Gary Snyder 1974
Gary Snyder placed “Anasazi” as the first poem in his 1974 collection Turtle Island. Its placement is significant because the first poem often sets the tone for the rest of the book, and this is the case here. Anasazi is a Navajo word most often translated as “ancient ones,” and it designates a group of Native Americans thought to be the predecessors of the modern Pueblo Indians. From about 200 to 1300 A.D., the Anasazi inhabited the Four Corners region of the United States, encompassing southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona. As Snyder’s poem indicates, the Anasazi people were very adept at horticulture, pottery making, basket weaving and architecture, and were remembered especially for their villages built into the sides of steep cliffs. Although opinions vary on what eventually scattered these Native Americans throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico, there is widespread agreement that they were a very sophisticated, highly developed people who left behind a wealth of remarkable wares and intriguing structures.
“Anasazi” is a celebration poem, much like a chant or a song of praise. Its creator is both poet and anthropologist, and he combines the two callings to produce works of vivid imagery and in reverence for a humankind that lives simply and in harmony with nature. While the poem may be sparse in language, it is full of meaning, evidenced by strong, descriptive words and effective cadence. It engages both history and myth, presented with striking metaphors and alliteration. And, too, it reflects
Gary Snyder’s fervor for depicting the strength and beauty of Native American culture and his ability to express great praise in a minimal amount of words. For these reasons, the poem provides a fit beginning for Turtle Island whose own title refers to the original name of North America handed down through Indian mythology.
Gary Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930. His parents separated when he was very young, and he spent most of his early years living with his mother and sister on small farms in Washington and Oregon. Even as a youngster and teenager, Snyder was an avid outdoorsman and developed a strong reverence for all things natural— mammals, insects, trees, mountains, rivers, and anything else that was a part of the earth. He also held ancient North American and Far Eastern cultures in high regard and would eventually make their study and practice a part of his everyday life.
In 1951, he received degrees in both literature and anthropology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. There, he became a part of the intellectual crowd that was often also the “party” crowd, and he and his friends experimented not only with a variety of hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol, but also with eastern philosophy, Indian mythology, and communal living. He spent most of his college years in one of the “Reed houses,” which were typically old houses close to campus that students rented, sharing in the household duties and monthly utility bills. Snyder had a preference for a home life that was village-like, similar to most Native American cultures in which all members were part of an extended family, and group effort and shared responsibilities—as opposed to individual achievement—were major tenets.
Snyder’s interest in Zen Buddhism was heightened by three years of graduate study in Asian languages at the University of California-Berkeley during the early 1950s. In 1956, he moved to Japan where he remained for 12 years studying, researching, and practicing Zen philosophy and also traveling throughout Asia. Returning to the United States in 1969, he and his wife (along with a dozen or so friends) erected a Japanese-style house in the foothills of the northern Sierras of California where the poet/anthropologist still lives today.
To date, Gary Snyder has published 16 books of poetry and prose. Turtle Island, containing “Anasazi,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The work he has produced over the decades has continued to transcend mere words on paper. Perhaps more than any other writer—and certainly more than most— Snyder lives the life that he advocates in his poems. He has supported the causes of environmentalism, Native American rights, communal living, and spiritual and sexual freedom from the political venue to the streets to his own home. The poignancy of work and community so prevalent in the Anasazi culture has always been a primary component of the poet’s own life, and what he writes is essentially what he lives. In his essay, “‘Thirty Miles of Dust: There Is No Other Life, ’” Snyder’s longtime friend Scott McLean tells us that “one cannot read Gary’s poetry without being constantly made aware of how much it is an expression of community life. His work argues that if one wants to touch the deepest levels of our humanity, one must learn within the relationships of responsibility that bind family, community, and place.”
tucked up in clefts in the cliffs
growing strict fields of corn and beans
sinking deeper and deeper in earth 5
up to your hips in Gods
your head all turned to eagle-down
& lightning for knees and elbows
your eyes full of pollen
the smell of bats. 10
the flavor of sandstone
grit on the tongue.
at the foot of ladders in the dark. 15
trickling streams in hidden canyons
under the cold rolling desert
rock lip home, 20
A discussion of the meaning of “Anasazi” must include mention of its style, as the form of the poem—its rhythms, its sounds, even its look—is intrinsic to what it tells us. The first two lines appear to be only a repetition of the title. In fact, they are. And, yet, these two one-word lines also set the tone for the poem’s celebratory effect. Read aloud, they should be read slowly, allowing each syllable equal voice in the incantation: ah-nah-sah-zee, ah-nah-sah-zee. On an obvious level, they simply describe the subject of the poem, but they also imply the author’s feelings about that subject. In essence, he prepares us for the “song of praise” that follows.
Line 3 of the poem refers to the cliff dwellings that the Anasazi people constructed on the steep sides of the mountains, particularly in the Mesa Verde, Colorado, region. They eventually built hundred-room villages in the cliffs and caves of this area, and many of these remarkable structures still stand today. The cliff houses were blocks of rectangular living and storage spaces, tucked into rocky walls, providing shelter from inclement weather as well as aggressive enemies. As the people themselves moved into the cliffs, so did their livelihoods, and they used their excellent stone masonry skills to construct cliffside granaries. As line 4 indicates, the Anasazi also planted their crops on the mountains and were able to grow “strict fields of corn and beans” even on such unlikely terrain. The word “strict” here is not used as in “austere” or “harsh,” but in the “absolute” or “accurate” sense. Maize horticulture had been the driving force behind turning the ancestors of the Anasazi from a hunting-gathering culture into the more settled crop-growers, and it became a mainstay of their economy. The addition of beans and squash provided a nutritious supplement to their diet, and remaining evidence indicates that they were very precise and skilled farmers.
Line 5 of the poem may be interpreted both literally and figuratively, for the Anasazi sank “deeper and deeper in earth” in more ways than one. In the actual sense, the Anasazi people of 200 to 500 A.D. stored their goods (as well as their dead) in deep pits in the ground. Over the centuries, the Anasazi increased the size of partly underground spaces until they became their actual living quarters, now known as pithouses, consisting of several rooms. When the people began to move up into the cliffs, the earth dwellings did not disappear, but, rather, took on a new significance in the culture. By 900 A.D., the pithouses were completely subterranean, and they were used in the ceremonial role of the village “kiva.” Kivas are prominent throughout the history of all Pueblo tribes and are typically underground chambers used especially by men to hold council and to perform religious ceremonies. In this literal sense, then, the Anasazi did sink “deeper and deeper in earth.” Line 5 may also be seen as a metaphor for the deep ties these Native American people had with nature. They grew their food in the earth, lived in the earth, and worshipped in the earth, requiring an obvious respect and love for the land.
Lines 6-8 carry the metaphor a bit further by highlighting the rituals often performed in the kiva and addressing in particular the intertwining of natural elements in a celebration of life for all. The “Gods” are of the earth, and eagle feathers become headdresses; the dancing of “knees and elbows” appears like lightning, and the eyes are “full of pollen” because pollen represents fertility and growth. All these natural entities—eagle-down, lightning, knees, elbows, eyes, pollen—blend into the poem to help create its praise of nature and of the people who themselves had such a strong alliance
- Snyder recorded a collection of his prize-winning essays called Practice of the Wild. The two audiocassettes (1991 edition) pertain to the relationship between humans and the land that Snyder believes must occur, for both our sake and the earth’s.
- In 1992, Snyder recorded a series of Zen master Dogen’s “lessons” regarding self-liberation on two cassettes entitled The Teachings of Zen: Master Dogen. One review called the writings “practical and down-to-earth, paradoxical and mystical.”
- Art of the Wild is a VHS tape based on interviews with 14 writers of prose and poetry discussing their love of the natural world and what motivated them to “give back to the earth.” Writers include Gary Snyder, Garrett Hongo, Sandra McPherson, and Pattiann Rogers, among others.
with the natural world. In his essay, “Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island,” critic Michael Castro describes the poet’s response to the common overuse and misuse of natural resources in the industrialized world: “Snyder pointed to Indian societies as models of human organization that do not self-destruct by exploiting and exhausting their resources. Their relationship to the land is characterized by protection rather than production.” And although pollen may indeed represent reproduction and growth, it is not used here to indicate an explosive and overriding increase, but one that lives in harmony with the earth and its creatures.
These lines (as well as all the remaining ones) may be viewed as chunks of imagery that depict the Anasazi lifestyle and its interdependence on and with natural surroundings. “The smell of bats” reminds us that these people lived in caves and on steep cliffs and shared their dwellings with other mammals who made their homes in the rocks. “The flavor of sandstone/ grit on the tongue” refers not only to the cliff houses, but to the pottery created by the Anasazi for both utilitarian and decorative purposes. These Native Americans were very adept at masonry and working in clay, and stone was so prevalent that it must have gotten into their mouths, as well as their eyes and noses.
While these lines may seem to imply a terrible hardship in the lives of Anasazi women—giving birth to their children in the night at the bottom of steep ladders which they had to climb to their houses—it is not written in a bemoaning style or with a harsh tone. Instead, there is a softness in its simple statement, made more evident by the two-syllable, one-word lines: wo-men/ birth-ing. Line 15 again reiterates the remarkable dwellings the Anasazi constructed and tells us how they had to enter and exit their homes.
Lines 16 and 17 give us a panoramic view of the natural setting in which the Indians lived. The imagery pulls us away from the people themselves and takes us to the “trickling streams,” the “hidden canyons,” and the “cold rolling desert.” Although brief, these phrases paint a vivid picture of the natural beauty that surrounded the Anasazi. Since the desert is “cold,” we must assume it’s nighttime, and, therefore, the lines provide an idyllic connection between the childbirth “in the dark” addressed in the previous lines and the beginning of a new life with the cliff dwellers cited in the next.
The Anasazi were not only skilled potters, but fine basket weavers as well. They found many uses for their baskets, including hauling corn and carrying babies. If lines 18-19 were turned into a complete sentence, it may read something like, “The red and wide-eyed newborn was carried to his home in the cliffs in a corn basket.” The effect, of course, would be greatly diminished.
Snyder ends his poem the way he began it. Not only does the repetition of the word Anasazi bring a sense of “roundness” or of coming full circle to the work, but it reemphasizes the “sound” of it. Speaking the name of the people one more time, slowly—ah-nah-sah-zee—completes the song of praise on a peaceful and very resonant note.
Humans and the Environment
Gary Snyder the poet is inseparable from Gary Snyder the anthropologist. He has a distinct interest in studying human life not in isolation, but as an integral part of everything that is natural. The need to recognize the earth itself as a living being—along with all its trees, rocks, plants, and animals, including humans—is a major theme in much of Snyder’s work, and such is the case for “Anasazi.” Throughout the poem, there is interplay of humans, animals, plants, even sandstone and rock canyons. While many of us may not visualize living in the crags of a mountain as a very comfortable existence, here the lifestyle is portrayed as almost cozy. The Anasazi are “tucked up” in the cliffs, a phrase usually reserved for a softer, warmer form of protection or comfort. Along the same lines, “sinking deeper and deeper in earth” may not evoke a pleasant image, and yet in this poem, it is a wonderful experience, one that moves people closer to a spiritual (as well as a physical) oneness with the land. They are up to their “hips in Gods” because the supreme beings live in the earth that surrounds them. During their religious dance rituals, there is again a mixture of natural beings. Humans, eagles, and pollen seem to celebrate together.
In the essays contained at the end of Turtle Island, Snyder points out that many Native Americans, the Sioux in particular, consider things other than human beings as “people” too, such as insects, trees, birds, and fish. Snyder, too, believes that all of nature should be given a voice on our planet and tells us that “what we must find a way to do is incorporate the other people—the creeping people, and the standing people, and the flying people, and the swimming people—into the council of government.” In “Anasazi,” this incorporation is evidenced in the humans sharing the cliffs with bats, as opposed to killing them or driving them out, and in the “flavor” of sandstone, implying such a closeness to their surroundings that they can taste it. Even one of a woman’s most intimate moments is intertwined with her environment. There is no complaint about giving birth at the foot of a ladder on a cold, dark night. Rather, this kind of childbirth is merely a part of the natural course, just as the “trickling streams” and “rolling desert” nearby. There is no resentment toward the natural surroundings here. The mother simply places her new baby in the basket she has brought with her and totes him home. We must understand that the child is only one of the living organisms in her presence,
Topics for Further Study
- Consider all the environmental issues that have come to the forefront along with technological advances—from the invention of the gasoline-powered engine to space modules landing on Mars. Select one issue in particular and write an essay on its pros and cons for both human beings and for the environment.
- Choose one Native American tribe and research its beginnings in North America through to its sudden end or to its gradual dispersion into other tribes. Write an essay that concentrates on what happened to the tribe when the Europeans arrived and how the members’ lives changed.
- Write a poem about the natural environment that surrounds your home. Try to pattern your poem after “Anasazi,” using strong descriptive words and brief phrases.
- Gary Snyder’s introductory note in Turtle Island states “The ‘U.S.A.’ and its states and counties are arbitrary and inaccurate impositions on what is really here.” Write about what you think he means by this statement and why you agree or disagree with it.
- Many architects today are designing homes that “respect” the natural environment. If you were going to build an unconventional home on any type of land, describe what it would be like and how/why you would make your choices.
for she is also among streams, canyons, trees, rocks—all a part of the living earth.
A theme related to humans and our relationship with the environment that Snyder touches upon in “Anasazi” is that of the need for human beings to have a thorough understanding of the place we inhabit on earth. By “place,” he does not mean our own country, our own state, nor even our own city, but, instead, our own land. Whether that encompasses a backyard, a field on a farm, or thousands of acres surrounding a close-knit village, without a knowledge of the animals, insects, wild berries, soil types, and prospering crops that share our small piece of the planet, we really do not know the place where we live. In his 1977 collection of essays called The Old Ways, Snyder claims that we will one day “reinhabit this land with people who know they belong to it” and we will “learn to see, region by region, how we live specifically—in each place.” Living specifically in a place means knowing your surroundings completely. It means understanding the plants and animals indigenous to a region, the crops that will grow best, the wild foods that are edible and the ones that are poison, and the best means of preserving the natural resources available. It means truly knowing how to live off the land and how to do so without destroying it.
In “Anasazi,” the people live “specifically.” They are able to grow “strict fields of corn and beans” because they know just how to tend the crops in order to gain the best yield from the desert land. They know “the smell of bats” because they live with them, and they know “the flavor of sandstone” because they work the rock into utensils, into pottery, and into walls for their homes. They know, too, the sound of streams in the canyons, even though the water may be only “trickling” and even though the canyons may be “hidden.” In truth, nothing in the environment is hidden from the Anasazi, for they genuinely know the land they inhabit.
A discussion of Snyder’s general themes in this poem (and in many others) would be incomplete without mention of his belief in and practice of Zen Buddhism. Whether we view Buddhism as a religion or as a philosophy, or both, its tenets are very similar to that of most Native American beliefs. Buddhism maintains that every being in the universe is interrelated, and that nothing can exist separately from other beings. The world is essentially a network of all creatures and all natural objects, and each lives in relation to another. Examples from “Anasazi” that demonstrate this theme would simply be the same as those addressed above, illuminating the philosophy of environment in Indian culture, as well as that within the poet himself.
Style in “Anasazi” is intrinsic to the poem’s presentation and meaning. A song of praise or celebration needs rhythm and a discernible cadence to bring its full bearing to life. Snyder uses two predominant mechanisms to convey the adulatory intent of this work—alliteration (similar vowel sounds and similar consonant sounds) and line length.
While the first two “lines” are merely exact repetitions of the title, they set an alliterative tone for the rest of the poem. Not only do the first three syllables of the word “ah-nah-sah-zee” rhyme, but they also carry a soft, pleasant rhythm that warrants the repetition. The alliteration continues in the very next lines with the short u sound in “tucked up” and the cl sound in “clefts” and “cliffs,” followed by the hard c in “corn.” Lines 5, 7, and 8 all end with the short e sound in “earth,” “eagle-down,” and “elbows,” and toward the end of the poem, we have “canyons,” “cold,” and “corn-basket” blended with “rolling,” “red,” and “rock.” The last line rounds out the work by simply bringing us back to its rhythmic beginning.
Line length plays a major roll in the presentation of this poem by the gradual flow of nearly complete sentences into briefer phrases and finally into one- or two-word lines that wind us down as though a dance or song is coming to an end. In his Ideogram, History of a Poetic Method, critic Laszlo Gefin tells us that in Turtle Island “the form is coextensive with the material. As Snyder comments, ‘Each poem grows from an energy-mind-field-dance, and has its own inner grain.’ —.[In other words], energy invades the mind, expands out into a field from which the poem, the dance of words, comes into being.” In “Anasazi,” Snyder moves from the longer cadences of lines such as “your head all turned to eagle-down/ & lightning for knees and elbows” to the briefer “— smell of bats/ the flavor of sandstone/ grit on the tongue” to the drum-like beat of the last few lines. Read these phrases slowly and notice how the accents fall at the beginning of each to give them a TA-dum, TA-dum rhythm: Corn-basket. Wide-eyed. Red baby. Rock lip. Clearly, Snyder’s form here relates directly to the subjects of the poem as well as the feelings he has for them. While the work may be “officially” free verse, there is much evidence of careful crafting by the poet to create a specific sound, a specific rhythm, and a specific movement. In doing so, he has composed a piece whose form can be heard and felt, as well as seen.
Gary Snyder wrote most of the poems in Turtle Island in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he returned
Compare & Contrast
- 1970: The first “Earth Day” observation was held throughout the world. More than 20 million people took part, making it the largest organized demonstration in history.
- 1970: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by Congress to control water and air pollution.
- 1973: Members of the American Indian Movement seized the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site where Sioux Indians had been massacred by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890. Two Indians were killed by police in the 70-day occupation, and the village of Wounded Knee was destroyed by fire.
- 1973: A global energy crisis emerged, and President Richard Nixon encouraged Americans to conserve. He pointed out that the United States had 6% of the population but consumed nearly 35% of the world’s energy.
- 1989: Brazil, South America’s wealthiest country, began to regulate previously uncontrolled land clearances in the Amazon basin after profiting for years on the destruction of the land.
- 1992: Seven prominent Native Americans filed a lawsuit against the NFL’s Washington Redskins, citing the nickname and mascot as offensive to American Indians. In 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled federal protection of the trademark name, but it was still in use during the 1999-2000 season.
- 1995: The construction of a man-made mountain of 10,000 trees was begun in Finland, as organized by environmental artist Agnes Denes. Called “Tree Mountain-A Living Time Capsule-10, 000 Trees-10,000 People-400 Years,” the project invites people from around the world to plant a tree which will bear their name and those of their heirs for the next 400 years.
- 1999: Bangladesh Water Resources Minister Abdur Razzak announced that dwindling water supplies and poor water quality will soon threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people in South Asia. Razzak noted that 80% of illnesses and 30% of unnatural deaths in the developing countries were caused by drinking polluted water.
to the United States from his 12-year hiatus in Japan. The influence of Far Eastern culture and Zen Buddhism on his work is clear in many poems, including “Anasazi,” but considering the similarity of Native American philosophy to Zen, we cannot always tell where references to one end and the other begin. Fundamentally, it makes little difference, for these poems were written in a time of large-scale revolution in American thought, politics, and behavior, much of it leaning toward—if not completely enveloping—the same sentiments and ideas that Snyder had been promoting for decades. A sampling of only the titles of the journals in which many of Turtle Island’ s poems first appeared is indicative of the world the poet lived in and the values he held: Rising Generation, Not Man Apart, Unmuzzled Ox, Peace & Pieces, and Marijuana Review. And while it may be easy to place Snyder in the “hippie” category of 1960s America, his personal beliefs and lifestyle existed long before and go well beyond any cultural fads or pseudo-political movements that came about.
The time setting of “Anasazi” and that of the poet when he wrote it are hundreds of years apart. Even so, Gary Snyder was living in the same general region of the country as these ancient Indians, performing many of the same daily routines and taking on the same daily responsibilities. He and his family built their own home (not in “clefts in the cliffs,” but with their own hands and a “village” of friends), grew their own food, used water from mountain streams for bathing and cooking, and prepared most meals over an open fire set in a pit in the middle of the living room. While the Anasazi people had no other methods from which to choose, Snyder opted for an environmentally conscious life that did not depend on technology, and he was happy to welcome neighbors and strangers alike to his home rather than put up fences and walls to keep them out.
The poetry that Snyder wrote during the 1960s and early 1970s was often didactic, or “preachy,” in nature. His essays also addressed political and social issues, reflecting the American shift in attitude toward the government, the environment, war, drug use, and other controversial topics. It was a turbulent time, and there was much fuel for anyone looking to light a fire under social reform. The war in Vietnam dragged on, and the streets in America filled up with more and more protesters. Various factions of the population who had historically had little say in government and in society began to organize movements, from Black Power to women’s rights to the American Indian Movement. Also during these years, many people became concerned about pollution and the misuse of natural resources. A “greens” movement developed, and its followers advocated an earthy spirituality, believing in “Gaia,” or in the earth as a living organism. Many environmentalists turned against hunting wild animals for sport, and a large vegetarian crusade developed. Amidst all these movements, the use of recreational drugs increased dramatically, especially within the younger generation, but hippies and peaceniks by no means invented “getting high.” Hallucinogenic herbs and powders have been used for centuries all over the world for both relaxation and in cultural and religious rites, and Native Americans often included peyote in their rituals. Gary Snyder, too, has been noted for his experimentation with a variety of drugs and for the common use of them during meditative group gatherings at his home in the mountains.
“Anasazi” is a poem that Snyder could have written at any point in his career, considering his lifelong interest in Indian culture and in living in harmony with the environment. The inclusion of it, however, in Turtle Island, as well as the publication of that book in 1974, allowed its message to be even more pertinent. The world was ready for it, so to speak. There was widespread acknowledgement that minority populations deserved an equal voice, and there was general appreciation of the lessons the majority could learn—from artistic style to soil conservation—from diverse cultures. There was a growing outcry to protect the natural resources that industrialized nations had been treating as “endless,” and part of that protection meant treating the earth more gently and with greater respect. The Anasazi had already done that. And though these people faced the hardships of enemy tribes, inclement weather, and disease, they never struggled with nor pillaged their natural environment. Instead, they took care of it and, in turn, prospered from its resources.
Gary Snyder’s first few books of poetry were reviewed by only a handful of critics, but all of them wrote very favorably of the poet’s work. Most comments centered on Snyder’s easy lyrical style and precise portrayal of the natural world, some noting that he was simply writing the life he was living. After this positive beginning, Snyder moved to Japan and little was heard from him back in the States. When he returned and began construction on his home in the Sierra Nevadas, he wrote the poems for Turtle Island.
This book was not received favorably by many critics at first. It was considered too limited in scope, most of the poems drawing on the poet’s own regional environment and on his own friends and experiences. In his “‘Thirty Miles of Dust: There Is No Other Life, ’” Scott McLean states that, “scholars lamented his departure—from the purely imagistic lyric for forms that were too overtly political or were too centered on one locality.” Later, however, critics came to regard the book as one of Snyder’s best, and it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. McLean attributes this change in critical attitude to readers developing a better understanding of the importance that social issues and community involvement held for the poet. McLean points out that “these poems represented for Gary a series of notes in an open scale, a range of poetry that community life and involvement demanded. For when the developers are right there at a neighbor’s property line it is important to have a poem that ends, ‘And here we must draw/ Our line.’” (This line appears in the poem “Front Lines.”)
Pamela Steed Hill
Pamela Steed Hill has had poems published in close to a hundred journals and is the author of In Praise of Motels, a collection of poems published by Blair Mountain Press. She is an associate editorfor University Communications at The Ohio State University.
To understand and appreciate fully Gary Snyder’s “Anasazi” we need to know something about the Native American people who are the subject of the poem. The Anasazi are thought to be ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, and they inhabited Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona from about 200 to 1300 A.D. They are remembered for their skills at horticulture, pottery making, basket weaving, and architecture, especially their “cliff houses.” These dwellings—literally two- and three-story structures carved into the sides of steep cliffs and requiring ladders for entry and exit—replaced the partially underground homes where the Anasazi had lived for centuries. As they began to move to the cliffs and to expand their skills at masonry and architecture, the underground rooms were reserved as “kivas,” or places to hold council or perform religious rituals. The most important aspect of Anasazi life, as well as of all Native American cultures, was their respect for the land they lived on and their ability to care for it and prosper from it without destroying it.
Gary Snyder himself was greatly influenced by Indian customs and lifestyle, and he patterned his own life and surroundings after them. With an interest in anthropology as well as poetry, he often combines the two areas in his work, frequently sending messages of pro-environmentalism through essays, lectures, and poems. In a 1977 collection of essays entitled The Old Ways, Snyder addresses the issues of technology and industrialization gone out of control. He defends a need for “modern” human beings to take a hard look at what we have done to the earth—to the trees, the soil, the mountains, the animals, the air—and to begin to reverse the damage by seeing our planet as a living organism. One way that each person can help turn things around, according to Snyder, is to “rein-habit this land with people who know they belong to it.” By doing so, we will come to understand how we “live specifically in each place.”
The poem “Anasazi” exemplifies a people who lived specifically in their place. They took time to get to know their region of the world, including the plants that grew there, the animals that lived there, the fish that filled the streams and rivers, and the best types of crops for the soil they had. These were people who truly could live off the land and did so without exploiting its resources. The Anasazi not only took care of the environment, but also celebrated it. Snyder’s poem reveals and imitates this
“What makes Snyder’s poem a bit different is that his subject is not just about respecting the earth or convincing people that nature is beautiful and worth protecting. Rather, this poet writes from a perspective of an absolute necessity for human beings to pay critical attention to their relationship with the natural world. The Anasazi people not only recognized that their existence depended upon nature, but they knew that nature depended on them as well.”
celebration through its soft, rhythmic cadence and its strong imagery. Each line reads as though it was written in reverence for the thing or person being described, and the mixture of human life, animal life, and nature is reflective of the poet’s opinion on how all life should be lived.
Not only is the line “tucked up in clefts in the cliffs” a wonderful use of alliteration, but it also indicates how the Anasazi felt about their rock homes. Contrary to how people in contemporary society may view a seemingly harsh, rough existence, Snyder describes the Native Americans as “tucked up,” a pleasant phrase connoting gentleness and comfort. The Anasazi were so in tune with the earth that they chose to live, literally, among its natural stone and craggy mountainsides. Their knowledge of the surrounding soil is evident in the fact that they were able to grow “strict fields of corn and beans” on terrain that would likely prove impossible for less skilled, less caring farmers. Snyder merges nature with spirituality in the lines “sinking deeper and deeper in earth / up to your
What Do I Read Next?
- The Back Country (1971) is one of Gary Snyder’s most Eastern-influenced collections of poetry. What makes it especially interesting is his blending of East Asian thought and western United States culture.
- Probably the most prolific collection of poems dealing with Buddhist thought is the 358-page Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, published in 1991. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich, and with an introduction by Gary Snyder, this massive volume contains dozens of poems by writers from around the world, including Stephen Berg, Diane Di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, and Anthony Piccione.
- Most people know author Jack Kerouac for his Beat-movement “bible” On the Road. But he is also the author of Dharma Bums, an autobiographical work, published in 1958, relating his experiences with Buddhism while living in California in the mid-1950s. The character “Japhy Ryder”—a poet, woodsman, and Buddhist—is actually Kerouac’s real-life friend and mentor, Gary Snyder.
- American Indian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues provides a new and provocative way of looking at many facets of Native American life. Edited by Dane Morrison and published in 1997, this book is a collection of essays by writers drawing upon their expertise in diverse disciplines—economics, education, film, history, linguistics, literature, museum studies, popular culture, and religion—to highlight a particular aspect of the American Indian experience.
- Gerald Hausman’s Tunkashila: From the Birth of Turtle Island to the Blood of Wounded Knee reads more like a complex novel than a collection of fables, folktales, and myths concerning Native Americans. Published in 1994, this book tells the stories of the continent’s beginning through 88 myths and 100 illustrations and brings Indian legends to life in the contemporary world.
- Robin Attfield’s The Ethics of a Global Environment is a very accessible, reader-friendly book that discusses the ethical principles of humans to nature, natural resources, and the planet. Attfield offers some startling, future scenarios, including a limited water supply, changing climates, overpopulation, and the destruction of ecosystems.
hips in Gods,” implying a religious connection between the people, the land, and a divine presence. He carries the union further by pairing human physical attributes to animals and natural phenomena: head and eagle-down; knees, elbows, and lightning; and eyes and pollen. The lines containing these elements describe a ritual taking place, probably in a kiva, since we know the underground rooms were converted for such after the Anasazi moved into the cliffs.
The concept of living specifically in a place and of being keenly aware of the nature that shares the space is nowhere more evident than in the middle three lines of the poem. “[T]he smell of bats. / the flavor of sandstone / grit on the tongue” present images that touch directly upon the senses and indicate how close the Anasazi people were to their environment. Most of us do not know what bats smell like because we don’t live where bats live. Nor do we know what sandstone tastes like or how it feels on the tongue because we don’t have reason to come into such close contact with it. While we may be able to imagine these sensations and to carry them even further into the senses of sight and sound—we can “see” bats in our minds and we can “hear” sandstone grinding in one’s teeth—but the Anasazi knew them firsthand. Instead of “overtaking the land with” man-made comforts and bombarding the natural setting with unnatural inventions, these Native Americans got to know their environment as though it were a “neighbor” and came to live at peace with it.
For most people in industrialized, technology-centered nations today—and especially for the women—the idea of giving birth to a child without taking every measurement of comfort into consideration is unthinkable. From special beds to numbing drugs, we want to make childbirth as easy and painless as possible. Therefore, reading about “women / birthing / at the foot of ladders in the dark” can send chills down the spine of anyone who has been through, or can imagine going through, the process of having a baby. But this section of “Anasazi” is not there to horrify and dismay. Nor is it there to imply any complaints from the Indians about how and where the women gave birth. Instead, the image leads directly to a description of the surrounding natural beauty: “trickling streams,” “hidden canyons,” and “the cold rolling desert.” Again the connection is made between human phenomena and natural phenomena, with a bit of ambiguity thrown in to make any separation even harder to distinguish. If our first notion is to see the “trickling streams in hidden canyons” line as a shift to a description of the natural setting, we may also consider it a continuation of the depiction of real childbirth. With the presence of both water and blood during birth, the use of “trickling streams” works as well as a metaphor as it does a simple description of a nearby creek or river. The point here is that there is an undeniable interconnectedness and interdependence between people and nature.
It is fitting that the poem ends with a new beginning, so to speak. The baby described in the last few lines signifies not only a new life among the Anasazi people, but also a new creation out of the union with nature. Here, the images are extremely brief and the syllabic pattern makes a very pronounced cadence, all in tune with the celebratory effect of the poem. The four distinct images—“corn basket,” “wide-eyed,” “red baby,” and “rock lip home”—may be seen as separate entities, but more likely there is an intentional pairing of the object with the human. That is, corn basket pairs with wide-eyed and red baby pairs with rock lip home. This match-up would be in keeping with the blending of people and environment that we find throughout the poem. On the literal level, this string of images tells us that the wide-eyed newborn will be carried to its home in the cliffs in a corn basket. The Anasazi, we recall, were excellent basket weavers, and their wares served a variety of purposes, from toting crop yields to infants. And on the metaphorical level, these words illuminate the necessary alliance between humankind—from infancy on—and the world around us.
Even with an understanding of the history of the Anasazi culture, some readers may find Gary Snyder’s poem difficult because it seems disjointed or incomplete. But the style and the presentation lend themselves well to what the poet is trying to convey. His ability to select just the right words and brief phrases to portray an entire philosophy and lifestyle is actually more effective than belaboring the points with long, explanatory sentences and a didactic, or “preachy,” defense. With such exact imagery and unadorned detail, the poet simply shows us a picture of true environmentalism and of how one group of people accomplished living in harmony with nature.
The theme of “Anasazi” is not unique in the world of poetry. Countless poets over the centuries have penned verses of praise for the natural world, including many in more recent times who have used the venue to make social statements in favor of environmentalism. What makes Snyder’s poem a bit different is that his subject is not just about respecting the earth or convincing people that nature is beautiful and worth protecting. Rather, this poet writes from a perspective of an absolute necessity for human beings to pay critical attention to their relationship with the natural world. The Anasazi people not only recognized that their existence depended upon nature, but they knew that nature depended on them as well. In the poem, this is demonstrated by the continuous blending of people, animals, earth, rocks, and so forth. With such an interweaving tie between all living things, Snyder makes a very strong case for taking our current notion of environmentalism to a much higher level.
“Anasazi,” http://www.crystalinks.com/anasazi.html, accessed February 9, 2000.
Castro, Michael, “Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island,” Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 131-144.
Gefin, Laszlo, Ideogram, History of a Poetic Method, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
“The History Channel,” http://www.historychannel.com/, accessed December 3, 1999.
“Native Americans and the American Indian Movement,” http://www.letsfindout.com/subjects/america/aim.html, accessed December 8, 1999.
Snyder, Gary, The Old Ways: Six Essays, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1977.
———, Turtle Island, New York: New Directions, 1974.
Brody, J. J., The Anasazi: Ancient Indian People of the American Southwest, New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
This is an oversized book containing 222 illustrations and text written for the non-specialist. It highlights the land the Anasazi inhabited, their social and cultural rise, their architecture, and their ultimate dispersion throughout the Southwest.
Mails, Thomas E., The Pueblo Children of the Earth Mother, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.
This book provides insight into the ancient Indians even before the Anasazi group settled in America. It tells the story of both the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians, from their roots in Peru in 2000 B.C. to the first Anasazi basket makers in the American Southwest, highlighting their centuries of living at peace with the environment.
Snyder, Gary, Earth House Hold, New York: New Directions, 1969.
This is Gary Snyder’s first collection of prose, containing both essays and journal entries. Most pieces concentrate on his life and studies in Japan and address issues of wilderness life, community, and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism.
Anasazi (pronounced on-uh-SAH-zee ), a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies.” Some Pueblo peoples find this term offensive and prefer to translate the name as “ancient ones.” Others choose to call them the Ancient Pueblo People, or Ancestral Pueblos, although the Navajos do not like these terms. The Hopi in the early twenty-first century use the word “Hisatsinom” to refer to this ancient tribe.
Formerly in the Four Corners area of the United States, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. These are hot, dry areas of steep canyons and the high, flat hilltops the Spanish called mesas (meaning “tables”). Large numbers of Anasazi were located in three major areas: Mesa Verde (pronounced MAY-sah VUR-dee or VAIR-day, meaning “green table”), Colorado; Chaco Canyon, New Mexico; and Kayenta, Arizona. The most well-known Anasazi settlement is the one at Mesa Verde, stretching more than 150 miles (241 kilometers) from the Colorado River in Utah east to the Animas River in Colorado.
Between the years 1000 and 1200 ce , there may have been as many as one hundred thousands ancient peoples, including the Anasazi, the Mogollon, the Hohokam, and other trading partners who have since disappeared.
Origins and group affiliations
The main theory on Anasazi origin is that the group’s ancestors were part of the migration from Asia during the last Ice Age, which occurred about twenty thousand years ago. These ancient peoples may have reached Mesa Verde, Colorado, some ten thousand years ago. Along with the Mogollon, the Hohokam, and the Patayan, the Anasazi became one of four major civilizations of farming peoples who lived in the Four Corners area of what is now the American Southwest.
For centuries the Anasazi have been a great American mystery. Many unanswered questions remain about the people and their culture. Why did they suddenly move from the fertile valleys and mesa tops of their Southwestern homeland to dangerous cliff alcoves? Why, less than one hundred years later, did they abandon those cliffs altogether, mix with other cultures, and disappear as a separate people? How could they have become master builders without the aid of horses, other pack animals, or wheels? How did they manage to construct the wide boulevards that connect their villages and their huge, reddish-gold sandstone homes? The knowledge we have about these ancient peoples is actually a compilation of theories put together by archaeologists, people who collect and study the remains of past civilizations.
Basketmakers were their ancestors
The earliest Anasazi people were referred to as “Basketmakers.” They wandered the Southwest for thousands of years. Theirs was an extremely hard life, one marked by a constant search for water and food, without the benefit of bows and arrows for hunting. The people apparently lived in shallow caves for a few days at a time, then moved on. The development of watertight baskets made a big difference in their way of life. Baskets could be used to hold, carry, and even cook food (when filled with water and hot rocks).
By about the year 1 ce the Basketmakers had learned how to grow corn and squash and had settled down to farm. They lived in more permanent homes, usually pits that were partially underground.
About five and a half centuries later the Basketmakers lived in or near three major areas: Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Kayenta. The Anasazi learned from their neighbors, the Mogollon, how to make a primitive type of undecorated pottery, which allowed them to cook over a fire. This enabled them to prepare beans, which need to be boiled for a long time to make them tender. As a result beans became a staple crop.
100 bce–400 ce: Early Basketmaker period; the Anasazi use baskets as containers and cooking pots; they live in caves.
400–700: Modified Basketmaker period; the Anasazi learn to make pottery in which they can boil beans; they live in underground pits and begin to use bows and arrows.
700–1050: Developmental Pueblo period; the Anasazi move into pueblo-type homes above the ground and develop irrigation methods. A great cultural center is established at Chaco Canyon. Anasazi influence spreads to other areas of the Southwest.
1050–1300: Classic Pueblo period; Pueblo architecture reaches its height with the building of fabulous cliff dwellings.
1300–1700: Regressive Pueblo period; Anasazi influence declines; the people leave their northern homelands, heading south to mix with other cultures.
1700–present: Historic Pueblo period; Anasazi lands are taken over by Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans. Some Anasazi traditions are carried on by modern Pueblo tribes.
1888: Ranchers and amateur archaeologists Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason discover ancient cliff dwellings.
Great building phase begins
Around the year 700 the Anasazi began to build the huge homes for which they will always be remembered. Over the next four hundred years their civilization flourished. Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico became the heart and soul of the Anasazi culture. It was the center of a vast trading network that may have extended all the way to the Pacific Coast. By 1050 more than five thousand inhabitants had settled the Chaco Canyon area.
An extensive network of wide roads (more than 400 miles, or 644 kilometers) connected other communities to Chaco Canyon. At points along the roads, signal stations were erected and fires were maintained as a way of communicating with and guiding travelers. Traders from faraway places traveled the roads, exchanging a variety of exotic goods—macaw feathers from Mexico, seashells from the Sea of Cortez, and turquoise from eastern New Mexico.
Twelve large pueblos were built in the valley of Chaco Canyon, but the greatest of all was Pueblo Bonito. (Pueblo is the Spanish word for city or village.) It is a D-shaped, four-story complex of six hundred to eight hundred rooms and is considered the jewel in the crown of Anasazi architecture. Pueblo Bonita was large enough to hold one thousand people; some of its rooms appear to have been used for storage of surplus crops, luxury items, and art treasures. Until 1882 Pueblo Bonito (though no longer inhabited) held the title “the world’s largest apartment house”; that year a larger one was built in New York City.
During the Developmental Pueblo period (700–1050) the Anasazi people also moved from remote areas and small villages into apartment-style buildings in Mesa Verde, Colorado, and Kayenta, Arizona.
Between 1050 and 1300 the Anasazi were at the height of their architectural genius. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, they began to move down from the tops of mesas and build dwellings under the edges of cliffs. These huge dwellings were very difficult to reach; ladders were often required to get from one level to another. Perhaps the people built them this way for protection against invaders. Lookout towers were built around the same time, which lends support to this theory. Another possibility is that the population was growing so large that the Anasazi needed to free up land for farming. Either way, archaeological evidence indicates that the civilization began to wane around this time.
Many reasons have been given for the decline of the Anasazi. Tree ring studies show that a one hundred-year drought began during the Classic Pueblo period of 1050-1300, causing crop failures and food shortages. Other studies indicate that trees may have been cut down to build houses, leaving no wood for fires and ruining the top soil in the process. Perhaps the Anasazi fled from enemy raids or left because they could not agree among themselves how to distribute dwindling food supplies. Whatever the reason, by 1300, less than one hundred years after their settlement the cliff dwellings were abandoned, all the Anasazi had left the region forever.
The Anasazi moved in a roundabout way and joined the Hohokam, the Mogollon, and other peoples on the Colorado and upper Rio Grande rivers. The Anasazi intermarried with those peoples, mixed their customs with those of their hosts, and ceased to exist as a separate people. The Hopi, Zuñi, Rio Grande Pueblo, and Acoma Pueblo (see entries) are thought to be the descendants of the Anasazi.
Hohokam, Mogollon, and Patayan Cultures
In addition to the Anasazi, three other early farming cultures dominated the Southwest: the Mogollon, the Hohokam, and the Patayan. A major difference among the groups was the irrigation techniques they employed to farm in regions where water tended to be scarce. The Anasazi used several different methods, depending on where they lived. Some sought out ditches that collected rainwater, then built dams along the ditches to divert the water to nearby crops. Others conserved water by planting their gardens on hillside terraces (ridges), thereby taking advantage of the natural flow of water from upper to lower levels.
The Mogollon were mountain people who farmed the valleys of east-central Arizona and west-central New Mexico. Their small villages of earth-covered houses appeared in the Southwest around 200 ce . The earliest of the agricultural groups in the region, the Mogollon were fortunate enough to have a relatively abundant water supply. They planted their crops along the many streams in their homeland. This group is best known for its pottery, which depicted humans, animals, and insects outlined and painted in black over white clay. The Mogollon culture survived until about 1300 ce and may be the ancestors of the present-day western Pueblo (see entry). The Hohokam and Anasazi cultures adopted or refined some of the Mongollon practices, including the construction of semi-underground earth-covered pit houses.
The name Hohokam comes from a Pima word for “those who have gone before.” The Hohokam migrated from Mexico around 300 bce and established their villages along the Gila and Salt rivers in central Arizona. Their greatest accomplishment was the development of an ingenious irrigation system that improved farm yields: a series of canals that channeled the rivers’ flood waters directly to their dry fields. The Hohokam culture is believed to have faded around 1450 ce . Its people may have been the ancestors of the present-day Tohono O’odham and the Pima (see entries).
The Patayan people lived in present-day Arizona along the lower Colorado River and in the desert nearby, beginning in 200 ce . Like the Hohokam, the Patayan took advantage of the annual flooding of nearby rivers to irrigate their fields. That same flooding swept away most of the remains of their culture, so not much is known about the Patayan people or their traditions. The Hualapai people who came after them gave them the name “Patayan,” which means “the old people.”
Cowboys find Anasazi ruins
One winter day in 1888 two cowboys named Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were retrieving stray cattle in Colorado when they spied an amazing sight in the distance: a row of huge sandstone houses in an area where they had never seen any people. Wetherill later named the discovery “Cliff Palace.” Cliff Palace was once a village housing more than two hundred people.
Later that same day the explorers discovered “Spruce Tree House.” The next morning they found a third village with a tall four-story tower; they named the village “Square Tower House.” Over the next few years Wetherill and Mason discovered more than 182 sites in all.
Wetherill and Mason were not expert archaeologists. At first they hoped to make money from their find, selling the remains of the ancient culture to curiosity seekers. Later on, Wetherill decided that it would be in the best interest of scientific discovery if complete collections of artifacts were sold to museums. Over the next several years Wetherill made many more interesting discoveries. (See “Burial.”) Archaeologists who came after Wetherill have proposed different theories about the “ancient ones.” Research continues to shed new light on the many mysteries of the ancient Anasazi. Their influence and history permeate the modern Southwest.
Old beliefs reflected in modern Pueblo practices
Although Anasazi religious beliefs are generally unknown, archaeologists have discovered rooms called kivas that were apparently constructed around 750 ce . These chambers were actually former pit houses of the early Anasazi. When the people moved above ground, they retained the pit houses for use as spiritual centers, usually for the male members. The kivas were utilized for ceremonial and religious purposes in much the same way they continue to be used in modern times among Pueblo tribes.
Anasazi kivas were deeper than those of the Mogollon people. Each one was supported by about six columns, contained a hole in the roof for entry, and featured benches along the inside wall. In the floor of the kiva was a small, cup-shaped hole called a sipapu, which was believed to be a gateway to and from the spiritual world.
The Kachina religion practiced by modern-day Pueblo people may have begun with the Anasazi. Kachina were said to be reincarnated ancestors (reborn after death) who served as messengers between the people and their gods. The term kachina also refers to (1) the dolls that represent Pueblo Indians’ ancestral spirits and (2) the masked dancers who perform at agricultural ceremonies. Kachina masks dating back many hundreds of years have been unearthed from various Anasazi sites.
Influences from distant civilizations
There is strong evidence that the Anasazi had contact with distant civilizations, including the Aztec and Mayan peoples of Mexico, and may have shared some religious beliefs with them. Petroglyphs (paintings or carvings on rock) at Chaco Canyon are similar to those found in Mexico and parts of South America. For example, a spiral symbol that appears on Anasazi petroglyphs may represent a serpent in a coiled position, like the Mayan Quetzalcoatl (pronounced KWET-sahl-koh-WAH-tuhl ) or feathered serpent, a nature god.
The Mayan and Aztec cultures also sacrificed humans to the Sun god. Although it has not been proven that the Anasazi sacrificed humans for religious reasons, there is evidence they may have eaten humans, a practice called cannibalism. (See “Current Tribal Issues.”)
Because the Ancient Pueblo people disappeared, there is no evidence to show what language, or languages, they spoke. Some scholars believe they may have spoken Nahuatl, an Aztec language. Nahuatl (pronounced nah-WAH-tuhl ) is a branch of the Uto-Aztecan language spoken today by some of the Pueblo peoples in central Mexico. Diverse languages among the present Pueblo peoples indicate that their ancestors may have had a complex and far-reaching interaction with outsiders. Pueblo languages show the influence of Numic peoples in the West (such as the Paiute; see entry) and Plains Indians in the East.
It was long believed that all people in Anasazi society were considered equal. This assumption was based in part on archaeological evidence, which showed that no palaces or special buildings were set aside for wealthy and powerful people. However, opinions changed after Richard Wetherill’s 1897 discovery of a mummified (dried out and preserved) body of a woman he nicknamed “Princess.” Pictographs had been painted above her grave. The lavish and careful burial of the Princess, along with the pictographs, was viewed as proof that she was a member of Anasazi royalty.
Belief in the existence of an Anasazi royal line was further supported by Peruvian scientist Guido Lombardi in 1998. Dr. Lombardi also based his theory on mummies. Archaeologists had long assumed that the bodies of the Anasazi dead had mummified naturally over time—a direct result of the area’s climate. But Lombardi contended that mummification was done on purpose. It was not performed on all Anasazi dead—only on certain special persons.
Early Pueblo people were hunter-gatherers, but by 1500 bce they had begun growing corn. Agricultural knowledge may have come to them from Mexico. By 1 ce they may have begun dry farming. This type of farming uses only natural sources for irrigating crops—melting snow, rain, and groundwater. During this time, the people most likely did not plant crops, but harvested those that grew naturally.
In later centuries farming became a main source of food. The Ancestral Pueblo farmed wherever rainfall was sufficient for crops, often on mesa tops, in canyons, or on grasslands. Some communities built reservoirs and dams. They stored surplus crops for times of drought. Although they farmed extensively in some areas, they still hunted and gathered wild plants.
Items found in Anasazi ruins show that they traded with people who lived far from their homelands. Goods came from the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Plains, and the Pacific Coast. Seashells came from California; copper bells came from Mexico. Studies from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries show they imported huge logs for building from distant areas. During the Developmental Pueblo period the Anasazi traded with their southern neighbors, who were cotton growers.
The Anasazi are often associated with unusual and startling cliff dwellings such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde. But cliff dwellings existed for only a brief period of Anasazi history. More typical were blocks of rooms on mesa tops or underground pit houses clustered together to form communities. Pit houses often had egg-shaped or bottle-shaped storage bins dug into the floors, and walls were covered with stone slabs or plaster. Occasionally they built larger buildings, about 25 or 30 feet (7.6 to 9 meters) in diameter, perhaps for ceremonies or other gatherings.
In the eighth century the Anasazi began to build jacals (houses) above ground. Setting poles upright in the ground to form the outline of a house, they wove sticks among the poles. They constructed roofs the same way and added a thick coating of mud to weatherproof the top and sides of the house. Jacals had central fire pits, usually lined with stone; some of these homes were also faced with stone.
Sometime before 1000 ce the Anasazi began using sandstone for masonry, replacing the traditional pole and mud construction of homes. These beautiful sandstone buildings were strong enough to support rafters and adobe roofs (pronounced uh-DOE-bee; a sun-dried mud made of a mixture of clay, sand, and sometimes ashes, rocks, or straw). They were expertly made, some standing as high as three stories and containing more than fifty rooms. The apartment-like rooms were often built around a central courtyard or plaza that contained several kivas.
The Classic Pueblo period
Near the end of the twelfth century the Anasazi abandoned the mesa tops, relocating to crevices in cliffs, where they built fabulous structures like Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling at Mesa Verde. It contained 217 rooms and 23 kivas. The rooms were low and narrow, stacked as high as four stories. The average size of a living room measured 6 feet by 8 feet (2 meters by 2.5 meters) and was only about 5 feet 6 inches (1.5 meters) high.
Life in the cliff dwellings must have been demanding. Farmers had to climb up or down from the crevices in the cliffs to work their fields on the mesas, a task that required some agility. Accidents were apparently common—crutches have been found among Anasazi ruins.
Domestic routine was a central and time-consuming part of Anasazi life—from fetching and boiling water to grinding corn into powder with a mano (a hard smooth stone), to gathering and storing beans and piñon nuts. The kinds of crops grown were limited to what could thrive in the dry climate. The Anasazi grew beans, corn, and squash, but they also continued to hunt and gather, collecting timber and nuts from the surrounding forests and fish, fowl, and berries from the valley floors. By the late 600s the Anasazi were using the bow and arrow for hunting. Before that time they had used the atlatl (pronounced AHT-lah-tuhl; dart thrower). The group also domesticated (tamed) several animals, including dogs and turkeys.
With spears and atlatl and later, their bows and arrows, the men hunted large game. Mule deer, elk, black bear, squirrel, pronghorn (antelope), and birds provided most of their meat. Women gathered sunflower seeds, tansy mustard seeds, rice grass, amaranth (an edible flower), and herbs. They cooked their food by dropping hot stones into baskets lined with pitch to make them waterproof.
Clothing and adornment
In the summer months the Anasazi wore little more than apronlike coverings tied around the waist. In winter they added robes and blankets of turkey feathers or rabbit skin. They obtained cotton in trade (some southern Anasazi also grew it) and wove it to make clothing and blankets, which they then painted or dyed with juices from plants and berries. In addition to cotton, they also wove plant fibers, human hair, and animal hair. Some of the items they made were socks, kilts, shirts, and robes.
Sandals made from plant fibers were an absolute necessity: they protected their feet from the rugged terrain during farming and made it more comfortable to travel by foot in pursuit of wild game and wood for building and burning. Other footwear included moccasins and possibly snowshoes. In winter they kept their feet warm with matted fiber from juniper bark. This fiber was also used for diapers and menstrual pads.
Both sexes wore jewelry, most of it studded with shells and turquoise from faraway places. Necklaces, earrings, armbands, haircombs, and pins were popular. They made these from bone, shell, coral, jet (coal), and slate. Jewelry may have denoted social status. The Classic Pueblo period was a time of tremendous artistic growth. Archaeologists have discovered various decorative items, including feather robes, girdles, belts, and wooden necklaces and earrings.
Baskets and pottery
Anasazi artistic traditions are recognized far and wide. In addition to their architectural prowess, these Native Americans are known for their distinctive basketry and pottery. Some scholars believe that in Anasazi culture men were weavers and women were potters.
Anasazi ceramics fall into several different categories. The earliest pottery, first made around 600 ce , was known as the White Ware style. It was actually gray in color because they did not have kilns (heated enclosures that dry or “fire” the freshly shaped clayware). Pottery fired over open fires will not “take” colors, so it turns gray.
During the Classic period, Anasazi pottery reached its artistic height. The style for which the group is most famous is the Black-on-White style, common in Chaco Canyon and the Mesa Verde region. It consisted of black geometric designs on a white background. Black paint was produced from plant juices and ground-up minerals. The people in Kayenta, Arizona, produced the Red Ware style, also known as “polychrome ware” for its many colors. Designs were very distinctive, with broad lines and solid triangles. Some pottery motifs resembled basket patterns.
The Anasazi were also known for their basketry. They made baskets by twisting plant materials into coils, then winding these coils one layer on top of another. Splints—often dyed red or black with juices from plants and berries—held the layers of the basket together. Many baskets had elaborate, textured designs. They coated baskets with pitch (a black, sticky substance from piñon pine) to waterproof them. Baskets served many purposes from cooking food and carrying water to storage and even burial.
Many people wonder what happened to the Anasazi. Did they migrate to other places or join other tribes? Did they starve, or were they captured or slaughtered? Or did they just vanish one day? This Navajo tale is one of the stories about the Anasazi disappearance.
“Shi cheii, My Grandfather, where did the Anasazi people go?”
“Shi’tsoi, My Grandson, the Anasazi had to leave the land long before Dinéh, the Navajo people, came into the Fourth World.”
“But Grandfather, their villages are still here. Please tell me the story of the people who disappeared.”
“Yes, My Grandson, those ancient ones were blessed in many ways. They were taught by the spirits ways to live productive and holy lives. They lived and enjoyed the blessings. They built great cities, they made beautiful pottery, they had fields of golden corn. They needed nothing beyond that. But they became lazy. This offended the spirits.”
“They chose to live easy lives instead of living by the rules they were taught to maintain holiness.”
“What were those rules?”
“They were to recognize the gods. To pay them homage. To observe ceremonies. To celebrate seasons. To celebrate births and other stages of life. Special healers were appointed and given power to remove illness and restore harmony. But the healers decided to perform this ceremony for everyone, regardless of their health and age. Four times they were warned not to abuse the ceremony. Four times, they chose not to listen.”
“On the fifth day, the great wind rose out of the canyon walls and roared throughout the land. People were lifted out of their homes, out of their villages, out of the canyons and valleys. They were scattered throughout this land never to come together again. The buildings were left standing to remind us for all time what will happen if we choose to forget our history, our stories, and above all, our relation to our mother, the earth.”
Begay, Shonto. Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1995.
Although the Anasazi left behind no written literature, they did produce thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs, and their oral histories no doubt helped to shape today’s Hopi, Zuñi, and Rio Grande Pueblo cultures. Ancient rock art painted or chipped into the sandstone cliffs consists of spirals that may have been used as calendars. The sun strikes them differently at certain times of the year. Several sites, like the Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon, seem to indicate that the people were knowledgeable about astronomy, especially the seasons and the lunar cycles.
Modern Pueblos say some of the spirals depict the people’s travels; other designs show clans and family groups. Drawings of animals and corn plants can also be seen. The ages of these petroglyphs range from 3000 bce on; other groups, such as the early Ute and Navajo peoples, continued the tradition.
Excavations have revealed that the Anasazi may have played games using small disks. They also smoked tubular-shaped pipes and carved flower blossoms from pieces of wood.
Although agriculture changed the Anasazi way of life, the people did not remain in one area for long periods of time. Anasazi tradition is marked by a pattern of settling and then abandoning their communities. Some researchers speculate that the Anasazi stayed in one place until the resources had been depleted, then searched for a new area to live. Others suggest the migrations may have been a result of drought or of conflicts, either external or within the group.
Warlike or peaceful?
It was long thought that the Anasazi were a peaceful people, until Richard Wetherill’s “Cave 7” was rediscovered in 1990. This site had apparently been the scene of a bloody massacre more than 1,500 years ago, a battle that involved stabbing, poison darts, beatings with blunt instruments, scalping, and possibly even torture.
Like their Mexican trading partners, the early Anasazi adopted the practice of flattening the heads of infants. They strapped babies’ heads to hard boards that flattened their naturally soft skulls over time. Some Native American groups considered a flat head attractive.
What is known about Anasazi burial practices has been learned by digging up burial sites. In 1893 Wetherill discovered a number of basketry containers filled with skeletons. The people he discovered (1) had no pottery, (2) used the atlatl (dart thrower) rather than bow and arrow, (3) made baskets of yucca, willow, and squawbrush, (4) were apparently taller than the cliff-dwelling Anasazi, and (5) had flattened skulls. Although Wetherill thought they were a different people, it is now known that these were the early Anasazi.
When Cliff Palace was excavated, archaeologists found that the entire area in front of the settlement had been used as a trash or refuse area. In addition to discovering food fragments, broken tools, and worn-out clothing, archaeologists determined that this section was used as a burial place for the dead, who were wrapped in yucca fiber mats, rabbit fur robes, or turkey feather blankets.
Other sites have revealed bodies buried with items to take to the next world, including new sandals, jewelry, and food. Tools, baskets, weapons, and ceremonial objects have also been found in some graves. The dead were buried fully clothed in a bent position. At some sites the bodies of children have been found buried beneath the floors of homes, whereas the bodies of older people were buried some distance away.
Current tribal issues
Archaeologists have been examining Anasazi relics for more than 100 years and are still coming up with theories to resolve unanswered questions about the culture. In 1998 Discover magazine reported on a controversial theory that some Anasazi may have been cannibals. While excavating at Cowboy Wash in Colorado, archaeologists discovered piles of human bones—bones that they maintain show evidence of the Anasazi people’s cannibalistic activity. It is possible that drought caused starvation, which led a desperate people to survive by consuming human flesh. Another theory suggests that, when several groups were competing for scarce resources, the Anasazi tried to frighten them away by openly engaging in cannibalism.
Studies published in 2007 by geochemist Nathan English indicated the logs the Ancient Puebloans used to build their homes came from areas about 60 miles (100 kilometers) away. English developed a test to determine the exact location where wood originates. The roofs of the twelve large houses in the Chaco Canyon contain about two hundred thousand wooden beams. They rise up to five stories high and contain hundreds of rooms. No one yet knows how these ancient people moved all these logs, some weighing 600 pounds (275 kilograms), such a great distance.
Preservation of archaeological sites is an ongoing concern. At Grand Gulch Primitive Area in Utah, the collection of Anasazi specimens is disappearing as visitors help themselves to souvenirs. Conservation groups hope to have Grand Gulch and other areas designated as protected wilderness areas. Meanwhile, many of the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi are preserved at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado and at Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico, home of Pueblo Bonito, the largest Anasazi pueblo. Some present-day Native American tribes also have concerns about mining companies, and even archaeologists, unearthing artifacts and burials, a practice they consider a violation of their culture.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado contains over six thousand recorded archaeological sites. In 2000 President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation designating the area a national monument. Despite this, more than 85 percent of the monument has been leased for oil and gas development. Although the companies were warned to minimize damage to the site, many people fear that the drilling, pipelines, and construction will damage the already fragile ancient monument.
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Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison