Among the kivas, pit houses and other remnants of prehistoric humans in the Four Corners, archaeologists at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center are looking for clues to learn how ancient people handled migration and climate change – some of the same issues modern civilization is confronting.
For Liz Perry, Crow Canyon’s president and CEO, socially relevant research questions are key to the nonprofit’s future after it faced cutbacks this year, she said.
Perry started at the nonprofit about 1½ years ago after financially turning around an Alaska Native corporation. At Crow Canyon, she took a deep dive into the nonprofit’s finances and found it had grown too quickly and revenue had not kept up, she said. The nonprofit laid off 12 employees, bringing the staff down to 55 as part of the changes.
Now she is looking to ensure the nonprofit stays relevant and its three areas of focus – research, education and Native American partnerships – are closely integrated.
Perry said addressing big social questions energizes the staff and keep the center relevant.
“Everyone at Crow Canyon is passionate. When we all get together to do brain-storming sessions about the projects we want to do. ... Everybody says: ‘world peace.’ And we laugh and we say, ‘Well, let’s scale it back it a little bit,’” she said.
Some scaled-down work includes educating visitors about migration, an issue that has become deeply divisive in modern society.
Migration is an integral part of the human experience, said Susan Ryan, archaeologist who oversees all of Crow Canyon’s programs.
Crow Canyon’s work has shown that ancient Native American people didn’t leave the Four Corners en masse in 1276 because of a drought. The residents started migrating south to areas decades before that to areas like the Rio Grande Valley, possibly because of social structure changes, she said.
“Migration takes place since we are humans and it will never stop, and in a way what we’re seeing in the modern world is an acceleration of migrations, because of the fact that the environment is changing, and political structures are changing, borders are changing,” Ryan said.
Perry said she expects exploring relevant social questions will help the nonprofit apply for new grants and develop new curriculum to educate students and adult visitors.
The nonprofit also helps to improve cultural awareness about Native American tribes that descended from those who built the ruins. Native American people say their ancestors – or at least the spirits of their ancestors – still occupy the sites.
Joseph Suina, chairman of Crow Canyon’s Native American Initiative Committee, said he also wants to ensure tourists understand the descendants of ancient Pueblo people still inhabit the Southwest.
“We are not from the past, we are very much in the present and very active,” said Suina, a Cochiti Pueblo member and a Crow Canyon Board of Trustees member.
To help share that message, he would like to see more members of the 19 pueblos go to work for Crow Canyon, he said.
In addition to educating visitors, Crow Canyon also supports pueblos interested in preserving aspects of their culture and researching their past. For example, the nonprofit helped Cochiti Pueblo start a total language immersion program.
Perry’s decision to ingrate Crow Canyon’s three missions – education, research and Native American partnership – might be tough, but it was necessary, he said.
“It’s going to be even harder work, but more focused, I think, and more integrated,” he said.
Perry brings unique insight as the leader of Crow Canyon because she interned for Crow Canyon in 1995 before earning a doctorate in anthropology from University of Arizona in 2004 and going into management.
She worked as a vice president for SWCA Environmental Consultants, where she oversaw $40 million in revenue and 350 employees. She then worked as CEO of Koniag Inc., an Alaska Native corporation with interests in tourism and technology, and led the business through a financial turnaround in four years.
As an anthropologist, her interest in people drove her move into management, Perry said.
“I am a people person throughout all time and space,” she said. “... I love knowing what makes people tick, whether it’s people in an organization or people in the past. It’s really the same thing.”