Heitman's new book documents Chaco Canyon and its cultural significance

· 6 min read

Heitman’s new book documents Chaco Canyon and its cultural significance

Fajada Butte stands in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Fajada Butte stands in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Carrie Heitman can still remember the moment when — as an undergraduate visiting for the first time — Chaco Culture National Historic Park became the cornerstone of her academic career in anthropology.

“You have to take this 30-mile road off the beaten path to get there, and then you drop into the canyon and there are these really majestic geological features,” Heitman said. “There’s Fajada Butte that stands up in the center of this canyon as it opens up in front of you. When I first went there, in 1997, that was a really powerful experience, to be in this place, surrounded by these absolutely grand and majestic buildings. I fell in love with it.”

Carrie Heitman

That love and respect for the ancient lands where many Indigenous ancestors lived and thrived for 300 years has inspired much of the research Heitman has done as an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Her research projects have included constructing a digital archive of Pueblo artifacts, GPS and lidar mapping of Indigenous architecture and ancient roads, and serving as director and co-principal investigator of the Chaco Research Archive, a vast digital humanities project.

Most recently, she co-edited the new book “The Greater Chaco Landscape: Ancestors, Scholarship and Advocacy” with Ruth Van Dyke, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University in New York.

“The Greater Chaco Landscape” is unique in that it is a published volume but also exists as an open access volume online through the University Press of Colorado. The website also houses extra features related to the book and the work preceding it, such as films with Indigenous people, including members of the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Acoma tribes, speaking about their ancestors and their connection to the landscapes; films and digital resources regarding the technology used to map the ancient architecture and roads; and conference videos about the sites from anthropological perspectives.

Carrie Heitman takes in a vista while visiting Chaco Canyon on a research trip. Click the video to learn more about Heitman's research.

The book’s publication in May is the culmination of eight years of work to bring the perspectives of many stakeholders — including indigenous people, policymakers, researchers and preservationists — together to help navigate conflicts over energy development and, more importantly, inform the public about the history and importance of the Greater Chaco landscape and advocate for its protection.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in Northwest New Mexico and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to ancient great houses built more than 1,000 years ago. In recent decades, land in and around the park has been used for oil and gas drilling, leading to concern among Indigenous communities, and the larger intermountain region there, that energy development was negatively impacting cultural and natural resources.

“It’s a sacred ancestral site for many, if not all, of the Indigenous descendant communities in the region,” Heitman said. “With funding, conversation and dialogue with the National Park Service, we developed a research plan that would help address some of those concerns by trying to get better information into the hands of the land managers who are managing those parcels of land right around Chaco. Our initial goal was to help them understand what we know about these ancestral and ancient places, and what we still don’t yet know.

“We were afraid that in the process of leasing for oil and gas extraction, they will be destroying resources that we haven’t even documented yet.”

Heitman, Van Dyke and Stephen Lekson, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, led the effort to bring groups of people together to discuss the various and sometimes competing interests. The first meeting was held in 2014.

“We quickly realized in those early meetings that everyone needed better information, and that meant we needed to bring multiple research teams together to reconcile discrepancies in our knowledge of locations, because the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the leases for oil and gas development, had imperfect data about the site locations,” Heitman said of the initial effort.

A small group of Native Americans are filmed speaking about their ancestral connection to Chaco Canyon. The films are available as resources to the book.
Courtesy of Carrie Heitman
A small group of Native Americans are filmed speaking about their ancestral connection to Chaco Canyon. The films are available as resources to the book.

After completing some research projects to reconcile and update the mapping and data related to the Chaco sites, the team again brought stakeholders together for a conference where everyone could learn from each other, and the idea for the book was formed.

“We’re bringing together multiple perspectives on a complicated landscape that has both contemporary and ancient issues,” Heitman said. “We’re trying to share those perspectives and the concerns from this diverse range of stakeholders to help protect this landscape moving forward.”

Through chapters by authors from different fields of expertise, the book charts the many dimensions of the Chacoan landscape. It covers the region’s history, the research undertaken to document the great houses and roads, and how Indigenous communities use and connect to its landscapes still today. It is meant to be a resource for cultural and natural preservationists, policymakers and the academic community, but Heitman hopes the book and its accompanying online resources will resonate with many.

“I hope readers have a deeper understanding for the richness of the cultural history of this country and see the importance of protecting it,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s part of who we are as a nation. It’s really important to understand and value the history of the nation going back to early inhabitants. We can be really proud and in awe of what Native people of this continent did and accomplished with their engineering, their artistry, and their rich and complex belief systems.”

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