Monday, August 22, 2005

The Chaco Whitewash



(Photo of Pueblo Bonito by Elisa Drucker)

I've just returned from a weekend road trip to Chaco Canyon, the ruined center of the Chacoan civilization. Impressive ruins. Fantastic scenery. Complete whitewash by the National Park Service...

Chaco is of interest for many reasons, but for me it is perhaps most interesting as a very powerful example of civilizational collapse. It's a learning laboratory for how commodity redistribution can form political networks, how dependence leads to subservience, the role of ritual and astrology in political formation, and a variety of other fascinating topics. It's also only 8 hours from my house... If you've read Joseph Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies", then you know a fair amount about Chaco. If not, I highly recommend the book.

Chaco seems relevant to today for so many reasons that I made the trip to see it first hand. I even sat down to watch the movie in the park's visitor center. It was a complete whitewash--and I quickly began to realize that the entire NPS treatment of Chaco was a whitewash. The word collapse, or any reference to the whole concept of collapse, is not mentioned in the movie. It is not in any of the museum displays, informational booklets, nowhere. Instead, fluffy explanations about Chaco's ruined status abound: "the Pueblo people's spirituality means that we are like the clouds, always changing. After some time, the Pueblo people decided to move on." No, what actually happened is that the Chaco civilization collapsed because of diminishing marginal returns, environmental stress and an ever-intensifying hierarchy and aristocracy. But we wouldn't want to scare people...

Back up: driving the last 100 miles to Chaco we passed through the Farmington, New Mexico area. This is the center of Southwest oil and gas... isolated trailer shantys, strip mall "puebloesque" development and oil and gas wells and industry pock mark the scrub brush landscape as far as the eye can see. Despite--or in spite of--New Mexico's natural beauty, we're doing a pretty good job making the place ugly. Chaco canyon is a parable for our peak oil times. Too bad it isn't being told...

Fortunately, there was a silver lining to my Chaco trip: I found a book at their bookstore, "The Chaco Meridian" by Stephen H. Lekson. Very interesting discussion of Chaco in a broader historical context, but even more interesting was discussion of the political mechanics embodied by the Chacoan (and, as he asserts, by the Aztec (the ruin in NM, not the Mexican civilization) and Paquime societies). Lekson discusses the competing organizational models at the time of the collapse of Chaco--namely kachina ceremonialism: "The new kachina ceremonialism promised prosperity without government...[n]ew ritual patterns cemented both the southern region and the burgeoning towns within it, without hierarchies or government." (p.159)

Is it possible that as the chaos of the chacoan collapse ensued, the Pueblo people found a rhizome replacement to Chaco's hierarchy? I find this possibility fascinating: Chacoan and Mississipian civilizations tend to be overlooked when studying the processes of state formation and possibilities for modes of political organization. How much do they have to teach us?

If anyone has enough knowledge of kachina to comment on Lekson's theory, please get in touch with me--I'll be doing my own research and (time permitting) have something on the topic here in the near future...

2 comments:

Jason Godesky said...

I'll be visiting Cahokia Oct. 1, so between the two of us we'll have them both covered!

Jason Godesky said...

The Fall of Great Cahokia, a companion piece of sorts, you might say.