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Some tipi rings

The Bighorn Basin holds plenty of old secrets.  Prospectors, miners, strike-it-rich schemes. But what stirs my imagination most are Indian signs.

The history of the white man here is short and meager, a mere 150 years or so.  Wyoming only became a state in 1890.  The Bannock war of 1878 was the last Indian war around here.  Truly that wasn’t so long ago.

And although Lewis and Clark came through here 200 years ago, Native peoples have been living here for over 10,000 years, with the population rising and falling with the climate.  I went to an interesting talk last summer given by an archaeologist who had a unique way of assessing population correlated with temperature.  The time period known as the Altithermal, around 5,000 to 8,500 years ago, saw the fewest people living around the basin.  The Altithermal was a dry hot period and many of the native peoples moved higher, into the mountains, to survive.  Interestingly, the Altithermal termperatures in the Big Horn Basin are approximately the temperatures we have today, as our own temperatures are rising.

So when I was hiking around the desert last week and ran into some tipi rings, I couldn’t help  imagining what these peoples might have been doing and how they were living.

You can see the ring of rocks embedded in the dirt

You can see the ring of rocks embedded in the dirt

Another view

Tipi Ring

The rocks were used to hold down the tipi skirt.  Used over and over again, this location contained four visible rings, high on a hill.  Water was far below, although we did find a dry spring along the other side of the hill and closer to the rings.  My friend thought this was a hunting camp, since it was small and near in a prominent landmark.  And he might be right because the location was perfect for watching game, especially antelope and deer that might pass through.

Just outside of Cody there are a large amount of tipi rings above the Shoshone River.  You can tell they are more recent, say 150 years, as the rocks are not very embedded in the dirt.  The Crow used to winter down along the river and use the hot springs.  The hot springs is now on private land.

Another view of several rings outside Cody

Several rings outside Cody

 

It’s such a nice gift to run into these ancient signs.  They should be left untouched as they are part of our story and the story of the Land.

Rock circle big enough to sit in

A vision quest site I found

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Our American History

I spent the last month wandering through Southwest Anazasi ruins, specifically around Bluff/Blanding in the Cedar Mesa area.  With the help of a guide book, and the local who owned the motel I was staying at, I explored as many petroglyph and ruin sites as I could, given that the mesa had quite a bit of snow and many roads were impassable clay.

This guy never got out in the sticky red clay, even with all our help

This guy never got out in the sticky red clay, even with all our help

Cedar Mesa area is unique amidst cultural Anazasi sites.  Its a BLM study area that probably had a population 2-3 times that of today; that would be easily 10,000 people living there. And it shows.  Hike down any canyon and you will absolutely see granaries, old stonework and dwellings, kivas.  In short order, anyone will be able to judge what topographic features would attract an Anazasi dwelling:  south facing cliffs,  high alcoves, inaccessible nooks with some access to water.  Some of the ruins obviously housed many families, while others were small and may have held only a few.  Invariably though, they’d be a kiva always there, sometimes several.  These were community meeting rooms and the general size of the mesa kiva seemed like it could house no more than ten comfortably.

Large extensive alcove run

Large extensive alcove run

View of ruin approach.  The ruin is right at this large pour off, difficult to access purposely for defensive purposes

View of ruin approach. The ruin is right at this large pour off, difficult to access purposely for defensive purposes.  You can see the ruin on the right side.  The left side of the pour off has a small alcove with handprints and grinding stones, below.

Corn grinding stone.  A common site within dwelling areas.

Corn grinding stone. A common site within dwelling areas. Also cuts where axes were sharpened

I fantasized that women were grinding the corn, and when their hands got too muddy with red clay, here they went to clean them off.  Many handprints also had the familiar spiral inside

I fantasized that women were grinding the corn, and when their hands got too muddy with red clay, here they went to clean them off. Many handprints also had the familiar spiral inside

I took a lot of photos of walls.  I know something about building stone walls, having designed many and used many masons in my work.  These walls were very well-constructed.  Of course!  They’ve lasted over a thousand years.  Some built more meticulous than others.  Granaries could be quickly constructed, while housing was finer work.  Stones were honed for corners.  Although most of the finish has worn off, one can still see in places where plaster was applied so that the end product hid the stone work.

This interesting structure was obviously a kiln

This interesting structure was obviously a kiln

Fingerprints are common to be seen on the plaster and mortar work.  If this doesn't connect you with the people who did this work, nothing will.

Fingerprints are common to be seen on the plaster and mortar work. If this doesn’t connect you with the people who did this work, nothing will.

Here the plaster is still visible

Here the plaster is still visible

And there’s so much more to Cedar Mesa area–the petroglyphs and pictographs.  I took hundreds of photos of writings at many different sites.  Seeing so many, I still could not come up with why some sites were picked for writings and others not.  There are plenty of perfect patinas for drawings that are empty.  Petroglyphs of course were not done in just one period, but a site may contain pictures that span hundreds of years.  I found drawings in home dwellings, and more elaborate ones at the very top of a ridge line (on Comb Ridge i.e. the Processional).

The location of this artwork.  This is at the very top of Comb Ridge with a view to the San Juan River miles below

The location of this artwork. This is at the very top of Comb Ridge with a view to the San Juan River miles below

A more macro view of the story

A more macro view of the story

This is a small piece of a very large story called The Processional

This is a small piece of a very large story called The Processional 

Petroglyphs seemed to be at prominent places, like when we hiked down to the San Juan River to a wall with thousands of glyphs.  Perhaps this was a crossing place, a signpost for travelers telling them about the game or where to go; maybe it was a vision quest site; or a rock that marked territory. Some of the sites are astronomical indicators and these have been documented.    I suspect that glyphs contained all these elements depending upon the site.  One thing that becomes obvious quickly:  white people write their names and dates; native peoples were telling stories about the land, the landscape and the animals.  “As if the Land owned us”  says a Ute Indian.

This was my third year of exploration in the Southwest.  I highly recommend reading House of Rain by Craig Childs if you are going.  It helps to put this great history into perspective.  But it wasn’t until I went to Chaco Canyon that the Four Corner Regions all knitted together into an amazing historical tapestry.

Chaco is our greatest preserved heritage in the United States and so few people have visited it let alone know about it.  Frankly, I didn’t either.  But once I saw it, I understood so much more about the multi-cultural groups bundled together as the Anazasi than ever before.  Chaco was at its height around the 10th-11th century.  A massive undertaking of architecture in the middle of the desert, the Chachoans built huge kivas and ‘pueblos’.  Pueblo Bonito alone has only had 3 acres excavated and they suspect there are over 6 acres.  And there are many many more structures here, all aligned astronomically, all built by the finest builders of the land.  Chaco is a ritual landscape, a landscape of spirit lines, where geography and the spirit world combine through astonomy.

Yet so few people actually lived here, less than 6,000 at most.  Bins of turquoise, corn from 100’s of different regions, feathers of exotic parrots from the tropics, were found.  This was a place of opulence where probably a few priests and caretakers lived.  Goods came in, but not out.  People today have no words nor concepts for that.

The buildings were not built all at once, but over hundreds of years and changed over time.  Great roads over thirty feet wide and so perfectly straight they could have been engineered today fanned out across the landscape.  If the road came to a cliff wall, they didn’t go around but build steps straight up to the top.  These wide roads, sometimes lined with crushed potsherds, connected to Great Kivas hundreds of miles away.  They recently found one from Chaco to Bluff.

Although they don’t know what Chaco really was, if you go there when its quiet, like I did, you can feel a lot.  Chaco was a great spiritual center; it was the Heart of the Anazasi, where pilgrimages were made, maybe annually or bi-annually.  Maybe just once in a lifetime.  And when you went, you brought your gifts of corn.  Maybe you stayed a bit, especially if you had spiritual prominence in your smaller community, or did a spirit quest.  One can imagine great celebrations and games taking place.

Unique corner window where the light shines through perfectly on the winter solstice

Unique corner window where the light shines through perfectly on the winter solstice

Exquisite walls by master builders at Chaco could be over 4 stories high

Exquisite walls by master builders at Chaco could be over 4 stories high

IMG_0299

This is a kiva at Aztec Ruins that was reconstructed.

This is a kiva at Aztec Ruins that was reconstructed.

The largest Kiva at Chaco could house hundreds if not a thousand people

The largest Kiva at Chaco could house hundreds if not a thousand people

Yet Chaco began to decline, and was no longer the center of trade, commerce, and spirituality somewhere around the early 1100’s and the center moved north towards Aztec.  And although drought gripped the region in the late 1200’s, that no longer is the sole reason archaeologists suspect for the regions abandonment.  To wander around Cedar Mesa, Mesa Verde, or Hovenweep, it becomes obvious these were a frightened people–building in the most defensible and inaccessible places.  Hovenweep with its unique towers is the epitome.  The towers are placed at the heads of drainages, protecting their precious water.  Cannibalism, decapitations, and other extreme violence is evident in these late periods.  Cedar Mesa may have held some of the last hold-outs.  Why this happened and what was happening, we’ll never know.  But more than drought was going on as this was a land of droughts and people had been living here for thousands of years.

Apart from the specifics of its history, my question when I finally visited Chaco was why are we not teaching this in our American History books to our school children?  Why does our history, still, after all these years of increased social awareness, begin with Columbus and. at the most, only a nod to native peoples who were here before Europeans?  Is it because we are committed to the United States being only an idea:  the idea of freedom and democracy? Is that what we have decided binds us, and so that is what we’ve decided we’ll teach?

America is not a concept.  It is the Land and the landscape as well, and if we are to be a people connected to Place, then we must learn about Place and how ‘the land owns us’.  And although the Anazasi migrated south, and are today’s Hopi, Zuni, and Puebloans by culture and blood, they are still part of the heritage of our America, our Place. And a Great One; one that we can learn from.   By excising this history from our studies, we divorce ourselves off from the long history of our Land and its peoples here.   I feel that if our youth integrated these ancient histories as their own, we would all come to cherish not only the ruins that remain, but the Land itself and our connection to its preservation.

Cave

The Past and the Present

You might say that I’m living a life many of my friends would call simple and rustic.  My cabin is small, I’m surrounded by rugged mountains, I hike and live around grizzlies and wolves.  The dangers I have to stay aware of are not car break-ins or being mugged on a dark street, but being stuck in a sudden snowstorm on a trail, or spraining an ankle in an area where no one ever comes bye, not just for days but for months or years.  Some might say ‘She’s living raw, close to the land’.

But frankly, even way out here in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the wildest place in the lower 48, I feel inadequate, modern.  Sure I could probably survive for three or four days in a pinch out in the back country.  I take provisions and precautions for that.  I carry a satellite phone.  I bring bear spray.  I even know some wild foods that could tide me over.   But my upbringing and my life experiences have never prepared me for living like peoples here did hundreds of years ago.  That is cultural knowledge that was passed down generation to generation.  The Native Americans who overwintered for 5000 years at nearby Dead Indian Campground  passed on their life skills as well as their intimate relationship with the Land–lifestyles that have been lost forever.

Those skills are not learned by a single individual in a single lifetime.  Just as much as evolution is physical, those skills were a cultural evolution, breathed and lived by a community.  Larry Todd described to me that by even the very early 1800’s, the life skills and the community of the Native Americans at Dead Indian had already begun to dissolve.  Around here, that was about the time Lewis and Clark came to town.  Their expedition is still the best description of the land and the way things were ‘pre-white’ man.  The land may have not changed much, but the cultures were already disintegrating due to disease and other factors.

300 year old wikiup standing till 25 years ago when destroyed by cattle

You know how your grandparents or parents talk about the past, their past, in a longing way.  That is how I feel, but in a way that goes much farther back to an America that was ‘discovered’ long ago.  Long ago, in the 1800’s, an idea was floating around to give Native Americans the land west of the Missouri.  That, of course, was never Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

I must admit, I am weighted down with a longing for a past no longer present.  I envision the days when bison roamed freely here, when the beaver and the mink were so plentiful that people were able to trap them in the hundreds. When there were more animals than people. When animals whose mere presence in the landscape today is so controversial, such as wolves and bison, were sacred to the peoples.

In each new landscape I consider “What must this have looked like hundreds of years ago, before the white men made their mark here.  What were the native trails like?”  I walk what appear to be these pristine mountains and listen hard for ancient echoes of songs, murmurings of people long dead who knew the ways of living with the earth much better than I will ever know in my lifetime.  Their songs long gone, I wonder how we can learn the secrets it took so long for them to discover and pass on.

I am obsessed with the past and how that past might be brought into this present time. My friends tell me it will never be again and to move on.

I conjure up dreams of how to fit ‘wildness’ into the puzzle of modern existence.  Do we set aside large tracts of unmanaged lands with uncollared wildlife, leave them uncharted and unmapped, to enter at your own risk?  Or is our hope in the advocates of green renewable city living, where most of the population will live, work, and grow their own food, leaving the large acreage of rural unfettered areas?  Unfortunately, the politics of wilderness seems to always involve an uphill battle, with the needs of wildlife superseded by human needs and greed.

 

A mere 'blip' of the Bison there used to be

Sensitivity.  It is a attribute we must all strive to cultivate as human beings.  What we can do is walk lightly, live in wonder, become increasingly aware that all life is conscious, alive, and part of our connected existence.  If each one of us were to make that our task, then the earth might become renewed again, full of wild existence, of which we are a part.

The babies and Medicine Lodge Park

Birds several days ago

Here are the baby bluebirds several days ago.  Now here they are today.  Boy do they grow fast.

Bluebirds today

Last week I took a trip to Medicine Lodge State park near Hyattville.  A well-tended State Park, the spot is an oasis in the Big Horn Basin.  This site was excavated in the 70’s by George Frison.  Its a continuous occupation site of over 11,000 years!  Here are a few photos.

The stone wall palette

Fat marmot

Tipi Rings

I thought I’d do a short post on a few teepee rings I’ve seen.  The other day I was in Cody with some time to kill.  I’d heard there were tipi rings on the north side of the Shoshone river by Trail Creek.  A friend told me the historical wisdom-lore was that many tribes gathered there during the winter months to camp by the hot springs.  Most of those springs are now either extinct, buried under the damn, or on private lands.  In fact, the bulk of the rings, apparently 100’s of them, are on private lands going up the traditional passage of Trail Creek.

Walking along the shores of the Shoshone River (called the Stinking Water River before it was changed due to popular [and probably economic] demand)  you can still occasionally smell sulfur .  The rings are obvious, easy to pick out.  They’re incredibly close together; some even still have fire rings in the center.  Compared to the rings in other places, these looked fairly recent, maybe 150 years old.  Why?  Because the rocks are not very buried.

Cody tipi ring with fire ring in middle

Another view of several rings outside Cody

This is an excerpt from Plain Feather about the death of Crow Chief Sits in the Middle of the Land while Plain Feather was camped outside of Cody:

“About a year after the big battle on the Little Bighorn (1876), a small band of Crows went hunting from the Yellowstone to the Stinking River…The band reached the Stinking River a short distance below where the city of Cody now is located.  Here Chief Sits in the Middle announced that he was going south to a valley where there were still some buffalo left.  The other group decided to follow up the Stinking River to the big mountains where there were plenty of deer and bighorn sheep.

My family was with this latter group.  That evening we made camp at the forks of the river just above the narrow canyon where a dam is now located.  Towards evening we sighted two horseback riders galloping in our direction.  They were messengers from the other group.  They announced that the great chief and his wife suddenly became ill and soon died. They said we were to hasten over there.  It is believed that they died of pneumonia.

Immediately teepees came down and we were soon on our way.  We arrived early the next morning, just in time for the burial.  The bodies, strapped in robes, were taken to the rimrocks of the valley and put into a ledge and then covered up with slabs of rocks.  The burial mourning followed, with men and women wailing.  They recounted the many great things that the chief did for his people for many years.  At that time he was the Chief of All Chiefs, reigning over the two main bands of the Crow Nation.”**

(**Note:  In the late 1960’s, the Chiefs’ remains were relocated from nearby Meeteetsie to the Crow Agency in Montana.)

Now compare those rocks with the rocks in the rings below.  These rings were along the Bighorn River in Bighorn Canyon.  The rings are right beside the main road, which follows the ancient travel route of the Crows.

Another view along Bighorn canyon

Big Horn Canyon rings

Here are some much older rings near the town of Clark.

Clarks fork tipi rings, much older

I spent a few hours walking along the plateau near the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon, an area where tribes traveled for the fall Buffalo hunt.  There are rocks galore there, and although I could pick out some rings, they couldn’t be photographed as they were very obscure and some of it might have even been my vivid imagination.  Most of the rings seemed much smaller, probably no more than 6′ in diameter compared to these larger rings.  But the setting was right–on the table above the river with a wide view of the surroundings.

I love finding these rings.  They spur my imagination and kindle a sleeping spirit.  The very soil emits stories I’m awaiting to hear.

Indigenous peoples, old and new

Mesa Verde, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients, together, all tell a story of what the Land and the Life around the Four Corners was 1200 or more years ago.  Over 30,000 people lived in the surrounding valleys and mesas, much more than today.  Their culture and architecture slowly evolving and developing, its thought they depleted their resources, leaving it devoid of trees, soil fertility, and game.  With a severe drought of over 20 years setting in, they all had to move on to greener pastures.  Sound familiar?

I really was at Mesa Verde.  Proof.

I really was at Mesa Verde. Proof.

Wow

Wow

Another dwelling site

Another dwelling site

Photo taken across the canyon.  How did they get they there, let alone build it?

Photo taken across the canyon. How did they get they there, let alone build it?

Traveling to Hovenweep, the road was incredibly beautiful.  I slept under the stars at the Monument, dreaming powerful dreams of eagles and hawks.  The Monument is primitively developed.  A walking path takes you around to each ruin.  If desired, you can drive further east to several out building ruins off dirt roads and trails.  These buildings, although constructed around the same late period as Mesa Verde (and not occupied for more than a generation or two), are architecturally very different.  Their purpose was unknown, but to me they appeared as fortresses, possibly lookout towers to alert the villages of approaching marauders as food and resources became scarcer.

All buildings were built on rock ledges overlooking canyons

All buildings were built on rock ledges overlooking canyons

My very favorite.  The boulder is gigantic its built upon

My very favorite. The boulder is gigantic its built upon

Nearby, the fairly new National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients, doesn’t even yet have literature, nor thankfully, roads.  There are over 4000 archaeological sites scattered throughout BLM managed land.  I drove up to Lowry to view one of the premier ruins, which was fully excavated in the 30’s.  These ruins are from an earlier time than Mesa Verde and Hovenweep and were clearly living quarters, with one of the three underground kivas surviving intact.

Description of ruins at Canyons of the Ancients

Description of ruins at Canyons of the Ancients

My favorite was a nearby extremely large kiva.  Clearly this kiva was used ceremonially as a gathering spot for clans and families from all around the area.  To get to these ruins, you drive a lonely dirt road through pastures and farmlands.  Nobody was there, as opposed to Mesa Verde where the walks were led by rangers with many visitors participating.

Central gathering Kiva

Central gathering Kiva

I had the wonderful opportunity to sit quietly, alone, and feel the powerful energy of that large kiva, letting my imagination fill in the gaps of wonderous gatherings of song, dance and ceremony.  That is my favorite site.

After I left Hovenweep, I headed for the Navajo reservation where I spent the night (which I’ll describe in a separate post).  I told a Navajo woman that I’d come from Mesa Verde.  We talked of these magnificent buildings and experienced builder.  I told her I wondered about how theses ancient people were able to climb down from the mesas to the buildings below (rangers say it was by handholds they made in the rock).

“Some people say they could fly.”

“That’s probably the best explanation I’ve heard”, I replied.

Blackfeet, Wolves and emblems of the Spirit

I just finished reading a wonderful little book by James Schultz.  Schultz lived with the Blackfeet Indians starting around 1880 and took an Indian wife.  He learned their language and soon, as a very young man who came out from the east coast, became accepted into the tribe as one of their own.  He, along with his friend George Grinnell, helped advocate for Glacier to become a National Park, and wrote many books about his life among the Indians and the wilds of Northern Montana. He’s providing me with a vivid sketch of life in Montana at the close of the 19th century, the final days of the free lives of the Blackfeet , as well as the last days of the Buffalo. With the recent delisting of the wolves of Montana and Idaho, and the hunts that are now taking place there, here’s a little gem of a quote from Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life among the Indians: “The big, bad wolf?  No indeed!  I once had a pet wolf, as good a friend of mine as any dog I ever owned.  But before I tell of him, I must say that, so far as I can learn, the wolves of North America never attacked human beings.  There was good reason for it:  game animals and birds, were everywhere so plentiful that they had no need to attack their great enemy, man.  The Indians have no tales about big, bad wolves.  They frighten their children into good behavior by threatening them with the bear.  Until the late 1870’s wolves fairly swarmed upon the Montana plains; their long-drawn, melancholy howls were ever  in our ears.  But lone hunters, both Indian and white, when caught out at night and far from home, lay down to sleep without the slightest fear of them.” On of the most intriguing observations about the Blackfeet is contained in the following quote: “The Blackfeet  Indians, and perhaps many others, have a peculiar habit of going up on high hills and bluffs conveniently close to camp and sitting there motionless and rigid as statues for hours.  Near the close of the day seems to be the particular time for indulging in this practice.  Why they do so is a mystery.  I have often asked them the reason, and have invariably received the reply, Kis-tohts, meaning “for nothing.”  Sometimes I have hidden myself in the coarse rye grass which grows so tall and luxuriantly in the river bottoms, and with the aid of a powerful field glass have closely scrutinized their countenances, but  to no purpose.  The expression of their faces never changed.  Their eyes had a far-off dreamy look which could not be interpreted.” Schultz speculated that maybe they were thinking about the passing away of the life they once knew.  But I have a different notion.Weather Living so close to the earth, these people keenly observed not only the animals and their movements, but the whole non-human processes–the weather, the sky, the stars. All was observed in a contemplative disposition of openness.  In their deep observations of animals, they not only learned about them for their hunt, but noticed their simplicity and ease of contemplation.   Animals were direct representations of spiritual communications and powers and so they were highly venerated and used ritually and contemplatively for various purposes.  They were emblems, doorways to Spirit.  In fact, they were a unique display of what was beyond the human, rather than lesser than human as we rate the animal world today.Deer in velvet Going and sitting on a hilltop, motionless at dusk, was a form of communion, as natural as the elk lying in the grass still and silent, or the spider who patiently sits in its web.  It was setting aside time, after the safety and the needs of the body were taken care of, to drop into contemplation.  Living with the Land as they did, there is a natural rhythm and pulse that overwhelms the body and mind when it’s still.   I believe they were just responding to that natural pulsation of contemplation that was everywhere around them, including in the animals. This is the kind of sensitivity we need today in our conversations about our ecosystems, the wolves and bears, the elk and deer and the whole animal world, including ourselves.  We are upside down.  We are not the ‘managers’.  Animals and plants are not just ‘resources’ to be exploited and managed. At one time, 100 years ago, the idea of game management was a necessity when we almost slaughtered much of our animals to extinction.  We saved our game by setting land aside, establishing hunting regulations, careful management, and educating generations of biologists. But it is a new day and a new paradigm is needed.  I don’t know the answers, but I do know where we need to begin from.   Our conversation needs to start from the assumption that all life is conscious.  That’s not an airy fairy granola eating notion.  That’s the logical application of Einsteinian physics.  And looking at animals as emblems of the sacred is a good place to start.Bison