Introduction Greeting in Keres [“Hello, everybody! How are you?”]
Greetings and welcome to this special place called Mesa Verde National Park. My name is Thelma Jean Atsye, TJ for short, and I am a park ranger here at Mesa Verde. I am Laguna Pueblo, a direct descendent of the people who used to live here and part of a continuous evolution of Pueblo people.
I love working here at Mesa Verde because I am able to share about my people, my heritage, and my culture. Please join me as we explore the Mesa Top Loop. At the ten stops along this six-mile drive, we will follow the footsteps left here by my Pueblo ancestors and discover their Mesa Verde—a story of success, innovation, trial, and survival.
1500 years ago, Ancestral Pueblo people began to set down permanent roots here on Mesa Verde, and for the next 700 years, generations of people called this place home. They built villages on the mesa tops and in the cliffs. They grew crops, raised their children, and produced beautiful art and pottery. In the 1200s, they moved on.
I would like visitors to know that we didn't just leave and disappear. When the ancestors left Mesa Verde, they migrated toward the south, where we still live today in 21 Pueblos in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Each Pueblo group is unique, but we share many things. We carry on many of the same traditions as our ancestors did. We sing the same songs, dance the same dances, play the same games, and tell the same stories.
I would like our visitors to know that this is more than just a national park and a World Heritage Site. This is still a living place. We still make pilgrimages back to Mesa Verde to visit the ancestors and gather strength and resilience from them.
I ask you to please visit with respect. I hope that when you hear our stories, you will begin to see these places as we do—not as ruins, but as homes. Remember the ancestors wherever you go. Just because you don't see them, doesn't mean that they aren’t there. If you are genuine and true and respectful, the ancestors will welcome you. I hope that you will learn from this place and not just about it.
Please take your time, drive carefully, park sensibly, and be considerate of others. When you arrive at the next stop, press "next track" to hear the next part of the story. You can also follow along from your home or school to explore Mesa Verde virtually.
Stop 1: Pithouse – Beginnings Many Pueblo people believe that we came from the north. Others believe that they come from within the Grand Canyon. It's clear that people have been on this landscape for at least 12,000 years, since the last Ice Age.
At one time the Pueblo people were nomadic. They would find a good place with an abundance of deer and elk or rich harvests of berries and pinyon, or pine nuts. They would stay for a while, then move on with the seasons.
Farming changed everything for the ancient Pueblo people. 4,000 years ago, domesticated crops spread up along trade routes from Mexico and began a slow revolution here. Over time, people adapted those crops to thrive here on the Colorado Plateau. Although people began to rely less on wild foods and more on agriculture, they kept their rich traditions of wild plant use. These continue among their descendants. Around 1500 years ago, the families of the early Pueblo farmers started to build the first permanent homes here. This is one of them. Archeologists call these homes pithouses, because they are dug down into the ground to take advantage of the earth's natural insulation. This helped to keep them cool in summer and cozy in winter. You entered the house by a ladder through a domed roof, built out of wooden beams plastered with mud.
These early Pueblo people are sometimes called basketmakers, because they wove many fine baskets from yucca and willow. Some of these baskets survive today. They show us their skill and artistry. Looking up at the roof from inside a pithouse, the wooden ceiling of entwined beams would have also looked like a basket.
Stop 2: Navajo Canyon – Home Based on our Pueblo origin stories, the ancestors settled here because this is where we were meant to be. They found this place and were comfortable, where they could grow their crops, and harvest Mother Earth's resources. This allowed our people to flourish here. Their villages sprouted across these mesas for the next 700 years.
Pueblo people have different names for this place. In the Hopi language, this place is known as Bear Ridge. The people from Acoma Pueblo know this whole region as the “Wide Area of Dwellings.”
From here, you can see why the Spanish called Mesa Verde the "Green Table." The mesas are covered like a blanket with a dense forest of pinyon pines and junipers. This rich ecosystem supports more than 1,000 species, including several that live nowhere else on earth. The mesa's high elevation and steep canyons might make this seem a difficult place to carve out a living. But Mesa Verde made a good home for the ancient Pueblo people because it offers plentiful resources, fertile soil, and a good water supply.
You can see here how the mesa slopes down toward the south from an elevation of 8,500 feet at Park Point to 7,000 feet where you are now. This southward tilt gives the mesa more sun and a longer growing season. Mesa Verde receives about 18 inches of precipitation on average per year, divided between summer thunderstorms and winter snow. The ancestral people made highly efficient use of that water with sophisticated planting technology in fields on the mesa tops and check dam terraces in drainages. Water also seeps down through the sandstone, feeding springs inside the canyons.
Though it can feel isolated and quiet today, for the centuries that the ancient Pueblo people called this place home, it would have been bustling and full of life. Around the year 1200, Mesa Verde was home to at least 5,000 people. The Pueblo people lived in great numbers all around this region, with as many as 35,000 to 45,000 people around the Four Corners area.
Imagine the Mesa Verde world. This view would have been filled with villages and farmlands. Trails crossed the mesa, and hand-and-toe-hold routes, carved into these steep sandstone walls, allowed travel into the canyons, down to the Mancos River, and beyond.
The people of Mesa Verde were connected to others, far and wide, through trade and migration. They traded for salt from New Mexico and Utah, cotton from Arizona, seashell beads from California, and chocolate and macaw feathers from Mexico.
At times, some people moved their homes into natural alcoves in the cliff sides. One of these cliff dwellings, Echo House, is visible across the canyon. Another is just around the corner, at our next stop.
Stop 3: Square Tower House - Sharing Our History Square Tower House is one of Mesa Verde's most famous and beautiful cliff dwellings. Can you believe the skill it must have taken to build their homes in such a hard-to-reach spot? Imagine the work that went into carving each sandstone block by hand! They built these structures that have lasted for hundreds of years. That was no easy task, but they accomplished it.
Since the cliff dwellings are protected from weather inside their alcoves, they are the best-preserved ancient homes here at Mesa Verde. I think this is what makes them so fascinating to our visitors and to people from all around the world. They capture our imagination, by offering us an amazing window into our past.
Some rooms in Square Tower House still have their original wooden ceilings and floors and well-preserved painted murals on the walls. Inside, archeologists found an almost-perfect reed mat, a feathered cloth, and a figurine of a person.
When local cowboys and then tourists started to explore these cliff dwellings in the late 1800s, they found many other amazing things: a coiled length of yucca-fiber rope more than 1,300 feet long; three mugs tied together, hanging from a peg inside a room; and a mural of bighorn sheep circling the wall of a kiva. During that time, people took many objects home as souvenirs, or to sell them, forever erasing part of the history of this place.
To protect and celebrate these amazing pieces of the past, Mesa Verde was established as America's first cultural national park in 1906, and as America's first World Heritage Site, along with Yellowstone National Park, in 1978.
But for a long time Pueblo people did not have a voice in telling our own story. Even though we never have forgotten these places, a false story was told, that the people here just vanished without a trace.
When the Navajo, another tribal group who lived in this area, encountered these ancient homes, they called the people who built them, the Anasazi. You are probably familiar with the name Anasazi because archeologists, anthropologists, and historians borrowed the term to refer to our ancestors. Anasazi is sometimes translated as the “other ones” or the “ancient enemies.” This term does not suit today’s Pueblo people, and for that reason we ask that you call them the Ancestral Pueblo.
Our ancestors were creative and clever. They developed a lot of things here that we, as Pueblo people, still practice. You can see their creativity and the development of our culture from the emergence of the pithouse to magnificent cliff dwellings like Square Tower House. At the next stop, we'll take a closer look at how this transformation happened.
Stop 4: Pithouses and Pueblos – Building on Success At this stop there are actually three different villages built in three different centuries. Here, you'll see a pithouse from the 600s, an early pueblo from the 800s, and a stone-masonry pueblo with a deep underground kiva, built in the 900s. This series of villages demonstrates the evolution of many cultural hallmarks that are still important to us today. As you explore here, notice how some things change while others have stayed the same.
Start off at the pithouse village, down the trail on the right. The pithouses were the first structures built by our ancestors. These here were built about 100 years after the one at the first stop. They dug down deeper into the ground, but other than that they are pretty similar. Walk over to the next shelter, covering the remains of the other two villages.
By around the year 850, they started to build their houses above ground, out of wood and mud plaster, and then out of carved stone blocks. As their houses went above ground, they started to make kivas, circular underground rooms dug down even further into Mother Earth. When people lived here, the kivas had flat wooden roofs that people could walk across. That made the area on top of the kivas a big open plaza.
The kivas that you see here are just like the kivas that the present-day Pueblo people still use today for religious dances, ceremonies, celebrations, and as gathering places for the community. Kivas were the center of our communities and still are.
The word kiva comes from the Hopi language. Many Pueblo kivas today are still circular and underground, but some kivas are square, rectangular, or aboveground. What all kivas share—from the past to the present—is that they are a sacred place. I hope that visitors will be respectful and appreciate the importance kivas have for us as Pueblo people.
Archeologists find evidence of good farming conditions and an expanded population during this period. This success led people to invest in larger, more lasting homes built out of stone, rather than wood.
Around this same time, people started making more pottery and fewer baskets. These changes point to the success of Pueblo farmers and the emergence of a more permanent lifestyle here.
At the next stop, we’ll explore how their lives changed along with their homes.
Stop 5: Mesa Top Sites - A Home in a Pueblo At first glance, all you see here might be a jumble of fallen stones. But look around you with the knowledge you have already gained. What do you see?
Can you find evidence of overlapping walls, towers, and kivas? Can you imagine this place as a home?
Close your eyes and imagine the sounds.
Dogs barking, turkeys gobbling, an axe hitting a tree, fires crackling, stone sliding against stone, conversations, kids running around laughing and playing. These are the sounds of home.
Through archeology and cultural knowledge, we can read the story of this place. Generations of people chose to build and rebuild in the same spot over two centuries. What tied these people to this place? Good, fertile soil? The spring a quarter mile away? Or maybe this was just home? When a family set down roots, they stayed.
When I look at this place, I imagine the family farm. The grandparents telling stories to the children, the wisdom of the ancestors being passed down through the generations.
Today, many Pueblo people are matrilineal, meaning that property is handed down from mother to the mother’s children. In my Pueblo, traditionally, the home was inherited by the family’s youngest daughter.
Every person is also a member of a clan. At Laguna Pueblo, we have clans like the Sun, Roadrunner, Antelope, Oak, Turkey, Bear, and Coyote. We inherit our major clan from our mothers. My clan is Big Roadrunner on my mother’s side and Little Sun on my father’s side. Every clan has their own story about how and when they came to our pueblo.
Under the shelter, you can see a large, beautiful kiva over on the right. The kiva was the center of this community. Community means everything for Pueblo people. No matter which village you came from, no matter what clan you are, no matter what role you have within your society, there is always a feeling of community. You take care of your family, but you also watch out for everyone else, and they watch out for you. I wonder about the story of the clan who once lived here.
Kivas are a place to share stories. At Laguna Pueblo, the story of our people's migration is shared in the kivas every spring. All the generations of men gather together, where they will sit and talk and share for four or five days. It's all spoken in Keres, our native language. Nothing is written down. Nothing is recorded. In fact, that's forbidden. Then the menfolk return home and they share the stories with their families.
Winter is the season for storytelling in the Pueblos, when the world is quiet and everybody is home around the fire. We call these stories hama-ha, which means "long-time-ago stories." This is how our stories have been passed down, from generation to generation.
For Pueblo people, storytelling is very important. It is how we have preserved our culture, from the time of Mesa Verde to today. We pass down our Pueblo history, our family history, our traditions, and our connections with Mother Earth, by word of mouth. I am happy to be sharing our story with you now in the way it has always been told, in oral tradition.
Continue on to Sun Point Pueblo, where we'll talk about the story of the ancestors' daily lives.
Stop 6: Sun Point Pueblo - Corn Mother Here at Sun Point Pueblo, this modern roof protects an excavated kiva and tower. But this is just the center of a large sprawling pueblo. Look out across the landscape and see the mounds of stone and you can start to get an idea of how large this village really was. Blocks of multi-storied buildings surrounded this inner courtyard. Archeologists found nearly 30 rooms here and they think this village was home to about 50 people.
This was one of the last large pueblos to be built on the mesa top, just as the trend of cliff dwelling construction began to boom, around the year 1200. This community was inhabited for only about ten years, and it seems like many of its walls were deconstructed so that its stones and roof timbers could be reused. The ancient Pueblo people believed in recycling. My ancestors were resourceful people, conscientious of their environment.
The life of Pueblo people in these villages would have been active and busy. Winter, spring, summer, and fall, they were always doing something. They would gather wild herbs, berries, pinyon nuts, and medicines. They gathered fibers from the yucca and wove them into ropes, sandals, and jewelry. They gathered clay in the canyons and fired pottery in kilns. They wove blankets out of turkey feathers and yucca twine.
In the spring and summer everyone would have been busy in the fields—clearing, planting, nurturing the seedlings. They would pray for rain. At the harvest season, we would celebrate and give thanks for all that was given to us.
The ancestors practiced dryland farming, which means they relied on rainfall to water their crops. We grew the Three Sisters. Do you remember what those are?
Planting corn, beans, and squash together in the field, the three help each other grow. Eating them together gives you a complete set of proteins and all nine amino acids essential for human diets.
Corn is special. It is more than just food to us. If it wasn't for corn, we wouldn't be the Pueblo people. Corn Mother gives the Pueblo people protection. We carry cornmeal in our prayer pouch and use it for blessings. When Pueblo mommas put their babies in the crib, they give them an ear of corn to hold onto.
We grow many kinds of corn—yellow, blue, white, and red. When you harvest it, dry it, and grind it, it feeds your family and the whole community. With corn we make hominy, succotash, cornbread, enchiladas, tamales, corn porridge, tortillas, parched corn and popcorn. There are so many ways to eat it, and they are all yummy!
Now, I can’t wait for you to see the next stop, because you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Stop 7: Sun Point - Downtown Mesa Verde From Sun Point, you are looking at downtown Mesa Verde of the 1200s. How many cliff dwellings can you spot? There are 35 cliff dwellings in these canyons before you, and you can see at least 10 from here. Can you imagine what it would be like to see this 800 years ago, when thousands of people lived here? Can you imagine the sounds that once echoed off the rocks? Close your eyes. What do you hear?
We teach our children by our five senses, so I encourage you to use all your senses to experience Mesa Verde. If you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch, then you will learn the essence of this place.
If you allow yourself to be open, the ancestors may whisper to you. Sometimes, you may even see them. If you stop for a minute and close your eyes, you can hear the kids laughing, the women talking, you can hear the drums. You can smell the cooking fires. And you can feel their presence, their warmth, and their sense of community.
When I look at these ancient homes, I think about how my ancestors were resourceful, loving people. We did things together—cooking, farming, caring for one another. We respected nature. We respected the animals, the trees, the flowers. And we respected our resources, everything that we counted on to sustain our lives here. We respected all the signs that were shown and brought to us.
I don't really think a whole lot has changed from this time to today. The kivas. The clans. The sense of who we are. All these things are strongly rooted in the past. I sense that same feeling of community, of coming together, here at Mesa Verde.
Let’s continue up the canyon, to see more of this community.
Stop 8: Oak Tree House – Why Live in the Cliffs? Across the canyon you can see a closer view of Oak Tree House, a cliff dwelling with about 60 rooms. Why some of the population moved down into cliff dwellings in the 1200s remains one of Mesa Verde's most captivating questions.
These sandstone alcoves offer protection from the often-harsh elements—freezing snowy winters and the sweltering summers marked by torrential thunderstorms. But more importantly, they are often close to Mesa Verde’s most precious resource.
Can you see how it's greener down inside the canyon? There are no permanent natural water sources on the mesa top, so people may have decided to move closer to the springs that seep from the canyon walls. The natural sandstone alcoves that house these cliff dwellings were formed over millions of years by water erosion. Water from rain and snow filters down through the porous sandstone, then when it hits a layer of clay-rich shale in these cliffs, it seeps out, forming lush springs that bring life to these canyons.
Some of our oral histories speak of other people coming into the area and raiding their fields, taking their harvest. Moving into the cliffs may have been their way of avoiding conflict and violence, protecting their food sources and water supply, kind of like a rabbit going back into its home in the ground. The architecture in some cliff dwellings, such as the "Crow's Nest" in Square Tower House and the access tunnel in Balcony House suggest that defense and protection may have played a role. Cliff dwellings were built all around this region, in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and down into northern Mexico. It seems likely that many different families and communities moved into cliff dwellings at different times and for different reasons. Perhaps cliff dwellings were just a trend, maybe they were the stylish place to live for a time.
Let’s continue towards the head of this canyon for a better look at the spring and a view of Fire Temple.
Stop 9: Fire Temple and New Fire House - The Plaza Looking down at the head of this canyon, you can see one of these lush springs. Across the canyon and to the right, you can see the upper and lower alcoves of New Fire House. Can you see the hand-and-toe-hold trail connecting them?
On the left is Fire Temple, with a large open plaza. Of the nearly 5,000 archeological sites found at Mesa Verde, there are only a few plazas like the one at Fire Temple. This plaza here, like the one in Long House, is very similar to the plazas built in the center of modern-day Pueblos. Can you see the white plaster on the back wall of the plaza? When archeologists uncovered it in the early 1900s, it was still adorned with paintings of rain clouds, people, animals, and cacti.
Every Pueblo today has a plaza like this at its center, where we hold feast days and dances. One of my favorite places in Mesa Verde is Long House, over on Wetherill Mesa.
Every time I descend into the little canyon and walk into the big plaza, I can imagine seeing it filled with dancers, little kids in full regalia, and all the people gathered, crowded together, sitting on the rooftops. I can hear and feel the drums. It makes me want to put on my traditional sewn dresses under my black manta and my moccasins that my father made for me a long time ago and join in, dancing each step to match the beat of the drum.
I think that arriving at one of these plazas here would have been very similar to what you will experience at a present-day Pueblo feast day. You'll see the people honoring the dancers, enjoying the festivity, listening to the singers, feeling the beat of the drums.
The best way that we pray is through song and dance, so everyone in the community joins in. The plaza is alive. It generates so much warmth and hospitality. Many will put out blankets and food and invite everyone to eat there. The plaza is an important part of Pueblo life, who we are, and how we carry on today.
If you have a chance to visit any of the Pueblos, you will see these traditions. You are welcome to come to one of our Pueblo feast days or dances and make that connection for yourself.
Now, let’s continue on to Sun Temple. When you reach the fork in the road, turn right.
Stop 10: Sun Temple – Seeking a New Home Sun Temple has a thousand feet of carefully pecked, finely-cut stone walls, with nearly thirty rooms and three kivas, arranged in a D-shape. A tower, which would have had a clear view across this densely populated canyon junction, stands off to the side. The fact that archeologists found neither roof beams nor household goods here suggests that Sun Temple was unroofed, or was never finished, or maybe its beams were recycled for later construction.
Whatever the case may be, the walls of Sun Temple stood witness to the migration that was about to unfold. In the 1200s, the people here started to leave, not as a big group, but family by family, and village by village. By 1300 they were gone from the area.
Why did everybody leave? It's one of the most asked questions here at Mesa Verde. There are many books written by archeologists, anthropologists, and historians about why. But from a Pueblo perspective, I think it was just their time to go. They received a sign that it was time to move on. They did what they were supposed to do while they were here.
Migration is a movement of people for many different reasons. Maybe as families grew over time, they started to deplete their resources. The fertile areas became played out. There were a series of long droughts. They had to go further distances for game and for timber. Eventually, people began to think, "We had better find another place. Otherwise, we won't be able to survive." The ancient ones knew that in order for them to survive and sustain, they needed to leave. They realized that they needed to branch out so they could become who we are today.
Migration also means exploration. Our ancestors would have done their research, to be sure that there would be enough resources so that they could grow food and defend themselves and survive in a new home. I think the ancient Pueblo people searched all around this Four Corners area and came back to tell their families and their leaders, "Hey, we walked for days and days and we found this big river way down south where it's lush and green. It would be a really great place to farm and see how we do." It took different strategies and spiritual signs and indicators to lead us to become who we are today.
But just look at what they left behind for all of us to marvel at! Look at the beautiful bowls and painted mugs, the weavings of feather and cotton, the tools made from stone and bone, and their homes that still stand after all these centuries. I'm so thankful that when our people chose to leave here, they left behind so much for us to appreciate and wonder at.
Let’s walk past Sun Temple to the overlook of Cliff Palace for the last stop on our journey.
Stop 11: Cliff Palace View - The Pueblo Today This spectacular view showcases Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America and one of the world's most magnificent treasures. There are more than 150 rooms and 21 kivas inside. Cliff Palace was built and occupied over a period of about 100 years.
Our culture flourished here, and though the people left, the culture was not lost. They left their pottery, their ropes, and their homes, but they brought the most important things with them. They brought their stories, their memories, and their traditions.
Many people have lived in our present-day homes since at least 1300, from the time they left Mesa Verde until today. Some of us have been in our center places since before that. Taos Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo, and the Oraibi Village out in Hopi are known to have been settled nearly one thousand years ago.
Once we found our center places, we became settled. We weren't going to move. So we fought the Spanish, we fought the Mexicans, and we fought the Cavalry. And we're still here. I look at American history and feel sorrow for how many tribes were displaced and removed from their ancestral lands, from their sacred places, and their natural resources. But the Pueblo people are still where we belong.
When the Spanish first came to our country in 1540, there were about 300 different Pueblos. Today, only 21 remain. There are the Hopi, in Arizona, east of the Grand Canyon, and the Pueblo of Isleta del Sur on the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas, and nineteen are spread across New Mexico: the Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, and Zuni.
We don't have to travel very far to visit our ancestors. We go to places like Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins, Bandelier and Mesa Verde. It's important that these are protected by the National Park Service and held sacred by everyone. They are important to us, because this is where our people began.
This is my history. This is our history. This is also American history. Why do our textbooks always start in 1776? Or 1492? Why don't we start our history with the first people who lived on this land?
We as Pueblo people understand how much stories matter. When people are written out of their histories, they are rendered powerless. We believe that people can learn from our history, our successes as well as our mistakes and failures.
I hope people will come here and keep themselves open. I hope that people will recognize that this is more than just a place to tour and pick up souvenirs. I hope our visitors will learn from Mesa Verde and not just about it.
Our forefathers and foremothers were pretty inventive and sharp. We have survived this long because we live as a community. We are about us and we, not about me and I.
The ancestors recognized that everything around them is connected. We must pass on this lesson. Everything has a spirit and we must treat everything—the rocks, trees, birds, animals, and other human beings—with mutual respect.
Can we come together and learn from each other to find common ground? I truly hope and pray that together we can figure out a way to lessen the impact of our footprints on Mother Earth, to acknowledge that we are not owners, but we are just visitors here in this incredible, beautiful place we call Mesa Verde—the home of my ancestors.
What I know of the Ancestral Pueblo people who have gone before me is that they possessed endurance, integrity, belief in powers greater than themselves, and a commitment, obligation, and responsibility to the sacred.
Thank you for coming with me on this Mesa Top Loop. I am proud to be a native Pueblo person, and to be here to share our history with you today.
I wish you safe journeys home, and if you can, please come back for another visit. Take with you a different perspective of what this place is. What knowledge you have gained, please share with others. I also hope you will continue to explore and learn from this place. I wish you wonderful journeys.
In Keres [“Thank you and good bye.”]
This audio tour is brought to you Mesa Verde National Park. Narrated by Thelma Jean Atsye and produced by Spencer Burke. This production was based on conversations with TJ Atsye, Peter Pino, Dan Simplicio, and Bettina Sandoval. Music by the Southern Slam Dance Group from Zia Pueblo and Sun and Fire Dance Group from Jemez Pueblo, courtesy of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque. Thank you to the staff of Mesa Verde National Park and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Thank you to Tim Fitzsimons, Rex, and Dozer. In memory of Peter Pino, whose warmth and wisdom illuminated the thread of stories connecting the past, the present, and the future.
Use this link to listen to the complete Mesa Top Loop Drive Audio Tour. Or, you can listen to each stop separately below.