A thousand years ago, the ancestors of modern Pueblo Indians were among the ancient people who watched the sky.
They built a village near an extraordinary rock formation in southwest Colorado that captures the rare Lunar Standstill.
Today it is called Chimney Rock, a sprawling archaeological site covering nearly 5,000 acres in San Juan National Forest. President Obama gave it a National Monument designation last week, his third and the nation’s 103rd overall.
Chimney Rock is surrounded by the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. Since its construction, Pueblo tribes split into the 19 current groups that are governed by the All Indian Pueblo Council.
Santa Ana, Zuni, Acoma and other tribes spread into New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and other parts of Colorado, abandoning Chimney Rock, but recognizing it as an ancestral place of origin.
“That’s why these sites have a deep significance to native people that you and I may not understand,” said Mark Fiege, an associate professor of history at Colorado State University. “It goes to the core of their being and their identity as a people. Their very sense of themselves is wrapped up in the land.”
While declaring the designation Friday, Obama said it would ensure that the important and historic site between Pagosa Springs and Durango “will receive the protection it deserves.”
More important to some, a boost in federal financing that the designation provides will lead to an improved experience for tourists at the site, and likely draw more of them.
A June report by BBC Research and Consulting, prepared for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, estimated that the site’s enhanced profile would double the current economic impact from tourism, $1.2 million, within five years. The number of jobs at the new monument, about 17, would nearly double.
“Thousands of people come every year to experience the cultural and spiritual significance of Chimney Rock,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, one of three administration officials who visited Chimney Rock for a ceremony Friday.
“With President Obama’s action and the strong support of the Native American community and others throughout the region, this new monument will bring new economic opportunity to Archuleta County and the Four Corners region as more visitors from around the world come to see this national treasure.”
The monument designation was years in the making. According to the report, the national trust got involved with an effort to preserve Chimney Rock in 2007 by providing matching funds under the Save America’s Treasures Grant program.
Two years later, the trust pushed to make it the first U.S. Forest Service monument “primarily for the preservation of cultural resources,” and got bipartisan support from Colorado’s congressional delegation.
In Colorado, Chimney Rock is considered an ancient marvel, where carrying stone and trees and water up steep hills for its construction seemed impossible when it was accomplished between A.D. 900 and 1150.
Hundreds of historians and scientists visit the site each year to observe the Great House Pueblo in the shadow of the dramatic pillars. University of Colorado archaeologists have studied it for decades.
According to a history provided by the Chimney Rock Interpretive Program, the prehistoric inhabitants entered the area through the North Piedra River valley, walking past farmers already there.
They did what others did at the time — planted corn and beans, hunted deer and elk, and gathered wild plants for food and medicine. At some point, the people who became the Pueblos moved up steep hills toward the mesa top.
There, historians believe, inhabitants made a ceremonial center for festivals and rituals, tied to worship of the sun and moon.
The community dates back a thousand years, before the arrival of Spanish explorers, who encountered people there and named them Pueblo Indians. They called the towers “La Piedra Parada,” or “Standing Rock,” and it later became Chimney Rock because it resembled a stone chimney, according to the interpretive program’s history.
“The story of my tribe and our history is intimately connected to Chimney Rock,” said Chandler Sanchez, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council.
“This place is still sacred to my people, and we want to see it protected for our children and grandchildren. That’s why the [council] is among so many Americans celebrating President Obama’s decision to preserve Chimney Rock as America’s newest National Monument.”