Saturday, September 26, 2009

For how long has there been a Grand Canyon history?

Humans' physical traces, the artifacts archeologists depend upon, have been dated back four millennia in the Grand Canyon. However, the earliest transmitted oral narratives, much less written documentation, are all embedded in the patrimony of existing cultures, social groups, peoples, etc., suggesting a limit of "a few hundred years". This leaves a gap that I could ignore for two reasons. First, archeological results spur generous speculation of all kinds, which of course leaves us still embedded in our present-day imaginations. Second, even the most disciplined of histories can end up being used as fodder for today's discourses, especially when  they involve disagreement. All of which is to say that historical speculation based on archeology  of the past is cut to fit our measurements; any discussion of what the politics of one or two millennia ago were like speaks mostly of our own preoccupations. 

Nevertheless, it is a bit awesome to think of people over four thousand years, fully decked out in human attributes--even if without blogs--, coming into the Canyon to carry out human activities for human reasons, among which of course were those of power, prestige, politics. What they left, what hasnt been destroyed, what has so far been uncovered, gets mostly classified as having to do with food-shelter-clothing, and of course religion. Yet, the unanswerables are still valid questions. The split-twig people were what, explorers, masters, migrants, escapees, visitors, seasonal tenants? Those who painted walls and rocks did so why, to dominate, to seek protection, to celebrate, to mourn, to direct or confuse, and as individuals, as gangs? Were any of these people conquerors or the conquered, assimilators or the asssimilated, peddlers, exchangers, proselytizers, or isolates?

Our examination of the remains of those who farmed and built substantially, the people along the river from a couple of millennia ago until 1000-1100 a.d., has been fertile for the speculations of pseudo-history about rises and falls, beginnings and flowerings, and reasons why it all happened-- hubris and over-population, climate and drought, migration, conquest, paranoia. These speculations feed into the title question at the insistence of those who say some current inhabitants descend from those of a millennium ago, just renamed and with a different artifact culture. This is not just an archeologists' controversy, since it feeds a sense of rootedness among claimants for recognition, not to mention opting out of the great spread from Africa of homo sapiens over the past 100 millennia. But just for fun, let me put together an archeo-narrative.

Looking down on the Grand Canyon over a time long enough to cover all evidences of human occupation is to see interest of more and less intensity over the past 10± milllenia. The last glaciation ended, the first Americans, from Asia (or wherever), found and exploited rich and varied landscapes. Their Southwest was a cooler, wetter place that over the centuries generally became warmer and drier. Eventually, the climate could even overshoot, exceeding their tolerance to drought.

Hunting/gathering constituted the long-established human economy, necessary for and a promoter of wandering, migration, human spread. The Grand Canyon could have been a more-or-less-frequented hunting ground, part of a habitat, a test, a refuge, a ritual site. A place to nose about, to make use of, at times to make a home in. It is hard to re-inhabit their sense of time and opportunity; hard for us not to lay periods of continuity upon the evidences we find of them. Compacted from our foreshortening vantage, they appear as ebbs and flows of use and occupation. And compacted, they provide resonance for our more recent attempts to use, visit, and occupy the Canyon. In the short time since homo sapiens set off from Africa, our technology has changed; we haven’t, much.

It could be seen as ironic that cultures more committed to growing food and settlement evolved as the country warmed up, its water supplies diminishing in the great drying-out that continues, even intensified by some of the activities we engage in to counter it.  One-two millennia ago, the balance was apparently more precarious. So we find construction, economic artifacts and art indicating a satisfaction with the Canyon as living space – bottom, middle, and top. Then drought intervenes, populations that had swelled, diminish, as too many people die or move away. There were surely disputes over land and its uses, I will suggest even in flush times. We can imagine cooperation and harmony, of course, but there is no need to deny our ancestors competition and conflict in making decisions as to who could stay and who must go, and when. The politics of land use, of precedent, first right, inheritance, comparative success, and overt muscle may leave more ambiguous traces than trees and rocks --or than the archives we have more lately produced--, but that need not force us to deny the humanity of several hundred generations.

That time of culture and settlement seems remarkable because of what remains for us to wonder at or plunder. The people dispersed, re-grouped, settled, moved about, re-settled, always trying to work with a land that on the one hand suited them and their technology, and on the other, could change over a few or many years, giving them no recourse but to seek places where they could again accommodate to conditions. With what guides, what media, what news and rumor, did they conduct their search? Since humans had been at least passing through for so many millennia, did it always seem like pulling up stakes and heading for the unknown, or was it part of an age-old tradition of settle, stay a while, then move on, all in a landscape that was more or less known in what it had to offer where. Was it really a monotonic evolution upward, or is that an illusion fostered by the way we conceive of our own short, fiercely intense, experience? What indeed, with our overwhelming array of assisting devices, can we know of knowledge passed on by the spoken word, the drawing on the rock wall? Doesn’t, above all, that knowledge in its times always expand to comfortably settle into and support our conceptual apparatus? Do we ever feel completely at a loss as to how to cope and prosper? Is technological level any good at all as an indicator of progress in our satisfaction at grasping the world?

In any case, what we now seem to be able to delineate as the case a century-and-a-half ago, is a populated, well-known region with several permanent places of seasonal or year-round occupation, settlement, use. The Hopi, off to the east, seem to constitute one extreme of stability, with towns of  antiquity and well-travelled routes to and around the Canyon that carried two-way traffic, including taking them to sacred places well down inside. They were acknowledged as the ancient dwellers of the region.

The Navajo, not anywhere near finished marking out their territory, were far more recent migrants, and expansive, perhaps even to the point of troubling their neighbors’ tranquility. Did they clump or were they already a people who lived dispersed? Had they come with Spanish-derived horses? And their other livestock, how early were they pastoralists? The Canyon does not seem to have been of central interest to them then, or now actually.

In 1850, a visit to the Paiute bands north and west of the Colorado River would have had to be swift, for they were not to be allowed to stay on their range. They seem to have been true hunters and gatherers, moving over the plateaus (Kaibab to Shivwits) to which they gave their names, without continuous residence. Unlike the other XIXth-century Canyon peoples, they seemed to prefer trying to cooperate with and live near the whitefolk immigrants. The result was their being pushed out, enslaved, their habitat occupied, killed by disease; their removal had many causes.

Although the Navajo were not pacifists, the Hualapai earned the chance to have a war named after them, an omen perhaps of their willingness to make their way in the whitefolks world using whitefolks tools. Although they inhabited several places, they moved over a large territory, from the Bill Williams/Santa Maria River north to the Colorado. And like the Paiutes, across it, for there is testimony that there was visitation. The Hualapai did use the watered places for food; Matawidita Canyon was well known, as well as up on the plateaus into which the Grand Canyon is emplaced. Unfortunately, the lands they used also attracted the newest arrivals. Whitefolk laid out a travel corridor; explorers, then a Road, then the railroad. They brought cattle, at first just grazing on through, then with homesteading and permanent use of the range and water. Minerals were searched for, and discovered, bringing more traffic and settlement. For all this, the Grand Canyon was marginal but nevertheless contested.

The Havasupai, not always uncontestedly, can be considered the easternmost of the Pai bands, the rest of whom have become generically the Hualapai, a division some think was invented by whitefolk. The Havasupai likewise ranged over a large territory in a seasonal pattern, though they did not cross the river, nor was the Grand Canyon in their vicinity as inviting in that respect as it was to the west. Hunting, gathering, and some gardening down below and on the plateau gave the Havasupai an economy similar to that of the Paiute and the Hualapai. Indeed Dobyns and Euler are adamant that the split of the Pai into two groupings was an invention, foisted on one people. Hirst prefers not, though in every opinion, their arrival in the Canyon was a story in that great human migration throughout America, in this case from the lower Colorado River and perhaps in a more complex story from southern Arizona. 

The Hopi, Navajo, Paiute, Hualapai and Havasupai tell of their origins on their own terms. I may only be able to summarize them here from other whitefolk sources (Fairley, Euler & Dobyns, Schwartz, Hirst, Coder), yet they carry the weight that any foundation for political and social claims does. Indeed, in March 2008, leaders of each mentioned their origins in connection with the Canyon in testimony against uranium exploration near the Canyon. So the disparate bases for contest and cooperation in the future as in the past do not need to be homogenized or forcibly reconciled. Their validity is as strong as any other, and if I seem cursory in what follows, that is not an indicator of lessened respect.

Humans, for the Hopi, came from the sipapuni, next to the Little Colorado River not far from its junction with the Colorado itself. This Grand Canyon emergence followed time in several underworlds. They used the Canyon long ago; it is the homeland of some Hopi clans. And closing the arc, the spirits of those who die go there. The Canyon is noted for their regard for it, the salt, springs, some plants, trails. It is embedded in the landscape that anchors and sustains them. 

Although they do not enter into the later narratives of this book, the Zuni too have a Canyon origin, from Ribbon Falls. The landscape is spiritual, alive, as it is for all who revere it. Whitefolk get uncomfortable with such notions, and like to think of them as romance, but it is an essential element in coming to an understanding with the Grand Canyon.

For the Navajo, as for the Hopi, water is central. The Colorado is an animate being. Here the Navajo are sustained. The Canyon itself is protective and a boundary; it has been a refuge at times of threat.

This centrality was filled out for the Paiute bands in their seasonal life in the Canyon and its regions.  Springs were claimed; food was sought; hiding places were known. A holy place, it resonated as late as the 1890’s when the Ghost Dance was carried by the Paiutes south across the river to the Hualapai.

The creator of those Pai bands started west of the Colorado, creating people from reeds. In the midst of flood, he struck with his spear a gash that became the Grand Canyon. The water receded, and people came to Matawidita Canyon, where they were taught the necessaries of how to live. Quarrels arose, however, leading to the departure of other peoples, some in animosity, others still friendly. Pai bands settled at different base camps and water sources, supporting gardens and a varied hunting and gathering. There was active trading, and the Canyon remained home, an animal spirit, its backbone the river, a northern limit that they did not hesitate to cross to visit, trade, marry.

The Havasupai offer a couple of narratives, one that relates how they adopted their homeland as the result of movement west from other Pai bands. The other has them developing from the people whose artifacts comprise the remnants of the Cohonina, who had themselves migrated from farther south. 

There seems no great evidence that the second-millenium occupants of the Canyon region penetrated and lived down in it in the same way as the Puebloans and the others who preceded them. Possibly, had there been more reliable waters on the plateaus, those would have been the sites of longer-lived settlements. Perhaps the canyons would have been comparatively less inhabited. Certainly the uplands remained prized for their food and wood supply—which makes the stories all the sadder, since it seems quite possible to envision the Havasupai and the other Canyon area dwellers living in the area as they had for centuries, even after 1850. Except. Except, given that whitefolk ideas prevailed in defining control of land and resources, who would own the land? Who would control access to and use of it? Who, with all the weight of whitefolk-demanded exclusivity, is sovereign? 

I cannot stress enough that ours is a cultural, systemic set of rules, not an absolute, ineluctable one. The questions asked and answered after the mid-1850’s were very different from the one formulated by a Havasupai friend and advocate, Steve Hirst, in asking: What are the mutual, and reciprocal, the complementary, needs of those interested in the Grand Canyon and its region? That question, too, is cultural and systemic. The fascinating dynamic of the Grand Canyon’s future will be driven by how we all balance mutual, cooperative land rules with proprietarial, adversarial ones; how we manage these conceptual, human schemes as we make land decisions.

That relativist, even squishy, position being acknowledged, it is still the hard fact that the rules over land use, occupation, and ownership that prevail are those of the conquerors, us whitefolk. First Americans and their narratives, about or by them, are privileged in many commentators’ minds (I will discuss at another time the pro-firsters : Morehouse, Keller and Turek, not to mention Dobyns, Euler, and Hirst). 

Nomenclature is still another issue: Americans who arrived and thrived (or didn’t) in the millennia before whitefolk arrived, are often labeled Native Americans, a term so confused that in United States history, nativist is the adjective for those bigots urging the cessation of immigration by people not like them. Commentators’ privileging of course is part of the romancing of history, elevating those overrun as a feel-good rebuke to conquerors who behaved badly in accumulating the patrimony we now enjoy. 

Most of those who entered, migrated to, wandered over, settled in, exploited, America were homo sapiens, just like you and me. Their behavior and activities are part of the stream of humanity’s history; not  alien implants. Their part in America’s past is just as interesting as any other item in the historical collection of humanity’s adventures over the past hundred millennia. And of course, their possession of land under whitefolk rules is not any the less human for being the possession by people who, after horrific reverses, continue to survive and work out a way of living in this globally fractured, post-European, collection of societies we call our contemporary home. What I am doing illustrates how as claimants and land-owners, they, like us, have the challenge and chance to make brilliant choices or dumb mistakes, just as humans always do. The political system is theirs to be victimized by or manipulate to their advantage. That it is the whitefolk system, and not that of the Grand Canyon people of a thousand years ago, may be to their advantage or not. The cost of political action in any case varies for each of us over time: life isn’t fair; you win some, you lose some; hey, whatever.

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