Thursday, June 20, 2019

Spring 2019: Big Mtn. Díneh Experience May Go Back to Ancient Times


Rivers of Big Mountain, 40K to 20K Years Ago.
By Bahe Y Katenay - Kéédíniihii,  Spring 2019

Centuries before the great megafaunas went extinct like the ground sloth, short nose bear, giant armadillos, and the mighty bison, western Big Mountain had rivers. The jet stream hovered over northern Arizona bringing plenty of precipitation and a temperature of 13°C degree (8°F) cooler than today. A long-gone mountain range extended beyond the present day margins of Black Mesa, to the north and northeast. It had much snow most of the year, but no glaciation. These bountiful moisture fed streams and rivers that carved what would be Blue Canyon (aka Moenkopi Wash) and the alluvial valleys that became Dinnebito and Oraibi Washes. Numerous lakes were scattered throughout. The mixed conifer forest and open grasslands blanketed the great ancestral plateau of Big Mountain and Black Mesa.  

Today in the 21st Century, Big Mountain is perhaps the driest as it has ever been, and its ancient Navajo Aquifer depleted due to Peabody Coal’s industrial use and past exports to big cities. The natural cycles of the high desert precipitation has drastically changed to a couple decades of drought. Western Big Mountain had been cleared of most of its human inhabitants due to U.S. Indian Removal laws and program. These lands are still pristine and much of that, can only be attributed to those past and previous native dwellers, who were nothing but sustainable and nature-oriented, religiously.

(fig. 2)

 This article will focus on a small area and it should give an idea of past rivers. The immediate surrounding terrain will also support these observation and the basic analogies. The confluence of the Little Red Willow Spring canyon and Blue Canyon (fig. 2) show its own uniqueness like other adjacent areas here in north western Big Mountain. What is immediately noticeable are the effects of the droughts, some die out of piñon pines, most juniper trees show a third of their foliage dry or dead, and the partially dying sage on the alluvial banks of the canyon floors. Though winter has brought a decent amount of extra moisture, the struggling sage of the open meadows are missing its accompanying early spring, short-term grasses. Something that help settle the sheep herds down and provide much of the necessary nutrients for lambing season.  

I made my way down toward the confluence from where I parked on a rounded rim, on the edge of an open juniper sage grassland. I descended toward the confluence at about 50 meters (165 feet) and out at about a kilometer (3/4 mile). I have never been a hiker for pleasure or for sport, but I have walked endlessly when I herded sheep and ranged most of my life. My route to the confluence was to follow the contour in order to avoid steep slopes or drops and at the same time, pay attention to sites of interest and stratigraphy. There are multicolored and non-uniform sandstone strata, silt stone, thin clay slopes, and loose eroded deposits of sand covering much of the first slope. 

This is the lower member of the 93 to 90 million year old Toreva Formation from the “last age of the dinosaurs” or the Cretaceous Era. It is the earliest member of three designated divisions, and it overlies the oil and natural gas rich Mancos Shale which originated from deep sea bottoms. The expose and eroded thickness of the Toreva formation at this confluence is about 26m (85 ft.), but it is much thicker on the eastern flank of Black Mesa and eastern Hopi mesas. The formation make up the Hopi village mesa cliffs. There it formed lateral stacked, block boulders sometimes interbedded with sandy shale and coal seams, and at the contact with the Mancos are sandstone “sheets.” Numerous sandstone outcrops have provided Hopis with building blocks for shelter and walls. Back at this confluence, paleo-environments are noticeable, but depending on how well surfaces are exposed near the formation’s contact with the Mancos Shale. Fossil imprints and fossils of marine life can be abundant. The contact zone will indicate the ancient sea giving in to land, that gradual transitions from sea to delta and to lagoons then back to a sea period.

(fig. 3)

I came upon a mysterious quarried stone blocks that seemed to have been basically collected and left together. (fig. 3) Mysterious because there are no signs of past digging and no feature of the buried sandstone outcrop. An old horse and foot trail I crossed that looked used by perhaps wild horses and ranging government owned cattle. Crossing a small ravine, I again got distracted by one of those concreted, dark “rock balls” sticking out of a siltstone outcrop like an iron ball bursting out of a cannon barrel. (fig. 4) I not only observe but I imagine events. Paleo-Indians gathered those perfect sandstone blocks, but the blocks were too heavy for an uphill haul. Perhaps for a shrine or marker project on top. The gathered blocks definitely was not from recent peoples because if they really needed to, they would have used donkeys or a wagon. The siltstone layer normally indicate a shallow sea’s rapid return to lay claim to the land, or a transgression. Then after millions years, chemistry aided by earth forces, gravity, and pressure, the embedded iron concretion (rock ball) formed inside the siltstone.

(fig. 4)

Finally, one of the amazing ancient events around the end of the Pleistocene (40,000 – 20,000 y.a) that often fascinates me about Big Mountain topography. There was not a one mile thick ice sheet here, but in the far north was the Late Wisconsin Ice Sheet. Here, there was rapid erosional changes across Big Mountain’s ancestral landscape. Rivers cutting out canyons due to regional tectonic lifting aided by the well packed moisture of the Alpine-Mountain climate. A scene from 30,000 years ago is unimaginable to how the terrain looks today. Aside from the geologic processes, my fascination turns into that puzzling correlation to stories of prehistoric Díneh era or the origin time of Black Mesa topography. Walking up a gradual steep slope out from the ravine, there was the ocher stained and loose siltstone surface which is covered by dark-pink sand and river-worn clastic. These broken rock pieces were irregular, rounded pebbles. Larger chucks were recognizable pieces of solidified coal ash, baked shale, partially melted sandstones, jointed Moqui marble, and petrified wood. (fig. 5) My instant thoughts are the scenarios of a 30,000 year old river materials to the ancient, geologic scenario of a tropical environment 100 to 70 million years ago. I had no time to infringe upon the ground but certainly, river systems were responsible for these deposited remnants.    
(fig. 5)

I reached just above the Blue Canyon floor, and stood on a shallow shale mound that sits atop the barren sandstone point. The Little Red Willow Spring canyon to the south, its sides are steep with jumbled varying sized boulders, and its bottom is a narrow sandy, flash flood zone. Blue Canyon gets narrower, but still wide enough floor for the slightly meandering wash which carries a trickling small stream. Blue Canyon narrows here because I am on the edge a syncline (downward fold), and that puts the Toreva and Mancos contact zone deeper.  Facing Blue Canyon perpendicular, a branch of the Cow Springs Anticline (terrain’s upward fold) is to my left. However, the (main) Cow Springs Anticline splits off to the northeast on my right. That anticline branch curves around crossing this major canyon, far to my right, where it creates a wide valley which is surrounded by high bluish grey slopes, the Mancos Shale, and hence the Díneh (Navajo) name, Bíí’ Kóh Hodóókl’ízí or Blue Canyon.  

The great ancestral river of Blue Canyon (fig. 1) exposed the Toreva Formation and the Mancos Shale here due to these two anticlines. Standing on the small shale mound, 12m above the bottom of the confluence and looking back at my route down, I am below two phases of noticeable and past river channels, (inset below: green E & F lines) and I stand above the last and final phase of a mountain river. Unless I am able to see the hidden strata beneath Blue Canyon river’s alluvial fill, it would tell the nature of the rivers’ energy and the stages of depositions. The Little Red Willow Spring’s ancestral river must have made an impressive rapid at the junction of Blue Canyon River. Today, the alluvial fill that make Blue Canyon’s floor, above where I stand, has buried what the out-washed rubble pile from Little Red Willow would have looked like. 

Inset: flash flood bend (A), rare major flood bench (B), Late Pleistocene bench (C),
dark-stained sand & clay Contact Zone (D), ridge (G) remains of (E) river bank. 

Then for me, there is the mystery of that dark-pink colored sand, darker than the bright-pink sand like the “falling sand dunes.” Questions nagged my thoughts, just how did the dark-pink sand got mixed with river clastic? What is its origin? Back at the top, the dark-pink sand that cover much regions of the open sage grasslands throughout Big Mountain at a depth of .3 to 3 meters. And besides the exposed rocky flats, these land features are the only places where a few Paleo-Indian sites have been found. These dark-sands certainly has an origin from elsewhere and to my non-expert eyes, winds have placed them all across the already flat steps. Sun and moisture throughout thousands of years have oxidized these surficial deposits. They remained in situ and undisturbed, and still are. A top these like in northeastern Big Mountain near Juniper Grove, erected stone slabs were studied by archaeologist in the 1960s, and its nearby hearth was dated 20,000 – 18,000 years ago. At the top near where I parked, I came upon what I believe were imported sandstone slabs. (fig. 6) It is certainly not a sandstone outcrop, they were placed and may have been standing before and if so, they probably had been arranged in two spots.       

                                                                                      (fig. 6)

What is left of Black Mesa landscape still tell much about the past, its central Big Mountain ridge that divides the canyon lands in the west and the eastern alluvial valleys of the Dinnebito and Oraibi washes. That enormity of evidence show creek and river systems were present throughout Big Mountain including lakes. Traces of lake sediments are more numerous above and near the washes of the Dinnebito and Oraibi. Blue Canyon and the other tributary canyons tell of raging rivers that cut deep narrow canyons. These cuts were controlled by ancestral Black Mesa’s alpine mountain climate, slight uplifting and crustal warping. Regions were covered by dense conifer stands like the douglas fur, the blue and white spruce and some white pines. Open grass lands often teaming with great mammals and coexisting with early native humans. 

Western science along with its archaeology has interpreted past events, but there were the other long time, intelligent dwellers that have their stories.  Díneh ancient rituals once had explanation about certain aspects of rituals that alluded to past existence of extinct faunas. Certainly this would be labeled as irrational by western thinking, but past native healers and chanters, who are about all extinct themselves today, claimed that certain origins of ritual and paraphernalia design came from some a distance time.

These lands sculptured by natural forces and earth’s responses to its tectonic motions will continue to eroded and reshape features of the lands. There will be those past cycles that held a different kind of meaning which became stories, religious metaphor or geology may only be uttered and written for the last time. The human witnesses to these very recent events, since 40,000 years ago, will not be written about nor will it be scholarly reviewed. Current society of robotic influences and guidance will not heed to the great lessons of that past pagan, savage dwellers. The future mega-industrial age continue to lay prospects on these lands once all natives have vanished. The robotic eyes and its sensors have analyzed the quantity and depth of the Mancos Shale’s fossil fuel resources, natural gas and oil. Our memories nor awareness seems not far-reaching to the lessons from the western world’s conquest and pillage that have only brought mass consumption without replenishment. The current era and future political scope is obvious in that fossil fuel only create wars and to fuel the weaponry of total annihilation, more wastelands, new cities built upon ruins of extinct civilizations. 

So we may know and will we bravely rise to defend the sacred?