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Documentary explores how CDOT and tribes partnered to preserve Indigenous culture and history

A centuries-old Puebloan village was discovered during the realignment of U.S. Highway 550
Tribal members, including tribal elders and youth groups, contributed their knowledge and helped with the excavation that was led by CDOT’s contractor Alpine Archaeological Consultants, an archaeology firm based in Montrose. (Courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation)

A new documentary will air this weekend on Rocky Mountain PBS following the historical and cultural conservation efforts of the Colorado Department of Transportation and several area tribes.

“Durango 550 – Path of the Ancestral Puebloans” documents CDOT’s work with archaeologists and the Southern Ute Indian, Hopi and Pueblo of Laguna tribes to protect and study historic cultural resources unearthed as part of the realignment of U.S. Highway 550.

“This documentary shows the unique collaboration of all entities involved, laying the groundwork for a new approach to archaeology, blending western science with traditional cultural beliefs,” said CDOT archaeologist Greg Wolff in a news release.

CDOT discovered a more than 1,200-year-old Pueblo 1 ridgetop village from 750 to 900 A.D. as it was preparing for its Highway 550/160 connection project south of Durango.

In 2018 and 2019, CDOT archaeologists, contractor Alpine Archaeological Consultants, a firm based in Montrose, and the three tribes planned, excavated and studied the site that had stone artifacts and one of the largest pit houses ever found in the area.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe also provided help with the project.

“The archaeologists unearthed more than 50,000 artifacts, including chipped stone tools, fragmented pottery, grinding implements, (and) beads and pendants,” said Lisa Schwantes, a spokeswoman for CDOT’s southwest region.

A new documentary follows the archaeological work of the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Southern Ute Indian, Hopi and Pueblo of Laguna tribes as they excavated a centuries-old Puebloan village discovered as a part of CDOT’s U.S. Highway 550/160 connection project. (Courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation)

The excavation was the largest archaeological and cultural project that CDOT has ever been a part of, Schwantes said.

The film highlights the collaborative effort as a new model for the study and conservation of Indigenous cultural sites revealed during infrastructure improvement. In the past, tribes have been kept on the sidelines and their knowledge and perspective have often been neglected.

“Tribal members frequently visited the project area during the excavations,” Wolff said in the release. “Tribal elders contributed traditional knowledge, experience and spiritual guidance to the archaeologists and other project staff members.”

The documentary features several tribal representatives and tribal members who trained as paid interns while participating in the excavations and educational outreach. Tribal youth groups who helped with the project also appear in the film.

“I like to see our youth get involved with archaeology through our (tribal) natural resources department and cultural department, that way they can better their understanding of our past history and our ancestry,” said Ernest “Muz” Pinnecoose, an elder with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, in the film.

“It’s finding that common ground, understanding and respect,” said Georgiana Pongyesva, a research assistant with the Hopi Tribe Cultural Preservation Office, in the documentary.

“When you bring elders, youth and archaeologists all together, everyone is benefiting because you’re learning from each other,” Pongyesva said in the film. “But also, it’s paving the way for this new era of archaeology, which includes Indigenous peoples that are still here and related to these places.”

Ensuring Indigenous communities are full partners in any archaeological work benefits archaeologists in addition to the tribes, said Rand Greubel, a principal investigator with Alpine Archaeological Consultants.

Archaeologists and the Southern Ute Indian, Hopi and Pueblo of Laguna tribes found more than 50,000 artifacts, including chipped stone tools, fragmented pottery, grinding implements, and beads and pendants, during an excavation south of Durango, said Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. (Courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation)

“As archaeologists, we sometimes become so immersed in the artifacts, in the data and in the science that we tend to forget that these were people who had vibrant lives,” Greubel said in a news release. “Their descendants are still here and they have a lot to teach us. I’ve been especially struck at times when a Native person will look at something we revealed through excavation, and they’ll see in it a spiritual dimension that we’re not trained to see.”

After excavation of the site concluded in 2019, Alpine Archaeological Consultants moved the artifacts to a lab so archaeologists could process and study them.

Once the archaeologists finish their research, everything will be transferred to the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum near Dolores where they will be housed permanently, Schwantes said.

The Grit and Thistle Film Co. created the about 30-minute documentary.

The film will air twice on Rocky Mountain PBS: at 10 a.m. Sunday and at 7 p.m. March 17. The documentary will also be available on PBS’ website and mobile app.


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