Thanksgiving a Good Time to Celebrate Native Americans

Some early indigenous Americans lived in caves
Cave dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park

Less than one hour south of Durango, Colo., in New Mexico, you find a relatively unknown tourist site, Aztec Ruins National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the city of Aztec. On the Sunday I visited, I saw fewer than a dozen visitors.

The name derives from Anglo settlers of the West who came upon the site, and having heard of the Aztecs from Mexico, thought it must be an Aztec dwelling. The site, however, has nothing to do with the Aztecs of Mexico. It is part of a large number of similar ruins that exist in this corner of the U.S., which together are considered remnants from the “Pueblo” Native American people. There is no tribe by that name, but this designation appears to include 21 officially recognized tribes (see that occupied and still occupy this part of the Southwest, plus the Navajo, Ute, and Apache who are included in the museum explanations at the Aztec Ruins.

The most famous Pueblo ruins are the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, about one and one-half hours northwest of the Aztec Ruins. Another nearby Pueblo community is in Chaco Canyon, 55 miles south of the Aztec Ruins off Route 550. Unlike Chaco Canyon, which appears to have been used for religious ceremonies as opposed to habitation (see Robert Redford’s fascinating documentary, “The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”), the Aztec Ruins was a place where people lived and died. Remnants of graves found here attest to that.

An excellent guided tour of the Aztec Ruins is available in online audio at and can be accessed for a self-guided tour. This site was settled around 1000 A.D., but around 1200 A.D., the people who lived here abandoned their home. Why or where they went is but one unsolved mystery. Parts of Mesa Verde were settled around 1200 A.D. and abandoned around 1300 A.D. Is it possible that the inhabitants of the Aztec Ruins moved to caves in Mesa Verde?

The Pueblo people believe that they originated from the “naval” of the earth. They pay homage to this belief with a round ceremonial structure known as a “kiva.” At the Aztec ruins and others in the area, you see many kivas. At the Aztec Ruins, the main kiva or Great Kiva, is a focal point. Only half of the site has been excavated, but the exposed structures around the Great Kiva are fascinating.

A portion of the structure is three stories high and once included at least 500 rooms. The Pueblo’s distinct keyhole-shaped doorways are seen throughout. The rear wall of the site is aligned with the sun in such a way that its shadow completely disappears at high noon. The raw materials for construction included large stones and huge timbers not found in the area. These had to be transported by hand over many miles by Pueblo people. The effort to build a massive “city” like this compares with building the pyramids in Egypt. There is still much we seek to learn about our ancestral Americans. For example, two green bands of rock at waist height run along the west wall of the Aztec Ruins, but their purpose is unknown. Pueblo people regard the ruins as sacred and return to use the large ceremonial areas found here.

Green bands on wall are a mystery
What are these green bands on the wall?

The ruins were first discovered by geologist John Newberry in 1859. For the next 30 years, the site was badly looted, but Newberry had made extensive records of his findings. In 1878 anthropologist Lewis Morgan began investigating here. Excavations were started under the direction of Earl Morris beginning in 1916, working for the New York American Museum of Natural History. The home he built, which currently serves as the Aztec Ruins visitor’s center and bookstore, surprisingly, was constructed with excavated timbers.