Before You Go to Mesa Verde

The park ranger reminded me of an ancient alien theorist . . .

Maybe because my friends semi-jokingly insisted that the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were built by them. Or because the striking ambiguity behind their claims.

“We will be descending into an alcove where these ancient people resided,” Is something along the line of how the speech started, “What do you do? Are you a doctor? Carpenter? Teacher, student, farmer? I want you to imagine what you do on a daily basis as you enter this place, because these people were living their lives much the same way we do.”

These rangers were talking about the Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the dwellings throughout what is presently called the Four Corners. It is theorized that these people lived in the area for thousands of years, leaving behind hundreds of cliff dwellings around 1300 C.E. due to social conflict and/or environmental changes.

While I am sure the National Park Service has made many advances in their depiction of this culture since they first bought the land from the Ute’s for pennies per acre in the early 1900’s, some of the actions of NPS employees was cause for apprehension about the institution’s credibility regarding the education of people about these cultures.

First was our encounter with the ticketing agent. I know that these folks probably don’t have as much formal training as a ranger, but that does not excuse a statement as blatantly false as “It’s amazing to think they built these dwellings with no tools.” Now, I get that they probably meant modernized tools, but that is not what they said.

Second, asking a group of people from Western hetero-patriarchal cultures to transpose their lives onto those of the indigenous people that traditionally inhabited that space is disrespectful and wrong. Yes, the people drank water, ate food, had sex and found places for excrement. We know that much because they were, after all, humans. What we do not know is how they acted towards each other, the land, other living beings, and themselves. That being because the “discovery” of these ruins and contact with their creator’s descendants was steeped in settler-colonial mindset, with the backdrop of Manifest Destiny to set the stage. Very much an ask questions later kind of mentality. Which leads me to:

Third, telling an abbreviated version of a Hopi creation story–after self-apologizing for the fact that story is only told in the winter–is still telling the story at the wrong time of year, not to mention that you probably shouldn’t tell it anyways. It might just be me, but that seems like another example of our culture doing whatever it deems best in regards to another culture which it still refuses to listen to or support. That is exactly why people will give more credibility to the idea that aliens created things so long ago. That’s the only way to explain phenomenal creations by indigenous peoples within a white supremacist context. Other cultures couldn’t have come up with something so cool without us, so obviously it was something extra-terrestrial.

We are also viewing these creations through a linear, materialistic worldview. I’ve been told by a Dine friend, and it was even reiterated by one of the rangers, that some indigenous people feel that once a place has been left or abandoned it should remain that way. We are drawn towards preservation of the material thing that is a cliff dwelling, but how much work has the United States Government (or any of us) put into supporting or maintaining the culture of living descendants of those people? In fact the government systematically terminated many of those people then practically stole the land from indigenous people, in order to put their ancestors on a pedestal.


If you make the choice to go to Mesa Verde, or any other place like this, remember that you are walking on sacred land. Land that was stolen and covered in blood by those trying to defend it less then 150 years ago. Remember that their descendants are still alive. The Puebloans did not just dissapear into history in the year 1300 C.E. The Puebloans are Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Kewa, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Santa Ana, Toas, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni, Hopi, Ysleta del Sur, and Piro. And remember that when these people trace back their lineage it is connected with the land the entire time.

Jack Dawkins

is a spoken word artist and writer who has been traveling North America for the last five years. He has worked as a tour manager, ride operator, caretaker, and salmon canner, along with attending some college and many different social/environmental justice summits, conferences, and camps.

       Have you ever been to ancient ruins you felt were improperly represented? How do you decolonize travel?

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