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Visiting Old Friends

On a recent trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado with my family, I learned that conservation should center around inclusivity.

By: Sarah Ortegon + Save to a List

Up winding roads, with the remains of burnt trees on one side and a drop on the other, be prepared to have your breath taken away. I am not even talking about the winding roads, elevation or crisp air. Or even the fact that I was so excited to be able to bring my Shoshone/Arapaho almost 70-year-old mother with me.

Typically family trips looked a lot like a big van, with over 8 people squeezed in its interior, because my parents had 12 kids. Now, the transition of being able to gift this experience of my mom's first time to Mesa Verde, felt a lot like when I was younger and we explored Sacajawea’s grave sight for the first time on the rez.

We arrived in the evening while the sun was setting with a seven hour drive behind us, we could finally relax. We checked in, and my sister Hannah could not help but explore the gift shop. We’re always looking for our next favorite pair of jewelry.

I have to admit, I didn’t sleep well. Was I excited for the tour, like the first day of school? Or was I excited to be in this spiritually charged area? Eventually, my eyes rolled back and I think I slept. The rooms were quaint, and I loved the overlook that the window framed.

I woke up and we all made our way to the bus. Thankfully, we were all masked up and ready to take a ride through the canyons. We were curious, what did the ancestors use for food, for bows and arrows, and hunting? What medicines revealed themselves as helpful during certain situations? Our guide was able to answer a lot of our inquiries, he worked with the Navajo Nation for years. Although the Pueblo and Navajo are vastly different, there are certain threads that keep humans related, the need for sustenance, water and family structures.

During our time there, we were always in gathering mode for coffee. Who would find the best roast. We found a café that was perfect for what we were searching for, although we could not refill our coffee cups that we brought due to the pandemic, they had a wide variety of milks and latte options. For the safety of my taste buds, I always go with an almond milk, half sweetened vanilla latte with cinnamon sprinkles.

After our second day, we decided to go on a little hike. It was a one mile round trip. We asked my mom if she felt comfortable doing the walk. She laughed, smiled at us, probably thinking that we had no idea of what it was like to give birth to 12 babies, and said she would do just fine. She held her walking stick or as we call it, her ‘pimp cane’, as we descended into the area that they called the ‘Step House.’ Due to COVID we would have had to book ahead of time for the full experience to see more of the area.


The day before we learned that the Pueblo people kept their structures strong by marking a cross hair in the wall, so that the strongest areas would match up and support their structures from falling. I am not surprised at how much work or intelligence went into these structures. We give too much credit to the Eurocentric methodology. We were and are farmers, builders and crafts people. There is one core difference, we did not see the Earth as a commodity to sell. Instead, we worked with the land, and didn't focus on straight lines to feel accomplished. After all, what in nature is straight? Our blood cells are circular, tree trunks grow in a circumference, water molecules are circular, the sun, the moon, the Earth itself is not flat. Even though at first Europeans put their scholars in jail for proving differently, that the world is in fact not flat.

In addition to exploring their building techniques, we also acknowledged the way they held family and community gatherings. Gatherings seemed to be the core, the backbone of who they were as a people. Why else would ‘keva’s’ be at the forefront of all the homes? This was a place of gathering, most likely of song and story telling. My mom walked through, and she was amazed at the athleticism it took to get to these places. The way in which hand holds were created in homes, to crawl up the walls and back down. I have tested my finger strength but that was only on a container of spicy pickles, it wasn’t a daily climb to and from place to place. The freedom that they felt during these times was probably incomparable, they had areas where they stored food and goods that they grew from their harvests.

I have not even touched base on how far they had to travel to get water and wood, sometimes miles down a ravine for water. I led outdoor expeditions for 30 days at a time for National Outdoor Leadership School and we were always moving. I took that experience and held it as I was in awe of a whole life dependent on the location of water. The people of Pueblo are amazing. I am not going to say, ‘were’ because they still are. Their stories, spoken words carry a lot of what transpired. I wonder when we will start to listen to what they have to teach us, rather than what we can guess from aging rocks in a scientific study.

Although most of my time spent at ‘Mesa Verde’ felt like we were visiting old friends, there was an unfortunate interaction with a National Park Service employee that did not sit well with us. While this interaction was outside the scope of the Aramark-managed component of our trip, I believe it’s important to share for the sake of potential future visitors who may experience something similar. It also represents an opportunity for reflection and growth within the National Park Service itself.

We were coming back from our dinner in Durango. At the gate, the park service asked us what we were visiting for. I had let them know we were staying in the area for a visit. They then asked us to ‘pay’ because we were there for recreational purposes instead of religious practices as Indigenous people. As if they had the right to demand payment for land that the park service has made profits from, for the past couple hundred years. We are not children, Indigenous people of this area were able to build homes within the crevices of the mountains and they still questioned our right to be there.

We have been here to roam freely for thousands of years. As Shoshone/Arapaho people, we do not need to ‘pray’ to get into an area that was free to us before the invasion. We roamed freely before anyone was gatekeepers in our land. The park service should do away with charging indigenous people all together, they have made a profit off of our losses for far too long. I know that a lot of our elders would not be able to afford to visit, if they did not meet their standard of ‘prayer’ in our sacred sites. We understand the meaning of a sacred site, we have given enough. Conservation seems to mean exclusion in a lot of ways. However, we have always been a part of the land, inclusion should be the next step.

We appreciated the Pueblo people, their vast knowledge of the rocks and homes that surrounded us in the area. We knew that we were visitors, not to study but like I said, to visit friends. They taught me that the importance of a dwelling, no matter how beautiful or magnificent, depends on one main life giver; water. Where the water flows naturally, that is where we are meant to go. It is living, and like many of us, it has the choice to give life. I appreciate the time and memories that I have there with my Mom and family, just as I am sure the Pueblo people had for many generations.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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