by Hank Leukart
February 17, 2010
The Indian Unit, revisited
Trying to one-up my middle school teachers by taking an Indian ruins road trip through America’s Southwest.
The Sinagua built Montezuma Castle, one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America. (view all Montezuma Castle, Arizona photos)
RESCOTT NATIONAL FOREST, Arizona — In seventh grade, my well-meaning middle-school teachers created a disaster of a lesson plan they called “The Indian Unit,” which combined one part worthwhile history lessons, one part Native American theme park, and one part White Man’s Guilt. During that stretch of Native American-themed school days, which seemed to me to last as long as the genuinely tragic Trail of Tears, I remember learning about Native American history in geography class, reading about the offensiveness of NFL team mascots in literature class, and calculating the volume of a teepee in math class. When we did something in school that a teacher liked, he gave us plastic wampum beads which we were to keep on a hokey necklace. As a special treat one day, the teachers gathered two hundred twelve year olds in the library and forced us to watch the full 240-minute version of Dances With Wolves, the gratuitous length of which almost killed all of us. The Indian Unit’s grand finale was something the teachers called “Grand River Day”: we went on a field trip to a local Ohio State park and tried to hunt rabbits by sending an impregnable line of kids to walk across a field and flush out the bunnies. Then we ate moose stew, a concoction that I’m pretty sure was made with beef from the local grocery store. I was a cynical tween, and I can’t remember another two-month long stretch of my life during which I rolled my eyes more.
Last year, when my friend Wini, visiting from Switzerland, begged me to take her in my car on an Indian ruins road trip, all I could think about was ridiculous wampum necklaces and four hours of Kevin Costner’s face. If my middle school teachers’ goal was to leave me with positive feelings about Native American history, they had failed miserably. Fortunately, Wini also begged me to take her on tens of other trips — there are many great Western US travel possibilities — and so the proposed Indian road trip fell by the wayside.
Yet, strangely, the idea of it stuck in my head, long after Wini’s return to Switzerland.
“It’s time for an Indian ruins road trip!” I pronounce to my friends Rich, Wendy, and Vik. With enthusiasm, they agree to accompany me during a convenient weekend; fortunately, they never experienced The Indian Unit.
Soon, the four of us are driving toward Arizona in the night. I have appointed myself the car’s annoying middle school teacher.
“About seven hundred years ago, around AD 1300, thousands of Native Americans, living among the beautiful red and orange mesas, buttes, and hoodoos of what is now the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, disappeared,” I announce to my companions, synthesizing information as I gather it from Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: An Archaelogical Guide. Apparently, exposure to Native American history as an adult transforms me into a whimsical Indiana Jones/Mr. Wizard hybrid. “No one knows exactly why these tribes — the Hohokam, the Anasazi, and the Sinagua — decided to abandon the area, though archaeologists suspect that a drought, food shortages, overcrowding, disease, and foreign invasion may have been factors.”
“You’re like an educational human Podcast,” Wendy groans as she rolls her eyes.
“When can we stop for a cigarette?” Vik asks.
“Wait, we’re getting to Arizona at 3 AM and getting up at 6 AM? And we’re doing this every day? To look for people who disappeared 700 years ago?” Rich asks me, bewildered.
I realize that I must have been really annoying to my middle school teachers.
“Well, not exactly,” I say. “After all, the Hohokam, Anasazi, and Singuaga people from 1300 have been gone for centuries.” But there is something about the idea of a “real” Indian Unit — one that replaces Kevin Costner and fake moose stew with the actual ruins of Native American civilizations — that has caught my imagination. I think that, maybe, we’ll even discover a clue explaining the mysterious disappearance of these Indians. Maybe I can do better than my middle school teachers.
“Well, we can sleep in a little bit on the first morning,” I explain, knowing that we’re trying to fit a ten-day road trip into four days so that we can work around everyone’s work schedules.
When we arrive in middle-of-nowhere Arizona near the supposed site of some remote ruins after driving from Los Angeles for eight hours, we’re all deliriously tired. So we’re not sure we trust our eyes, when, while driving down a dirt road into the pitch-black Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, our headlights reveal a strange animal in the darkness that we can’t identify. We stop the car and stare at its eerie appearance, confused.
“It’s a cow,” Wendy says.
“No, cows don’t look like that,” Rich says. “It’s a wolf.”
“Maybe it’s a wolfcow,” I suggest.
I think of the Navajo legend about skinwalkers, people who have gained the supernatural ability, by performing a horrible act of evil (such as killing a family member), to turn into any animal they choose. According to the legend, skinwalkers often manifest themselves as wolves, and there’s a ranch in Utah where many, along with UFOs and poltergeists, allegedly have been sighted. I don’t mention the legend to anyone in the car, because, well, who wants to hear about an unbelievable myth from a grating faux middle school teacher?
We drive a few more feet, when suddenly, a glimmering white horse appears in front of the car. Seriously. No one says anything.
“I think it’s time to set up camp and go to sleep,” I say. But I’m thinking that we’ve only been on our Indian ruins road trip for eight hours and already I feel like we’re kicking the butts of my old teachers. My middle school Indian Unit never made me feel like I had become entangled in a surreal Native American dream.
Read the second part of this series about an Indian ruins road trip, in which Hank and his friends become amateur archaeologists when they hike 14 miles, scale the rim of a steep canyon, and discover an ancient Native American cliff dwelling.
How to Take an Indian Ruins Road Trip
There are thousands of Native American ruins sites in the American Southwest. Amateur archeologists could spend weeks exploring them all. Here’s a driving itinerary including some of the best. View this road trip on a map.
- MONTEZUMA CASTLE NATIONAL MONUMENT: The Sinagua built this cliff dwelling, which, strangely, has (almost) nothing to do with the Aztec Montezuma. These ruins are impressive and easy to get to by walking a quarter-mile, paved loop. $5 per person.
- PALATKI HERITAGE SITE AND HONANKI INDIAN RUINS: These two quarter-mile hikes near Sedona take hikers to the ruins of the largest cliff dwellings in Red Rock Country between 1150 and 1300 A.D.
- CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT: Seeing this beautiful canyon will make you want to stay here forever. Unfortunately, due to a unique arrangement with the Navajo Nation, hiking or backpacking anywhere in the Monument requires a paid Navajo guide — except for the White House Ruins Trail, a 3.5-mile round trip hike into the Canyon to some impressive Anasazi ruins. Jeep and horseback riding tours are also available. View my hike on the White House Trail.
- FOUR CORNERS: This is the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. Tourists pay $3 to stand on the exact intersection. I have no idea why anyone would want do this. We did it. You’ll do it too.
- MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK: This fantastic park, called an Archeological Disneyland by some, boasts some of the most notable and best-preserved cliff dwellings in the US. In the summer, take guided tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony House; during the winter, take a guided tour to Spruce Tree House. No matter when you go, drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road to see ruins from lookout points and try one of the park’s hiking trails. $15 per vehicle in the summer; $10 per vehicle in the winter.
- HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT: This Monument allows visitors to see six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages. $6 per vehicle.
- MONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBAL PARK: Drive this 17-mile dirt road loop to see the gorgeous buttes and plateaus of Monument Valley close up. A high clearance vehicle is recommended. Definitely worth the $5 per person, especially if you enjoy photography.
- NAVAJO NATIONAL MONUMENT: See three Anecestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
- OFF THE BEATEN PATH: There are many Indian ruins sites outside National Parks and Monuments which can only be reached with help from Native American guides or enterprising hikers. Dave Wilson’s Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen helps amateur archeologists willing to hike long distances find some of these sites.