Saturday, November 28, 2009



Picture by Wayne Anderson
Nestled into the limestone cliffs in Arizona is Montezuma Castle, one of the best-preserved cliff ruins in the country.


        VERDE VALLEY, Ariz. - It seemed that Sedona, Ariz., had received too much advance publicity when we visited earlier this year. The hype - "a mesmerizing experience," "breathtaking monoliths," "spectacular scenery," "the most beautiful setting in America," "a once in a lifetime experience" - made it sound like an instant Venture Bound story, but it was hard to get a handle on what to say about it.
We did take a pleasant guided walking tour of nearby Red Rock State Park, walked along the rushing waters of Oak Creek and visited two excellent art shops.
        We found our story south of Sedona at Montezuma Well and Montezuma Castle. Leaving Interstate 17, we followed another car five miles over a winding dusty road, always managing to stay far enough behind so we could see the road, but not far enough to keep our rental car from becoming coated with a thick layer of dust.
        Sitting in the Upper Sonoran Desert, Montezuma Well is 368 feet across in an ancient cavern fed by subterranean springs of 76-degree water year-round. A side cave in the limestone cliffs takes the water down the hill to form Beaver Creek. The experts claim the well has been producing an unvarying 1½ million gallons of water a day since prehistoric times, but even using dye and divers, they have not been able to figure out where the water is coming from.
        In any case, this became the center of a settlement for Sinagua Indians from 900 to 1400 A.D. The name is Spanish for "without water" - sin agua. Despite their name, the tribe used stone tools to dig a mile-long canal from the creek to the flatlands to irrigate their corn, squash, beans and cotton.
        It took us a while to spot the cliff houses underneath the rim of the cavern because they were the same color as the surrounding limestone. Entry to these houses would have been by wooden ladders that could be pulled down to prevent interlopers. Wayne took a walk on a steep path leading down into the cavern, where there were some pit houses being restored. Debris on the ridge of the cavern and surrounding hilltops was the remains of pueblos, from one-room houses to community houses of as many as 50 rooms.

        About 12 miles farther south, we arrived at Montezuma Castle National Monument. After taking in the visitor’s center, we stepped out into the open space in front of the cliff dwelling and found ourselves properly impressed. Nestled into the limestone cliffs 200 feet above the flood plain of Beaver Creek was one of the best-preserved cliff ruins in the United States. There stood the five-story, 20-room high-rise apartment where Sinagua Indians had lived for some 300 years.
        Montezuma had nothing to do with the area, but early settlers assumed the imposing dwellings were connected to the famous Aztec emperor. We learned at the visitor’s center that the area had been abandoned at least 100 years before Montezuma was born.
        The area would have supported about 200 people. Archaeologists have excavated mounds of broken pottery, worn-out tools and animal bones that have allowed them to reconstruct the Sinagua lifestyle.
Life evidently was good here for 300 years with good crops, fishing, and animals to hunt. Then, sometime in the 1400s, the villages began to be deserted. Why? No one knows for sure, but theories include disease, drought, overpopulation, invasion, breakdown of the trade networks or perhaps intergroup strife.
The Hopi Indians, who consider the Sinagua their ancestors, have a legend that might provide a clue. In a brochure by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Fred Lomayesva of the Hopi Snow Clan notes: "It happened a long time ago. … Life became too easy and the people became complacent. It was as though they had forgotten who they were and how they should live. The village was in a state of shameless corruption. One day, the village began to shake and the houses caved in. Water gushed in and filled the hole where the village once stood. Suddenly, a great serpent rose up out of the water in anger at what the people had become. Upon seeing the serpent, everyone became very scared and ran away to the north and east, never to return."
        About a million people a year visit the area, and although there are no motels or camping facilities in the immediate area, Camp Verde is nearby, and Sedona is 30 miles away.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tour to Southeast Alaska

Tour to southeast Alaska provided an occasion for learning

        Several years ago, my wife, Carla and I took a 2,000-mile cruise on a ferry up the inside passage of southeast Alaska with an Elderhostel group. Usually I read books about an adventure before I go, but in this case, I didn’t do any studying of the area or the people before we left. I started with few expectations. There are advantages both ways. If you know more, you get the nuances of things; if you know less, you’re surprised more often. My lack of preparation meant that every speaker was giving me new information and every town we walked through was a novel experience.
        I knew a fair amount about the plains Indians, but nothing about the Tlingit who are among the most culturally advanced of the tribes. Their art work and social system were very sophisticated.

        The Tlingit Indians were my most fascinating find. Before Europeans came, they controlled most of what is now southeast Alaska. Because of the ease of finding food - when the tide went out, their table was set - they had free time to develop a sophisticated culture with a high level of art. Other foods were also readily available, and seal and game were close seconds salmon in their diets. Their good diet resulted in a tall, healthy people who were feared warriors. The Tlingit controlled the trading in an area that extended south to Oregon, north and inland.
        One of our instructors, Terry, a Tlingit woman was very enthusiastic about the beauty of the life of the Tlingit Indians and was very involved in showing their culture to us.
They also had beliefs that made them susceptible to Christian missionaries. The missionaries saw much of the culture as pagan and, without understanding what it meant to the Tlingits, set out to destroy it. For example, totem poles serve a variety of purposes for the Tlingits, none of them religious, but missionaries saw them as idols, so their manufacture was forbidden. It didn’t help the culture’s survival that 80 percent of the Tlingit died from smallpox and measles introduced by traders.

        Our instructors Terri, was rediscovering the native art forms. She gathered bark and roots to make baskets and wool to weave intricate Chilkat blankets, which can take a year of full-time work to make.
Although the results were great, I wouldn’t have had the patience to dig up a 50-foot root and split it lengthwise into the tiny strands she then wove into waterproof baskets. They are also known for the quality of their wood carvings, especially ceremonial masks. The prices on the baskets and blankets along with carvings such as masks and totem poles are so high that only rich patrons and museums can afford them. A totem pole is $1,000 per foot if done by an ordinary artist, $2,000 if done by a well-known artist.

        Ninety percent of southeast Alaska is made up of Tongass National Forest, and not much land is available for private residences. As a result, the price of a home is high. Places that looked little better than shacks cost $160,000. We didn’t see housing in any of the towns that looked upscale to us. There is an old-fashioned, rough-and-ready appearance to the towns, as if they were newly built, temporary dwellings for people who expected to move before long.
        The village of Wrangle didn’t even look worthy of being a spot in history. The only thing that gave it any class was the totem poles and native habitats. Despite the shoddy nature of the towns, the people who live there love it. It’s never too hot or cold; there are still berries, lots of fish and shellfish, 10,000 islands, and lots of water around you and often coming down on top of you. When I do relaxation exercises with clients and ask them to imagine a comfortable place, they pick a water scene. Southeast Alaskans can just open their eyes - the relaxing scene is there in front of them.

        Russians exploited the area for sea otter the skins of which brought an unbelievable high price. When they had killed off most of the otter they sold us the “useless” land. While they fought with the Tlingits it was a Spanish trading ship that decimated the Indians by unknowingly bringing in the small pox and measles that killed a majority of the locals whole villages at a time. This made them lose faith in their shaman’s who didn’t know how to treat these Old World diseases and most of the Tlingits were easily converted to Orthodox Christianity.
        After the United States got the land, the Tlingit put up a totem pole ridiculing Abraham Lincoln because he made them give up their slaves and gave them nothing in return.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mystery of Cahokia Mounds

Illinois’ Cahokia Mounds still hold their mysteries

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. – In the Summer of 2005 my wife, Carla and I made our second visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of the largest and most advanced prehistoric Indian civilization north of Mexico. Located just outside of St. Louis in Illinois near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the 2,200-acre site has been designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site, putting it in an elite group that includes the Egyptian Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.
         The afternoon walking tour of the mounds was canceled because of the heat that day, but the magnificent visitors’ center was cool and comfortable.
         We started our visit with a 20-minute movie that gives as much of the history of the site that is known. It left us with the unanswered question of how a series of highly successful communities that had flourished for several hundred years and included at times 20,000 inhabitants could have disappeared around A.D.1400.
         In the movie, large paintings captured the lifestyle of the people and gave us the background information we needed to appreciate the work that went into constructing the 65 mounds that remain of the original 120 in the surrounding area. The Indians moved more than 50-million cubic feet of earth to build the original mounds.
         At the movies’ end, the curtain went slowly up, showing us a village with Native Americans going about their daily business. The small single-family houses were covered with mats and the roofs with bundles of prairie grass. We walked through the village, which had text explaining what each of the individuals was doing.
          The mannequins are unusually well done, and their naturalness gives an air of reality to the village. One man is chipping arrowheads, another is gutting a deer, women are preparing food, and some men are sitting in a sweat hut as a young boy prepares the hot stones, while other children are playing. It is a successful reconstruction of how a moment of time would have looked to these long-vanished people.
There are three kinds of mounds. The large ones with flat tops held ceremonial buildings or the homes of important people. The other two, with conical or ridged tops, marked important locations or burial sites.
The one that had most emotional impact for me was mound 72. This mound had the bodies of nearly 300 people, mostly young women who had been sacrificed so they could serve a male leader in the next life. That he was considered important was shown by the 20,000 marine shell beads that had been imported from the coast 800 miles away to provide a bed for him.
         The guided tour, which we had taken on a previous visit, takes visitors to Monks Mound, on top of which the principal ruler lived. With a base of 14 acres and 100 feet tall, it is the largest prehistoric earth construction in the Americas. To make the mound, the natives dug 22-million cubic feet of earth, put it into baskets and carried it on their backs up the slope before dropping it. A two-level staircase lets the visitor view the area from the top.
         Archaeologists have excavated evidence of five Woodhenges, or circular sun calendars made of red cedar posts, probably used to mark the changing seasons and important ceremonies related to the raising of crops such as corn, squash and pumpkin. Cahokia has sometimes been called "the City of the Sun" because of the calendars and the sun symbols on some of the recovered artifacts.
In the visitors center we were able to immerse ourselves in the history of the area through a range of presentations. A film on archeology explains the procedures that were used for working this area, and several simulations of digs demonstrate the procedures. A visit is like taking a short course in American prehistory.
The displays include topics such as microscopic botanical analysis, bone analysis, excavating a mound, different kinds of arrowheads, the foods of the people, Mississippian culture games and the impact of agriculture.
         Visitors with a particularly strong interest in how a lost culture is rediscovered will enjoy visiting one of the three excavations that are in progress. Two of them involve work on the wooden walls that defended the community, and the third is the excavation of a ceremonial complex.
There are dozens of other mounds throughout the eastern United States, but this is the major site from which many of the others were ruled. The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and is only closed on a few special holidays. There is no charge, and experts are available to discuss the different aspects of the displays. For more information, visit the Web site at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Forth Smith museum includes a multitude of Indians

Fort Smith includes a multitude of Indians

Belle Starr's saddle is on display at the Fort Smith Museum of History

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Just when we thought we had seen it all, we would turn a corner and find something else to admire or to teach us about our country’s history.
         Carla, my wife and fellow history buff, and I had stopped at the Fort Smith Museum of History in Arkansas, another of those museums resembling a giant attic with tools, weapons and household items from each major period of the city’s history. A collection of early tools was especially good.
         The exhibits cover western Arkansas history from the early American Indian settlements to the present. Besides the American Indian stone tools and weapons, there is a small statue from the Mayan culture that must have come to this area through trading.
         American Indians were well-established in the area, and the exhibits pay attention to the problems of removing them from what they saw as their home territory. The white settlers called it “voluntary” removal.
The whole process was complicated by the flood of American Indians from the southeastern United States. The tribes involved were Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. Brought into western Arkansas over the Trail of Tears in 1820, these tribes were then pushed into what is now Oklahoma.
Initially Fort Smith served as a supply depot for American Indians, but in 1824 the Army moved out and trading posts and farmers moved in. The soil was rich — “too rich for Indians” in some people’s minds.
The area also became a center for illegal whiskey peddling. Because of jurisdictional problems, lawbreakers went into Indian Territory, where they would be beyond the reach of U.S. and state courts.
         To help solve the problems caused by this outlaw territory, a federal court was established at Fort Smith in 1871, presided over by Judge Isaac Parker, the “hanging judge.” This museum has his original courtroom furniture. The Fort Smith National Historic Site, just down the street, houses the original room where the court was held and has copies of the furniture.
        During the Civil War, western Arkansas was under Union control, but despite this protection, the area was devastated. Small displays feature Civil War artifacts.
Belle Starr’s sidesaddle also is prominently displayed. Most stories about her are exaggerations or are untrue. She came from a good family and was well-educated, having studied Greek, Latin, music and etiquette.
        She successfully raised, sold and bred horses. Her main offense was fencing stolen horses for some of her outlaw friends. She was found guilty of horse stealing and sent to prison in Detroit, where she was murdered at the age of 41. Her killer was never found. Her daughter, Pearl, later became a Fort Smith madam.
         Furniture, clothes and other artifacts are on display from the Victorian era and from World War I and World War II. The community is proud of William O. Darby, who started the Army Rangers in World War II as a companion group to the British commandos. One room displays pictures, uniforms, weapons and news stories from his life. He was wounded three times, decorated 10 times and was eventually killed in Italy a day before all Germans in Italy surrendered. At the time, papers promoting him to the rank of brigadier general were being processed.
        We tried to take the walking tour of the refurbished houses in the Fort Smith Old District, but neither of us is enthusiastic about older houses unless they have a ghost story or someone around to tell us about the people who once lived there. So we moved to our next stop, Van Buren, which had received good notices in the local literature. It is noted for its train excursions in the Ozark Mountains. The trains run from April through September, but because we were there in February, we didn’t get a chance to experience it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Memorial in Sarasotas explores De Soto's Greed

VENTURE BOUND Memorial in Sarasota explores De Soto’s greed
         “Twenty years after De Soto visited the Coosa towns, other explorers found barren fields, abandoned towns and fragmented settlements where there had been a prosperous chiefdom. These were the early signs of the European disease and depredations that brought about the collapse of cultures throughout the Southeast.” - National Park brochure

        My wife, Carla, and I attended an Elderhostel on theater in Sarasota, Fla., that was tightly scheduled early and late in the day. We managed to take an afternoon off, and in sorting through the many attractions in the area decided to go to the De Soto National Memorial in nearby Bradenton.
         The National Park Service considers De Soto’s wandering through the countryside in search of gold significant enough to deserve the memorial, along with a small visitors’ center.
        Born in 1500 of a noble family, Hernando De Soto at the age of 14 left Spain, became part of a raiding team in what is now Panama and made a fortune from gold and slaves in Nicaragua. Not satisfied with this wealth, he joined Francisco Pizarro in subduing Peru, returning to Spain a very wealthy man at the age of 36.
His greed for gold and conquest must have been insatiable because after a few years of ease, he cashed in his wealth, bought boats and enlisted an army to go back to the New World.
He arrived in Florida near present-day Bradenton with 622 soldiers, a large number of Indians as slaves to tote the supplies, 200 horses, hundreds of pigs and fierce dogs for disciplining and frightening the Indians. He left a hundred of his men at this spot and headed off for what turned out to be a four-year, 4,000-mile hike across what is now southeastern United States.
        The visitors’ center has a small display area with helmets, chain mail, weapons and a suit of armor. After lifting the chain mail, it was hard for me to imagine how anyone could walk far wearing it, especially because the Spanish were reported to be less than 5 feet tall. The weapons, though primitive by our standards, were so superior to the Indians’ bows and arrows that in any pitched battle the losses on the Indian side were tremendous.
        The visitors’ center shows a 21-minute movie that explains the problems the Spanish encountered and why the expedition failed. Most of the movie is done with re-enactors, but the part of the movie that had the most emotional impact for me was the drawings, evidently done at the time, of how the Spanish mistreated the Indians they encountered. This included torture and the cutting off of hands.
        I walked away from the movie thinking what horrible people conquistadors had been. Finding the city of gold was their goal. The Indians knew this, and to get them to move on they kept telling them the gold was just beyond the next city. De Soto’s expedition was one of looting, burning, raping, enslaving and killing.
Perhaps his greatest crime against the Indians was the introduction of diseases for which they had no resistance, diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of them.
        Coincidentally, De Soto died on the trip, lost half of his men and most of his horses and found nothing of value to take back to Europe.
        The memorial also has a walking trail to demonstrate the kind of territory the Spanish had to work their way through.
        From mid-December until mid-April, a group of park rangers and volunteers put on costumes and give demonstrations of how weapons were used and food was prepared in De Soto’s time.
This memorial is definitely worth a full morning or afternoon visit simply to learn more about our country’s history — even though some of the details are far from pleasant.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Panhandle fun comes easy in Canyon, Texas

An exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, depicts two American Indians skinning a buffalo.

        CANYON, Texas - American Indians, oilmen, pioneers and giant ground sloths are all honored at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the largest historical museum in Texas. It is located not in Austin or Houston but at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, a small city in the Texas Panhandle south of Amarillo.
          My wife, Carla, and I had hoped to visit the nearby canyon, but as we approached the town, rain was falling, ice was possible on the roads and the area was shrouded in fog. The inside of this massive museum was a welcome escape from the elements.
          The weather was a sample of what made this part of the country so difficult for humans - a land that also covers part of Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. If the country had been configured by landscape, this area would have been a separate state of its own.
         This harsh environment has been inhabited by humans for at least 14,000 years, and the relics from those who have struggled here have been gathered in the museum. This is considered the best collection of Southern Plains Indian artifacts in the United States.
         A life-size display of two American Indians skinning a buffalo is accompanied by a video with the following warning: "This film contains some graphic images that may disturb some viewers."
With only a sharpened flint, an American Indian in the video skins, guts and butchers a buffalo. It’s what you don’t see before you buy a piece of beef at the market. We learned how every piece of the buffalo was useful, including the horns as cups and the bladder as a canteen. By the end of the demonstration, I was impressed with how bison were the Wal-Mart of their day.
        I felt a conscious attempt was being made to give American Indians their due; that is, in many displays, white Americans were the villains. The film on the battle for Adobe Walls and its aftermath shows that the local Indians were attempting to stop the slaughter of the buffalo on which they depended.
        Shooters were coming from around the country to kill the buffalo and leave the bodies rotting. One shooter claimed to have killed 100 buffalo in a day. Indians knew that without the buffalo, they could not live in this provision-scarce area. As result of the protest, more troops were sent in, making life more difficult for the American Indians.
        Within the museum is a rebuilt pioneer town, complete with old buildings filled with artifacts. I was struck by how small everything was at the turn of the 20th century in small-town America. Most people have bedrooms bigger than the dentists’ or lawyers’ offices of that day and even, in some cases, the general store.
Attention is paid to the earlier, nonhuman residents in the fossil collection of dinosaurs and later animals such as the giant ground sloth and mastodons that were probably killed off by the Indians.
        How did so many people in the panhandle become rich? That, too, is explained by a documentary with original film made during the period of successful oil exploration. I found myself a little annoyed at what heroic stature they gave to the men who developed the oil industry in the area. Little acknowledgement is given to either luck or sharp business practices. To emphasize the importance of oil to the region, there is a large gas and petroleum section that includes an immense oil drilling rig from 1925.
         When we stopped by the research center, we learned about its extensive manuscript collection on the history of ranching, including the records from the Charles Goodnight ranch. There is also an extensive photograph collection and oral history interviews of people telling the story of the Western frontier.
          Other exhibits on Western heritage feature paleontology, transportation and art. This is the kind of place that when I think I’ve reached the end of the exhibits, another room opens around the next corner, with something new that makes me wonder.