Puye Cliffs to Reopen to the Public

Ruins Revisited

The New Mexican

Pottery shards litter the grounds of the Puye Cliffs National Historic Landmark. Some are as large as a man’s hand. Others are as tiny as an infant’s fingernail. Some are painted – black on orange or white – others are plain. Shiny black obsidian flakes – and even arrow points or the sharp-edged heads of small tools – glitter in the sun.

It’s difficult to walk without stepping on these treasures from the past. And it’s tempting to slip one in your pocket and take it home. But that’s probably not a good idea.

“Our people know not to take what is here,” said Puye Cliffs operations manager Lucretia Jenkins-Williams. “Other people, who don’t know, in terms of respect, say, ‘Oh cool, a pottery shard. I can take it back to Massachusetts.’ ”

But stories abound about the misfortune that has befallen people who have done that. Jenkins-Williams said she’s seen boxes filled with artifacts that were sent back later by people who decided (for various reasons) they should return the items. Jenkins-Williams said one woman sent back what she gathered at the site after she lost her job and her house burned down.

“You can believe what you want,” Jenkins-Williams said. “But stories like that leave an impression on me. If it’s here, it belongs here, it stays here.”

The Puye Cliffs National Historic Landmark has been closed since 2000 because of flooding and erosion caused by the Cerro Grande Fire.

Santa Clara Pueblo, which owns and operates the site, reopened the ruins for group tours last fall. The landmark will open to the general public in late May. But self-guided tours of the site are a thing of the past – partially because of the theft of artifacts and vandalism that occurred when the site was virtually unmonitored. Now tours of the cliffs will be conducted by guides who can keep an eye on tourists and educate them about the history of the place.

“It will help people understand why Puye is so important to our people, and to all pueblo people really,” Jenkins-Williams said.

The people of Santa Clara Pueblo are said to be the descendants of the nearly 2,000 people who lived at the Puye Cliffs settlement from about 1200 A.D. to 1580 A.D.

According to historians, the Puye settlement was abandoned because of drought. Jenkins-Williams said according to a pueblo legend, a black bear wandered through the village, harming no one, and led the people 10 miles away to the banks of the Rio Grande, where Santa Clara Pueblo is located today.

The ruins include the remnants of hundreds of dwellings on the cliff face and on the mesa above. Run your finger along the wall inside one of the “cavettes” dug into the soft volcanic tuff of the cliff wall and it will come away blackened by the soot of a campfire that burned hundreds of years ago. Atop the cliff, a sunken, round kiva (which was partially reconstructed in the late 1970s) and a crumbling grid of former homes surround an inner plaza where dances used to be held.

“This whole area was farmland,” Jenkins-Williams said, standing on top of the cliffs and sweeping her arm in an arc that indicated the piñon forest below.

Jenkins-Williams, 26, grew up at Santa Clara Pueblo. But the former Pojoaque High School basketball star said it took going away to college in Indiana to help her understand the privilege of having her own history close enough to touch.

Now she’s in charge of the landmark’s reopening, a venture she said is expected to help sustain Santa Clara Pueblo through the tough economic times ahead. She said the pueblo plans to offer several different types of tours, including one in which people unable to climb to the settlement at the top of the cliff would be driven there. Down below, a former Fred Harvey House created for tourists in the late 1800s will become an interpretive center that will feature educational films and demonstrations of pottery making and other traditional crafts.

“I love that we are opening this again,” Jenkins-Williams said, “not only for the public but for our youth. A lot of them don’t know about this. It will bring some humility back to us at this time when we take so many material things for granted.”