Study looks at early Navajo use of smoke signals

Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press Writer
5/26/09

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Armed with special flares, archaeologists and a team of volunteers are fanning out over part of the Four Corners region to send out smoke signals as part of an experiment designed to learn more about how early Navajos may have defended their territory.

There are more than 200 pueblitos – usually high on rock outcroppings overlooking the San Juan Basin – that archaeologists believe were built by Navajos three centuries ago to protect themselves from Spanish explorers and neighboring tribes.

The sites feature the remains of what were once formidable structures made of stacked sandstone. The theory is that Navajos bunkered down inside the pueblitos and possibly used smoke to signal to other sites, said Jim Copeland, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Farmington.

Copeland said previous experiments in the early 1990s verified the general concept, but scores of new sites have been identified since then and improved computer modeling and analysis has refined the idea of an “early warning system.”

“We’re still trying to confirm long distance and questionable views,” Copeland said. “A lot of them are kind of no-brainers. You can pretty much see from A to B, but A to C was sort of questionable and that’s the kind of thing we want to test.”

The volunteers planned to head out to some of the remote defensive sites on Saturday. Their mission: Get there by noon, set off their smoke signals and scan the horizon for other columns of smoke.

Much of the area where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet is known as Dinetah, the ancestral homeland of the Navajos; the tribe’s traditional creation story centers on the area.

“The Dinetah essentially is the emergence place of the Navajo,” said Ron Maldonado, program manager of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department.

He said Navajo ancestors spread out from here to occupy much of the Four Corners region. Because of pressure from the Spanish and other tribes, he said they retreated to Dinetah and built defensive structures.

“If you hear an enemy approaching, you climb into these things and pull up the ladder and you can seal yourself in for a while,” he said.

Tree ring dating shows most of the sites are from the early 1700s, said Patrick Hogan, associate director of the University of New Mexico’s Office of Contract Archaeology. He researched the sites during the early 1990s, when oil and gas development began to boom and archaeological surveys became necessary.

Hogan said overall, researchers are interested in better understanding the early social organization of the Navajos and the connections between their communities.

“One way to think about linking these larger communities is which defensive sites have line of sight to each other,” he said. “They aren’t going to have line of sight to all of them. They’re going to be in clusters, and those clusters might give us a basis for then defining larger cooperating groups.”

While more than 200 defensive sites have been documented, Copeland said he’s certain that others are out there, collapsed and hidden under centuries of sand and brush.

“Until you walk up on it or someone points you in that direction, it’s just sitting out there waiting,” he said.

The sites that are part of the smoke signal experiment are on land managed by the BLM, Copeland said.

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