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Essays from the Southwest

Essays from the Southwest

Three Views of a May Term Trip


The 2005 version of Professor Chuck Trippp's May term class entitled "Southwetern Pueblo Societies" included a 10-day visit to both ancestral and contemporary Puebloan sites in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.  May term trips can be life-changing.  They offer students and faculty the opportunity to experience a different kind of classroom and to bring back memories of worlds unlike their own.  Here Professor Trip and several of his students share their reflections of this particular trip.


Remembering Chaco Canyon’s Coyotes

by Professor Chuck Tripp

High-pitched yelps filled the night air and awakened me with a start. My clock showed 2:00 a.m. The cacophony continued. Only coyotes could make such a shrill racket, I reckoned. It’s difficult to describe exactly how eerie coyote chatter can be under nature’s un-illuminated, quiet skies, but once heard, it’s never forgotten.

The wailing and shrieking drew nearer to my tent as the “little desert wolves” ran along a road bisecting Chaco Canyon National Historical Park’s campgrounds. Maybe they were running from the cougar that a Canadian photographer told our student campers he had seen at sundown perched up on Chaco Canyon’s southern rim. No big cat ever came our way, though—at least none was reported. More than likely the camping area smelled too much of humanity for a shy, solitary cougar, but scores of invading visitors inside nylon bubbles scattered across the sand were no deterrent at all to a frisky, wild canine pack.

Just after sunup, coyote notes rang out for nearly half an hour, and the songs were repeated again from some distance away. Perhaps we’d received an early morning reminder as to who Chaco’s real residents are. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought at the time, although I was glad the cougar didn’t pay us a visit.

As it turned out, only half of our Westminster May term Chaco sojourners heard the prior night’s noisy prattle. I don’t know how they did it, but the other half slept soundly through the whole thing. I guess there really are two kinds of “sleepers.”

Thankfully, wildlife is holding its own in Chaco Canyon, and we can hope that will continue forever. This 2004 class was my eighth May term trip since 1990. In addition to having heard about cougars and actually hearing coyotes, over the years we’ve spotted eagles, hawks, vultures, a bobcat, several kinds of rabbits and mice, prairie dogs, lizards, rattlesnakes (this trip, too), bull snakes, antelope (close to the park), and more. Many of these critters were depicted in pictographs by the canyon’s Ancestral Puebloan inhabitants more than a thousand years ago, and miraculously, both animals and pictographs are still there. In today’s fastchanging world, dominated by the measurement of passing time, it's always good to see that some things remain the same, as though they drink in timelessness.

As the hot New Mexico sun quickly changed a chilly high desert night into an ever warmer, cloudless day, it was time to break camp and head south.We were off to Gallup, Acoma’s Sky City, Zuni Pueblo, and El Morro National Monument, and then points west such as Puerco Ruins,Wupatki National Monument, Walpi on the Hopi Reservation’s First Mesa, and Hopi’s Second and Third Mesas.

Still our departure from Chaco was a good time to reflect on the Ancestral Puebloan settlements and wildlife that we had seen during the previous five days at Mesa Verde National Park, Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, and Aztec National Monument.

And although we didn’t actually “see” Chaco’s coyotes, those of us who heard their symphony will remember them as well as any other actual sighting we made on this trip. Many stories told by indigenous peoples portray coyotes as sly tricksters, and plenty of coyotes in Chaco Canyon seem at times to act the part. I have no doubt we heard several of them that night. 


May Term Road Trip Paves the Way to Whole-Body Learning Style

by Jennifer Rouse,
Westminster College Modern Dance Adjunct Faculty

When it comes to learning, there is no direct path. Traditional learning is often associated with sitting at a desk, taking notes, and memorizing course material. While this method is certainly one way to acquire knowledge, it's not the only way. Another method, and my personal favorite, can be summed up in two words: road trip (or, in an attempt to sound more academic, field trip)!

Take Dr. Chuck Tripp’s 2005 May term course, for example. Dr. Tripp's course attracted students and faculty alike who were interested in studying the past and present conditions of the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma peoples in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Tripp began the course in a traditional classroom—students, books, and pencils at the ready.

Eventually, however, the study group left their desks and set out to experience ancient and contemporary southwestern Pueblos, including Mesa Verde, Chimney Rock, Aztec, Chaco Canyon, El Morro, Puerco Ruins,Wupatki, Acoma Pueblo, Zuni Land, and Hopi Land.

Learning should be an adventure. And what’s more adventurous than a trek into the desert complete with loved ones, new acquaintances, experienced guides, campfire chats, and a roadside breakdown (not listed in the course syllabus)? My family and I joined the excursion and learned a lot about the southwestern Puebloan people—their lifestyles, customs, homes, religions, traditions, and ways of understanding the world. This last point struck me as the most profound aspect of the trip. I felt compelled to understand, as best I could, the way ancestors of today's Pueblo peoples understood their lives more than 1,000 years ago.

During some free time in Chaco Canyon, I found myself lying in the cool redrock shade. This escape from the desert heat was satisfying, and my mind wandered toward the changing patterns of white clouds and blue sky framed by solid red walls. Earlier that day we had toured the massive ruins of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco’s largest “town.” There I learned of a theory linking the structures of the Ancient Puebloan’s villages in Chaco Canyon with the trajectories and cycles of the sun and moon. This theory suggests that many structures they built, some miles apart, were strategically positioned in relation to each other based on the sun’s yearly path and the 18-year lunar cycle. The idea that Chaco’s ancient architects possessed such knowledge and abilities without contemporary technology was mindboggling to me.

But as I lay, gazing at the sky, I realized that my astonishment at the Ancestral Puebloan’s connection to the earth and sky was in part due to my own disconnect from nature. It was at this moment that I felt closer to understanding the way they might have lived and experienced things, the way they might have understood their world. It was lying down and gazing at the sky that brought these thoughts to me, and I wondered, “Would I have had these realizations sitting in a classroom?” Then it occurred to me that “field trip” learning is very different from “book” learning.

Field trips are conducive to “whole-body” learning. By experiencing subjects with all of your senses, you come to know them on many different levels which are supported by, but also unlike, sitting in classrooms or reading textbooks. Suddenly, you find yourself understanding a landscape by the way your skin feels in the hot wind or through your conversation with the Acoma woman you’ve just met. As the trip progresses, experiential knowledge builds and collects within you. By being fully engaged you increase the ability to develop more visceral and personal relationships with the subject matter. I'm sure that my understanding of southwest Pueblo societies was deepened by such learning.

Westminster College's May term trips, such as Dr. Tripp's class, provide the perfect opportunity to abandon things familiar, hit the road to discover new experiences outside of everyday life and traditional classroom settings, and return with rich new understandings that, if properly integrated, can greatly enhance your life.


Lessons Revealed by a Hopi Pot

by Diana Humphries, ’05

Many may have difficulty imagining how anyone could live in an environment as harsh as the Four Corners area, a place where water and shade are scarce and desert temperatures can hit extreme highs and lows in a matter of hours, but the Puebloan people have done just that for more than 2,000 years. Unfortunately, many of today’s Puebloans—inheritors of a magnificent culture that in some ways was more sophisticated than European culture 1,000 years ago—have been relegated by events beyond their control to impoverished lives on reservations where economic opportunities are scarce. Things are slowly improving for them, but the U.S. government still controls much of what they do.

Walpi, a village on the Hopi Reservation's First Mesa in Arizona that dates back to at least the late 1600s, is a striking example of Pueblo architecture.Walpi is far removed from many of the basic amenities that most of us take for granted. Residents do not have easy access to medical care, running water, electricity, or basic sanitation services. Some have pickup trucks and cars that make travel easier, but others scramble up and down the precarious steps of First Mesa's 300-foot cliff face to tend fields on the plains below.

In spite of the lack of services and the poverty that abounds at Walpi, the people who live there continue to revere the ways of their ancestors. They preside over many of the ceremonies that keep the Hopi people connected to their spiritual roots and traditional belief system.

Visitors can access Walpi only through a guided walking tour. Guides accompany small groups of tourists through First Mesa's unpaved streets while sharing both historical and current information about their people. The Hopi indeed are a people who have experienced hard times, severe droughts, famine, and numerous physical attacks; and they aren't exactly living in the lap of luxury today. Still, they've survived it all and have preserved a good deal of their culture and, most importantly perhaps, a sense of humor in the process.

As I walked along Walpi's dusty road—looking for a Kachina doll or unique piece of pottery to purchase—an elderly couple stood behind their screen door and beckoned me to enter. At first I was unsure about what to do, but it quickly became evident that they had articles for sale that they didn't want to display on the street as other vendors did. Inside their small yet tidy living room, the couple had a collection of pottery, Kachina dolls, and traditional Hopi piki bread for sale. I purchased a beautiful pot which displayed designs developed by the woman’s mother decades earlier.

I loved having this opportunity to actually meet the woman who collected the clay, wound and smoothed the coils, and painted and fired the pot that sits on my bookcase shelf today. All of that pales in comparison, though, to the heartfelt thanks that same Hopi woman bestowed upon me for buying one simple, magnificent pot from her. When she disclosed that the money I paid for a single piece of pottery meant that she and her husband would be able to buy some groceries and eat, my heart was touched and my life forever changed.

I will always treasure that pot. It will proudly stand as a vivid reminder of a May term trip that provided me with an extensive glimpse into past and present Puebloan culture, and it will forever be a testament to me that people can and do rise above challenging circumstances to find hope and meaning in life even when doing so seems impossible.