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Lessons on living in place for 1000 years

By Carolyn Raffensperger A year and a half ago I made a pilgrimage to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico to deliver my library of Puebloan archaeology and anthropology books to the Haak’u Museum.  The museum had no books and I had one of the finest collections in private hands. Since I had gotten most of the books before, it is a mystery how I had amassed these rare and wonderful volumes. The curator of the museum told me that the books had found me. However the books had come into my life, they were the treasured tools of my career as an archaeologist and markers on my path as an environmentalist.

I was lucky or blessed enough to work as an archaeologist on the Dolores Dam Project in the southwest corner of Colorado in the 1980s.  The people of Acoma trace their lineage back to the people living at Mesa Verde. The Mesa Verdians were decedents of the people living in the Dolores River Valley. It’s all connected.

This is the letter I wrote to accompany my books. I offer it because the question still resonates: how do we live in a place for generations without destroying it?

Dear Honored Elders, Tribal Council Members, and Staff of the Cultural Center,

Please accept these books as an expression of my gratitude for the lessons you and your ancestors taught me about being an environmentalist. Almost 30 years ago, I began my career as an archaeologist in the southwest. I think of it as my apprenticeship to your great, great grandfathers. How could they – how could you -- live in this place for over a thousand years? What was the wisdom of your culture that taught us how to live in the desert without destroying it? What was necessary in a culture to regulate human behavior to the biological world?

I do not profess to understand it all. But I do know that I could not be an environmentalist, working to change both our culture and our laws, without having been a student of the extraordinary life ways of the Puebloan people.

My colleagues at the Indigenous Environmental Network and I are working together to create a legal framework to establish the rights of future generations. Can we put into place as successful a culture and a law as you have lived for so many generations? Will we have guardians of future generations that protect the clay, the fellow plants and animals, the stories, so that those children to come will have a beautiful and healthy world? Perhaps if these things come to pass it will be because your ancestors and your own people lived in such a way that we could learn from you.

I am so grateful to you for everything I have been taught. It is in this spirit that I offer these books as a way of giving back a small portion of what you have given me.


Carolyn Raffensperger