When I was a kid I had an obsession with Native Americans. I loved Pocahontas and learning about different tribes in school. Josefina was my first (and therefore most loved) American Girl Doll. When my mom found out that my babysitter’s father was 50% native american she set up a meeting so I could meet him.
I played a lot of make-believe. I had an absurd amount of dress-ups and 20 acres of land to imagine on. For two straight years, or maybe more, I imagined life as a native in Maine. I made a teepee and pranced around the woods pretending every living thing had a spirit. Even though these woods provided me the ability to imagine the impossible I was highly bothered by the fact that I didn’t look the part. This was probably impounded by the fact that my best friend did. I wished my blonde hair and fair skin away.
Later when our family genealogy was examined I discovered I was related to Priscilla Mullins, who came over on the Mayflower. Mullins was, conveniently, portrayed in a 1968 animated film we owned called The Mouse on the Mayflower as a tall, blonde, gentle woman. She and her husband, John Alden, were allegedly one of the first romances in the American colonies, inspiring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. So, naturally, I shifted my make-believe role to that of an early settler.
Though I learned about natives all over the United States, the Ancestral Pueblo people were my favorite. Partly, I think, because their communities were smaller and easier for me to understand compared to the cities further south; and partly because their environment was so different from my lush Maine environment, and therefore fascinating. So, when I stepped into the presence of the Bandelier National Monument I fulfilled a life-long dream.
Bandelier is stunning. Embedded, literally, into the volcanic tuff canyons are the homes of people who lived 1,000 years ago. Evidence shows that people have lived in the region for over 10,000 years. When I looked upon the beautiful structures I felt the history, in a way I never have before. It was like staring into the eyes of 10,000 years of a people: breathing their air, walking their space. But most striking were the petroglyphs – the first I’ve seen in person – specifically and intentionally placed by a person who’s life I can hardly comprehend. It took my breathe away. I felt suspended in time.
I know that Native American’s are too often praised for their environmental ethics (Disney’s Pocahontas doesn’t help). It’s more than likely that they often degraded natural resources and did not practice conservation the way that many people believe they did.* But it’s easy to believe, when you’re standing on a piece of land that was home to people for so long that maybe, just maybe, they knew something we don’t about keeping an environment inhabitable for 100 centuries. I liked imagining that they did.
As I walked the paths of history I tried to imagine what it was like to live in this place at the peak of its success. In each scenario I was an eight year old girl, running playfully between the buildings and vegetation.
* I could present an argument for this but that is not the purpose of this piece, so I’ll let Terry Anderson do it for me: “Conservation Native American Style“.