Ancient culture hidden away with park closure

By Casey Newton
Phoenix, Arizona (AP) March 2010

Take the interstate to Flagstaff, head east toward Albuquerque and drive until the snow disappears. A few miles east of Winslow, a road that once led to the ruins of an ancient Hopi civilization now dead-ends at a locked gate.

“Due to budget reductions,” a sign reads, “park closed.”

But the people closing down Homolovi Ruins State Park are expecting visitors and, by cellphone, say the gate is not yet locked and to come on in. Two miles down a bumpy road to the visitors center, a man wearing thin gloves is packing pottery and petroglyphs into white-cardboard boxes.

Michael Freisinger, museum curator for Arizona’s parks system, is wrapping clay pots and stone tools in acid-free paper, preparing them for storage in a climate-controlled room in Tucson. The oldest pieces date back more than 800 years.

Freisinger started working for the parks system in 1993. One of his first tasks was to open Homolovi. He spent the next 17 years expanding the state’s collections and opening new exhibits. Now, he drives across the state to pack them all away. And no one can say when they might reopen.

“I’m the mothball curator now,” he says.

Homolovi Ruins closed Feb. 22, victim of a state budget deficit that led lawmakers to cut parks funding last year by 61 percent. Homolovi and Lyman Lake were the first in a wave of closures that by June will padlock 21 of the state’s 30 parks and recreation areas, leaving people far fewer places to explore the history and beauty of Arizona.

The closures will eliminate the jobs of 70 rangers and parks staff across the state, depriving them of the chance to share the story of Arizona with the system’s 2.2 million annual visitors.

Freisinger works at a folding table in a space where schoolchildren used to line up to see pots and petroglyphs made by ancestral Hopis in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The exhibit contains 400 pieces of ancestral Hopi pottery and tools that drew nearly 15,000 people to Homolovi last year. Freisinger has already put nearly two dozen white boxes into his van. When he is done packing, he will drive them 300 miles to the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, the state’s official repository for archaeological artifacts. The objects will not be available for public viewing.

Homolovi Ruins comprises 4,000 acres, part of a vast floodplain that stretches halfway to the horizon in every direction. Freisinger knows how to protect the artifacts in his boxes. He has no idea how to protect the potshards and petroglyphs, the grinding stones and hand tools, scattered among the park’s 340 archaeological sites.

“We’re charting uncharted waters,” Freisinger says. He asks the question that all of the park’s employees are asking: “How do you close a park?” Homolovi Ruins State Park encompasses seven ancestral Hopi pueblos that were occupied roughly 1260 to 1400. Today, more than 9,000 Hopis live on a 1.6 million-acre reservation 65 miles north of the park.

On visits to the park, Hopi schoolchildren learned how their ancestors settled the floodplain and grew corn, squash and cotton. Outside visitors learned the ancient culture, watched demonstrations of their crafts and purchased works made by Hopi artists on the reservation.

Establishment of the park in 1986 also offered protection from looters who used to rip up archaeological sites in search of treasures. With the park closed, tribal leaders are afraid the pothunters will return.

When the park was established, state parks officials worked with the Hopis to plan the layout so roads would not disturb sacred sites.

The park’s three full-time staff members learned which of the Hopis’ stories are considered sacred knowledge, not to be shared with the general public, and which could be told.

Karen Berggren has spent nearly 23 years at Homolovi. She became the park’s first manager when it opened. She lives in one of two residences in the park and used to manage every facet of its operations.

On this day, she is sitting at her desk in the visitors center shredding personnel records.

Homolovi’s closure means more than a lost job to Berggren. She is losing her chance to connect people with the past.

“These parks are Arizona treasures,” she says. “Reducing them to ‘revenues produced’ is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for our citizens and for our history. And for our visitors.”

Berggren takes the closure personally. She is 60 years old. Homolovi has been her life’s work and her home.

The park, Berggren says, is a microcosm of Arizona. In addition to the Hopi pueblos, there is a cemetery from an early Mormon settlement.

When the layoffs come, Berggren plans to retire. Evicted from her home of two decades, she will move with her dogs into two rooms at the home of a friend who lives in Winslow.

Park Ranger Kenn Evans lives in Winslow with his wife. To make ends meet, Evans has long had a second job doing administrative work at a mortuary in town. That will become his only job when the park closes.

Homolovi remains his passion.

Evans spent 18 years explaining to visitors the subtle differences in the artifacts at Homolovi, showing them how they could tell what sort of wood the clay was fired in by the coloration of the potshard or the way the clay hardened. Asked how he can differentiate among the 30 kinds of pottery found at Homolovi, he chuckles and shares the secret. “Do it for 18 years.”

Chad Meunier, Berggren’s deputy, lives in the park’s second residence with his wife and four young children. He has worked nearly 10 years at Homolovi.

Meunier was applying for other jobs when parks officials offered to keep him on-site to provide security. He will no longer have a chance to tell the park’s stories. But perhaps he can keep it safe.

Excavations at the site have allowed archaeologists to piece together the beginnings of kachina religion in the Hopi Tribe and to show that early Hopis had developed advanced brick-making techniques about 300 years earlier than originally thought.

Evans worries what will happen to the artifacts on the site.

He also worries about what will become of the collective knowledge and deep relationships with the Hopis that park staffers have developed over a combined 50 years at Homolovi.

Several ideas about how to reopen Homolovi and other parks are percolating in the Legislature.

One is to add a $12 fee to vehicle registrations that would go to the parks. That proposal, HCR 2040, passed out of committee last week.

But Berggren and Evans do not see help on the horizon this day. If new funding arrives, it will likely be too late for them. They feel the park slipping away.

The Hopis tell a story about an elder brother, the Bahana, who traveled to the east to learn about the world. Someday, he will return, they say, bringing with him a golden age.

To find his people, the Bahana will visit the Hopis’ ancestral homes. The potshards at Homolovi are part of the trail that will lead him back to his people and usher in a happier time. If the land is disturbed and the artifacts are stolen, the Bahana could be lost.

Outside the park, Hopi tribal member Gwen Setalla lives in Winslow. She worked at Homolovi for four years, giving demonstrations of traditional pottery making. She thinks of that story and of the significance of those pottery shards scattered across the landscape.

“They leave a trail for us also,” Setalla says. “Not only for us, but for the public. To learn about the past.”

 

0
0
0
s2sdefault