Fifth-Grade Travel Week: A Deep-Dive Into Pueblo Culture
Raya I., fifth grade

Fifth grader Raya I. shares her reflections on travel week, taking readers through the history of the Pueblo people and the activities and lessons she and her classmates engaged in to better understand their rich culture and heritage. 


Raya works on her computer science project, designing her own rug design using computer code.

The ancestral Pueblo people are a fascinating group. Through different archaeological discoveries and analyzed artifacts, it has been exposed that they lived in many different forms of houses, created practical baskets and later pottery, and were the makers of the so-called "Navajo loom," among many other things.

Ordinarily, the fifth graders would fly to Crow Canyon, Colorado, a place with many archaeological remains of the Pueblo people. However, as we all know, this year was anything but ordinary, so we were forced to travel virtually. I think everyone can agree, though, that the experience was still a wonderful one. During Travel Week 2021, the fifth graders were able to experience the culture and beliefs of these people firsthand, through a multitude of activities and lessons. Here, I hope to share with you a basic lesson on Pueblo culture, some of the activities that we fifth graders participated in, and how those connect to ancestral Pueblo culture.


A Brief Lesson On Pueblo History:

The ancestral Pueblo people are believed to have resided in pit houses at first, partially or completely underground abodes hollowed out from dirt and adobe. Why underground? Well, it turns out that building your home even partially underground means that it has excellent insulation. Pit houses were cool in the scorching hot summers of the Southwest and cozy and warm during the bitterly cold winters. Access to a pit house was gained via ladder. Inside, a pit house would usually have several small walls built of simply stacked slabs of stone. Remains excavated from inside pit houses left over from ancient times show that each family would often have specific sections for preserving and eating food.

Speaking of food––how did the ancestral Pueblo people cook? Obviously, they didn't own stoves, microwaves, toasters, or any of the other appliances that we take for granted these days. The answer is that they made fires and either placed food along with hot stones in a basket, or cooked the food inside special pots once they learned how to make pottery (more on that later). But they didn't have lighters or matches, so how did they make fire? The answer is the old-fashioned way: rubbing two sticks together until they spark.

Well, now we have fire to cook with, but we don't have anything to cook. What did the ancestral Pueblos eat, and how did they stay healthy? The Pueblo people harvested three main crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. Together, these provided enough nutrients for a fairly balanced meal. But anyone would get tired of eating just corn, beans, and squash for every meal, day after day after day. So the Pueblo people also hunted, mainly big game such as antelope and deer. They used two main technologies for hunting: long, heavy spears that could go far if thrown right and later, handcrafted bow-and-arrows, as they were probably much more accurate and easier to shoot. The tips of the spears and arrows were made primarily from obsidian, a glossy black rock that is very brittle and very sharp, two useful qualities when crafting arrowheads. 

The ancestral Pueblo people didn't live in pit houses forever, though. Later, they created very sturdy houses using stone held together and painted. These houses often had towers on one side. The purpose of these towers is still unknown although archaeologists believe that they may have been used as lookout spots. Inside, wooden beams supported the roof and walls of the house. From these beams, clothes, pots, and other items could be hung. Houses also sometimes had cutouts in the wall, sort of like cabinets without doors.

The pennant Raya created as the culmination to travel week.

The ancestral Pueblo people used to make copious numbers of baskets. They are said to have been able to weave baskets so tight that the baskets were able to retain water. They cooked in baskets and used baskets for transporting pretty much every object of their lives. Eventually, these containers went out of circulation and new ones—stronger, sturdier, and much less likely to decompose—appeared. . They cooked food faster, held water better, and came in many different shapes. We call them "pottery."

Now, the Pueblo people were able to make a much larger variety of containers. For water transportation, they created ollas (pronounced "oy-ahs"), large vessels that were big and round at the bottom and narrow and thin at the top. Within the tribe, there were designated people whose sole job was to carry water to and from homes. These water-carriers transported the ollas by balancing them on their heads. It is said that some could carry them without using their hands at all, and the most skilled could even climb up and down ladders without spilling a single drop of water. 

For cooking, the Pueblos made corrugated pots––vessels that, when shaped, were not smoothed out but instead were left with a ridged texture. These were optimal for cooking because their corrugation meant that they retained more heat, therefore cooking food faster. The Pueblo also created special mugs that, when tested, were discovered to have held cacao (the bean that makes chocolate). Since cacao is a tropical plant, this evidence shows that the Pueblos were trading with people who grew cacao. However, the mugs were only in circulation for about 100 or 150 years––archaeologists believe that the Pueblo people were somehow not able to access cacao anymore and therefore stopped making the special mugs. 

But these people did not have a solely work-dedicated culture. Evidence shows that they were actually able to enjoy free time and were a relatively peaceful society. They also ornamented themselves with beautiful jewelry made from various materials: turquoise, obsidian, seashells (evidently acquired from trading with people close to the ocean), and even animal bones. To make string/thread/rope, they twisted fermented yucca root fibers together until they had a string that was tight and strong. Multiple of these strings could be twisted together to make larger ropes. During one of our classes on Pueblo history, we fifth graders actually got to make some string using the traditional twisting method, although we used rafia instead of yucca root.

Finally, the ancestral Pueblo people wove their clothes from cotton on a loom. The Navajo people are known for their fine weaving, and the looms that they use have been dubbed "Navajo Looms." However, it is truly the Pueblo people who were the creators of this style of loom, and they were the ones who taught the Navajo how to weave using these looms. In traditional Pueblo culture, the men are the ones who make all of the clothes and do all of the weaving. 

There is much to learn about ancestral Pueblo culture, and this report as well as the two classes that the fifth graders attended are not enough to fully cover the lives of these amazing people. However, I hope that this was interesting for you and that it gave you a taste of the culture of the ancestral Pueblo people.


The Fifth-Grade Activities/Classes:

In her cooking class, Raya learned how to make blue corn tortillas, "a valuable lesson in mixing and measuring," she said.

Even though we could not physically journey to Crow Canyon this year, the Nueva teachers worked hard to bring us activities that would still enhance our learning and connect us to the spirit of the Pueblo. It was incredible how different studies of their life were able to be transferred into our everyday classes. Here, I'll share with you all of the classes and activities we participated in and how they tie back to the Pueblo people.

Pit House/Pueblo Lifestyles with Tyson Hughes:
When we were in-person, we were on campus for two days. Our first class in the morning on those two days was Pit House and Pueblo Lifestyles. Both were introductions to Pueblo lifestyles and culture, and that is where I gained all of the information I shared with you above. We were thrilled to be joined by Tyson Hughes, an archaeologist at Crow Canyon, and are ever grateful for all that he taught us!

Archaeological Dig with Zubin: 
We would know nothing about the lifestyles of the Pueblo people (and all other ancient cultures that we have studied) if it were not for archaeology and digging. With Zubin, we journeyed down to Crocker Road to try and dig up clues of the past and unearth the mysteries that have been there for a long, long time. We got to use metal detectors and giant magnets (but don't get them near each other––the magnet will destroy the metal detector, or so Zubin claims) to search the hillside for clues. My group didn't discover anything momentous, although we did find several different kinds of beer cans. This dig simulated some of the struggles and rewards that real archaeologists face in trying to dig up clues of the past.

PE with Jason:
Even PE was connected to Travel Week and Pueblo culture! Apparently, Pueblo kids played with wooden spinning tops. We were able to get replicas of these tops and learned how to spin them using a piece of rope. The spinning process involves wrapping the rope tightly and evenly around the top and then throwing the top with a very precise flick of the wrist. It takes a while to get the top spinning, but once it does, it is very rewarding! This just goes to show that all aspects of school and modern life can be traced back to Pueblo culture, even physical education.

Adobe Making with Al: 
Have some anger you want to vent out, or just really feel like pounding something? Then adobe making would have been for you! Adobe was what the ancestral Pueblo people traditionally used when creating their houses. Adobe is a mixture of sand, dirt, grass, and water, formed into a brick. We made our very own adobe with Al. It turns out that it is harder than it looks; getting the sand-grass-dirt-water ratio is very important and very hard! But mashing and pounding the brick together is an odd kind of satisfying. Adobe was crucial to the survival of the Pueblo people, so making it ourselves connected us deeply to the Pueblo people. 

Weaving & Code with Michelle:
The computer science portion of Travel Week was related to weaving and Navajo rugs. We spent some time with Michelle in the I-Lab learning about binary and the first "computer codes," which were really cardboard punch cards that operated weaving looms. Then, after studying a few different Navajo rug designs, we figured out how we could create our own rug designs using computer code.

Pottery with Reenie: 
We were lucky to be able to make our own pottery with Reenie, using gorgeous reddish-brown air-dry clay. We explored different types of pottery vessels, then either chose to mimic one of those or create or own. It was so interesting how different every student's was even though we were all working with the exact same materials: the clay and our hands (and occasionally the help of a paintbrush). Since pottery was so important to the survival of the Pueblo people, getting our own hands into clay and trying to make our own was both fascinating and humbling.

Knot Theory with Junaid Mubeen:
The math portion of Travel Week involved knots. Surprisingly enough, when you tie a knot and keep it loose, spreading it out, there are many fascinating patterns at work that you can find. We discovered a formula for finding the number of crossings in a simple loop knot and also how to tie a four-crossing knot (which involves pinching, choking, and poking a monster). We also learned the most efficient, symmetrical, and strong way to tie your shoes (although it takes many tries to get right). A special thank you to Junaid, a mathematician in England, who joined us and helped us figure out the many surprising things that knots are hiding beneath their tangles.

Dendrochronology with Cristina & Crow Canyon:
No school day is complete without science, and Travel Week was no exception. "Dendro" means "tree," "chrono" means "time," and "logos" means "the study of." So, for the science portion of Travel Week, we learned about dendrochronology, or the study of tree time. More specifically, we discovered how tree rings can be used to date wood and figure out the climate of individual years. We were visited by Kate, Ben, and Katie from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, who explained the science of dendrochronology to us, and we participated in an activity together that involved dating individual beams actually found at Crow Canyon. Something else that fascinated me about dendrochronology is that when it is a dry year, the annual ring on a tree will be thin and light, but when it is a wet year, the ring will be thick and dark. We also learned how scientists can extract cores from trees that enable them to look at the rings without cutting down the tree. If you're still not hooked on this branch of science, get this: a slice of a tree trunk is called a "tree cookie."

Hogan Making with Zac & Louis Williams:
Humanities. Some could say that the entire essence of all of these activities and classes ties back to Humanities, and I would agree. In all of this, we are learning about a culture and applying it to our modern life. We are taking information from long ago and absorbing it, using it, and interpreting it in new and creative ways. For the rigid humanities portion of Travel Week, we were visited by Louis Williams, a member of Navajo Nation, and, along with Zac, learned about the history of the Navajo hogan (traditionally written hooghan), which means home in Navajo. We learned about the different types of hogan, male and female, and then constructed our own using pretzels and cream cheese frosting mixed with confectioner's sugar. It was harder than you would expect, and the history was fascinating!

Writing with Cliff & Art Coulson:
We were very fortunate to have been visited by Art Coulson, a member of the Cherokee tribe and accomplished author himself. He talked to us about his life and career, and then we explored more deeply the topic for one of his books that will be coming out soon: Judaculla Rock, a rock in North Carolina that is covered in petroglyphs. The markings include a seven-fingered handprint that is said to have come from Judaculla, a Cherokee spirit being (traditionally spelled Tsul'kalu'). When Judaculla leapt down from the mountain, he caught himself on the rock with one hand, forming the handprint. Later, he returned to the rock and marked it up with the petroglyphs. He also drew a thick line that marked the divider between the Cherokee world of mortals and his world, the spirit world. No one has been able to read the petroglyphs so far, although there are several theories about what they may say, including that they are instructions from Judaculla for how to take care of the earth. After learning more about the history of Judaculla Rock, we continued two paragraphs of Art Coulson's writing into our own interpretations of an encounter with Tsul'kalu'.

Cooking with Alyssa & Crow Canyon:
And, last but not least: cooking. Obviously, cooking was central to the survival of the Cherokee people. Otherwise, they literally would not have survived. We were once again visited by Crow Canyon and learned about the history of maize (corn) and the Zuni Pueblo story of the dragonfly. Then, we cooked our very own meals: herbed chile oil, consisting of olive oil mixed with various spices, and blue corn tortillas, tortillas with a base of blue cornmeal. The tortillas and oil were both very fun to make and were a valuable lesson in mixing and measuring to get something that tasted and looked right. Cooking was a very enjoyable experience for me and a much better one than I anticipated.

As you can see, we were immersed in a wealth of activities that each dove deep into ancestral Pueblo culture in their own way. Though we were not really at Crow Canyon, it was fun, enlightening, and humbling to participate in these classes just the same. 


How It All Connects:

But how does this all connect to Pueblo culture on a deeper level? How can we learn from these people, and what lessons can we take from them into our modern life? Is there really a way to truly connect and learn all about one culture?

The truth is that I'm really not sure. I think that saying that you have learned everything possible about one culture is foolish because cultures and communities are constantly shifting, changing, and growing. These people lived so long ago that we can never be sure that we've gotten the facts exactly right, and we can never learn enough from them.

I believe that we can remember these people as monumental and momentous in figuring out ways of living that changed humanity forever. I think we should honor them and their culture, and I believe that we are simply continuing their purpose on earth across more generations and cultures and communities.

The fifth grade Travel Week was a deep exploration of the ancestral Pueblo culture, deeper than what it seemed on the surface. Through all of our activities, we journeyed back in time to try and infer what life might have been like back then. We, a group of students in 2021, have more power than we realize. We have the power to discover and learn, to question and explore. We have the power to be humbled by the Pueblo people and what they did to bring us right here, right now. We should embrace that power, and we should use it wisely. 

Many thanks to everyone who was involved in Travel Week: the amazing scientists and archaeologists at Crow Canyon; Art Coulson, Louis Williams, and Junaid Mubeen for visiting with us and enhancing our Travel Week experience; all of the Nueva teachers for giving their all to us and making sure that we had a fantastic time; and the classroom assistants for keeping everything under control––we appreciate you all more than we can ever say.

Thank you for taking the time to hear about Pueblo culture and the fifth grade Travel Week 2021 with me. I hope you learned something, and I hope you will use your power wisely.

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