Administrative History
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Navajo National Monument was established as part of the push to preserve the remnants of the pre-Columbian past scattered across the western landscape. Reserved as a series of archeological sites rather than as a management entity, the monument was subjected to a range of influences from its inception. Archeologists of different backgrounds sought to excavate the region even before the monument was established. An awkward pattern of excavation and explanation of the prehistory of the Tsegi canyon area followed.

Archeologists who sought to learn the prehistoric story of the Kayenta Anasazi from the monument faced other problems. Navajo National Monument had been reserved to protect above ground ruins, not as a way to protect the remains of a culture group. The proclamation of the monument resulted from the fear that ruins would be damaged, not from any sense of the pieces of the past it held. As a result, the monument included episodes of the past, not a comprehensive picture, and archeologists and aficionados who sought to understand these ruins often had to rely on work done outside its boundaries. Synthesizing the information for the purposes of the monument was a difficult and complicated task.

The process of rediscovering the prehistory of the Tsegi Canyon vicinity also fell prey to jurisdictional issues. The boundaries of the monument limited the area in which archeologists had influence. Excavation proceeded in an erratic fashion, shaped as much by the availability of locales as by the objectives of scientists and institutions. As was typical of the experience of the agency in this area, the Park Service found itself powerless. The agency had influence over only a small part of the region and control of even less. Unable to regulate archeological efforts, the Park Service concentrated on preserving the ruins of the monument.

The study of prehistory was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Following 1840, archeology moved toward becoming a respectable field of study in the U.S. Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, the field had been largely speculative. In the subsequent decades, proto-archeologists developed a descriptive style, designed to taxonomize the sites they found before them. As they began to be exposed to the ruins of the Southwest after 1880, this descriptive approach seemed sufficient. With so many places to inventory and catalog, most archeologists were content to record what they saw. [1]

Yet there was an intellectual dimension to the archeological profession at the turn of the century. In the late 1870s, Lewis Henry Morgan, regarded as the father of American anthropology, posited a series of stages of cultural evolution. Neo-Darwinian and ethnocentric in their hierarchical nature, Morgan's theories were as applicable to prehistory as to existing tribes. Among the many Morgan influenced was Adolph F. A. Bandelier, the scion of a Swiss-American banking family from Illinois. Bandelier became obsessed by southwestern history and prehistory, walking the region to historic and prehistoric villages and publishing major works. While the majority of Bandelier's work was taxonomic in character, it helped fill many intellectual gaps and spurred others to investigate further. [2]

An institutional base for the study of the prehistoric and historic past also emerged after 1875. Archeology in the U.S. prior to that time had focused on Europe and the Middle East, with much of its effort expended on religious themes. But the opening of the West extended new opportunities to the coming generation of scholars, and they developed an infrastructure to support their efforts. Journals such as the American Antiquarian, founded in 1878, and American Anthropologist, which commenced publication a decade later, played important roles, as did the Anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Archaeological Institute of America, and other similar organizations. [3]

Perhaps the most important element in the emergence of an institutional base was the support of the federal government. This resulted from the surveys of the American West that begin with Lewis and Clark in 1804, continued intermittently until a spate of military surveys in the 1840s and 1850s, and grew in size and scope following the Civil War. John Wesley Powell, one of the leading explorers of the post-Civil War era, played an instrumental role in the founding of the Bureau of Ethnology, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1879. With the charismatic Powell as its head, the bureau explored the prehistory and history of the West in an effort to use the past to justify the direction in which American society had traveled. In this view, anthropology and archeology were supposed to carry redemption to what had become an industrial and callow society. [4]

Standing between institutionally based science and its objectives were amateurs with an interest in the remains of prehistory. The best known of these was Richard Wetherill, the rancher from Mancos, Colorado, who knew the Southwest like the back of his hand. Wetherill dug where he pleased, for no law restricted his behavior. Besides the Keet Seel ruin, Wetherill was the first Anglo to excavate the Mesa Verde area, Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, Grand Gulch, Utah, and a host of other southwestern sites. [5]

Linking together a number of the currents in American society at the beginning of the twentieth century, institutional scientists vilified Wetherill. A growing self-consciousness pervaded American society as the nation began to recognize its inherent limitations. The idea of scarcity, never before a feature of the New World psyche, came to the fore as Americans realized that their continent was finite. A backlash against European culture also erupted as Americans tried to convince themselves that the natural grandeur of the continent equaled European cultural history. Wetherill seemed a threat in both areas; his first "client" was Gustav Nordenskiold, a Swedish baron's son who made a vast collection in the ruins of Mesa Verde and took it home with him. This led jingoistic scientists to revile Wetherill for expropriating American prehistory for European benefit. As Wetherill explored various sites and made collections of pots and artifacts, he transferred part of the past from public to private hands. In an era that slowly came to recognize scarcity as a reality, his behavior bordered on heresy. [6]

But Wetherill himself was heir to a long tradition in the history of archeology. He was the talented amateur, like Heinrich Schliemann and a host of other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century archeologists. Wetherill made numerous discoveries, at least one of which, his recognition of pre-pueblo phases of southwestern life called Basketmaker culture, revolutionized archeological thinking. Wetherill's real crime was that he remained an unaffiliated individual in an era of growing emphasis on credentials and institutional affiliation. [7]

His work differed little from that of most of the archeological profession at the turn of the century. Archeological research meant making collections of prehistoric artifacts. Museums and other similar institutions competed for control of the field as they sought to acquire prehistoric relics. Some institutions developed close relationships with people on the fringes of the profession. The close ties between Richard Wetherill, a number of private sponsors, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York typified the nature of such contact. The thin line between pot-hunting and recognizable science was easily erased.

The chaos this situation engendered led to legislative and practical responses. Beginning in 1900, a number of bills designed to protect prehistory from unsanctioned excavation were proposed. After six years, the movement to preserve prehistory reached its zenith in 1906, when "An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities," more commonly known as the Antiquities Act, and a bill to establish Mesa Verde National Park became law. The Antiquities Act allowed the president to reserve historic, prehistoric, or natural areas from the public domain as national monuments. Finally, the rudiments of a system to protect prehistoric resources was in place. [8]

But the results of nearly three decades of a general lack of protection had been disastrous. From the Rio Grande Valley to southern Arizona, ruins had been pillaged wholesale. In search of artifacts, professional and amateur collectors had overturned walls, ripped through ruins, and dug nearly every easily accessible prehistoric locale. Collectors and souvenir-hunters alike gorged themselves on whatever they could find. The archeological community watched in horror.

The western portion of the Navajo reservation was exempt from much of this activity. Few Anglos ventured into the heart of Navajo country before the turn of the century, and those who did often found themselves unwelcome. Occasional clashes between Navajos and intruders in their land occurred well into the 1910s. The gradual settlement process that followed the course of the river basins and railroads of the region was largely absent on the reservation. Richard Wetherill was an exception. Besides his forays to Keet Seel in 1894-95 and 1897, he visited a number of other ruins in the area.

When John Wetherill moved his trading post from Oljato to Kayenta in the fall of 1909, the ruins of the western reservation and Tsegi Canyon in particular came within the reach of the archeological community. Yet the opening of this area occurred in the aftermath of the passage of the Antiquities Act, allowing an increasingly interested federal government a greater measure of control over the disposition of these ruins than any prior group. As a result of Richard Wetherill's excavation at Chaco Canyon, Congress developed laws to protect ruins. As William B. Douglass battled to stop the Cummings expedition in 1909, a system that could protect ruins, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, was in place.

This defined the history of excavation of the ruins of Navajo National Monument. After Richard Wetherill's preliminary efforts at Keet Seel, every major excavation that occurred at the ruins had been authorized by someone in the federal government. In 1909, Hewett and Cummings requested and received permits, and Fewkes was a representative of the Smithsonian Institution. The result was a more orderly process than occurred nearly everywhere else in the Southwest. While federally authorized excavators could be careless and haphazard, they were part of an official system that required some measure of accountability.

But the ruins in the Tsegi were reserved because they were seemingly untrammeled visible evidence of prehistory, not because they represented a comprehensive prehistoric community or time period. They were episodes, not a chronological sequence, limiting their importance as individual subjects of study. Nor were they reserved to provide a comprehensive picture of the past of the region. Understanding the prehistory of the monument meant studying the entire Colorado Plateau.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006