Chimney Rock: Pueblo History Within the Southern Ute Landscape.

Photograph Jeremy Wade Shockley/SU DRUM

Chimney Rock: Pueblo History Within the Southern Ute Landscape
Text and Photographs: Jeremy Wade Shockley
Southern Ute Drum Vol.XLII No.17

Piercing the summer sky, two stone formations known as Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, define the ridge where Ancestral Puebloans built Kivas and erected ceremonial sites for religious and astronomical purposes. The rock formations have served as geographical markers for centuries, guiding the Spaniards north from Mexico, as well as the miners who later sought silver and gold in the region. Early bands of nomadic Utes also looked to the twin towers as landmarks, ancestors of the Southern Ute Indians, who’s land surrounds present day Chimney Rock.

The Chimney Rock Archaeological Area sits on 4,100 acres of San Juan National Forest land surrounded by the Southern Ute Reservation. The land was proclaimed National Forest Reserve by President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the century and designated an Archaeological Area and National Historic Site in 1970.

The Chimney Rock prehistoric structures were constructed roughly between AD 1000 and 1100, according to Elizabeth Ann Morris, Professor Emerita, Colorado State University. Morris also states that the inhabitants of the site were ancestors of one or more of the modern Puebloan tribes such as: Hopi, Zuni, Jemez, Acoma, Taos, Picuris, or another of the Rio Grande Pueblo Tribes.

An annual cultural gathering is held at the Chimney Rock site each summer, where tribes with ancestral roots to the Chimney Rock inhabitants return to dance in the traditional way. Kivas are opened up for these ceremonies and access given to dancers and singers participating in the cultural gathering. The gatherings are held each year and open to the public as well as other indigenous dancers who perform just out side of the restricted archaeological sites.

Here there is a strong connection with the peoples and architecture of Chaco Canyon, a major trade center, located over the border and ninety-five miles to the southwest in what is now the State of New Mexico. Chaco is thought to have been a site designed as an astrological center, perhaps for observing the sun’s patterns and for recording, understanding, and interpreting the growing seasons and calendar cycles. It is also thought that perhaps Chimney Rock served a similar purpose in regards to the moon and its rising patterns. During what is known as the Major Lunar Standstill, the full moon can be seen by the naked eye, rising directly between the two pinnacles of stone that define Chimney Rock.

Photograph Jeremy Wade Shockley/SU DRUM

The natural rock formations can easily be seen from modern day reservation lands, as one is fishing at lake Capote to the East, or travelling past on Highway 160. The twin towers stand above the horizon line, a geographic marker throughout history, now a monument to the past. There is no doubt that the early Ute bands that frequented this region would have used the spires as a landmark.

Other involvements between the early Utes and the Chimney Rock site, or its ancient people, remain a mystery. “My understanding is that the arrival of the Utes in this region occurred almost 200 to 400 years after the Ancestral Puebloans left,” said Les Linton, a longstanding staff member at the archaeological site. Morris agrees, early in the 1100’s the Ancestral Puebloans moved away from Chimney Rock Cuesta and the immediate surrounding valleys.

As geographical fate would have it, this historic site now borders the sovereign nation of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. It is clear that the land on which we live has seen great cultural and geographical shifts throughout the ages. We may never completely understand the complex history of this landscape or those who lived on it before us, but we can appreciate the significance of the site and the role it has played in shaping this region.

Photograph Jeremy Wade Shockley/SU DRUM

The Historic Fire Lookout, which sits at 7, 600 feet, is set for removal by the end of this season, in hopes of returning the site to its original state.

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Chimney Rock Cultural Gathering.

Photograph Jeremy Wade Shockley/SU DRUM

15th Annual Chimney Rock Native American Cultural Gathering
Text and Photographs: Jeremy Wade Shockley
Southern Ute Drum Vol.XLI No.15

Dark thunderclouds moved in from the northwest as dancers from Denver began to don their regalia in preparation for dance. A strong breeze ruffled the feathers of the elaborate headdresses, which had been moved under the porch awning and out of the weather. The leader and teacher of this dance group watched the sky, his name is Carlos Castaneda. Carlos is the head dancer for the Aztec Mexica Dancers, pronounced me-she-ka. These dancers have made the journey from Denver to Chimney Rock Archaeological Area for the last twelve years.

Their traditional dance is part of the annual Chimney Rock Native American Cultural Gathering, now in it’s 15th year. Carlos feels the practice of traditional dance builds and maintains a strong connection with his past, an ancestry going back to the traditional cultures of Mexico and Central America. “ My parents and grandparents did not pass this down, these dances were forbidden to them, we are reclaiming our culture through ceremonies that were almost lost,” said Carlos. We spoke of the weather, as Carlos finished lacing up his regalia, “It will rain, you’ll see.”

The Aztec dance group consisted of men and women, two drummers and few young children dressed in full regalia. The ceremony began with an offering of incense and prayer to the four directions. The fervent dancing began almost immediately to the sound of fast paced, rhythmic drumming. Each dancer taking the lead in turn, as large drops of rain began to fall. Carlos beckoned the spectators to join them in the arena for the final dance as the heavens rained down. The heavy downpour did not dampen spirits as the dance continued in a fast circular fashion, perhaps drawing an unexpected energy from the sudden shift in weather, embracing the warm summer rains.


Chimney Rock Archaeological Area is located just west of Pagosa Springs and the Southern Ute recreation area known as Lake Capote. Following the rainstorm, a second dance arena had been designated along the ridge line, where the dark clouds made way for clear skies and sunshine. Performing traditional dances, there were a number of Hopi dance groups as well as singers and dancers from Acoma Pueblo. The arena was set in a traditional kiva, allowing these dances a more traditional setting. A Hopi Dance group held the first dance from Second Mesa, performing the “Buffalo Dance”. This group’s village of origin is Sipaulovi, meaning “Village of Mosquitoes.”

“The Acoma Pueblo dancers return to the cultural gathering annually” said Albert Alno of the Acoma Pueblo Traditional Dancers and Singers. Proud of his young dancers, Albert spoke favorably of the setting and environment that the Cultural gathering had to offer. Aside from a historical and picturesque dance arena, concessions were also provided. Various artisans also traveled to this event, setting up ceramics and jewelery under the shelter of tarps.

Tewa Dancers from the North also performed in the Kiva, with group leader Andrew Garcia drumming with relatives. Andrew hails from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and has been involved with positive mentoring since 1974. His program started as a means to keep youth off of drugs and alcohol, to teach them the values of traditional life ways throughout Native American culture. His dance group has since traveled the world and continues to bring a positive impact to the youth involved. His “Eagle Dancers” performed beautifully.

With the last rays of golden sunlight splashing the earthen floor, two dancers entered the Kiva. Moving to the drums, Philbert Polingyouma and his partner danced gracefully as the light began to fade into evening. This dance concluded the 15th annual Chimney rock Native American Cultural Gathering, a two-day event held in the mountains of Colorado, come rain or shine. Photographs Jeremy Wade Shockley/SU DRUM

Visit the SOUTHERN UTE DRUM website to see the full article and photographs.

Cheers, Jeremy