Has Ritual Become a Religion?

Two recent essays on Chaco take issue with interpretations which underwrite my posts here: Stephen Plog’s (2011) “Ritual and Cosmology in the Chaco Era” and Barbara Mills’ (2012) “The Archaeology of the Greater Southwest.”  Besides not much liking my interpretations, these essays – by two of the Southwest’s leading archaeologists – are united by a firm belief in the importance of ritual, particularly over the political interpretations I favor.

Ritual is solidly mainstream in Southwestern archaeology.  A graduate student from one of our better universities took the podium at a recent archaeology conference, and began thus: “We all know that ritual was the most important thing in the Southwest.”  Her dogma was discouraging – but not surprising.  For almost two decades we’ve drummed it into students’ heads: ritual, ritual, ritual.

A century ago, an idealized vision (almost caricature) of Pueblo spirituality was crafted by a coterie of Santa Fe political, intellectual, and artistic leaders.  The Santa Fe Myth (as I have come to think of it) became a major theme in the regional zeitgeist, which prior had emphasized Spanish, not Indian, heritage; and, not insignificantly, a major theme for marketing New Mexico – a well-known story, too long to tell here (Wilson 1997, for an architectural take).  America’s fascination with Pueblos is nothing if not spiritual (McFeely 2002), and archaeology was not immune.  (I’m lecturing on this theme in Santa Fe on March 26.)

Even in the materialist days of New Archaeology, the origins of the “kiva” remained a holy grail, as in Fred Plog’s 1974 Study of Prehistoric Change, a key text of the times (albeit “kivas” were of interest as integrative structures, rather than ritual loci).

Fast-forward: British post-processual approaches were all about ritual; while we declined their wholesale adoption, ritual was one of the British chops we added to our processual-plus toolbox (as a subset of “symbols and meaning:” Hegmon 2003:222).  Ritual and religious interests, of course, are reinforced by NAGPRA and heritage advocacy – a growing genre of Southwestern archaeology.  Ritual has (almost) displaced rainfall as the Southwest’s prime mover.

The place voted most likely to be ritual?  That would be Chaco.  Chaco is the Southwest’s best and brightest rituality (Yoffee 2001).  “It is no exaggeration to say that, in most models outlined in the last 15 to 20 years, Chaco is defined by ritual” – says Stephen Plog, in his Chaco chapter in Religious Transformation in the Late Pre-Hispanic World (Glowacki and Van Keuren 2011; p. 51).  He does not question that Chaco was, indeed, primarily ritual; rather, he complains that “countless discussions of the area refer to the canyon as the ritual center of the Pueblo region in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, but they provide few if any details about the nature of that ritual” (p. 51), which he then proceeds to do.  Predictably, most of his details are buttressed by appeals to Pueblo ritual practices.  Even Bonito’s elite burials, which elsewhere he interprets as evidence of “hierarchy and social inequality” (Plog and Heitman 2010) become ritualized a la Pueblo: whatever rituals accompanied these burials (Plog and Heitman suggest ancestor veneration), “such rituals, however, need not be viewed as distinct from ritual to promote fertility and rainfall.  Pueblo ancestors dwell in the underworld, the source of water.” (p. 64)

Plog insists that there was “substantial continuity in ritual realms from Chaco to the late pre-Hispanic era to the historic era described in ethnographies.” (p. 65).  Judd and Hewett made the same sort of arguments almost a century ago.  They are not difficult arguments to make: absent a complete replacement of peoples, we would be astonished not to find prototypes if not progenitors in prehistory.  A bowl at Bonito looks like a bowl at Zuni.  A “clan kiva” at Bonito looks…well, not so much like a kiva at Zuni, but close enough.  The problem comes when we turn those prototypes into prochronisms – pushing modern Pueblo meanings back onto ancient objects.  For example, Pueblo II and III “kivas” – a canard which will not die.

Meanings change, especially over watersheds such as the world-shift of 1300 CE (Lekson 2009:189-190).  Plog is not talking about bowls, of course; he focuses on more singular objects.  But a Chaco sword might be turned into a Pueblo plowshare – a similar shape with a very different meaning.  And that almost certainly transpired, Chaco swords re-used as digging sticks.

Positing continuities is fairly easy; we’ve been doing it for years.  The real progress we’ve made in understanding Chaco is in recognizing discontinuities; which, at Chaco, is also easy.  The discontinuities are obvious, evident, and – I think – profound.  A half-century ago, Gordon Vivian recognized that Chaco “was not on the true line of the Northern Pueblo development” (Vivian and Mathews 1964:144) – that is, Chaco differed significantly from modern Pueblos.  Subsequent research through the end of that century piled up great mounds of evidence that Chaco was indeed different (Lekson 2006).  For example: Chaco was the center of a region.  Where is the Pueblo that was or is that?   And another: Chaco provides one of the strongest cases for stratified houses and a class society we may ever see — Great Houses vs. normal “unit pueblos.”   Where is the Pueblo that was or is that?  Those very obvious facts alert us that Chaco was not Puebloan – if by that we mean the idealized Pueblo of Santa Fe boosters, ethnographic popularizers, and an alarming number of archaeologists (again, the subject of a lecture I’m writing and a blog/essay I’ll be posting — not a poke at Plog or Mills!).  We will need to think well outside Pueblo “space” to find Chaco.

This is not to say that Chaco was not part of Pueblo heritage – of course it was.  But Chaco’s social, political, economic, cosmological and — yes — ritual worlds likely were not those of modern or ethnographic Pueblos.  The same could be said for Falls Creek or Alkali Ridge: unquestionably parts of Pueblo history but surely very different societies.

And that is one problem with ritual, as we most often see it at Chaco: it appeals explicitly or implicitly (and uncritically) to modern Pueblo practices.  Plog notes that “ritual is central to understanding Pueblo society” (p. 54).  But why should we assume that Chaco was a “Pueblo society” – that is, the ethnographic and modern Pueblo societies for which ritual is seemingly so central?  There’s a odd logic here that assumes what is to be proven: Chaco must be a rituality — or something like that– because Chaco was “Ancestral Pueblo,” and everybody knows that modern Pueblos favor ritual.

Barbara Mills, in her recent take on Chaco (Mills 2012, in The Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, edited by Timothy Pauketat), also discounts the political in favor of the ritual.  She takes particular exception to my suggestion that Chaco had kings (which, of course, Pueblo societies do not): “Lekson (2006:37) presents an interpretation in which Chaco was ruled by kings and queens and represents ‘one of the Pueblo world’s few garden-variety chiefdoms or petty kingdoms or cacicazgos.’  He dichotomizes leadership as either ‘something political, permanent, and hierarchical or something ritual and ceremonial, spiritual, situational, and evanescent’ and rejects the possibility that Chaco was ruled by members of ritual hierarchies. Instead, he regards the archaeological evidence from Chaco as evidence for only political power, rather than for ritual power.  Proof is in three ‘facts’ about Chaco: ‘retainers’ buried with two high-status burials, great houses, and the regional primacy of Chaco. …Lekson’s three facts are not necessarily or exclusively based in political power. …with respect to the Southwest record, we should not assume that the basis for this power was exclusively economic…indigenous values were not exclusively based on economic motives.” (p. 554).  A minor quibble: I don’t recall equating political and economic power; Chaco’s beginnings may have an economic motor but its subsequent political career quickly outstripped any possible economic system (Lekson 2009:132-133)

Mills recognizes hierarchy at Chaco, but bases it firmly on ritual: “at Chaco it is increasingly clear there was at least one particularly hierarchical and powerful distinction that was based on both family relationships and ritual authority” (p. 554).  She distances Chacoan ritual from modern Puebloan ritual: Chacoan ritual hierarchies may not have been “the same forms of ritual hierarchy found in historic and contemporary Pueblo society” (p. 554).  But I submit that we would not posit “ritual hierarchies” at Chaco, absent their prominence in modern Pueblos.  If, God forbid, colonialism had destroyed the Pueblos before the ethnographers had their chance, would we even be thinking about such things?  Perhaps; but the presence of Pueblos ensures that ritual and ritual hierarchies take center stage, crowding off other contestants.

To be sure, political and religious institutions were almost certainly intertwined.  One of my (perhaps overused) taglines in public lectures – which also pops up in Plog’s piece – concerns the separation of church and state as a modern experiment.  Church and state are not so easily divided in many early societies, likely including Chaco.  In my 2006 chapter which Mills critiques, I noted that Chaco was “a complex polity, suffused with ritual and ceremony but fundamentally political and hierarchical” (Lekson 2006:37).  In the same volume as Mills’ essay, I restated that position: “The central idea at Chaco was political power, perhaps cloaked or embedded in ritual. Ritual, like the poor, is always with us, ranging from the communal and community-building ceremonials of modern Pueblos to the chilling power plays of Red Square and Pyongyang.  We don’t know Chaco’s rituals, but they probably edged (at least a bit) more toward the latter than the former.” (Lekson 2011:598).

Is this merely a matter of emphasis?  Mills highlights ritual aspect of a ritual-political system, I highlight political aspects of a political-ritual system.  But there are consequences: by focusing on the political, I can situate Chaco in the Postclassic political world of its time; while Mills, Plog, and many others’ Chaco must remain compatible with the ethnographic Pueblos – their Chaco has no room to move.   (And, coincidentally, a Chaco rituality is happily consistent with the popular, idealized Pueblos of the Santa Fe Myth — not Mills’ or Plog’s goal, of course, but an important consideration.)   Elsewhere I have described a Mesoamerican political structure (altepetl; suffused, no doubt, with ritual) which far better accounts for the data, for the things that we actually see in Chaco: elite burials, stratified housing, a center and its region, and all the many things which demonstrate that Chaco was not a “Pueblo society” sensu Plog.  Chaco, I think, will be better understood in the context of Postclassic Mesoamerica of Chaco’s time, than by prochronistic appeals to later Pueblo ritual – implicit or explicit.

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6 Responses to Has Ritual Become a Religion?

  1. Steve Lederer says:

    unfortunately today “political correctness” is projected in the Chaco Fenomen. Am I wrong?

  2. Justa Pahaana says:

    as a resident of a contemporary pueblo (hopi) it seems to me that some academic english language words create what may be an artificial dichotomy so scholars can do what english speaking scholars do which is categorize. politics and religion are inextricably intertwined in the contemporary pueblo world (and probably the world of chaco as well) and are difficult to untangle. however it seems to me that, practically, it is religion that is simply the justification for the political status quo.
    since chacoan religion/ritual is pretty much unknowable, it seems to me that the focus on the postclassic political model of chaco’s peers in the mesoamerican world makes sense. some hopi clan histories speak of origins in the far south. it seems obvious to me that whatever was going on in ancestral puebloan country was the northern-most expression of what was going on down south.

  3. Vern Hensler says:

    The ritual mantra is all around and is accentuated by the unknown. If we were to analyze what archaeologists call a ritual feature and why, it would show how uncomfortable with the topic we are and yet ever willing to hint to it and then leave it be. A few examples: Kivas- with only a percentage of pit-structures through time having signs of intensive ritual use (usually defined by a multitude of various floor level pits) we have spent one hundred years questioning all pit-structures as a group and how to define them. Shrines- as boundary markers and communication devices they may be called ritual features but how exactly they were used we are not sure. Altars- the smoking gun of ritual the problem is they are generally only suggested to rather than found in place and comparing them to historical examples has rarely been attempted. But archys do like the altar concept, one of the most famous is a feature found in the antechamber on the north side of the great kiva at Aztec. Morris described the feature as a permanent altar consisting of a large block of masonry with a line of upright posts on the north side. It is unlike any altar ever described historically in any pueblo. An alternative explanation may be that this feature was a seat. The seat or throne (the number of interest here being one). The masonry block has that large white dot painted on it that just says take a lordly load off and put it here. From this position you had a view of everything going on, much better than the blocked view from the bench. And, while I am hypothesizing maybe those peripheral rooms on the outside of the great kiva held goods for redistribution in a potlatch type of scenario. So then, by making some fairly simple changes in definition we have a potential event occurring where the only actual ritual was in sticking to the agenda. Another feature that invites ritualism is Room 28 and adjacent rooms at Pueblo Bonito. What exactly is represented by the collection of items there? Even if the items were in storage they still were part of an event. As near as I can tell there were sets (or at least similar numbers) of the cylinder jars, pitchers and stone disks (do the disks fit the jars or the pitchers?). It seems unlikely that the rulers needed more than one set, so did the others belong to people from outliers that were invited to the cacao party? What was the number and what exactly did they do? Surely there was some ritual surrounding the burial of these items and the use of the rooms nearby as a crypt but the artifact assemblage suggests an event with its share of political maneuvering that was not necessarily ritual in nature. Ritual perseveres because that is what ritual does. People might not question why but they will resist change and so it is guarded by a select few, but it was the political systems that everyone was involved in.
    With all the Puebloan ethnography done in the past it would seem we would have a good understanding of who had what in political systems. Historically we recorded a massive amount of ritual and social structure in the BIE era and indeed projecting ethnography into the past may be old hat but it still seems an unpeeled lemon to me. Moieties, clan kivas, Kachina groups, (altepetls!), warrior associations, they all had origins with certain groups before the late historic period when they were even more shared and/or in decline. Do we know their histories, or have we done a very good job in projecting those into the past? What was the degree of ritual between the various social systems, how did they vary among the Puebloan groups and how are they reflected in their ritual features, particularly kivas? I would hope we could stop generalizing about the Puebloans just because they lived in houses and grew corn. Look at the present state of ethnicity and religion in our society and the changing amount of time spent by the average person in religious/ritualized activities as well as political systems while at the same time we have remnants of those aspects acquired from multiple directions and many years past.

  4. Tanguera says:

    It seems to me that there is frequently the impression that others’ religions and rituals in their practice have no political aspects, that other peoples’ rituals are untainted by the tawdry political concerns evidenced in one’s own culture or time. The ghost of Rousseau is with us. I am reminded that not so long ago a local tribal chairman is widely believed to have “witched” ballot boxes to preserve his political power by means of ritual. I don’t see why chacoans would have been immune to an altogether human failing, confusing the supernatural world with their own desires.

  5. T. J. Ferguson says:

    In studying theocratic societies, the analytical separation of ritual and politics may not be as meaningful as it is in the context of our contemporary secular governance. To cast Chaco as one or the other may be missing the point.

    • stevelekson says:

      Why would we assume Chaco was a theocracy?

      If by theocracy we mean a polity based on religion we could say that every society was theocratic prior to the Enlightenment separation of church and state, but that doesn’t get us very far. Rome was a theocracy, if we stretch the term a bit. And our coins insist that “In God We Trust.”

      But if theocracy means a state or polity run by priests or ecclesiastics (the dictionary definition), Rome was not a theocracy and neither were Postclassic Mesoamerican polities. The Tarascan emperor had priests but priests didn’t run the state. Of course religion and politics were all tangled and inter-twined but it is quite possible to understand Postclassic polities as, well, political. And Chaco, it could be argued, was a Postclassic polity. Not an empire of course, but more like Mike Smith’s Postclassic city-states than it was like Ruth Benedict’s Zuni.

      It’s useful to think in these dimensions – NOT exclusive states, but dimensions. For my purposes, there’s no reason not to “separate” analytically ritual and political. That analysis helps us understand matters beyond particular histories of particular groups. Nothing wrong with particular histories, but I’m trying to use particular histories to forge broader generalizations.

      The Postclassic political model fits Chaco very, very well, and there are excellent reasons to favor it. But it’s political – and we (most of us? almost all of us?) apparently ASSUME that in ancient southwestern societies religious power always and everywhere trumped political power. Chaco was a theocracy? Maybe so, but I think that’s an assertion, not an axiom – and that was the point of my essay.

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