Making Our Marks
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD People from Long Before This Was New Mexico Tell Us They Were Here
Dear Nonnie Friend,
So the long road trip nears its end, because at some point, no matter how much fun it’s been, Hoosen and I look at each other and decide we’re traveled out. We’re not natural nomads: We like home, too.
Since we’re in Albuquerque as I write, I guess we better take that left turn.
Laing, left turn? What left turn?
Ooh, a chance to educate my readers on important matters in American history, like popular culture around roads! 😂 That left turn reference is to Route 66, the old two-lane cross-country road that migrating and holidaying Americans long took from Chicago to Los Angeles. Route 66 is immortalized in song, T-shirts, and the movie Cars.
Hoosen and I have been more or less following Route 66, but be warned that most of it is now buried under freeway. But, since we last came this way in the 90s, there's been a concerted effort to parlay Route 66 nostalgia into profit and jobs, as I'll write about soon,
So. Turning left at Albuquerque was Bugs Bunny’s running gag about an infamous spot on Route 66, where it was easy to take a wrong turn. To be clear, Albuquerque is not pronounced “Al boo koi key”.
Selling Out to the Archaeologists
I’ve never been keen on archeologists’ boring pot fragments, but I’ll admit that I found myself much more interested in pre-history in these last few days in the Southwest than I ever thought possible. Blame the Grand Canyon: Once I found out people stories connected with it, well, it became more than a rather pretty big hole in the ground. Imagine Spanish soldiers standing on the edge of the chasm, their invasion plans derailed, and saying “Well, crap”. That was worth the price of admission alone.
And then there was the other canyon we visited in Arizona. It's not nearly as big, but still breathtaking, and it has a really compelling people story to it (a story coming soon to NBH).
But today’s small adventure, at Petroglyph National Monument, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, is my first post on an unaccustomed dabble in a past without documents.
In my own field, early American (aka colonial) history, as one wag has noted, the secondary sources (books and articles) threaten to outnumber the primary sources (documents from the time).
But even early American historians have more helpful material to work with than do archaeologists studying the site we visited today. They have to try to piece together what, exactly, thousands of picture symbols that long-ago people chiseled onto volcanic boulders are trying to say.
Of course, when I think of archaeologists in situations like this, I think of historians using weasel words (possibly, certainly, might have, etc) when we're kind of guessing. Surely, the guessing is doubly so for my learned colleagues who grovel in the dirt?
To me, the most promising thing about these Albuquerque petroglyphs (drawings on rocks) is that I figured they had to be a sort of writing. Surely, they’re messages from thousands of years ago?
Some are maybe 3,000 years old. But most are believed to date back 400 to 700 years. Still, they all come from before contact with the Spanish, right? Actually, nope, because some of the images were made by Spanish settlers and their descendants: They liked to draw crosses and sheep brands, indicating their joint concerns for God and, um, sheep
But ignore my historian ramblings. Over to the experts at the National Parks Service, which announces on its web page:
“These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.”
Cue the mystical spiritual flutey music that accompanies any reference to American Indians' beliefs, chastening us with its reminder that Indigenous peoples worldwide have special mysticism that eludes the rest of us! Although, interestingly, this status seems to have also been conferred on Europeans (Spanish) in this case.
Before my wokier readers get the vapors:
Hey, I can say that! I’m an indigenous person.
There will now be a short pause while people cancel me. Fear not, I'm not a Pretendian. And the first person to utter “Karen” gets a swift Scottish kick in the teeth.
See? There's your evidence! I'm an indigenous Scot! You want Celtic mysticism? You bet! We have tons of it! And anytime the nebulous word “Celtic” is mentioned in America, someone gets a faraway look, and I start hearing possibly imaginary Celtic music (unless I'm hearing Hoosen practicing, which is more likely). Drives me bonkers, honestly. The exaggerated candle-lighting reverence for all things Celtic, not Hoosen practicing. Just saying.
Anyway. Hold that thought, because it matters more than you think. Let's chat about the Albuquerque petroglyphs. Before we encountered them in person, Hoosen and I started, as one always should whenever possible at federal government-run historic sites in the US, with the National Parks Service Visitor Center.
On this occasion, however, the National Visitor Center didn’t sound at all promising, judging from the Petroglyph National Monument web site:
There are NO petroglyph viewing trails, there is not a museum, and there are no exhibits at the information center.
And only composting loos without soap, too.
The trails, it turns out, are elsewhere, in three places, none of them the Visitor Center.
So why go to the Visitor Center at all? Well, for the gift shop, because since when does Annette Laing pass up a gift shop? Never, that’s when. And visiting the Center also led me to learn a thing or two, and think thoughts about not only the site, but the awkward ways in which non-Native scholars as well as the public often approach American Indian history.
It was, sadly, true that there wasn’t a museum inside the Center. There was only a poster display, including this:
Southwest Indian people believe these petroglyphs are as old as time. Although the meaning and purpose of petroglyphs vary among Native tribes (Pueblo, Navajo, Apache and others), each has its own stories about this landscape and how it was created. There is general agreement that the relationship between the images and the land represents a place of power, a place of respect, a place of healing, for all who visit this landscape.
I absolutely believe the middle sentence. But the first and last sentences (which I've bolded) trouble me. I really wish I could be content with statements of belief like this, and with believing that art and stories can be as old as time (Suddenly thinking of the late Angela Lansbury singing in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, sorry).
Yes, I really do wish I could keep my mouth shut and nod respectfully with an awed look across my face when I'm told about others’ beliefs, like so many Americans do. Being more polite would certainly get me invited to more parties. And I do have my spiritual side. As a person, I’m not entirely irreligious (as a friend discovered, with some amazement, when he proclaimed his gospel of militant atheism, and I didn't rush to agree).
But I can't stop thinking, can't shut up, and that's why you're here, joining this historian in tourist mode, isn't it? You never know what shocking thingy I might say.
I won't disappoint. My inner historian reads “petroglyphs are as old as time” and winces audibly. American Indians have a history, a journey of change over time, or else they would be unique among the human race in lacking one. And that, frankly, doesn't seem likely, does it? And pretending that it must be so is bloody condescending.
I’m so glad we visited the Visitor Center, for a couple of other reasons beyond the joys of the gift shop, and the poster. For one thing, we met a nice American man who was watching the orientation film with us, and his pet bird, which he carries in that backpack in the photo below. The birdie’s name is Caraid, which his owner told us means “friend” in Scottish Gaelic.
Sadly, like the vast, vast majority of Scots, I don’t speak Gaelic. Look, there are more Scots today who speak Chinese than speak Gaelic. Caraid the Bird speaks, but only in English, and only sexist things like “Hello, sweetie” and wolf whistles, not mystical Gaelic sayings. He is a very spoiled pet: His backpack is basically his little birdie RV, and it even has a slide in which he sleeps. So I forgive his cultural appropriation. 😂
Second reason I’m glad we didn’t skip the Visitor Center: The orientation video about the Petroglyph National Monument is (mostly) great. True, it starts out with mystical flutey music, so I wasn’t expecting it to be good. But I learned from the movie that I don’t have to settle for accepting a simple statement of belief about the petroglyphs. Because the video, without meaning to, revealed even more about what the wall poster I quoted above hints at: Modern-day local Indians don’t agree on what the petroglyphs mean. And that's important. Bear with me here.
The film hooked me with this: The Pueblo Indian name for the volcanic escarpment on which the petroglyph boulders rest translates as “The place people talk about.”
That caught my attention. That name doesn’t suggest silent, unquestioning, mystical reverence, but curiosity and discussion. What, I wondered, did the people talk about? Like, maybe, “Ooh, look at all the drawings on these boulders! I wonder what they mean?”
Okay, that’s a wild guess. Sorry. Can’t help myself.
There’s lots of evidence that many people moved to this area a thousand years ago, and became the ancestors of the people known today as Pueblo Indians. These settlers’ descendants came to believe that both the drawings—and they themselves— had been produced by the line of volcanoes that lie above modern Albuquerque.
But that belief, the movie gently suggests, doesn't recognize the people, not volcanoes, who left the petroglyphs (including crosses and drawings of sheep brands drawn by Spanish settlers and their descendants). It doesn't tell us what they meant by them. All the evidence says they existed. So let's proceed from the evidence that these people, not the volcanoes, were the artists.
Look, I get that people crave spiritual places. I just don't find that craving mystical. It's normal.
That's why, watching the film, I was touched by the words of local Pueblo people whom the filmmakers interviewed as they climbed among the black volcanic boulders. One man said that this place is a “blessing.” “It’s like our land title,” he said, a powerful verification of American Indians’ belonging to this land, and it belonging to them, something you would think they shouldn't have to prove.
But here we are, in an age when we're happy to hold fakey, patronizing land acknowledgement ceremonies honoring Indigenous people, but very reluctant to actually give them back the land. Indian Nations are now leading a mass land conservation movement, and if you ask me, after touring so much environmental wreckage in this great land, we'll all be better off if they take charge. But I digress.
Indigenous peoples bring moral authority to discussions of the environment, even without us playing flutey music whenever they're mentioned. But what does being indigenous mean?
Even the Smithsonian American Indian Museum goes along with traditional Indian beliefs that they have always been here But we can't agree that being Indigenous requires having always been present. For anthropologists and other evidence-based scholars, the evidence from Olduvai Gorge is emphatic: We all began in Africa. Here's my take: Thousands of years, tens of thousands of years, of being in a place, surely qualifies people as indigenous, more than enough to confer belonging.
Another Pueblo man interviewed at the site noticed that there were grinding stones here, used to make traditional medicines and grind corn, as they often still are. Movingly, he spoke of how this common tool made him feel connected to the past, to his ancestors. We’re losing that sense of connection in the modern world, he suggested, and I say amen to that.
But, to repeat, the diverse modern meanings attached to this place (and as we’ll see, there’s more than one) are not the meanings that those who drew the pictures intended. And these people did exist. So what did they want to say?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Non-Boring History to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.