Tag Archives: Native American sites

Last Good Hike

Today was one of my last hiking days and it was a good one. A friend decided to show off a Jacumba resident’s straw bale hauls – one of my favorite towns up the grade to the west of Imperial County. Staying at the haus over the weekend was a couple who run a farm on a Pima Arizona reservation. They showed us around the property – completely off the grid and 5 structures that serve as the main house, generator room, guest house, outhouse, and amphitheater and then explained their own new product. They are bring the ancient beans (bahf) used by the Huhukam back to the American diet. I’m trying the delicious sounding wheat berry salad for dinner tonight.


Ramona Farms has been working with Wholefoods since March on a plan to go regional. Very exciting for them and a timely conversation since the museum is doing an exhibit on Native American Foodways in May 2014.

Then we were off to Meyers Valley for a fantastically leisurely hike over the impressive boulders of the Jacumba wilderness. Don’t you just love the thrill of hanging from two fingers and reaching for the next hold. Riveting.


This, of course, all on the back of a weekend spent getting acquainted with the Laguna Moutains in Cleveland National Forest, which seems to me one of the few places in the world you can look down from an alpine forest onto a desert that I sometimes call home.



Above: A meadow valley by the currently dry Big Laguna Lake, tons of ceramic scatter by the edges… wouldn’t you want that view as you prepared tonight’s meal? Incredible. And home of my very good friends, the Lucas’, the last members of the Kwaaymii band of Kumeyaay. After the last two years of talking about Tom Lucas’ contribution to preserving the family culture, it felt like a little bit of a pilgrimage to actually see what we’ve been discussing.


Last night I attended a discussion on the yonis that dot our desert. Yonis are naturally occurring rock formations recognized as fertility symbols – gives new meaning to the term “mother earth”. When you see one, you’ll know. What I didn’t know is that there is some controversy over whether or not they are traditionally significant, despite their current celebrity.

“How can archaeologist imbue cultural significance on a symbol when there is no oral history to back it up?” asked the archaeologist. A fantastic point. No matter how long you stare at the crevices and chips and flakes of a rock, it is not going to share its secrets – or lack their of. We are dealing with 10,000 years of history and just as many years of erosion. And anyway, it’s women’s business. You don’t need to know.

Women’s business. I’ve thought a lot about women’s business and men’s business over the last few years. The sanctity of women’s business. The difference between a girl and a woman, the high regard for a mother.  Do you discuss these things with your sons? Would you ever tell a stranger? Do you explain these things, or are they just present?

The lecturer told this story: A local tribe charged the last heir with carrying on the family knowledge. They taught him everything and he in turn taught it to his children. His daughter is attributed to have said that if yonis were culturally significant, he would have told her. But, the group wondered, would the aunties have shared women’s business with the young man during his teaching? No one in the room was qualified to answer. The lecturer also told of a woman in the southern tribes in Mexico who described a fertility ceremony involving yonis, but she had never seen it done. No one else would talk to the lecturer regarding these matters. Research stalled. It would take longer than the lecturer had to give to even have a prayer of opening up the conversation.

All Night Wake

“To grieve and pay homage for the disruption of our Ancestral Burial Sites”.

The Kumeyaay tribes hosted an all night wake in the shadow of the rock formation I’ve alternately heard called the spoke wheel or the medicine wheel.

I cannot adequately put the event into words. My group took the evening hours to absorb the cultural event around us as best we could. We asked people to describe the dancing and the peon games and the spiritual meaning of the event – do we meditate, pray, ponder the life of the deceased? This was a rare opportunity for us and I wanted to make sure the staff was present in truest sense of the word, and able to really appreciate what was happening around us.

In the twilight hours things grew quiet so we took the opportunity to do some star gazing. The Milky Way ran brillant and nebulous across the sky and before we knew it, the dark faded to early morning.

As the attendees started to wake from their nighttime revere, I asked an elder the meaning of the spoke wheel. This adequately passed the time until sunrise when the dancing would resume. He recounted a long story for us which I have not yet asked permission to pass on so I cannot recount it here, but it stole our hearts.

As the first rays of sun kissed the mountain ranges surrounding us and turned everything into pale pinks and soft yellows, the attendees who had made it through the night were invited to participate in the last dance. I do not know the words that were spoken, but the dancing when on long enough that even the beginners had time to acclimate to the movements, and by the end we moved as one.

“This night has bonded us”, the elder had finished his story. “We are all in this together.”


Forensic Dogs

I was asked to tell a story and in the next breath warned that “not everybody would be happy if you told it”. We both agreed (separately) that since I’d had the privilege of seeing something not everyone gets to see, it’s better that it’s used to build awareness.

The museum staff was invited to go out to the field today to watch forensic dogs survey the areas that will be impacted and developed for the Ocotillo Wind Project.

Our guide strongly believes in the use of forensic dogs in modern archeology. If she had her way, they’d be used on every build site.

Why wouldn’t you use them, our guide asked, they help with 3 key things:

  1. Helps Native American remains to be treated with dignity as law requires.
  2. Actively involves Native Americans in the telling of their history.
  3. Gives archaeology a new perspective. In some cases, archeologists are running tests to prove what the tribes have known for generations. If Native Americans were involved in the process, there would be much less theoretical guessing and much more accuracy in building our nation’s history.

The dogs alerted at two locations over the 4 hour period we were there. We were standing in the shadow of the Coyote Mountains, a sacred site that is part of the creation story.

A handler gets an alert. The remains are flagged and a second dog is brought in to see if they give the same alert.

Documenting the alert. This site will be carefully monitored during construction.

A practical woman who knows her audience, she pointed out that not only the dogs helping human remains be treated with respect, it’s cost effective. For a minimal cost for 3 days of work, the contractor could save themselves the time and cost of dealing with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA). If included in the early surveys, the dogs could notify engineers of locations to avoid during design. They should be a standard tool in site surveys. Get the word out!

We worked till sunset and the dogs will resume at 5am tomorrow. They can only work when the ground temperature is below 100 degrees and these days that happens early. I was reminded that this sunset could be one of the last without wind turbines in view.

Archaeology Lesson – Lake Cahuilla

You can’t tell the story if you don’t know it. Today we had a bit of staff training to see the things we often talk about at the museum.

The people in this area used to live on the banks of a great lake, sustained by the Colorado River periodically overrunning its banks and gushing into the below sea-level valley.

Today, all that is left of the lake is the Salton Sea, a salt-concentrated shadow of it’s former glory. Originally about 2-3 times larger, the lake provided food and shelter for the Valley’s earliest inhabitants. The current “sea” was actually formed by a dam break in 1905 that allowed the Colorado River to re-flooded the lake bed.

The evidence of people’s lives around Lake Cahuilla is evident almost every where you look. From Ocotillo, we drove old route 80, following the route of the 1926 concrete highway, till we turned up Huff Road, passing rich irrigation-fed farmland. Our guide pointed out known sites: the 1820 Mexican Fort near New River, which would have been a reliable water source and has pot sherds near it, the 1940 L electric Line which has several well marked sites up and down it’s length, and the hundreds of house rings just outside the marked Navy Impact Area, and across from a 50m stone ring whose purpose evades living memory. Site after site was pointed out as we approached our ultimate goal at the circa 1690 shore line of Lake Cahuilla.

The Lake evaporated almost 5 feet every year and was irregularly filled by the river waters. You can see the settlements follow the shoreline up and down the bank. Fish traps, which were built in the shallows, are clearly built at 5 feet intervals as the water receded.

House ring at Lake Cahuilla from circa 1690 (top of image). Notice how sandstones are propped to support the walls, marking it as a man-made feature. The white fishbones at the forefront mark the house entrance.

While monitoring these sites, we recorded two new key artifacts (which of course we noted and returned to their proper place):

This beauty had been missed on other walk-throughs. It is possibly a fish weight (which I know has to do with fishing, but I can’t help you beyond that).

and a sandstone bead which had surfaced in the rains and looks exactly like the size and shape of a cheerio. Which was funny, and cool.

We also saw the water line of the ancient lake, nestled up against the Fish Creek Mountains. That Lake hasn’t existed for a loOOooooong time, but it still leaves it’s mark.



Other great finds of the day:

Desert horned lizard.

Iguana taking shelter under a creosote bush, one of the oldest plants on earth..

and (no pictures)
a loggerhead shrike,
2 night hawks,
and 2 low fly-bys by F-18’s.

Archeologists – The Real Deal

Betsy Carlson, author of Talking Taino.

I can’t get over my Indiana Jones archeologist fever. Who do you know that has met real life archeologists?! I feel so privileged! But I also think I’m driving the team mad.

Unlike the guys, who participated in the reality of digging 1 foot holes straight down for 7 hours a day and craning over screens trying to distinguish dirt and rocks from artifacts the same color as dirt and rocks, I get to just sit back and watch the magic happen.

So the group comes back from the day, covered in dirt, and set about cataloging and note taking, and then have to deal with me sticking my nose over their shoulders asking what they’re doing and demanding that tomorrow they find an effigy. 3.5mm beads just weren’t exciting enough for me.

“Always so unsatisfied! People always want more!” they told me.

“That’s what keep you digging,” I countered.

It’s like a librarian/archivists/nerdy person’s dream to live with walking encyclopedias. I made the DECR (Department of Environment and Coastal Resources) volunteer name all the shells I pick up off the beach. I’d never seen an Atlantic wood-louse shell before and he was able to anme it in the common name AND Latin. Crazy.

I also learned that for native peoples conch was the hardest material. So to release the conch meat from it’s shell, they would use the pointed cone from a small conch to break the foot of the animal. They knew exactly where to hit it to release the conch meat. The one pictured here with the hole is a 1,000 year old conch shell.

The fun didn’t stop there. You should have seen my eyes bug out when I saw the two toned 1,000 year old pottery. “But it’s glazed! And colored! They could do that?”

I was given the “of course these people had a highly developed culture” look.

Yes, of course, I should know better. I’ve visited some of the best museums in the world, but I still find it difficult to imagine the lives of pre-historic people. Most of the artifacts we found were dirt colored. This particular piece of pottery was large and beautiful, and indicative of a higher quality of life than the contrasting worn down shells and fish bones. Changes your whole thought process of these people’s lives.

Also on this site were artifacts from mid 1700 to the mid 1800’s. This was much more familiar territory. Still, I learned a lot about the construction of bottles and platters – ginger bottles, blown glass bottles, different china patterns – the familiar white and blue patterns of the 1770’s and more colorful, but also more drab, brown and yellow of the 1800’s.

Essentially, we were looking at the results of various kitchen accidents. You can imagine the cook: “Oops, broke the plate/bottle/vase, mistress is not going to be pleased.” And throw it on the trash pile.

Going through these people’s trash is really just a diagnostic measure. No longer useless, these items have been waiting around all this time just to tell us when their owners lived here.

Since we are just doing a survey of the site, we’ll be putting the objects back where we dug them up, keeping only the information and some select pieces. This way the historians get the history, but the context stays intact for the next archeology team who enter the site. They’ll also be able to take our notes and identify areas already investigated by the bits on the ground. Or they’ll know that the site has been tampered with if things aren’t where we left them.

It’s really interesting to get an overview of the whole archeological process. You should hear my tours these days! I don’t have a problem keeping people’s attention since now I have all these great stories – governor’s visits, Fort George stories, Lucayan artifacts, new research on shipwrecks, and now a possible location of the fabled Cork Tree Plantation. I’m loving how all these projects we do point to the rich histories of the islands. The locals who attended our event last night were astounded that just a few feet under their feet are all this evidence of the people before us. I guess that’s the magic of archeology.

Neal and I talk a lot about the next generation of museums. My vote is for replicating this type of hands on learning. It’s infectious!