Grand Canyon – The Cliff-Dweller

ALONG the Rim, and back from it in the Tusayan Forest, one frequently sees at the present time mounds of scattered stones, with perhaps indications of old walls, or trenches now half-filled with earth, leaves, and pine-needles. Near them one may turn up bits of broken pottery, arrow-heads, stone hammers, old mealing-stones. Elsewhere about the forest or the Canyon there are found remains of the wickiup, the lean-to, and the hogan. These latter may be of recent origin, but the broken stone walls that once made up Indian forts, apparently belong to an earlier period.

There have been scattered Indian tribes around and about the Canyon from such time as the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. They were here when the Spaniards first came marching cross the country in 1540 seeking “the seven cities of Cibola” and their supposed stores of gold. Small bands seem always to have lived along the Rim. Possibly they, or their immediate ancestors, were the ones who erected the stone forts as outposts and, later on, the wickiups and lean-tos as summer camps.

Perhaps at the same time with the outliers living along the Rim, there were other groups that lived down in the Canyon. The weaker ones—those of inferior numbers—probably sought out the Canyon for protection from enemies. It must have been a natural fortress if it were necessary to fight and a maze or labyrinth if it were necessary to hide. Predatory bands from the Painted Desert and beyond were probably beating across the Plateau Country, seeking out and robbing the weaker tribes, from the earliest days. There was always need to feint or fight.

But the few families that lived down in the Can-yon could hardly grow in numbers. Circumstances were not favorable to such development. The Navahos, over on the Painted Desert, could spread out on their flat mesas and count their warriors by the thousands. They had not only agricultural lands but grazing country for herds of cattle and horses. But not so the Canyon Indians. They were only a handful, hemmed in by environing walls, with little water, and practically no land for cultivation. Their “gardens” were mere spots in a wilderness of rock, kept green by a chance spring of water; and their houses are supposed to have been merely the enclosed recesses under the cliffs —wind-worn pockets in the rock fortified by an entrance-wall.

Perhaps compelling conditions became modified after a period and some of the family units in the Canyon came together and began living in small cities on the Plateau, building community houses with thick stone walls, no doors, and ladder entrances by the roofs. Perhaps, again, the community groups, or pueblo Indians, and the Canyon dwellers were always separate and went their different ways, as their ancestors before them from the beginning. Theories are more easily established than right conclusions. The few Indians under the wall may have always been few. The Spaniards found large cities three or four days’ journey afield, but the Canyon itself was practically tenantless.

The remains of these weaker bands, often referred to as the Cliff-Dwellers, are not very numerous or extensive. And this in spite of the fact that Powell found in the canyons through which he came isolated ruins of aboriginal houses, forts, sentry-posts, stairways cut in the stone, wooden ladders leading down over inaccessible heights, cisterns, mescal pits, gardens, pottery, pestles, baskets, mats. At Mille Crag Bend he found a three-story building of stone laid up with mud mortar, and farther on kivas or underground rooms for religious ceremonies. Elsewhere, outside of the Canyon, there have been discovered many genuine cliff-dwellings of the Plateau Indians in which, there can be no doubt, people lived at one time. Large communities dwelt in some of the wind-worn recesses, in the caves 5 under cliffs, in the narrow canyons. In the Hoventweap district in Utah there are large round towers, extensive square rooms, walls of stone put up in adobe mortar that point to a high development; and near Globe, Arizona, there have been recently discovered some very remarkable dwellings in a narrow canyon.

But in the Grand Canyon proper there is slight evidence for permanent cliff-dwelling. There are small gardens that were worked at one time, springs and trails and mescal pits, pictographs on rocks, and fire marks in caves; but there is a dearth of buildings or habitations of any sort. Even Indians require living space, with some measure of ground to cultivate and some flow of water for irrigation. They cannot subsist on the view. In the immediate Grand Canyon there is not sufficient land or water for a community of any size. Indian Garden, be-low El Tovar, was no doubt cultivated, and a few Indians lived there in the ancient days; but this is the one spot on the south side of the Grand Can-yon where livable conditions are to be found.

There have always been more water, garden spaces, and Indian relics on the north than on the south side of the Grand Canyon; and farther away, some forty miles to the west of El Tovar by the Topocobya Trail, one comes to Havasupai (or Cataract) Canyon, where, three thousand feet down, a small tribe of Havasupais live at the present time. In this narrow canyon, with its fine blue water, some one hundred and fifty Indians manage to exist by growing corn, beans, melons, and other garden produce. Their . dwellings are largely of hogan pattern, put together of brush and mud mortar. Some caves in the Canyon walls exist, but the Havasupais do not live in them except in time of flood, when driven out from below. They are not cliff-dwellers..

Now under the Rim of the Grand Canyon, some-tunes several hundred feet down, on the protected ledges of the Kaibab, crowded in the wind-worn scoops of the wall, there are many so-called “cliff-dwellings” that are hardly such in fact. They are usually about three feet in width, four feet in height, and between four and six feet in length. They are made of loose rock put up as an outside wall, and, when completed, this was often chinked or plastered with a mud mortar. Frequently a doorway entrance, about two or three feet square, was put in, and this was sometimes built with a wooden lintel fastened in the mortar.

Nearly all of these structures have been broken into, and nothing now remains of their one-time contents. In examining dozens of them I never found any aboriginal relics except, in a single instance, a stone pestle and a flat mortar that might have been used for grinding corn. Out of one I got a rattlesnake, and out of another came a coyote and two cubs, but nothing that told the story of the builders or their purpose. They never were dwellings for the living, because too small for human habitation and too inaccessible for daily use. They are found on the most eerie Iedges, and sometimes it is not possible to reach them save by a rope or ladder let down from above. They were perhaps designed for others than the living.

The placing of these rock enclosures on ledges and points difficult to reach, and usually hidden from the view of any one travelling along the Rim, suggests that they were possibly Indian graves. The size and form of them, the small doors and the sealing up with mud mortar all tend to confirm such an impression. The Indians of the Painted Desert in the ancient days were perhaps not always given to burning their dead; possibly they trailed up here to the Canyon to entomb their chiefs or head men—to hide them from foes and prevent sacrilege. There could not be found in Nature anywhere a more protected or a more appropriate place for burial. The Indian gods were supposed to dwell in the Canyon and watch over the dead.

Besides, walled in the rock, there was some chance of the body remaining intact until the Final Day. The Egyptians were not the only ones who hoped for the long-continued endurance of the body. Nor were the Indians the only ones to be disappointed of their hope. All graves sooner or later are despoiled and the dust within goes back to the dust without. The Tombs of the Kings in Biban el Meluk have become the parade-ground of tourists, and the possible grave of a Moki chief a whelping-place for coyotes ! Nature forgets as well as man.

But it is more probable that these stone structures were depots or caches where corn and other dry grains were stored. The rock ledges offered protection from weather, and the mud mortar kept out the ground-squirrels and wood-rats. The necessity for hiding, or placing in accessible spots, would not be less with caches than with graves. The marauder or plunderer always has his wits about him in a semi-desert land like this Plateau Country. It is a difficult region to travel through because of the lack of food and water; and if the traveller, even to-day, would keep either the one or the other, he must resort to hiding.

Some confirmation of the cache theory comes from the older settlers at the Canyon, who have reported the finding of corn-cobs and dried maguey roots in these enclosed rock pockets. Moreover, the Havasupais still use the caves in Havasupai Canyon to store dried vegetables and fruits. But there will probably always be some question about the Grand Canyon depositories because of their placing in such inaccessible positions. Several that I have surveyed, and tried to explore, seem impossible of reach save by long ladders. That might prove a defense against the itinerant marauder, but it would also prove somewhat bothersome to the cautious owner.

There are Indians that still come and go along the Rim, but their tribes have not increased. Saving the Navahos, they are no longer barbaric. Civilization has tamed them to a point of pauperism, and disease has wasted them. They are seen about the Canyon to-day only in odd groups that come in from Havasupai or the Painted Desert region to beg or barter. The old order has changed, giving place to a new that is no improvement so far as the Indian is concerned.

But the Indian at the Canyon was never more than a bat clinging to a caverned wall. The Pale Face is not very different from him at the present time. Eventually, no doubt, the latter will “civilize” the whole Plateau Country, but that will not add to the glory of the Canyon. The iron rail and the bridge will supersede the trail and the ford, and perhaps many hotels will dull the memories of the cache and the wickiup, but we shall not profit thereby. Progress does not necessarily mean betterment.