Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was surrounded by Native American history. Therefore, it was sort of “old hat.” I knew a lot about Native Americans in the area because school presentations and museums were filled with this information, but I wasn’t innately interested. It was so common that it didn’t feel very exotic.
It wasn’t until recently, that I became more intrigued by the Native American story – probably because I don’t know much about the Native American history or culture here in Colorado. In correlation with a magazine article I was writing, I interviewed the director of the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum in Ignacio, Colorado.
I spoke on the phone with Nathan Elk, the museum’s director, and his passion for the center and his approach to Native American studies and culture was truly inspirational.
A few months later, when I was offered the opportunity to attend the annual Native American Cultural Gathering at Chimney Rock National Monument, I jumped at it. The timing was convenient because I was already to be in the area on a trip to Pagosa Springs.
Chimney Rock was designated as a National Monument on September 21, 2012, making it one of the newest in the nation. I didn’t know anything about Chimney Rock until we pulled up to the park entrance on the day of the event.
It gets its name from the two spires that rise up high above the earth, Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, but it is so much more than just a geological wonder. Encompassing 4,726 acres, this monument is home to hundreds of prehistoric sites.
It is believed that the area was home to ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, and today the area has spiritual significance to many different tribes. The Ancestral Puebloans built more than 200 homes and ceremonial structures in the area; some have been excavated and others are still hidden beneath the soil.
While at the monument I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Wendy Sutton, Ph.D., the archaeologist for the Forest Service in the San Juan National Forest – Pagosa District. Her knowledge of the area and the accompanying history is significant.
While the interpretive signs around the park/monument seem to assert confident and certain knowledge about what happened to the ancient people who lived there, Dr. Sutton makes it clear that there are still many unknowns. While theories abound about why the people settled here and why they mysteriously left, nothing is known for sure.
While at the event, I also got to speak with Terry Sloan, the man who organizes and manages the annual Native American Cultural Gathering at Chimney Rock. He believes strongly, due in part to dreams he’s had, that the area was once a school for astronomy.
Sloan is not alone in his belief, as the mountain peaks to the north and the east make it an ideal spot for tracking the movement of the sun and moon.
Whatever the truth may be, the area is spiritual significance to Native Americans today, and each year the gathering is an opportunity for them to reconnect with that spirituality and to allow the public to connect with Native American culture, and gain a better understanding and appreciation for it.
After watching the numerous dances by various tribes during the gathering, I walked away with more respect and admiration for the region’s native people; their connection with the land and their connection with the world around them.
The beauty of the dances reminded me that all cultures express themselves through movement. My own multiple heritages, Irish, Scottish and Korean, each have dance at their cultural core.
What I took away from my day at the Native American Cultural Gathering at Chimney Rock is that human beings really aren’t all that different from one another. And we do not realize this until we have a chance to explore a culture that, at first, may seem very different from our own.
See more photos from our day at the Native American Cultural Gathering here.
Learn more about ChimneyRockCo.org
This trip sponsored in part by Visit Pagosa Springs.