrified wood made superb arrows and was used for trading. The house structures were built above ground (earlier groups built subterranean dwellings, probably for protection from predators and the heat) and were centered on a plaza. It could be said that in terms of communalism, the ancient Puerco residents were better organized (more complex) than modern-day Amish, who tend to live in separate family units with no centralized meeting place, not even a church.

But again I refer to Salmón, who warns against using terms like “complexity” to describe the evolution of indigenous cultures: “There are no past or present societies simple enough to be pickled into a space-time continuum in order to be relegated to a complex.” He says that “beginning around 1350 and stretching to the present era, Pueblo communities were normally built around a central plaza, black-on-white pottery gave way to red, orange, and yellow; and some of the people began to grow cotton as a resource as well as a commodity.” Did the pottery color change because of available clays, or because, along with the new colors, there were artists who wanted to experiment, to in a sense go against the cultural norm? Were those who grew cotton considered at first to be crazy, wasting their time on a non-food crop? If we believe that the Puerco residents were really just like us, then we can readily imagine these scenarios.

The two national parks, Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, comprise a combined area of about 150 square miles. By contrast, the Puerco village is tiny, perched on a hill surrounded by a vast expanse of scrubby grassland relieved only by occasional small mesas, all much the same color except in the “painted” area where strata of different minerals has created a striping effect. Why did the new colonists choose this wasteland? The river would be the biggest reason, of course. Perhaps something about the region inspired them, as it inspired me. In the course of their sojourn in the region, people experimented with new art forms and new agriculture. Later, water needs pushed them out again as the climate changed and rains were less frequent. At least, that is the story of the historians. Perhaps the Indians themselves would tell a different story.

Native peoples survived surprisingly well until the incursion of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. That was a game changer. In the recent past, that is, the history of the formation of the United States and western expansion, Hispanos and Indians have been cut off from water sources because of grazing laws, “homestead” (really riparian/ranch protection) acts, and federal land acquisition. Salmón states that “the last few generations of New Mexican Hispanos then have not had the opportunity to acquire a land ethic.” Thus, the culture has been degraded; people who once relied on and felt as one with the landscape have become sickened by fast food and fast life.

My meditation led me to the sad conclusion that life for nearly all American Indian people has gone downhill in the past few centuries, their cultural memory and “resilient persistence” gradually leeching away like the precious drops of water, disappearing in the glaring light and heat of modern civilization. In a more hopeful vein, Salmón‘s book points to various efforts to re-acculturate Native peoples and re-dedicate their traditions, including dry land agriculture and healthy eating. These are small and admirable initiatives, and perhaps they will take root, like corn in the desert.

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