Native Americans of the Southwest

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Native Americans of the Southwest

Zdenek and Joy M. Salzmann
(For Anthropology 30A)


Spectacular rock formations unmatched anywhere else in the world, steep-walled canyons, high mesas, trout streams in beautiful mountain settings, deserts alive with strange and fascinating cactuses and other plants that constantly catch the eye, night skies brimming over with stars--all these and more are waiting for the visitor to the Southwest. Arizona's Grand Canyon, perhaps the most spectacular natural wonder of the world, attracts visitors not only from all parts of this country but also from every area of the globe. According to an estimate made by the Tourism Research Library of Northern Arizona University, of the more than 26 million people who traveled to Arizona during 1994, 2.8 million were international visitors, most of them coming to the United States from Mexico, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Besides the Grand Canyon, there are many other natural features and prehistoric sites to see and be awed by: Zion and Bryce Canyons and Monument Valley in Utah; Mesa Verde in Colorado; Chaco Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; and Lake Powell, with its hundreds of canyons easily accessible by boat, the Painted Desert, and Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona. Those are only a few of many dozens.

One of the features that make the Southwest different from the rest of the country--and for some perhaps even a bit exotic-is the active coexistence of a variety of cultures: Native American (the oldest cultures, and what this book will be about), Latino (dating back to the end of the 1500s, when

Spanish settlers came north from New Spain), and Anglo-American (the most recent, beginning in the 1800s; Arizona, the very last of the forty-eight contiguous states, achieved statehood only in 1912). Among the fifty states, New Mexico has the highest percentage of Latinos (some 35 percent), with Native Americans making up about 9 percent of the state's total population. In Arizona the figures are 15 percent for Latinos and 6 percent for Native Americans. What these figures indicate is that in New Mexico, for example, almost every other person is a Latino or Native American.

These groups keep alive their histories and their customs with colorful fiestas, powwows, religious ceremonies, historical celebrations and reenactments, and arts and crafts fairs that are full of vitality. Some of the distinctive crafts and art forms of the Native Americans are not only beautiful but also unique, not to be found elsewhere in the United States.

The Southwest--The Land

The definition of what makes up the U.S. Southwest as a region has changed in the course of U.S. history. After the Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the term Southwest came to include Arizona and New Mexico and the adjacent parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. California has generally been excluded. No matter how the boundaries of what is considered the Southwest are drawn, Arizona and New Mexico make up its core.

What are some of the physical features that characterize the Southwest and make it a geographic area in its own right? We have already mentioned the unforgettable natural features of this part of the United States, but to emphasize high plateaus, deep canyons, deserts, and very dry climate does not mean that a variety of crops cannot be grown in the area. The Colorado River, the Rio Grande, and some of their tributaries provide water for irrigation, and several large dams help to control the flow of large volumes of water--Roosevelt Dam, Hoover (or Boulder) Dam, and Glen Canyon Dam.

A relief map of Arizona divides the state's land surface between the Colorado Plateau in the northeast and the Basin and

Range province in the west and south, with the transitional zone, or Central Highlands, separating them. Most of the elevations of the Colorado Plateau, which extends into the four states that come together at the Four Corners ( Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico), range between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. Humphreys Peak, one of the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff, reaches a height of 12,633 feet but can be climbed without any special mountaineering equipment.

The transitional zone, under the Mogollon Rim escarpments that slant diagonally across Arizona from northwest to southeast, also presents some rugged peaks as well as the spectacular scenery of Oak Creek Canyon and the surrounding Red Rock country. Millions of people have become acquainted with the beauty of this area by seeing such old-time Westerns as Johnny Guitar, with actors Sterling Hayden and Joan Crawford, Broken Arrow, with James Stewart, and The Last Wagon, with Richard Widmark.

Farther south and west the basin-and-range country consists of gentle valleys and open-ended basins, with occasional mountains rising above them. It is in the basins of the southern half of the state, at altitudes of about 2,000 to 5,000 feet, that the majority of Arizonans make their homes. This area includes Phoenix, the largest metropolitan area in the state, with a population of more than 2 million people. The Sonoran Desert, which lies in the southwestern part of the state and extends west and south into California and Mexico, is part of the basin-andrange country. It includes not only the Phoenix area but also Arizona's second largest city, Tucson, home of the world-famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. In 1940 Tucson was a city of only 40,000 people, but today metropolitan Tucson's population is well above the half million mark.

Although winters on the Colorado Plateau tend to be cold, during the day the sun raises the temperature considerably. Because of the differences in elevation, temperatures in Flagstaff are usually about 25° to 30°F lower than those of Phoenix, about 140 miles to the south in the Sonoran, where daytime temperatures may reach as high as 120°F during the summer months. In general, the basin-and-range region is arid and semiarid, with occasional frosts during winter nights.

Although much of the plateau receives between 10 and 20 inches of precipitation annually, some of it must make do with less than 10. Southwestern Arizona also receives less than 10 inches, but several areas in the center of the state get from 20 to 30 inches, and the White Mountains in the east-central part of the state may receive even more. The summer monsoons, as they are called, bring short heavy thunderstorms to the state in July and August, but their onset and intensity vary from year to year.

The differences in temperatures and amount of precipitation account for the variety of Arizona's vegetation and animal life. Elevations 7,000 feet and higher favor ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, spruce, and aspen. Lower elevations feature piñon pine, juniper, and Gambel oak. The conditions of the southern portions of the state, including the Sonoran Desert area, favor mesquite and creosote bush. Cacti are to be found over the entire state, but the giant saguaro (as tall as 50 feet), organ-pipe cactus, and the Joshua tree (a species of yucca) are susceptible to frost and so prefer the southern or western parts of the state. Native grasses are important for the state's ranching industry.

The relatively low population density (about thirty times lower than that of New Jersey) and "wilderness" character of much of the state have helped to preserve habitat for some of the larger mammals such as bear, different species of deer, desert bighorn sheep, antelope, elk, javelina (wild pig), mountain lion, and coyote. Bird-watchers may catch sight of eagles and hawks as well as owls, ravens, roadrunners, quail, and hummingbirds--again, to mention only a very few members of Arizona's large bird population. Of the plentiful reptiles and arachnids only a few are poisonous--Gila monsters, several species of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders among them-but most snakes and lizards are harmless, and tarantulas, although their appearance tends to frighten people, bite humans only when provoked, and their bites are not serious. Hiking and climbing should only be done in sturdy shoes. Hikers and climbers should never step or reach into places they cannot first check out by sight.

The topography of New Mexico, of which more than 85 percent is more than 4,000 feet above sea level, is also quite diversified. Geographers assign the topographical features of the state to four major systems: the northwest area to the Colorado Plateau, the north-central region to the southern Rocky Mountains, the central and southwestern parts to the Basin and Range province, and the approximately two fifths of the state that lie east of the Pecos River to the Great Plains. Most of New Mexico receives less than 20 inches of precipitation annually, with some areas getting less than 8; the highest elevations of the Rockies, however, may receive as much as 30, a great deal of it in the form of snow.

Just as in Arizona, temperatures in New Mexico vary with altitude, and humidity is generally quite low because much of the state lies within the semiarid and arid zones. Because the physical conditions are much like those of Arizona and the population density is even lower, New Mexico's diverse plant and animal life is similar to that of its western neighbor.

The state's most populous city is Albuquerque, whose metropolitan area population has reached the half million mark. Next in size is Santa Fe, the state capital, with a metropolitan population of more than 100,000 people. Not surprisingly in such a dry climate, most of the population centers have developed along rivers.

The geographic features of those parts of the adjoining states that make up the Southwest are similar to the adjacent areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Therefore they need not be described separately.

The Concepts of Culture and Society

Since this guide is anthropologically oriented, at the beginning it seems appropriate to make clear what anthropology is all about. Very simply, anthropology is the study of humankind. And because members of the human genus have been around more than two million years, spreading over the whole earth and managing to live successfully in even the most extreme environments, the study of humanity is necessarily a very large order. As a result, anthropology has come to be divided into four major subfields: (1) archaeology, the study of past cultures through the analysis of their material remains; (2) physical anthropology, the study of the origins and the biologically determined characteristics of the human species; (3) linguistic anthropology, the study of language and speech in the context of the culture and society that make use of them; and (4) cultural (or social) anthropology, the study of the lifestyles of different human societies.

Two terms that are frequently used when talking about Native Americans of the Southwest are culture (or cultural) and society (or social). In anthropology, culture takes in all human behavior that is learned (is not instinctive) and all its tangible and intangible results. In this sense, then, knocking on someone's door is just as much an instance of cultural behavior as a space walk. A can opener is as much a cultural product as a jet airliner. And planning a shower for someone about to be married is as much a cultural preoccupation as designing a radio telescope. Obviously, not all instances of learned behavior and its products are equally complex and important, but all are manifestations of culture. The concept of culture includes so much and can be viewed from so many vantage points that it has been redefined many times. Its two main characteristics are (1) that culture refers to learned patterns of behavior and (2) that it is shared by the members of a society. The term society refers to a human population (which can range in size from a hunting-andgathering band to a large industrialized nation) characterized by common patterns of relationships and shared institutions. In short, the term culture emphasizes time depth, tradition, common values, and ways of living; the term society stresses the links and networks that join individuals and groups to other individuals and groups within a common framework.

The Southwest Culture Area

During their long prehistory and until early historic times, Native American societies displayed great cultural variety. But because particular natural environments called for special cultural adaptations, some societies within an area shared similar cultural orientations. Such areas are referred to in anthropology as culture areas. Among the dozen or so culture areas widely accepted for North America are the Arctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, Great Basin, California, Plains (sometimes grouped together with the Prairies), Eastern Woodlands, and Southwest. Some of these culture areas are well known to the general public for their highly visible cultural features. The Northwest Coast is


known for its impressive totem poles and the Plains for its expert horsemen, its tepees, and the sun dance. The Southwest has many characteristics of interest that differentiate it from the other North American culture areas.

Most anthropologists specializing in the study of Native Americans would define the Southwest culture area as including Arizona and New Mexico, southernmost Utah (south of the San Juan River), the extreme southwestern corner of Colorado, the extreme western and southern parts of Texas, and the southern tip of Nevada. (The Southwest culture area extends also into Mexico, but we are not concerned here with cultures below the border.)

Of the various Native American societies assigned to the Southwest culture area, many have distinctly different lifeways. What almost all of them have had in common, though, is the practice of agriculture, even long before they encountered the newcomers from Europe in the early sixteenth century. In some parts of the area, especially in river basins, farming was intensive. But even some of the peoples who were settled in high altitudes without year-round streams became true farmers. To overcome the aridity of the environment, some Native Americans constructed efficient irrigation canals. Among the original crops were corn, beans, and squash, supplemented when necessary with game and wild plants.

In addition to the older populations of the area, sometime after A.D. 1000 but before 1500 (probably closer to the latter date) the Navajo and the closely related Apache came to the Southwest from what today is west-central Canada. The Navajo learned to raise crops from their Pueblo neighbors but never became enthusiastic farmers. The Apache tended to remain hunters and gatherers.

Native American Languages of the Southwest

Visitors to the Southwest who are willing to explore the area by taking some of the less traveled roads are likely to hear a variety of languages besides English and Spanish. These are the languages of the Native American peoples who have made the Southwest their home. Many of these languages are quite different from one another. According to a conservative classification, the native languages still spoken in the Southwest belong to six different language families. (The term language family refers to all languages that are related by having descended over a long period of time from a single ancestral language. Some language families have quite a few member languages. The Indo-European family, for example, includes English and most of the languages spoken in Europe, several of which have spread to other parts of the world, as well as some languages spoken in southwestern Asia and India.)

The native language families found in the Southwest are UtoAztecan (for example, the Hopi language), Kiowa-Tanoan (the Santa Clara dialect of Tewa), Athapaskan (Navajo), Yuman (Havasupai), Keresan (the Acoma dialect of Keres, the only member of the family), and Zuni (unrelated to any other language and therefore another one-member language family).

Native American languages are sometimes referred to as "dialects," mainly by people who know little or nothing about the languages. These people think that Native American languages are "primitive" and somehow not full-fledged languages. For example, these languages are sometimes thought of as "primitive-sounding" simply because their sounds are different from those of English and can be difficult to pronounce. Another common misconception is that the languages of peoples whose societies are not urbanized and industrialized have "little grammar" and very limited vocabularies. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Native American languages differ from English and from one another in their sounds just as the sounds of English differ from the sounds of Russian or Japanese. They all have distinct and just as intricate grammatical systems as the languages taught in American high schools and colleges. And their vocabularies efficiently handle all the subtle distinctions that communication among members of these societies requires. The languages within a language family differ from each other just as much as English differs from other members of the Indo-European languages such as Spanish, German, or Russian. And languages belonging to different language families--say, Hopi and Navajo-are just as strikingly different as English and Arabic or English and Japanese. To learn to speak one of these Native American languages well would require just as much effort and practice as learning to speak French or Spanish or Russian. To think of these languages as "primitive" is therefore not only disrespectful but contrary to the fact.

In the chapters that follow, we would like to acquaint visitors to the Southwest with the rich cultural heritage of the various Native American peoples who were in this fascinating region of the United States first and who still consider it their home. We will try to do so by sketching their prehistory and their relations with Europeans during the past 500 years of Southwestern history, and by giving the readers some idea of their traditional way of life and their present-day situation. And finally we will provide information as to the location of exhibits having to do with the material cultures of the Southwest as well as a listing of special Native American events that take place throughout the year.


Prehistory is the study of humankind before events could be recorded in writing. In the American Southwest, prehistoric times ended in the mid-1500s when Coronado and his men explored the region. The presence of Native Americans, however, preceded the entry of European explorers in the area by many thousands of years. When and from where did these original immigrants come to the New World?

Who Discovered America?

America was not discovered by the Norse mariner Leif Eriksson, who is believed to have touched the northeastern coast of North America around the year 1000, nor even 500 years later by Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, or other European navigators and explorers. Many thousands of years earlier it was discovered by the ancestors of today's Native Americans.

These very first immigrants entered the New World by crossing the strip of land connecting northeastern Siberia and Alaska. Today the Bering Strait, which separates the Bering Sea from the Arctic Ocean, is about 60 miles wide at its narrowest point, and although it is not very deep (less than 300 feet at its deepest), it would not have been easily crossable with a primitive vessel. However, when the most recent glacial period in North America was at its highest point, so much water had been withdrawn from the seas and locked in massive glaciers that the first immigrants could have crossed the Bering Strait on dry land, known as the Bering land bridge. The floor of the strait was repeatedly exposed between about 60,000 and 15,000 years ago. In addition, the water in the strait would at times have been frozen solidly enough to support humans and animals. It had been assumed that once the strait was behind them, the first immigrants could have made use of a narrow corridor that led south between huge ice walls into the warmer part of the continent. But a very recent reconstruction of the prehistoric ecology of this ice-free corridor makes a good case for the corridor to have been unusable until about 12,000 years ago.

When Did the First People Enter the New World?

On this question, anthropologists are not in complete agreement. Some of them believe that the arrival of the first Americans could not have occurred much earlier than about 12,000 years ago. Others hold that the initial waves of migration from northeast Asia must have begun a long time before that, perhaps as early as 50,000 or so years ago. How can there be so widely differing opinions among students of prehistory? The lack of agreement has to do with the nature and interpretation of archaeological evidence.

The assumption that the peopling of the Americas is of relatively recent date--some 12,000 years ago,-is based on the distribution of leaf-shaped flint projectile points with fluted faces, that is, with rounded longitudinal grooves on both sides to improve their hafting to spear shafts. These are known as Clovis points, named for Clovis, New Mexico, near which the first such points were discovered. Associated with bones of large prehistoric mammals, these points were found widely distributed over much of North America in sites that have been dated to as early as 11,500 years ago. Because at present they are the oldest indisputably human-made artifacts in the New World, some anthropologists believe that the first people to arrive in this continent could not have preceded the users of these points by a very long period of time.

But according to other anthropologists, some evidence exists to indicate that human presence in the Americas could have preceded the Clovis culture by several thousand years. In support of this claim they point, for example, to the Meadowcroft rock shelter near the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. The sediment accumulated on the floor of the shelter was found to be over 17 feet deep and consisted of ten distinct layers, all showing evidence of human habitation. The oldest date established for the items of material culture found there, using the carbon-14 method of dating, is about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Another site with evidence suggesting that the Clovis culture was not the earliest one is Monte Verde in southern Chile. There archaeologists found wood, mastodon bones, charcoal, a variety of plant remains (including wild potatoes), and stone tools. The radiocarbon dates for Monte Verde are 12,500 to 13,000 years ago, but with Monte Verde's location so far to the south, it would seem likely that the ancestors of those who established the settlement crossed the Bering land bridge several thousand years earlier.

Sites exist in the Americas that may be still older than the ones mentioned. For one site in northeastern Brazil the claim has been made that what a few archaeologists believe to be hearths and crude stone tools go back some 30,000 years. Although the carbon-14 method of dating has become a reliable means of dating organic archaeological materials up to about 70,000 years, it is frequently difficult or even impossible to determine, for example, whether a piece of charcoal comes from the remains of a human-originated fire or from a tree ignited by lightning.

The position that humans may have been in the Americas longer than 12,000 years also receives some support from linguistic evidence. It is fair to assume that not a great many different languages were spoken in northeastern Asia at the time the ancestors of Native Americans were filtering into the New World. But over the period during which humans inhabited the Americas, the continents became very highly differentiated linguistically, with at least 150 different language families and more than 1,000 individual languages. Such a high degree of differentiation could scarcely have come about in only 10,000 or so years.

It seems reasonable to discard the possibility that the first immigrants into the Americas arrived by way of the Pacific Ocean. No evidence exists to indicate that even 12,000 to 15,000 years ago Asians possessed watercraft capable of making such a journey. But even if some transpacific contacts between the Old World and the New prior to 1492 were to be accepted, the migration of large numbers of people over the Bering Strait is not questioned by any anthropologist.

The first immigrants into the New World were physically fully modern, belonging to the same subspecies--Homo sapiens sapiens all modern humans have belonged to for tens of thousands of years. Although the cultures of the first Americans were materially simple, just like the cultures of other peoples at the time, these early Americans must have been accomplished hunters of large game, and they made ingenious adjustments to the wide variety of environments they found in the New World.

The position that humans have been in the New World for only about 12,000 years may yet prove to be somewhat conservative. What most anthropologists agree on, however, is that initially the immigrants from Asia must have been attracted to the new continent in pursuit of game, and that their arrival was not a single massive population shift across the Bering Strait but the result of migrations by small bands over a long period of time, quite possibly extending over several thousand years.

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