Anthropologists believe that the Mimbres were starved out of this valley by an extended drought, essentially ending their existence as a distinct people. They left here around 1400 AD and after totally assimilating into other nearby tribes are considered extinct as a unique people today.
The Mimbres didn’t leave behind passed-down, oral history as many southwest tribes. Instead, they left us the ruins of 200 or so villages, many graves of their ancestors, magnificently beautiful pottery, and possibly the first Jornada style petroglyphs ever created. The Mimbres used petroglyphic rock art to define and confirm their sacred landscapes and to communicate over generations their sense of place and belonging. This land hasn’t changed much in the 900 years since the Mimbres etched their last art on the rock I was using for a chair. I tried, but I wasn’t able to sense the feelings or to understand the meanings of the artistic images they’ve left behind. There must be a long lost oral narration that accompanies these wonderful pictures.
I wandered down a make-shift trail to the next petroglyph site over a near rise. As I rounded a bend in the trail I saw a dark-skinned woman, kneeling in front of a large rock covered with primitive markings. Not wanting to startle her in her meditation I shouted, “Good morning,” with enough volume to be heard as I approached her. She turned and faced me. She was a thin, beautiful teenage girl . . . beautiful in an exotic, mysterious way.
She was dressed in a primitive costume of a draped blanket, made from I don’t know what, held together with a fringed sash and simple, unadorned sandals. She didn’t wear jewelry or makeup and her hair was long, straight and combed back in the way we think 19th century Indian women should look. Wow, did I walk onto a movie set?
When she looked up, we made eye contact. “And good morning to you too, sir,” she said in perfect, unaccented English.
I was flustered and didn’t know what to say to this unusual creature so I mumbled something about the weather and the wind. She smiled and I saw her imperfect teeth, the teeth of our grandparent’s generation. I regained my composure and asked, “Did you find something interesting?”
“Yes, very much so,” she said as she turned to face the rock. She was staring at an abstract symbol about three inches square that looked like a fishhook in a circle with a couple of wiggly lines running horizontally through it.
“What do you find interesting about this unusual marking?” I asked as I pointed to the symbol.
“Are you sure you want to hear it?”
“I’ve got all day and I’d love to hear your story. By the way, I’m Bob, Bob Rockwell.” I said as I extended my hand. She held my hand in a holding hands kind of way as she introduced herself.
“I’m Hateya of the Water-Flows-Together people,” she said proudly.
She leaned against the rock while I squatted, then sat in the sand a few feet from her. She seemed reserved, not really nervous or shy, but probably less reserved than any other young woman might be meeting a strange, older man alone in the desert.
“I come here often to pray to my ancestors and to seek their guidance when I’m at a loss as to what I should do.”
“Why here? What’s special about this place?”
“See this carving here. It was etched by my great-great-grandmother a very long time ago, as a good-luck charm and the symbol of my family. My mother, who’s spirit has passed on to the other world, taught me to pray to my ancestors by coming to this rock, the rock with our sacred family marking.”
“I thought that all of the petroglyphs in this area were dated roughly in the same period, the time of the Mimbres people about a thousand years ago.”
“I don’t know any Mimbres people but I know the people who carved on this and all of the other rocks near here. These pictures were etched by my people, the Water-Flows-Together people.”
I decided not to argue and listen to her story. Nothing she had said so far made any sense. Her great-great-grandmother would have lived less than a hundred years ago. She was obviously a Native American but from where? I’d never heard of the Water-Flows-Together people and there weren’t any Indian reservations or pueblos within a hundred miles of here.
“This etching is the sign my ancestors have passed down from mother to daughter. We paint this symbol on every bowl we make and carve it on the timbers of our lodges to honor our ancestors. This rock carving is our original family marking and the permanent record of my family.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was too confused to talk. What was going on here? She seemed so sincere. Could she have been making all of this up?
“My mother taught me that this is where I pray to my ancestors. They have all been to this place and it is here that we gather in spiritual reunion. If you will excuse me, I’ll finish my prayer and then we can talk some more.”
She turned and faced the rock, dropped to her knees and began to sing in an alien tongue I assumed to be a Native American dialect, while she slowly rocked back and forth in time with her song. I couldn’t identify the language or a single word of her prayers. After a few minutes she rose and turned to me.
I spoke first. “If it’s not too personal, may I ask what you are praying for?”
“I pray for guidance. Times are difficult, I can’t feed my family and I don’t know what to do. We haven’t had any rain in a long, long time and my corn and beans have not grown this season. My husband spends all of his time hunting with very little success. My daughter cries with hunger and we will surely starve this winter.”
“What did your ancestors tell you to do?”
“To ask you for guidance; you are a traveled man who has seen many places and have the wisdom of many winters.”
What was I to say? Was this girl playing a part in a play that only she could see? I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening but I decided to play along and see where it would lead.
“I’m not qualified to give you any advice but I can tell you the little bit I know about what happened here many years ago. The people living in this valley had to move their families in order to survive. This land could not feed the people who lived here. Everyone eventually abandoned their homes and villages.”
“Where did they go?”
“They joined other villages and pueblos taking up new lives with those people. Some went over the mountains in that direction.” I pointed east. “And others went that way to a very large pueblo,” I said pointing south.
“What should I do?”
“I would ask the people of your village to come with you and your family. If many want to come, I would lead them in that direction.” I said, pointing east towards the Rio Grande River. “There you will find the water to start a new village and a new life. If no one wants to come with you and you must travel alone, I would walk many days in that direction.” I said as I pointed south towards Mexico. “The people there will welcome you and you can start a new life without having to build a new village.” I remembered that some Mimbres are thought to have migrated to the huge pueblo at Casas Grande in the state of Chihuahua. An established city seemed like a better choice for this young woman and her family.
“I will do as you suggest. Thank you for listening to me and helping me decide what to do. I must go now.”
“Please take this little bit of food,” I said, offering her my tuna salad sandwich wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag and an apple.
She stared at the plastic bag as if she were afraid to touch it. I removed the sandwich from the bag and handed it and the apple to her.
“Thank you,” she said. “Goodbye.”
She turned and walked down the trail I had just come up and went over the rise without looking back.
I jumped up and sprinted after her. I told myself that I wanted to wave goodbye but what I really wanted, was to see where she was going. When I got to the top of the rise I couldn’t see her anywhere. She was gone … disappeared. There was no use hunting for her; there’s nowhere to hide in this open stretch of desert. Dumbfounded by her disappearance, I walked back to her prayer rock and stared at her family symbol. What had just gone on here? Was I hallucinating? Was she? Or, did I just have a conversation with a thousand-year-old ghost?
I’ve been back to that rock many times hoping to see Hateya again. I photographed her family petroglyph and spent months trying to find it replicated on other rocks, in a book, or on Mimbres pottery. As best I can tell this one instance of her family symbol is the only one that has survived.
I don’t understand what happened at Pony Hills a little over two years ago. Before this, I haven’t told anyone about my conversation with Hateya. There’s no physical evidence that I met or talked with anyone. I don’t know who this young woman was or what our little encounter was all about. I’ve chalked the experience up to one of those things you just can’t explain.
That was the end of my story until an amateur archeologist friend of mine invited me to go down to Casas Grande in Mexico with him to tour the pueblo ruins and museum. He’d been doing research on the interaction and commerce between the Paquime of Casas Grande and the Mimbres people. He believed that the huge pueblo at Casas Grande was the major trading and commerce center in this part of the world back in Mimbres times. We know the Mimbres traveled, traded, and hosted travelers from as far away as central Mexico.
We toured the ruins with a guide who impressed us with his knowledge of all things Paquime. You could almost feel the ancient people’s eyes on you as we climbed and crawled through the recently excavated remnants of this once great city.
The adjacent museum was equally impressive. It had bilingual signage and artifacts from most the prehistoric peoples of the southwest U.S. along with the tribes of northern Mexico. They painted a very good picture of this part of the world when the Paquime ruled and the pueblo at Casas Grande was the center of their universe.
In a display case featuring local pottery I spotted a painted bowl labeled, Paquime, circa 1200 AD. The bowl was a black-on-white Mimbres style bowl adorned simply with a single apple and Hateya’s family symbol.
She had made the trip.
©2009 by Bob Rockwell