Dr. Steve Lekson Interview
December 4, 2000

Q: Steve, could you explain the kind of lifestyle that the early Cahuilla Indians might have had?

A: OK. The Cahuilla Indians, before the missions came, lived around what is now the Salton Sea, and some of them [lived] over to the lower right reaches of the Colorado and the Delta area. And those people around what became the Salton Sea, were hunters and gatherers who had fairly substantial towns of brush and pole buildings. Archeologically, you wouldn’t see that anymore, of course, because those things disappear very quickly.
They hunted and gathered the resources of the local desert. Their kinfolk that lived closer to the river, did a fair amount of agriculture--corn, bean, squash--made pottery, with paddle and anvil much like the Hohokam people of ancient Southern Arizona. there again though, the buildings were brush and pole structures. Some fairly large, but then again, they wouldn’t last very long. They weren’t intended to last very long. They did the job they were supposed to do.

Q: Why was the Colorado River Delta area particularly viable as a place to live at that time?

A: The Colorado River Delta is sort of like the Nile Delta in North Africa, where it’s constantly being refreshed by the flow of the Colorado. The soils are being refreshed and replenished. And there’s lots of water. It’s a low desert, so there’s a long growing season, lots of sunlight, lots of water. That’s a good combination for crops. And the Native American people that lived there did quite well.

Q: There’s some mention of the Earth as an origin myth, the Seven Caves, where seven original Nahuatl tribes originate. When we look at these early civilizations, is this a common sort of story, an archetype?

A: In the Judeo-Christian traditions, we are placed on this Earth by deities. In a many Native American traditions, and particularly in the Southwest that I know best, people come up out of the Earth. They come up out of a lake or out of a cave or out of a spring. They come up from the Earth. this is, I think, across most of North America, and it’s the origin history of various tribes.
There are Southwestern groups that have caves as origin spots. And more often it’s a hole in the ground, a sipapu, a holy place, that connects with an earlier world.
Chicomoztoc--the Hill of the Seven Caves--it’s my understanding that this is a grander version of coming up out of the Earth, of peoples being born, tribes being born, up out of the Earth.

Q: When was Chaco Canyon first settled? And who were the Anasazi?

A: The first villages at Chaco Canyon show up about 500 A.D. And the people that built those villages are folks that archeologists call Anasazi. Which is a word the archeologists borrowed from the Navajo Native American people. The word Anasazi is one that is used for the ancestors of the modern-day Pueblo people, so there’s a little logical confusion there. So the Anasazi are the ancestors of the ancient, or the modern Pueblo people, and the buildings and the villages, that start about 500 A.D., in Chaco, are the ancestors of the Pueblo people who live today at Hopi, at Zuni, at Acoma, and along the Rio Grande.
The big towns that you see in Chaco really kick in about 1000 A.D. Nine hundred to a thousand, they start building these enormous masonry buildings that are incredibly impressive today, cover a couple of acres and have a thousand rooms and go up five stories tall. The people that lived in Chaco were part of larger group of people, who we call Anasazi, ancestral Pueblo would be as good a name, a better name, perhaps, for those people, and the people of Chaco lived differently than the rest of the folks.
Everybody else was living in single-family houses with five rooms and a pit structure out in front. Perfectly fine house for a family, growing corn, doing whatever you’re doing. People of Chaco lived in these huge buildings: warehouses, palaces, centers of government--whatever they are. There’s Chaco and there is the other ninety-five percent of the Anasazi world. They lived very differently from each other.

Q: There is a lot of speculation about the purpose of a place like Pueblo Bonito. Could you discuss those speculations?

A: Ideas about what Chaco was in the eleventh century and twelfth century are varied. It’s a ceremonial center, it’s a political center it’s an economic center, it’s certainly a place of learning, where people were doing a lot with astronomy. I think it was all of the above. I think it [had] all those kinds of functions, and maybe different people doing different things--or a class of elders doing those sorts of things. The Pueblo people, who remember Chaco, and some of their stories, talk about it in much the same way, and it was a remarkable place. Wonderful stuff happened there, and not so wonderful stuff happened there. [In the end], as a place, [it] wasn’t right for Pueblo people, so they gave it up as a bad experiment, after a while. Moved on and did other things.

Q: The migration of the Mexicas from Aztlán is supposed to have taken place somewhere around 1150 or 1200 or 1250, depending on various accounts. Which account coincides with the time in which Chaco was “abandoned”?

A: People have suggested that Chaco might be Aztlán, and for archeologists, and, I believe, for Pueblo people, that seems unlikely, because Chaco and the other ancient places around it--at Mesa Verde and places like that--are pretty clearly ancestral to the modern Pueblo people who are there in New Mexico, there in Arizona.
But there are stories, from the Pueblo people, and some archeologists, like myself, who think that part of Chaco might have split off and headed a little further south. Pueblos of Acoma, Leguna, Zia, talk about before they became those Pueblos, they were “the people.” The people we call Anasazi people, that the Hopi, for example, call Hisatsinom, the Ancient Ones. And before they gelled as modern Pueblos, people split off. Clans split off, they all just split off, some of them went further south, and they don’t know where they went. Which is a very interesting story. I think some of those people went down to Casas Grandes, in Northern Mexico. And then where did they go from there? I don’t know. Chaco, itself, is still clearly a Pueblo place. Pueblo people still worship there. Pueblo people still maintain their ties with that place, and their historical and their spiritual ties with that place. But it was also a place where strange things happened. Interesting things happened, and we still have a lot to learn.