Ancient Ruins, Modern Reverence

By Bonnie Lowe

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“We Navajo are pretty superstitious,” says Ranger Alvaree. She pulls a strand of tiny lavender beads and dried juniper berries from under the collar of her Navajo National Monument shirt to show us. “These are ghost beads; they help keep the spirits happy when we enter the ruins.” Chuck and I and one other hiker are standing above a vast canyon in northern Arizona, ready to descend 700 feet [213 m] to the Betatakin Pueblo ruins - a former Anasazi village that is now Navajo National Monument. The Anasazi were pueblo dwellers, and the word anasazi means (roughly) “Those who lived before us” in Hopi or Navajo, depending on who’s relating the story. The heavily protected ruins can only be entered in the company of a Navajo guide. Twenty-five people per day are allowed to enter the ruins, and we’re lucky to be here in November - we three are the only outsiders to do the five-mile [8 km] hike today.

Our trailhead allows a wide panorama of the ravines and farmland below us. Navajo still live and farm in the canyon and, on its floor, we can see a few sheep, horses and a cornfield - empty after the fall harvest. A creek sidewinds through the orange dirt among yellow cottonwoods, and gives way to the soft, rounded fingers of sandstone that jut up from the canyon floor in front of the cliff face.

As we start down the trail, our young guide stops to point out one of many juniper bushes. Besides becoming ghost beads, juniper berries are ground into a paste and added to blue cornmeal mush. Alvaree points to a nearby shrub with bark peeling off like paper, explaining that an Anasazi mother would use the bark as diapers - her cradleboard had a hole in the bottom, where she could reach in and feel whether the baby was wet; if so, she could discard the wet bark and peel the new bark for a fresh diaper. Farther down, we stop to look at a yucca plant. Alvaree tells us the Anasazi used yucca root for cleansing and that her grandmother still washes her hair with it. (A prayer is still required before digging up the plant’s roots.) As Alvaree teaches us about the plant’s uses, I realize she’s not only describing how the Anasazi used them, but how modern Navajo still use them - the crushed leaves of the sage bushes surrounding us are made into a tea that clears congestion when inhaled, and helps with digestion and stomach aches when sipped. It also alleviates pain when rubbed on the skin.

The trail is clear and descends in a series of switchbacks, zigzagging through red sandstone formations, sage, juniper and yucca down to the canyon floor, where the terrain flattens to a cottonwood-studded trail and finally to a chain-link fence and locked gate - somewhat of a non-sequitur after the open trail. The gate and fence protect the ruins from intruders who, without supervision, might damage the site or steal the thousands of relics that have been left just as they were found.

When we reach the gate, Alvaree suggests we take a short rest and, since there is no eating allowed past the gate, have a snack. We pull apples and trail mix from our packs and sit on rocks to eat.

After our rest, Alvaree unlocks the gate, and a quiet reverence seems to come over all of us as our feet crunch over the leaf-carpeted trail. We round a bend and look up at the village of Betatakin. Anasazi occupied the village for around 50 years, about 900 years ago. No one is sure why the cliff dwellers left - archeologists believe the food sources ran out, possibly due to drought.

We stand at the edge of the ruins and look up at a huge dome-shaped alcove in the sandstone wall - the layers of sandstone have peeled off and fallen over the millennia, forming the alcoves that served as shelter to protect the settlements in these canyons. The village is terraced, with two or three levels of rooms, and we’re allowed to walk up the narrow footpaths into most of them; though only the walls remain, the rooms were once roofed. The walls are made of sandstone bricks, wood and mortar. Alvaree tells us that the women of the village did the masonry, while the men left the village to descend the steep cliffs in order to farm corn, beans and squash at the canyon bottom. The men would also climb up the canyon walls to hunt for game on the plateaus above the canyon rim. Alvaree points out precarious-looking handholds above us in the face of the cliff. The men would be away for days or weeks at a time, so the women stayed in the village to protect and care for the children, making them the builders as well as the caretakers.

One of the rooms is the kiva - a ceremonial room where the men gathered for communal business, as well as ceremonial activities. The kiva originally had a roof with a small round hole at the top, where the men could enter; the women danced on the kiva roof during ceremonies. The hole represents a portal from other worlds into the physical world. The Navajo belief (simplified) is that in the beginning, there were four worlds, and the original man and woman (and the animals), eventually emerged into our world through a hole in the earth, like the hole in the kiva.

Some of the rooms were full of supplies when local ranchers discovered the ruins in the early 1900s. They are believed to be storage rooms, Alvaree tells us. One was full of sandals, and another was full of corncobs. In one of the rooms, we saw a cob that had been on the floor since before the ruins were discovered - I noticed it was much smaller than what we grow today.

The artifacts that are still here, untouched, since the ruins were discovered, are amazing. Alvaree pulls a small cardboard jewelry box out of her backpack and shows us a potsherd. She tells us that two weeks previously, a visitor to the ruins had picked it up - totally taboo - and stolen it. Out of guilt, the thief mailed it to the centre and asked, with great apologies, for it to be returned to its rightful place. Alvaree places the painted piece on the ground, where some other potsherds are strewn. The pieces are tempting - thick clay, painted on one side with beautiful faded blue-and-red patterns.

We spend about an hour wandering the ruins (with restrictions). Alvaree watches us carefully. This is one of the quietest places I’ve ever been - the only sounds are our hushed voices and the rustling of the cottonwoods. As I stare across the treetops to the opposite cliff, a raven glides silently down the canyon into the yellow-leafed trees beneath us. Alvaree seems to be regarding the ruins as if for the first time, although she’s given this same tour about 200 times.

“Medicine men run in my family, and I had to get permission from my father and grandfather before I took the job as guide,” she says. “My grandma is still upset with me for disturbing the spirits here.”

I think of those ghost beads and wish I were wearing some myself.

As the shadows grow along the canyon, we walk another short trail to see three wall paintings. They have faded over the years - the Navajo park service decided to leave the ruins just as they are and let them evolve to what they naturally would become without interference. One painting depicts a white circle with the image of a man in the centre. Alvaree tells us the Hopi recognize it as a Hopi symbol, so the Anasazi here at Betatkin must have been Hopi.

She finally tells us it’s time to start back, but we will go at our own pace (meaning our tour and time with her are over). She lets us go ahead while she waits. When I look back, she is gazing up at the alcove and the ruins.

Chuck has to wait for me as I stop to catch my breath on the steep hike back up the trail. The elevation is about 7,000 feet [2134 m], so I use the altitude as my excuse - plus the fact that I turned 60 this year!

When we reach our car, I start to realize what an enlightening experience the past four hours have been. The canyon and ruins have a kind of beauty that most people don’t get to see. I’m gasping for air, but I think of how easy it would have been to skip the hike and settle for merely peering over the guardrail at some vista point along the road and only imagining the ruins, believing that it would require too much effort and time. As usual, Chuck convinced me that the strenuous hike would be worth it and, as usual, he was right. Meeting Alvaree gave me a new understanding of not only the ancient Anasazi, but also the modern Navajo.





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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

What a lovely, lovely, description! It made me wish (at age 80) that I could go there tomorrow and inhale all that holiness. Thanks for writing.

Posted by barbara young | November 11, 2011 Report Violation

I am trying to find out more about the name Alvaree. This was the middle name of a close friend, Howard Alvaree Hughes, of Smithville, TX. She died recently at the age of 102. Family stories said that she had Indian heritage and I just discovered this connection. Do you have any info? Thanks a lot.

Posted by Lea Hall | December 1, 2009 Report Violation

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