September is a glorious time of the year to travel the Four Corners region. My wife Kathy and I took advantage of the recent long stretch of sunny weather to visit the San Juan Basin of Northern New Mexico. We joined a trip organized by the Chipeta chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society. The purpose of the trip was to visit the archaeological sites in the Largo Canyon drainage, southeast of Aztec, N.M.
The Largo Canyon region, known as Dinetah, was inhabited by ancient Puebloans prior to the 13th century and the Navajo people since the 14th century. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Pueblo groups from along the Rio Grande River fled to the Largo Canyon region to escape the persecution of the Spanish. There are many masonry structures and rock art sites associated with that time period and earlier.
We met the members of our group along U.S. 550 at Counselor. From there, we drove north into Escrito Canyon, a tributary of Largo Canyon. The area is quite remote, no less then 40 miles as the crow flies from Aztec. Cliffed mesa tops and deep canyons create a rugged landscape that makes travel very challenging. The road was alternately hardpan, washboarded and sandy.
The leader of our group was David Casey, a retired educator from Aztec. Casey taught in Nucla many years ago and had worked with Don Binder, a Chipeta chapter member. He has been involved as an avocational archaeologist in the San Juan Basin for many years and has done extensive reading about the legends and beliefs of the Navajo.
In spite of the area’s remoteness, it is interlaced with many dirt roads, a result of industrial-strength natural gas extraction in the San Juan Basin. We were hard pressed to go anywhere without seeing or hearing evidence of the gas extraction. Our camp was on an old well pad for lack of any other suitable site.
On the first full day of the trip, we visited Truby’s Tower, a masonry structure built in the 1700s by the Navajos. The structure and many more like it were built as a defensive position to ward off attacks by the Utes. The Utes would raid Navajo and Pueblo enclaves to steal livestock, goods and children. Many times, the children were sold as slaves to the Spanish.
Later that day, we visited several tributaries of Largo Canyon to view Basketmaker and Navajo rock art sites. After lunch, we drove down canyon to the Truby Ranch. Casey wanted to show us some rock art panels in Cibolo Canyon, but to access them, we had to travel through the ranch. He stopped by the ranch house and obtained permission to drive across the ranch.
On several south-facing cliffs and small alcoves, the pictographs and petroglyphs numbered in the hundreds. In addition, cowboys and sheepherders dating back to the early 1900s had carved animal images and their names and dates on the rock walls. In some cases, images had been carved over existing petroglyphs, creating a confusing array of carved lines and images.
Probably the most impressive rock art panel of the day was a grouping of several images that Casey interpreted as representing Navajo supernaturals, or ye’I’s. Changing Woman, Talking God, Born for Water and Monster Slayer appear together, along with other images.
The next morning was cool and partly cloudy. We drove up Rincon Largo Canyon several miles to a well pad, where we began our hike. Our destination was Standing God and Rincon Largo pueblitos and associated rock art.
Casey led the way into a small side canyon, then up a slope filled with juniper and serviceberry. A game trail presented itself, so we followed it up and around a line of cliffs. Fresh elk, deer and even bear tracks were noted along the trail. The trail followed a narrow bench that was below Standing God pueblito. The ruin has completely collapsed, so we didn’t visit it.
We dropped off the bench on a steep slope to a notch in the canyon walls between two canyons. Near the notch was a large rock dihedral, and at its base was a large panel of petroglyphs. The rock surface was filled with the pecked paw prints of bear, wolf, rabbit, mountain lion and turkey tracks, as well as several human-like figures. The obligatory group photo was taken to record our visit. After lunch, we visited the Rincon Largo pueblito, then headed back to camp.
The rock art we viewed during our trip to Dinetah was wonderful. Casey provided some excellent interpretation and background information. Without the expertise of people like Casey and others, our understanding of Indian rock art would be severely lacking.
Bill Harris is a registered nurse and author of “Bicycling the Uncompahgre Plateau.” He has traveled the backcountry of the Colorado Plateau since 1976.