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Whenever crews move dirt in the Garden of the Gods, an archaeologist helps link the present to the past

Colorado Springs reaches out to Native American tribes to give them a voice in preserving artifacts and their cultural heritage

Any time dirt is disturbed for construction at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, City Archaeologist Anna Cordova is there to assure that artifacts left by Native American tribes who were present in the area are handled appropriately. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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COLORADO SPRINGS — On a windy morning in Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs City Archaeologist Anna Cordova jumps a fence into the construction site with a practiced ease. A backhoe rests on the tracked up ground, and stakes with orange tape marking the perimeter of a new bathroom facility have already been placed. 

Cordova still scans the ground for artifacts. Something catches her eye, and she stoops down to pick up a small piece of glass. A woman in a straw hat and sunglasses notices.

“Arrowheads?” the tourist asks. “Nope, root beer,” Cordova responds. The woman walks off, a little disappointed.

“Did you find an arrowhead?” asked the tourist asked Anna Cordova. A lot of Cordova’s time is spent trying to figure out how to keep out the Garden of the Gods crowds in some of her eight active sites around the park. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cordova is part of the Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources office, tasked with managing the historical finds in 32 Colorado Springs parks — an area of almost 5,000 acres. She’s had the job since 2016, and has done everything from discovering General William Jackson Palmer’s trash pile to teaching kids. 

She’s also in charge of tribal consultations, the federally mandated process of informing Native American tribes whose ancestors were present in areas where construction is happening. She is working to create a better relationship between the city and the two Ute tribes with reservations in Colorado. Her work is set against the backdrop of a long history of theft of tribal artifacts by archeologists.

“Archeology has a pretty big impact on descendant communities of the people you’re studying. What you’re saying about people’s past in history deeply influences what people think about them — and not just other people, but people in that group,” Cordova says. “It’s a pretty powerful thing, and a thing that was not recognized for a long time in the field of archaeology.”

Although she is not an enrolled tribal member, Cordova is Navajo on her dad’s side. She’s been fascinated by the past for as long as she can remember, and more recently by how the living descendents of studied peoples are affected by, or excluded from, their own history. 

Cordova says she first noticed history when she was 7 and learning about the Revolutionary War. The interest persisted as she got older. She made her parents take her to ghost towns. Cordova says she knew about archaeology, but not that you could actually make a living doing it. The profession made her think of ancient Egypt, not her home, Colorado Springs.

When she started school at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, Cordova says she took to archaeology right away, signing up for the advanced classes in her second semester. She learned how to do field work in her first summer on a Colorado Springs property that she now manages. After the training, she was hired to do the federally mandated tribal consultation for the property.

The tribal consultation sparked Cordova’s interest, but she wondered if anyone was listening. For her masters thesis on indigenous geography, she studied cultural impact assessments in Hawaii, a state with stronger legal protections for indigenous families than most. She knew the assessments were happening, but wanted to know if they were changing anything.

“The laws say they’re supposed to abide by the recommendations, but as it moves through the chain of command, they don’t necessarily have to listen if people aren’t paying attention,” Cordova says. “The laws don’t have a lot of teeth. Even in states like Hawaii, where they’re meant to be protecting indigenous rights and an indigenous voice, it doesn’t really work.”

Incorporating contemporary voices to historical inquiry

Karin Larkin teaches anthropology and museum curation at UCCS. She says archaeology began as a colonial project as the European explorers colonized the world. At the time, anything was seen as fair game for collection and archaeologists weren’t asking for tribal opinions. In the Western U.S., this included digging up bodies and the objects with which they were buried. 

“The tribes started to ask museums for things back,” Larkin said. “Significant items, human remains of their ancestors that were just dug up without any permission and taken back to the museums. Some of the museums responded positively and some of them said ‘No.’” 

Although the United States granted tribes the right to request the repatriation of remains in the late 1900s, stolen bodies still are stored in dusty basements of museums across the country. In 1966, the Johnson administration passed the National Historic Preservation Act, which mandated that archaeologists notify tribes and give the option to consult on any development project on federal lands. In Colorado, this means notifying 49 tribes. 

Still, tribes receive hundreds of letters a year, and are often too far away to make consistent visits. Sometimes consultations slip through bureaucratic cracks. Larkin says that discounting the opinions of contemporary tribes denies indigenous people a place in the present.

“One of the problems with these museum collections is they are seen as static, or as things that people in the past owned and used,” Larkin says. “These cultures are still alive and thriving. By incorporating contemporary voices, you get a new narrative. This is a cultural continuation. This isn’t a thing from the past that is now dead or extinct.”

Anna Cordova explains that it’s pretty rare to have a city archaeologist and the only ones she’s heard about are in cities such as Albuquerque; Boston; Phoenix, Arizona; and St. Augustine, Florida. “In the West, we’re seeing more city archaeologists hired on because we’re acquiring more open space and there’s more emphasis on cultural stewardship,” she said. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cordova teaches students about the cultural history of Colorado Springs as part of her outreach work, and she says she makes sure to speak about their modern descendents.

“As simple as it sounds, we’re still here. Native people didn’t forget their history. They don’t need archaeology to tell them their history,” Cordova says. “Just because you don’t see people walking around in feather headdresses and things doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who feel deeply related to these places, and are deeply related to these places, in a way that Western thinking can’t really conceive.”

For Cordova, this includes giving tribes a role in how their ancestors are spoken about and portrayed by the city of Colorado Springs. When parks employees ask how they should talk about the Ute or Cheyenne, she asks the Ute or Cheyenne. 

While Colorado has no state law requiring tribal consultation, Cordova says she consults informally with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute, who historically lived in the Colorado Springs area before they were removed by the United States’ Western expansion.

Colorado Springs does a better job than most communities

Cassandra Atencio, who works in the Cultural Preservation department of the Southern Ute, says dealing with Cordova and Colorado Springs is different than most tribal consultations. “They’re trying to do a better job. Actually, they’re the only ones who do that regularly,” Atencio says. “We’ve had some hiccups, but we’re working through stuff, and we do it through consultation with the city archaeologist.”

At the two Ute tribes’ request, Cordova says they hire an archaeological monitor anytime they move dirt in Garden of the Gods. The monitors have led to prominent discoveries, including the Palmer site which Cordova discovered in 2014 after a monitor noticed exposed and clearly historic trash in a path construction workers had trampled through the grass. Cordova called a halt, looked around, and quickly knew she had potentially made the find of her career.

Colorado Springs City Archaeologist Anna Cordova observes stratigraphy to make sure that archaeological sites are not undermined. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cordova tries to bring consultants out in person at the planning stage of bigger projects. By consulting frequently and early, she says the city can take the tribes’ advice without adding significant expense. It’s easier to make changes when planning rather than after ground is broken. Recently, Cordova contacted the two Ute tribes in the planning stages of the new bathroom project and a roadside trail.

“For the bathrooms, for example, we had four proposed areas, and so we brought them out and asked ‘What are your thoughts?’” Cordova says. “Same thing with this new trail, we asked them what they thought and they asked us to move it to the other side of the road because of particular reasons. And we did.”

While Cordova says her main goal is to give agency back to tribes in the telling of their history, and create a good relationship between the city and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute, the process of consultation also provides for a more informed archaeology. Archaeologists work on tribal history, but often do not communicate with the tribes whose ancestors they are studying.

“Throughout my career that’s what I’ve wanted to do is bridge that gap,” Cordova says. “Archaeology is a piece of a puzzle, but it’s not the whole puzzle.”

Anna Cordova spends a lot of time monitoring construction work to make sure that no archaeological sites are harmed. This plate was found in the most recent backhoe pile where a new bathroom is being installed at Garden of the Gods Park. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Through tribal consultation, Cordova says she can handle artifacts in a way tribes are comfortable with, and in learning how she should handle the artifacts, she learns from the people most knowledgeable on the subject of how an item should be shown. 

“These artifacts aren’t mine just because I’m an archeologist. They don’t belong to me, they don’t belong to the museum, they don’t belong to the greater world,” Cordova says. “If they belong to anybody, they belong to the descendents of those communities.”

Larkin thinks Cordova’s work to bring the archaeological community and tribes closer is essential to the profession. “I think if archaeology is going to move forward and look at Native American stuff, we’re going to have to take a more collaborative approach,” she says. “Creating those relationships and making those good faith efforts even when you don’t have to is the way to do that.”

Cordova was hired to help preserve the cultural history of Colorado Springs. She says the challenge is to protect natural and cultural resources while locals “love the parks to death.” She thinks the tribes have a role to play in that conversation.

“In Colorado Springs, a lot of people care about the city parks, but if you can use archaeology to connect them to the past, and the people who have been there before them, and to give them a part in preserving that aspect of the park, you form deeper connections,” Cordova says. “The more people are connected with the place, the more they take care of it.”

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