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Christian E Downum – “Homes of Stone, Place of Dreams: The Ancient People of Flagstaff”

Note: This post refers to an event that took place on Oct 20, 2014.

Northern Arizona Sherds. Photo used by permission of Christian Downum.
Northern Arizona Sherds. Photo used by permission of Christian Downum.

In this presentation I will tell of how ancient hunters first came to the Flagstaff area toward the end of the last Ice Age, then I will describe a much later time when descendants of these hunters began to farm and live in pit house and pueblo villages. My discussion focuses on the unique nature of the Flagstaff environment and the reasons why this area is considered by the modern Hopi to be Pasiwvi (“The Place of Deliberations”). It is here, at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, that the outlines of a more modern Hopi way of life began to take shape. Some Hopis believe that the modern Hopi ethos was first proposed and debated in kivas associated with pueblo communities here. Some pinpoint Elden Pueblo as the exact place where these things happened, others see events unfolding in multiple communities over time.  In any case, the Flagstaff area is essentially a Hopi “holy land” – a place that is filled with sacred meaning and deep history.

In the Flagstaff area, two very different kind of mountains dominate the contemporary landscape and its human history: Sunset Crater and The San Francisco Peaks.

The San Francisco Peaks are a transcendent earthly feature and the sacred spiritual home of the Hopi Katsinam, spiritual guides and helpers of vital importance to the world. The Peaks have been significant to local native people for hundreds of years, if not thousands.  The Peaks are at the heart of the Hopi cultural landscape, and it seems no accident that Hopis would consider this beautiful and awe-inspiring mountain to lie at the heart of their cultural history.

Sunset Crater, the other vitally important landform in the area, is very different from the San Francisco Peaks. A low and rounded pile of volcanic cinders, Sunset Crater would seem to be indistinguishable from several hundred other volcanos in the area. But like the peaks, Sunset Crater is considerably more than just another physical landform. Sunset Crater dramatically changed the world of ancient Flagstaff residents, erupting sometime in the late 1000s and leaving behind about two billion tons of lava, scoria, and cinders. When its eruption was complete, the landscape was permanently altered, destroying much of the local area, but bringing new possibilities in the form of a cinder mulch that enhanced farming.

Much of the late prehistory of the Flagstaff area is uniquely fascinating, and still rather confusing.  Here, the great cultural spheres of Chaco and Hohokam overlapped. Local residents seem to have borrowed from both of those traditions, incorporating elements such as ballcourts, great-house like pueblos, and possibly even great kivas into the fabric of their existence. People also established elaborate long-distance exchange networks, leading many to consider the ancient people of the Flagstaff area as among the most accomplished traders in the entire Southwest. Residents here built large communities with impressive architectural constructions, and sustained a regional farming population that is astounding in such an austere and unpredictable environment.  Yet, for all the successes that unfolded over a period of several centuries, it ultimately did not last.  Beginning in the early 1200s, and unfolding over the next century or so, people left behind their homes in the land of the Peaks, and enacted their history in other places, including the Verde Valley and the Hopi Mesas.

For many centuries, the pueblo people of Flagstaff had their feet planted firmly in the earth that they farmed, but their social connections reached far across the real world and their ideas soared well into the cosmos. Flagstaff was, and is, a place of harsh physical realities but also a place of great beauty and meaning, especially to the Hopi. Few other places in the Southwest have such an enduring connection between remarkable places of the past, and resilient, enduring native people who never strayed far from their original homeland.