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Vision Quest 2016: Indian Wars

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

And a beautiful translucent one

Long before I moved to New Mexico, during a period when my love affair with the desert was being tested, I was introduced to Dave, the archaeologist. He invited me along on a site survey, a search for sites or artifacts near a mountain spring in the Mojave National Preserve, we got to know each other a bit, and he gave me a copy of his master’s thesis. I told him about the Indian campsite I’d found in my mountains, and he said it was likely a girl’s puberty ritual site, a remote place that adolescent girls would visit with a female chaperone. The site included a flat-topped boulder with hand-carved hollows called “cupules”, in which the girls would mix paint for their faces, a part of the ritual.

In the years since, we’d fallen out of touch, but I knew he’d bought and moved into the former home of mutual friends, and I wanted to reconnect and get caught up on recent developments in desert archaeology.

Dave was on his way to a historic mining camp in the Preserve, where he was supervising restoration of cabins by volunteers. He invited me to join them, so I drove over in the morning to meet him at a crossroads, and followed him from there on a dirt road that climbed up into a steep area of granite peaks and slopes lush with perennial shrubs blooming red, yellow and blue, with cabins perched on ledges at different levels. It was an area I’d never visited, hidden from outside.

I’m not a fan of mining history or miner’s cabins, but I was quickly sucked into the volunteer spirit, and found myself brushing stain onto the frame of a cabin door while others bustled around me. Then Dave came up and suggested that I join him in a drive across the Preserve for some equipment. In his truck, we had our chance to talk.

My first question was a general one. Since first discovering traces of the Old Ones in this desert, 30 years ago, I’d developed a seemingly complete picture of its native inhabitants, the Chemehuevis, a branch of the Southern Paiute tribe that occupied southern Nevada and Utah. I knew archaeologists theorized that the Chemehuevi were recent migrants within the past 400 years, part of the so-called “Numic Expansion” from the northwest. But I took that theory with a grain of salt. I’d met Southern Paiutes who laughed at archaeologists and confidently asserted that their people had been here forever. I felt it was preposterous, and presumptuous, of Anglo scientists to rewrite the history of native people. Yet the other day, I’d seen a Park Service kiosk that claimed the Mojave Indians as prehistoric natives of the Preserve, omitting the Chemehuevis completely. I wanted to know which Indians I should talk to about the Native sites and artifacts I’d been finding, both here and in my mountains farther south.

Dave’s answer stirred up my settled local worldview. “Well, the Mojaves were here first. The Chemehuevi are newcomers to this desert. They came out of the north and kicked the Mojaves’ asses. You know about the Numic Expansion?”

“Yeah, I know about that theory. But the Southern Paiute had no history of a warrior culture. The Anglos just rolled over them with little resistance, everywhere they met. They avoided violence.”

“Well, that’s not completely true. They were guerrilla fighters. That’s how they beat the Mojave. The Mojave fought with clubs and tried to engage their enemy in hand-to-hand combat, while the Chemehuevis hid behind cover and shot them with arrows, from their powerful sinew-backed bows. They just kicked their asses, and the Mojaves gave up the desert and retreated to the River.”

“But how could the Paiutes have this overwhelmingly warlike, expansive culture of conquest for hundreds of years, then suddenly settle down and become peaceful once they’d migrated?”

“Well, they really didn’t. They fought back against the whites in the 19th century.”

“My impression was that they didn’t. Look at Carleton’s Campaign of terror, beheading them and mounting their heads on poles. We were the warlike ones, and we scared the shit out of the Chemehuevis.”

“Well, that’s true, but there are also accounts of Chemehuevis attacking whites. Dave Kessler, the rancher, was killed by Chemehuevis, along with a few other early settlers. And a war party of Chemehuevis trounced our military in a long, pitched battle at Zzyzx. You can read about that.”

“I will. I’ll read anything you can point me to. But I’m really having a hard time visualizing the Mojaves living out here. The Mojave are sedentary farmers. The Southern Paiutes are the ones who follow the old ways, nomadic hunter-gatherers perfectly adapted to the desert. How could some of the Mojaves live out here as nomadic hunter-gatherers, then just give it up and rejoin the main body of their tribe as settled farmers on the River?”

“That’s true. The Colorado River is the center of Mojave life and apparently always has been. But all the evidence shows this desert was dominated for millenia by what we call the Patayan culture, the ancient culture the Mojaves have inherited. I was on an excavation recently in the Woods Mountains, an amazing site with cultural materials in layers up to my neck, and it’s all Patayan, all Mojave.”

I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my desert.

“The archaeologist David Earl has written about a big battle between the Chemehuevis and the Mojaves down in your mountains. The Chemehuevis just slaughtered them. They were not a peaceful people.”

It was a long drive across the Preserve to pick up the equipment at a historic ranch. On the way, we passed the stone cabin where my artist friend, Carl, had lived as a hermit for many years, perfecting his style of painting the desert. It was a high plateau lush with blooming shrubs in rainbow colors. The prehistoric cultures of the desert were Dave’s specialty – his passion – as an archaeologist. He was clearly sincere and conscientious. He gave me lots of references to papers and sources, and I needed to track them down and follow up. But I felt there were things in the prevailing view that didn’t make sense, that didn’t add up, and later, as I began to locate Dave’s references, I saw that the Numic Expansion remains controversial even among mainstream archaeologists. I kept seeing Calvin Meyers, the Paiute environmental activist, standing beside me on a desert mountainside, smiling out over the beautiful valley that our culture has since despoiled with a giant solar power plant. “We have our own stories. Why would someone else try to tell us where we come from?”

Dave mentioned rock art studies and theories alongside more conventional archaeology, which surprised me. In my experience, conventional archaeologists take a dim view of rock art studies, viewing them as pseudoscience, partly because rock art generally lacks a proven connection with dateable deposits and ethnographic accounts. But the desert is somewhat unique in that here, rock art is the most widespread, numerous, and visible artifact of prehistoric culture, so it can’t just be ignored. The last time I’d read about Mojave Desert rock art was when Whitley published his manifesto linking rock art with male shamans using psychedelics – I found that preposterous, citing all the petroglyph sites in exposed locations with clear functions of signage and wayfinding. Dave agreed that much of Whitley’s thesis had been rejected, but his identification of prehistoric motifs with “phosphenes”, the shapes we hallucinate or see under pressure to our eyeballs, is hard to dispute.

I asked him about treatment of the dead in prehistoric societies – did he think cremation or abandonment was more common, or were Native people just opportunistic and pragmatic? He felt treatment of the dead was a serious matter, following prescribed ritual. He mentioned cremation burials he’d found at Paiute Springs – rock cairns containing burnt bones and topped with upside-down metates, once again associated with Patayan or Mojave culture.

To me, the most important, most sacred, site in the desert is a cave that for me is associated with fertility and conception. It’s lined with colorful paintings with differing degrees of wear, suggesting that it was used and maintained for a long time, and I’d always assumed it was a Chemehuevi site. I thought I could remember young Chemehuevis visiting the site years ago, and it had later been purchased by members of the tribe and turned into a preserve.

But when I asked Dave for contrasting examples of Mojave and Chemehuevi rock art, what he showed me associated the oldest, most prevalent, and most coherent art – all the art I was used to, including the fertility paintings – with the Mojaves, the sedentary floodplain farmers, rather than the nomadic hunter-gatherers who were perfectly adapted to the desert. Apparently the association had been made by rock art specialists on the basis of comparision with patterns on Patayan pottery. Dave repeated his assertion that the campsite I’d found was a girl’s puberty site, and that based on my description of potsherds found there, it had to be a Mojave site, more than 400 years old. Anything old and lasting in the desert was from the Mojaves, not the Chemehuevis.

It was tough news for me to chew on, especially as I recalled the oral culture of the Chemehuevis, recorded by ethnographers, which included myths and legends describing the creation of this desert landscape. How could newcomers enter and conquer a strange land and then establish detailed and elaborate songlines – all-night song cycles including a place-based mythology – within a few generations, a process that the Aborigines of Australia had 45,000 years to develop? Is it likely that the Chemehuevis would have borrowed these songs and stories from the Mojaves, the people they conquered? That certainly isn’t what we Anglo-Europeans did when we conquered and imposed Christianity on the natives of North and South America.

Later, back at one of the miner’s cabins which had been “stabilized” with a new roof, windows and a furnished kitchen, Dave finished working on a contract for his latest project, a study of black homesteaders in the Mojave. Whereas the local historian, Dennis Casebier, had labored for decades to record and publish the stories of white homesteaders in the Lanfair Valley, nobody, including me, had heard the story of Lanfair’s counterpart, the adjoining black community of Dunbar. Dave had stumbled upon it accidentally, won a sizable grant for research, and was really excited to see it unfold.

The restoration group gathered around us that night: the serious “cabin brotherhood” from suburban California, the female nonprofit staff from Santa Fe, and their young Navajo carpenters from Gallup. The Santa Fe staff complained about “anti-cabin” forces in the Park Service, while the brotherhood spoke of their admiration for the old prospector who’d built this place, and their intimate relationship with his descendants. They’d set up a shrine of sorts to him and his family, along one side of the kitchen. So many obscure hobbies and subcultures in our huge, affluent society, consuming resources from all over the world!

Dave entertained us with the story of a Park Service ranger who, unwilling to appear ignorant, lectured European tourists on how the local name “Ivanpah” came from an early Russian prospector – whereas it’s actually derived from the Paiute term for “clear water”. One of the cabin brothers described a group of visiting Russians he’d encountered on a previous trip, high up on the rocky ridge above the cabins. They were all burly guys with long black beards, and they claimed to have walked almost 40 miles without food or water, but they refused any help or supplies, and they wouldn’t say where they were going.

The cabin brothers had unrolled their bedrolls in the back room, and most of the rest of us had set up camp outside, spread out across the upper slopes. But the young women from Santa Fe had pitched their tent inside a side room of the already weatherproof cabin, as if they weren’t sure whether they wanted to be indoors or out. They’d found a cell signal and sat inside the tent, inside the cabin, texting or Instagramming, to the amusement of the rest of us.

I laid out my bedroll in the duff under a juniper and wrapped the tarp around the sleeping bag for extra insulation. The temperature dropped into the 30s overnight, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

A week later, I returned to my mountains for the last time before heading home to New Mexico. On one of the first hikes of this trip, looking down from the edge of the plateau, I’d noticed the house-sized rock outcrops standing out on the bajada, and I remembered that my friends had talked about hanging out there once, around the time they’d found artifacts in the area. Some old hippies I’d met camping in the gulch also mentioned finding artifacts around one of these rock piles, so it suddenly hit me that there were probably prehistoric sites nearby that I’d been walking past and missing for years. It occurred to me that this might be an outlier of the girl’s puberty site above on the plateau, a staging area where the girls might camp out after their long walk from home, before making the strenuous climb to the plateau. I couldn’t go home without taking a closer look.

  1. Max Higgs says:

    Max, thank you for posting this.

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