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Friday, July 12, 2013

July 12, 2013: Southwest Stories: Southwestern Mysteries

[This week, a series on some of the many AmericanStudies stories that can be found in the Southwest—in addition to those included, for example, in this prior series on Mexican American histories. Leading up to a special post on folk heroes!]
On some great mysteries that symbolize the lure of the Southwest, then and now.
There were a lot of reasons why Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park stood out to me among the many amazing stops on my family’s National Park trip. Exploring thousand year old cliff dwellings, hiking out to the site of long-preserved petroglyphs, surprising a lone coyote at a sunset ruin—these are the kinds of experiences that will hit a 13 year old AmericanStudier in a particular way. But perhaps the most alluring aspect of Mesa Verde is its central mystery: the question of why the Anasazi people abruptly abandoned their cliff dwellings less than a century into their time there, and what happened to them after their departure. Archaeologists and historians have a variety of theories, but to some degree the Anasazi’s fate will always remain a mystery—and will thus keep young AmericanStudiers (and all the rest of us) coming back to Mesa Verde.
Even without an event as striking as the Anasazi’s departure, the dominant features of the Southwest’s human landscape—villages atop isolated mesas, dwellings in the sides of gaping canyons, petroglyphs carved in the rock and sand—lend themselves nicely to the mysteriously inclined. No one capitalized on that element more fully, nor more effectively, than Tony Hillerman, the University of New Mexico journalism professor who wrote (among his more than 30 total books) a series of 18 phenomenal mysteries focused on Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I may be misremembering for dramatic effect, but I’m pretty sure I was reading one of the best novels in the series, A Thief of Time (1988), during that family National Park vacation—and I know that I won’t ever think of New Mexico’s canyons and ruins without thinking of how Hillerman captures them in the hugely atmospheric, spooky, and pitch-perfect opening to that novel.
Hillerman and his Navajo mysteries (as they’re usually collectively known) also round out perfectly a series that began with Mary Hunter Austin. An Oklahoma native and decorated World War II veteran, Hillerman moved to New Mexico for his UNM job and, like Austin, found himself more and more deeply interested in and attached to the region and its histories, cultures, and communities. (As he chronicles in his wonderful memoir.) While I can’t say for sure how the Navajo felt about Hillerman’s books, from everything I have seen they recognized, as I believe would any reader, that Hillerman treated his focal cultures and communities with the same abiding respect and admiration he did his protagonist policemen and the landscapes they patrolled. Perhaps the one thing that links every post this week is just how fully all of my focal figures found themselves drawn to the Southwest—to its places, to its histories, and, certainly, to its very American stories.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Southwest stories or histories you’d highlight?

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