• James E Aarons DVM

Keet Seel


Pelipa liked to meet the group in front of the hogan, just to the left of the Keet Seel ruins. There was always a chorus of oohs and aahs, as they neared the magnificent ruins.

A few minutes later she heard the first group talking their way to her.

“Hello!” Pelipa called waving from the front porch of her hogan. She joined the group and waited a few minutes for all to gather before she began her speech.

“Hi, welcome to Keet Seel I am Pelipa Eyetoo,” She began. “Keet Seel is Navajo and means Broken Pottery. It is one of the ancient sites in this place called the Navajo National Monument. The land lies wholly within the Navajo reservation, although the Hopi are the ones that lay claim to the ruins.

Both Hopi and Navajo histories agree, these ruins once housed the ancestors of the Hopi, Snake, and Horn Clans. Hopi elders still travel to these villages of mud and stone to pay their respects to their forbears. The mythic memory of the Hopi extends back to their time in these cliff dwellings. Clan elders still repeat handed down stories of the time when their people lived in these sandstone cliffs.”

Pelipa paused and told them the recitation from memory. “In this canyon with high steep walls they built large dwellings in the cavernous recess high up the canyon wall. They devoted two years just to ladder making, also cutting, and carving shallow holes up the steep rocky side. Three years more were employed in building the homes.”

Here's the hogan Pelipa stayed in during ranger rotation. Often wild palominos came to graze on the foibs and bunch grasses.

“Are you Navajo?” A fellow asked Pelipa.

“No, I’m Ute. I live northwest of here in, Colorado, in Towaoc,” she explained. “The Navajo see this as a place of death and rarely come here, but their sacred mountain, Navajo Mountain, towers over the region. “

“Where is Navajo Mountain?”

“Oh, it’s fifty miles northwest of here. This mountain is the northern boundary of the Navajo reservation. Their reservation encompasses an area of 27,000 square miles and is a part of Arizona-Utah Colorado and New Mexico.”

The view to the right of the hogan.

“Your reservation in Colorado, how big is that?”

“Tiny, just over a thousand square miles. It’s called the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.”

Talking slowed as they followed the path to the impressive natural alcove carved in the salmon colored sandstone cliffs that protected thousand-year-old ruins, just as they had protected the ancient inhabitants.

Pelipa stopped at the bottom of a very tall succession of ladders, snaking their way up the sandstone face from the valley floor to the protected place seventy feet above them.

“Notice here at the base of the rock face you see broken pottery, corncobs, fragments of yucca fiber rope, squash rinds, and stone scraps from tool making, all evidence from the Puebloan occupation.”

She divided the people into two groups of five, as it was the largest number of people allowed on the ladder complex at the same time. Now admonitions of ‘be careful,' and ‘hold tight’ came from the group leader, but were unnecessary as everyone paid close attention. At the top, more oohs and aahs came forth when the people regrouped. Up here in this sheltered sandstone alcove was a thousand-year-old village of square stone dwellings and round buildings. They were connected by stone walkways winding along the outer edge of the alcove. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time to be walking on the same edge of the world as ancient people did fifty generations ago.

Now Pelipa relaxed and waited as the visitors explored the ancient alcove.

“Why do the Navajo avoid this place?” A fellow asked her.

“The Navajo believe spirits still live in these homes. In their culture when someone dies they burn the hogan of the deceased to make sure the spirit leaves,” Pelipa said. Unlike Katie, Pelipa did not fear the tug of the ancients on her.

“The Navajos entered the region during the 15th-century, learning cultivating techniques from the Pueblans. They settled in the Tsegi Canyon system but left the deserted cliff dwellings alone lest they provoke the ancient dead.”

“So the Navajo weren’t the people who built this?”

“No, it was the Anasazi, who later became the Hopi people. Now they have their reservation south of here. In fact, the Hopi snake clan came from Tsegi after migrating here from Navajo Mountain.”

“Why did they leave here? I mean this place looks easy to protect and easy to farm.”

“It was more lush, and easier to farm in those times. Unfortunately, because of the need for timber and firewood, the forests were thinned and that caused the water table to drop. The wetlands withered and died. Before long the land could no longer sustain farming. Many archaeologists believe that an exceptional drought forced the families living here to move on. Other theories point to a religious migration that led the clans to the mesas, where the Hopi live today. When the people finally departed the cliff dwellings in the late 13th century, they sealed up granaries and rooms as if they planned to return, but they never did.”

“What religious event would make them leave the cliffs for the mesas?”

“They were looking for the promised land. Before they began their wanderings the god, Maasaw, gave the Hopi tablets that sealed their covenant with him.”

“That sounds a lot like Old Testament stories.”

“Yeah it does. Hopi tradition tells of sacred tablets, which were imparted to the Hopi by various deities, and they also experienced a great flood.

“It might be an echo of some correlation with the Old Testament, but is most likely arising from parallel evolution. They are similar stories, but delivery to a promised land often occurs when a society realizes something has gone wrong and they need to move. The easiest reasonable answer is divine intervention, and the easiest motivator is a promise from heaven that the new place is worth the trip to go there.”

“If one is to believe this viewpoint there should be a ‘Promised Land’ story for any society that is forced to leave its origins.”

Pelipa looked at the fellow who spoke. He was college-age. “That would be an excellent research paper,” she said.

“Is this Maasaw deity as powerful as our God?” The young bilagáana asked.

“Yes, the story of Maasaw is a beautiful Hopi legend. He is a Katsina that looks like a skeleton. This is where Katsina dolls come from, the Hopis.

“Do the Hopi believe in life after death?”

“Yes. If a person dedicates his life to agricultural duties and respect for nature Maasaw promises to watch over them and ensure a smooth passage into the afterlife. The Hopi people believe that life on Earth is an emergence into the 'Fourth World' and Maasaw serves as the guardian who gives permission to the Hopi people to enter it.”

“So Maasaw brings people from one world into another; that’s a resurrection story.”

“It is, and I feel these stories develop naturally within a society as it evolves.”

“Or it could all come from one common source; maybe the Old Testament offers the answers.”

“I don’t agree,” she said politely. He was determined to apply his religious beliefs to this ancient place. It happened frequently, and she knew from experience that arguing with him was a losing battle.

“Excuse me,” she said moving forward to continue the tour.

She realized her left arm was hurting from the knife injury; she must have overused it pulling herself up the ladder. Now all she felt was a throbbing, stabbing pain. She needed an ibuprofen or some oxycontin, but left the meds in the hogan. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. She was done with the group, and took a seat away from the wandering explorers. Sipping her water bottle she waited for the novelty of the place to diminish. Unless one comes into this ancient alcove with a purpose other than photo shoots, the guests usually have their fill in an hour. So she sat quietly and waited.

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Keet Seel: Chapter 32