The Salado

April 19, 2018 Posted by: Susan Decker, Winter 2017/ 2018 Volunteer
For a moment I thought, perhaps I did, find my way back 700 years ago to a place that is now so quiet, void of life, still under the sun and stars and a story that fades as days go by. The ancient people lived among the now quiet dwelling where the raven caws overhead and deer romp through the desert hills and drink by the cool waters of the canyon spring. I close my eyes in the dwelling hoping to hear voices the wind might carry up the hills from the basin below, quietly in the early morning waiting, eyes closed but only to hear the Swifts, the song of the wrens and others as they rustle through the walls of the alcove. I know one day, I will walk through the doors of the past and sit in the presence of the wise ones as they tell their story.

It is known there was a purpose, these ancient ones had that come to the river from places afar on foot by the thousands speaking their native tongues, but with one voice as their desire was to live and thrive, live in peace and one accord. They came on foot carrying their belongings, their babies in arm and children by their sides. The young and elders, men and women longing for new adecnture, with hope and a place to call their own. They migrated from the north, south, and east having heard of a promise of a new land where the soil was fertile, where there was an abundance of food and resources and they could farm in peace and live among people of similar beliefs .They callend themselves the tribes of the Hohokam, the Mogollan, and the Ancestral Puebloans.

Bringing their gifts with them, they would settle in this basin, exchange ideas and become a stronghold, a fortress of people that would reach out to all the nations in the Southwest. There were experienced farmers who would grow crops of cotton, amaranth, the sister crops of corn, beans and squash, build canals and irrigation systems that now lie under the lake, hunt the land and live for over a hundred and fifty years in peace. 

Then one day there was chatter about the natural alcoves some had seen from the basin below. Prehaps a hike to them lead to a discovery, and it did. Alcoves deep and wide enough with stone that had fallen from above as the alcoves were formed, enough perhaps to build a mighty fortress? All the stone they would need. This amazing discovery excited them, they could build rooms for families to come live, they would be protected from the elements of the desert and away from the hustle in the basin. The natural spring in the canyon was plentiful, enough to provide water for all as well as to grow essential crops close by. They could focus on what was important to them and have the solitude in which to do it.

As they built and people came they became a close knit community. Both structures, now called the Upper and and Lower Cliff Dwellings, much like apartment complexes, became a reality. Small simple family dwellings with hearths in the center to keep the chill down during cool nights while they slept on their hand woven mats. A large room for community gatherings, whether simply to talk of the days events, prepare a meal, for ceremonies or prayer, storytelling passed down from the elders to the young, or perhaps to spend time creating items for trade.

With the exchange of new ideas and gifts each brough their traditions evolved into a culture of their own. They became known as the Salado Culture, named after the Rio Salado (Salt River) below. A name which was given them because no one knew what they called themselves. Trade was an important piece of their existence in the basin below. Their fields of cotton grown and carefully processed by hand, dyed using the colorful materials of the earth, spun and then woven into beautiful textiles for clothing, blankets, and other spiritual garments. Also, their beautiful pottery, coiled and smoothed by hand and fired in open pits, became sought after throughout the southwest and is known today as Salado Polychrome. They traded their edgy work, so precisely made and carefully designed enough to tell a story, for shells from California, Macaws from Mexico, turquoise all of which to make beautiful jewlery and ceremonial clothing for themselves. 

My job here was to immerse myself into a culture that seemed so lost in the past and tell others their story. As I learned more as time went by I found this group of ancient people fascinating and also like us today. They laughed, cried, brough children into the world, celebrate customary events, buried their dead and went through all the emotional struggles we do today, but perhaps were a lot smarter. They didn't have the distractions we do today. They seemed more focused than we are, saw the potential and set out to thrive in this arid place before it was time to go. They wrestled with the will to survive and thrived in a desert land with harsh conditions and left a story behind for us to figure out. There was no written word but evidence shows us that they were tough in a land that was tougher, they were strong and able to do the tasks given them day in and day out to surive and they are called the Salado. 

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Last updated: June 23, 2018

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