Deep in Mancos Canyon, where juniper-topped mesas crumble into valleys of sandstone boulders, Rick Hayes pulled off to the side of the dirt road and clambered up a steep dirt path. There, on the side of a sandstone wall, ancestral Puebloans had carved the story of the world. Petroglyphs of grandmother spider, a dancing Kokopelli and man emerging into the fourth world decorated the rock’s face.
After a 35-minute drive, we arrived in “downtown Mesa Verde,” Hayes said, though aside from the six visitors who scrambled up the trail behind the wiry Ute Mountain Ute tour guide, the valley was hushed and hardly scathed by human activity.
We were less than a mile and a half from the former Mesa Verde National Park visitor center, and while the scenery mirrors that of the world-famous attraction, the visitor experience differs entirely.
While Mesa Verde just invested millions in a new visitor center and stabilization efforts to protect its ancient cliff dwellings for thousands of future visitors, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park has no such plans. Its visitor center occupies an old gas station, and the facilities in the park consist of picnic tables shaded by frail wooden shelters and two bathroom shacks. Beside the handful of daily visitors, who must be accompanied by a guide, the park’s canyons are nearly empty.
“It’s kind of like we’re running in reverse, but it’s because we want to protect the cliff dwellings,” said Veronica Cuthair, longtime director of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, operated by the Towaoc-based Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Yet Cuthair also recognizes that, for many travelers, the appeal of the park is exactly that it isn’t another Mesa Verde. Without paved sidewalks, tour-bus turnoffs and interpretive signs, the experience gains a realness and a rawness that makes the years separating modern tourists and the ancestral Puebloans seem to slip away.
Ancient native land
At 125,000 acres, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park forms a massive geographical cup around Mesa Verde National Park. The 52,000-acre national park was once part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, but after realizing the historic value of the ancestral Puebloan ruins, Congress established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 to protect and preserve ancient dwellings such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House.
Yet the national park boundary arbitrarily sliced through the heart of ancestral Puebloan territory, leaving out major cliff dwellings. Federal officials tried to expand the park’s boundaries twice. They succeeded the first time but met even stronger resistance to a later request. Instead, Chief Jack House, the tribe’s last hereditary leader, realized the economic potential of a tribal park that would protect the ruins on the tribe’s land and also profit from them. Guided by this vision, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council approved two resolutions in the 1970s related to the tribal park’s goals of historic and prehistoric site preservation and tribal employment.
The tribal park was placed on the historic property listing in May 1972, and it was opened to visitors in 1981. Archaeologists estimate more than 100 cliff dwellings and up to 10,000 archaeological sites are within the park’s bounds, Hayes said.
Beside managing the tribal park, the department’s eight employees oversee a massive project to rehabilitate and catalog artifacts excavated in the 1970s, Cuthair said. The office rehabilitated and properly stored more than 10,000 artifacts and is now in the middle of transferring paper records of those objects into an online database.
The park’s operations have hardly changed since it opened. The number of visitors also has stayed steady – according to the 1998 book American Indians and National Parks, about 2,500 people visited the park in 1991, and last week Hayes estimated that the park now sees 2,000 to 3,000 visitors each year.
Getting to the ruins from the visitor center requires a 45-minute drive that dead ends on the edge of Lion Canyon, which includes four of the park’s most-visited cave dwellings. Down a set of three wooden ladders, a dirt footpath leads between the ruins. The geometric structures tucked into arcing sandstone alcoves mirror the architecture of their Mesa Verde neighbors. Yet as Hayes climbed through the structures, he pointed to unique details such as triangles of pottery, sandstone slashed in the process of sharpening knives and corn cobs, dried and hardened by time. They are the everyday objects that make such poignant reminders of the patterns of daily life that unfolded here – reminders that at many other places would have been swept into archives and museums long ago.
Hayes talks with the flair of a storyteller rather than a historian about the ancestral Puebloans who lived here. His narrative intertwines history, native teachings, personal anecdotes and spiritual musings.
“We didn’t create the web of life, we’re merely a strand in it,” he told a captive audience.
He acknowledges that his story of the Puebloan people differs from history books that say they retreated to the cliff dwellings as a defensive measure as they struggled for survival against drought, famine and deforestation. Hayes’ version of the story isn’t one of hunger, fear and suffering but one filled with beauty, love and abundance. The caves were cool oases where water was abundant if you knew where it was, he said.
Hayes clearly loves this place, calling the vast labyrinth of canyons his office and the sky his wall of clouds that never stays the same.
There have been efforts by past directors to advertise the park and bring in more visitors, Hayes said, but he and other longtime tribal park staff members are more inclined to keep the park under the radar.
“It’s kind of good that way,” Hayes said. “When you keep it small, you make it unique.”
It is the simplicity of the venture that makes it special, said Larry Means, who was visiting with his wife on a tour of Southwest Colorado.
“When it gets too commercialized, it loses something,” he said. Saul Medina, a history teacher visiting from Puerto Rico, was seeking authenticity when he chose to carve out time to visit the Ute Mountain Tribal Park.
Of course, the old-timers know that the park’s roads could someday be paved and lined with tour buses and picture takers.
“We don’t know what future generations will do with the park,” said Cuthair, who has worked for the tribal park since 1990. “We can’t work here forever.”