Brown Quarterly - Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 1996)

Educational Innovations of Hovenweep and Mesa Verde

By Ramona Huchinson

Sitting high in the canyons and mesas of the American Southwest lie some of the nation's most visually striking and interesting archeological sites. In particular are Mesa Verde National Park  and Hovenweep National Monument , two important National Park Service areas which are tucked in the spectacular canyon and mesa geology of the Four Corners. They attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year. In addition, the staffs of these parks are providing students of all ages with a variety of educational opportunities. Programs range from on site tours to state-of-the-art information on the World Wide Web at

The largest and most famous is Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado. Mesa Verde was established by the Federal government in 1906 to provide for the protection and scientific study of the early Puebloan farmers who thrived in this area more than 1000 years. The 52,000 acre park protects at least 4000 archeological sites of which 600 include the famous "cliff dwellings." Early cowboy explorers named many of the cliff edge villages with European style names, such as Cliff Palace. The names while romantic, do not capture the real function of the ancestral Puebloan communities.

Just west of Mesa Verde sits Hovenweep National Monument. Like its more well known neighbor, Hovenweep protects villages of the early Puebloan culture. Hovenweep is actually six individual areas straddling the Colorado-Utah border. It is noted for the unique concentration of well-made stone towers and buildings. The towers, some of which are nearly four stories high were built in square, round and even "D" shapes. Despite sitting out in the open weather more than seven centuries, they are in excellent shape. Experts in archeology and other sciences speculate on the functions of the towers. Possible uses include astronomical observations, village to village communication, ceremonies or perhaps defense. We may never know the true answer, but we do know that like the villages at Mesa Verde, they moved on just prior to A.D. 1300.

Mesa Verde and Hovenweep are natural magnets for spring school tours. For example, at Mesa Verde nearly seven groups a day visit the park on many weekdays in the spring and fall. The students are treated to hands on education including an actual climb up a 30-foot ladder into a cliff dwelling. School groups at Hovenweep are offered other opportunities in the unique quiet and solitude for which that park is noted.

The park rangers have long realized that not all students can personally visit the sites. Reasons include driving distance from the various schools, classroom funding restrictions, and even cultural differences. The distance and funding problems are being addressed with alternative education programs, such as printed educators' guides and focus publications. In addition, the parks are now providing educators with extensive materials via the Internet. It is likely that in a short time there will be "real time" video available for students to chat with an archaeologist in a cliff dwelling from their home classroom.

Available "on line" now are innovative Web sites, one of which was developed through a partnership with Kansas State University. Students in the College of Education at the University are working with the staffs of both Mesa Verde and Hovenweep to produce various computer based and educationally focused programs and materials. Park rangers are now able to proved cost effective and very relevant materials quickly to teachers and students almost anywhere with the stroke of a computer key. Providing innovative ways of informing most students around the world about these sites and archeology is only limited by our imagination and technology.

Unfortunately, some nearby students are unable to visit these archeological sites due to cultural taboos. For example, students from traditional Navajo communities in the area are not able to tour archeological sites of the Ancestral Puebloan peoples. In the past, many of their people have suffered various sicknesses after visiting sites. As a result, many parents do not allow such educational visits by their children. Unfortunately, this also serves to prevent their children from learning more about the natural resources that are also protected in our National Park sites.

The small staff at Hovenweep decided to try a different focus on field trips to rectify this situation. There is an important need in the area to create mutual understanding between the local Navajo community about the park and the careful use of the whole Four Corners landscapes. A local artist volunteered to teach stewardship of the land through the fine arts. The experimental program, "Drawing Together at Hovenweep" is now completing its first year and has successfully allowed the park's volunteer staff and rangers to focus learning in both the home classroom and finally at portions of Hovenweep without archeological sites. Students are introduced to drawing in and around the classroom over a period of a few weeks. The field trip to the monument is structured so that the students and their parents understand they will be only drawing the rocks, trees, and sky and no one will venture near the sites.

The results of this pilot program are very encouraging. Navajo children are now bringing their parents to the monument on weekends to show them their favorite tree! Once a student paints a tree, they feel attachment to the few other trees remaining on this tender land. One very talented student has even written a sonata for piano that utilized Hovenweep as its focus! The idea to make students appreciate their natural surroundings by "owning the tree through the paintbrush" is working. Hovenweep National Monument is now being loved and enjoyed by a community that felt disenfranchised in the past.

An indication of the educational success is the increasing interest in educational materials and opportunities offered at both Mesa Verde and Hovenweep. Both parks have tremendous resources and potential as outdoor classrooms. They offer all of us, those who are well into the continuing education bracket, with the opportunity to learn about the rich heritage of this country. Through effective education it will also help the parks preserve these sites for perhaps another 700 years.