Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | September 26, 2013

The Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Recent Native American Religions Scholarship

Cross-posted at Religion and American History

Earlier this month I went to Colorado Springs for a cousin’s wedding. It was a wonderful getaway from muggy Florida, Manitou Cliff Dwellingscomplete with catching up with family, seeing Pike’s Peak and other sites, and having breakfast with friend and colleague Paul Harvey. One of the places I visited was the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. These are 800–1000 year old dwellings from the Four Corners region that were moved to nearby Manitou Springs from 1904 to 1907. The Manitou Cliff Dwellings Ruins Company was responsible for the relocation, reassemble, and reinforcement of the dwellings. Visitors to the cliff dwellings and museum are able to walk through the dwellings and climb through the doorways.

Manitou Cliff Dwellings KivaMost of the museum is dedicated to the history of the Native Americans of the Four Corners region and it includes some wonderful pottery displays. Additionally, the history of this particular site is presented in a small portion of the museum connected to the gift shop. When the Manitou Cliff Dwellings opened to the public in 1907, a three story pueblo was built nearby to house a family of Native American dancers who performed at the site for the next several generations (see the Cliff Dwellings website). In addition to Native Americans, Vida Ellison, patron of the dwellings from 1910–1947, occasionally dressed in Native clothing to portray Cliff Dweller life. The fascination of non-Natives and this want to preserve and share Native cultures with a wider audience—though for an admission fee—reflects the complicated history of interactions between Native Americans and whites.

The photographs inside the museum, now partly housed in the pueblo building, are wonderful snapshots of the site. 1972 Winnebago ad at cliff dwellingsThese date back to the site’s opening in 1907 and include photographs of the on-site dancers, of visitors, and even Winnebago advertisements from the 1970s taken in front of the cliff dwellings. Displays honoring the site’s former dancers sit alongside displays paying tribute to the site’s owners. Souvenirs from throughout the years, including a baseball-style felt pennant, fill plexiglass cases.

Because of this relocation, there is a lot on the web about these cliff dwellings being “fake.” When I put “Manitou Cliff Dwellings” into Google, the second suggestion was the addition of the word “fake.” While I find the existence of the fake/authentic debate interesting, I don’t want to provide an opinion for either side of it. Rather, I’m interested in the history of the site itself since its 1907 opening and the interactions between Native Americans and whites at the site. It also calls to mind two fairly recent publications on the topic I want to recommend to readers.
Dennis Kelley’s recent article “Ancient Traditions, Modern Constructions: Innovation, Continuity, and Spirituality on the Powwow Trail” in the winter 2012 issue of the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies is a fantastic article that covers a lot of ground, including the politics of indigenous identity. He argues that the intertribal powwow “represents an important venue for representative interaction, establishing and valorizing a broad Native presence that can support individual tribal efforts to increase traditional identities.” Thus, intertribal powwows become a powerful means of maintaining Native identity, not in spite of, but rather because of their modern innovation and adaptation. As I read Kelley’s article this summer I was reminded of Tracy Neal Leavelle’s phrase “the tyranny of authenticity” concerning the privileging of Native traditions seen as “unbroken” or timeless. In a panel on religion and space at this summer’s Religion and American Culture Biennial Conference, Leavelle referenced how the “overwhelming sense of pastness when dealing with American Indian religions” leaves “very little room for growth, for life, for the future.” Kelley’s article shows how contemporary American Indian spirituality is negotiated in modernity and the fruitful analysis that comes from breaking loyalty to the “sense of pastness” and focusing on innovation and context. Additionally, it shows why categories like authenticity are situational and based on perspective.

When it comes to Native American religious cultures, the identification of a practice or space as authentic or not is particularly charged. As such, the history of these cliff dwellings and particularly the 100+ years of the site as a tourist attraction seems a worthwhile place for someone to explore the Native Americans religions in the long twentieth century. In the meantime, go read Kelley’s and Leavelle’s contributions to the conversation.

1908, "Ruins of cliff dwellings, Colorado," Library of Congress

1908, “Ruins of cliff dwellings, Colorado,” Library of Congress

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