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The guidebooks and maps call the arid region of northern Arizona,
northern New Mexico, and part of Colorado “Indian Country.” There
certainly are many impressive Native American communities in the area,
in ancient ruins and in pueblos where people have lived for
centuries. “Adobe Country” might be more aptly descriptive (and more
general). You’ll find a lot of adobe in both Indian-influenced and
Spanish-influenced architecture. The dominant colors are brown earth
tones, with bright white and turquoise accents against a crystalline
blue sky... along with the ubiquitous ristras, the bunches of
red chilies that adorn windows and walls as good-luck charms.
Built in 1706, the San Filipe de Neri Mission in Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico combines European architecture with American adobe construction.
From the first century to the 14th century, the Anasazi people thrived throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. They built massive stone cities on remote cliffs, and even in the sheer walls of desert canyons. The Navajo referred to them with their term for “alien ancient ones.” That remains the official designation for the vanished builders, as the Anasazi had no written language and left no record of what they called themselves.
Some time around the 14th century they all inexplicably disappeared,
completely abandoning their stone cities. Some archaeologists believe
they were forced to move after they depleted their water supply and
soil, contrary to the popular conception of Indians living spiritual
lives harmoniously with nature. The reason for the demise of the Anasazi
remains a mystery, although the modern Navajo and Hopi claim to be their
descendants. Wupatki National Monument in Arizona has several
reconstructed Anasazi structures.
An even more impressive example of Anasazi construction skills is the
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. The Anasazi built an
entire pueblo into the top of a cliff, even taking advantage of
an overhanging ledge to protect the inhabitants from sun and rain.
In addition to multi-story dwellings (perhaps the first condominium complexes in North America?), Anasazi cliff cities included kivas, circular rooms with an earth floor for religious ceremonies.
The Sinagua of northern Arizona flourished, built impressive pueblos, and mysteriously disappeared at about the same time as the Anasazi. Like the Anasazi, whatever they called themselves is irretrievably lost to history. Because the Sinagua ruins were far from sources of water, the Spanish explorers who discovered them named the vanished builders with a Spanish phrase meaning “without water.” The most impressive Sinagua ruins are in two national monuments in the Verde Valley, 80 kilometers south of Flagstaff.
Explorers and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries assumed that the ruins they found throughout the Southwest were built by the well-known Aztecs of southern Mexico. So American settlers named a Sinagua complex built into a cliff “Montezuma Castle,” after the Aztec ruler who was in power when Hernándo Cortés began the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519.
The Aztecs actually never ventured anywhere near Arizona, and the
“castle” was most likely abandoned 100 years before Montezuma was born.
Montezuma Castle was once a “condominium complex” somewhat like a miniature
version of the Mesa Verde Cliff Palace, with six stories and 45 rooms.
Tuzigoot National Monument is the other major Sinagua ruin in the Verde
Valley. Beginning around 1125, the pueblo grew on a hilltop 37 meters above
the valley. Originally a small cluster of rooms for 50 people, by the 13th
century it was two stories high and had 110 rooms. Tuzigoot means
“crooked water” in the Apache language. But that doesn’t imply a connection
between the Sinagua people and the Apaches. One of the archaeologists
excavating the Tuzigoot ruin in the 1930s decided that Tuzigoot, the name
of a nearby spring, would “sound good” as the name of the Sinagua site.
The modern (or at least more recent) versions of the Anasazi cliff
cities are the pueblos. Two of the best known pueblos are in New Mexico,
the Acoma “Sky City” (left) and the Taos Pueblo (below). The Acoma claim
to have continuously occupied their pueblo since before the 12th
The Taos pueblo preserves the Pueblo Indians’ way of life as it was centuries ago. They have no electricity or running water, and construct their buildings from adobe bricks in the traditional manner.
But it looks like they have adopted at least some concessions to modern building practices, such as the brightly-painted doors, complete with windows and screens.