Rediscovering the Southwest

by Nick Stephens

On February 4th Stephen H. Lekson, an archeologist whose studies have illuminated histories of Native American societies in the southwest United States and northern Mexico, was honored as the 9th recipient of the Roy Chapman Andrews Distinguished Explorer Award, an award reserved for individuals whose scientific achievements have garnered new insight into domains previously misunderstood or unknown in the field of social science.

Charles Westerberg, Associate Dean and former professor of sociology, gave the welcoming address, commending both the Roy Chapman Andrews Society for continuing to have such close ties to Beloit College, Andrews’ alma mater, and Lekson for being “…an inspiration to anyone who yearns to learn more about the unwritten past and discover the cultural riches beneath our feet.”  He briefly outlined Lekson’s achievements and contributions to social science and history.  Lekson, the first archeologist to receive the award, is a professor and curator of anthropology and director of museum studies at the University of Colorado.  He spent two years as an undergraduate at Beloit, leaving prematurely due to, as Westerberg put it, “Having a little too much fun,” to finish his undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  In the early 1970’s he became involved in archeological fieldwork and eventually earned his Master’s from Eastern New Mexico University.  He then settled in the southwest, obtaining his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico with a dissertation based on the ancient civilizations that occupied the Chaco Canyon area of New Mexico from 850-1125 A.D.

Westerberg described the queries fueling Lekson’s research.  His work asks and attempts to answer questions of how we come to understand the big picture of ancient life in north America, considering how the sociopolitical lives of regions and communities were organized, how their histories involved power struggles, alliances, and mass migrations, and how the histories of the American southwest and Mexico were connected a thousand years ago.

Lekson’s acceptance lecture, “The Rhythm of Regional Interaction in the Southwest,” sought to inform the audience of the complexities and immensity of the civilizations inhabiting the southwest around the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries.  Lekson showed images of modest pottery extracted from dig sites in this region, and compared that to a painting depicting pueblo life of this time. The question, Lekson asked, is how these people transitioned from simple pit dwellings with modest possessions, to these massive and opulent cosmopolitan pueblo cities, the remains of which are still elusive to probing archeologists. The extant physical evidence is minuscule but widely dispersed enough to lead Lekson to conclude that these societies were indeed much larger than previous estimations suggested.  How, then, do we account for so much absent physical evidence if these places were really as prodigious as Lekson propounds them to be?  Lekson suggests that when 19th century Americans, motivated by the idea of Manifest Destiny, usurped these lands, they eradicated the physical traces of the great Native American civilizations, in effect, altering history to make it seem like a less egregious action than it really was.  It’s more comfortable to believe, said Lekson, that we, as Americans, expropriated that land on which were built simple pit dwellings rather than massive cities. Lekson’s lecture and work urges us to reconsider the fidelity of certain historical accounts and to question our world, both past and present.



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