All Roads Lead to Chaco

The Intersection of Archaeology, NAGPRA, and the Descendants of an Ancient Culture


The sun bakes Chaco Canyon’s orange walls like a kiln. David Grant Noble leads us up an ancient stair carved in towering sandstone, the remnants of a culture that insisted on building up and over obstacles rather than around. He pauses and looks back.

“I took a man up here last year who was 90,” he calls down before continuing onward toward the time-buried ruins of Pueblo Alto.

Under the baking desert sun, David explains how the shape and layout of bricks indicate the age of the building. Chaco culture thrived from about 900 A.D. to 1250 A.D.

Tall and thin with fleeting white hair and an impressive mustache, David dwarfs amid the New Mexican desert’s expanse. The thousand-year-old Pueblo ruins hidden within the canyon haven’t changed much since the guide was here the first time around, back in 1958. He and a college pal had stumbled upon Pueblo Bonito before the Parks service had marked up the place with informational signs. What they saw seemed like the strangest ghost town either had ever encountered: a city laid out in a D-shape, buildings reaching four stories high, circular kivas dug some 20 feet deep, stone camouflaged against fiery cliffs. Everything, from the architecture to the 3 acre size, “spoke of ritual, ceremony and theater.”

Archaeologists believe that Pueblo Bonito was a ceremonial center to which Pueblo Indians would travel from many tens of miles away. The circular holes in the ground are called Kivas, and they were used for both religious and communal purposes.

The next serendipity dealt with photography. David transitioned from service photography in the Vietnam War to street photography in the city. He found himself teaching French in a classroom right next to a dark room in Manhattan, that treasure trove of people and culture and the intersections thereof. Walking along the shadows of skyscrapers, David became enthralled by those who built them. They were Mohawk steelworkers. Skyline acrobats. Something about them, their generational commitment or their fearlessness in the face of staggering heights, moved him.

So he photographed them. He spoke to them. And after a while he earned an invitation to Kanawake, a Mohwak reservation just outside Canada.

Reservation number one.

From there he and his wife-to-be took a blue and white VW van all across North America with a map of Indian reservations and the intention to transform the self.

And he did.


Archaeological finds when David was a young man remained in an exclusive circle of researchers. Projects funded via tax yielded little to the community from which the taxes came. Such was the case of excavation at Pueblo Alto, a mesa-top great house in Chaco Canyon. It didn’t make sense to David for a few blaring reasons.

The story of Euro to Native interaction is one of exploitation and appropriation. We know this. We see it in the sun on the New Mexican flag — a sacred Zia Pueblo symbol in Spanish red and yellow — our sports teams, our clothing, our knick knacks. Red Skins, Braves, Seminoles, Kokopelli, Kiva, Chaco. This in addition to digs that archaeologists executed without consultation of modern lineal tribes.

Thousand-year old doorways of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon NM

When the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) finally came, it came late, after entire sites, collections of artifacts, and human remains had been dug up and dispersed, leaving behind deep-seeded mistrust. With NAGPRA, Native Americans have more of a say in the disposition of cultural remains and the excavation of cultural sites. Now that they can say no and mean it, they say it frequently. The last excavation of Chaco Canyon ended decades ago.

David is a proponent of balance. In the seventies, he worked as a documentary photographer on an excavation near Santa Fe. His exposure to both the archeological perspective combined with the perspective of the local Native Americans properly equipped him to pursue collaboration between the two. Archaeology is valuable to human realization, but as David points out, some of the answers to the mysteries that so baffle us lie with the modern Hopi and Navajo and Pueblo people. They have locked those secrets away, and who can blame them?

Students Chandler Dean and Jesse Merck listen intently as David recounts one of his many stories concerning Chaco Canyon.

So in the early eighties, David went to Pueblo Alto and laid out his argument to the project director: Accessibility. Collaboration.

He convinced them. The director W. James Judge and members of his crew contributed essays about the excavation. At the same time David and his wife were getting to know the local Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo people, learning the nuances of their culture and the tensions percolating there. He incorporated the archaeological perspective and “the spirit of NAGPRA” into a narrative called New Light on Chaco Canyon. It’s one of more than six books David has published on the history and culture of the Southwest.

But David can only contribute so much. Even the tribes disagree amongst themselves on the philosophy of excavation. Conservatives hold out that these sites are like people. They live and then die. And just like the body of the dead, a village must be allowed to return to Mother Earth from whence it came. It’s the exact opposite of excavation. At Chaco Canyon, the conservative view holds out.

David and some of the younger generation of Native Americans regret this. After all, even the tribes don’t have all the answers. No one knows, and will never really know, why the ancient Puebloans abandoned Chaco after three hundred years of planning and building.

David’s theory isn’t strictly textbook. The scale and intricacy of Chaco developments point to a strong ruling class in an environment totally dependent on rain and seasons and the consistency of both. It wouldn’t be difficult for some Chacoans to have learned the patterns and convince the rest that they were responsible for the weather. That’s where the power comes from, but what happens when the pattern changes? When a drought hits and the harvest fails?

David points to the remnants of an ancient staircase that Chacoans built into the side of a questa. Instead of traveling around obstacles, Chacoans insisted on going up and over.

David pulls his finger across his throat in the universal symbol for death. He can’t be sure what force led the Chacoans away, but it is precisely the enigma of Chaco Canyon that keeps him coming back. And as I watch him crawl through a thousand-year-old passageway, smiling, desert dust sweeping his hands and knees, he is rendered inextricable from my image of this place.