Last month the dogs and I wandered into Navajo Country to attend the monthly rug auction at Crownpoint in northwestern New Mexico. Rather than rush to the auction and back, we gave ourselves the day to see what we could see.
The first things we saw when we got off the Interstate were the colorful flowers decorating the cemetery in the small settlement of Thoreau. I love visiting cemeteries as they vary so much and can tell so much about the community they serve.
I know that Chicago, where I was raised, has many amazing cemeteries and monuments. In one of the older cemeteries the monument of William Hulbert, the founder of the National League, is in the shape of a baseball. In the cemetery where Al Capone is buried along with many other ethnic Italians, many of the graves have a picture of the deceased etched into the headstone.
Meanwhile back in Thoreau, New Mexico, the graves were covered with flowers and usually had something representing who the deceased was at the grave site. A few of them had the flag of their favorite football team flying above the site.
After visiting the cemetery, we continued through spectacular countryside on our way to Crownpoint. Just before reaching town, we decided to check out the Chacoan Great House of Kin Ya’a a mile or so off the road to our right.
Kin Ya’a is one of the many great houses built during the height of Chacoan culture almost one thousand years ago. The center of Chacoan culture, Chaco Canyon, is only 30 – 35 miles from Crownpoint as the crow flies.
Ironically the Navajos, who live in the area today, are not descended from the people of Chaco. Navajo ancestors moved into the area after the Chacoan people departed.
Rather than drive on a rough dirt road that was heavily eroded from recent rains, we parked the car and walked to Kin Ya’a. And it was a good thing we did. The roadway was literally paved with potsherds. The potsherds had drifted down from the surrounding hills and ridges.
One thousand years ago those hills and ridges would have been covered with homes made of adobe or stone. And with every rain, pieces of broken pottery wash out from the former homes and float down to the dirt roadway.
As an FYI, if you take this walk, please leave any pottery where you found it. It belongs where it is and is not yours to take. It is also illegal to collect artifacts from an archaeological site or area.
After a half hour or so walking we reached the great house at Kin Ya’a to check out the intricate stone work. What’s always fascinating about Native American archaeological sites is that they were built by hand with stone tools without the aid of draft animals to do the heavy lifting. It’s amazing what the native populations were able to accomplish with the tools available to them.
After Kin Ya’a, we then went on to Crownpoint. It was still early and I decided to walk through the grocery store. If you have read The Gentle Art of Wandering, you may recall how walking through a grocery store can reveal so much about local and regional cultures. In Navajo Country, it’s the pallets of 20 and 50 pound bags of flour for sale along with large tubs of lard that is unique to the area. The grocery store in Crownpoint even had hunks of fresh lard for sale in the meat market.
With our still having plenty of time and it being too hot to take the dogs for a hike, I thought we could use the time to find some kneel-down bread.
A few years ago I read an article in the newspaper about kneel-down bread being a Navajo Country specialty and figured that this was our best opportunity to get some. It is only made in late August and September when the corn is harvested. When I asked about kneel-down bread in Crownpoint, I was told that I had to go up towards Shiprock, along the San Juan River, because it was too dry to grow corn in the Crownpoint area.
Since we had some time before the rug auction, we headed north toward the San Juan River to look for kneel-down bread. We finally found a young Navajo couple selling kneel-down bread from the back of their car on the road between Farmington and Shiprock.
They told us that to make kneel-down bread they have to grind up fresh corn (this is where the name kneel-down originates) and add a couple of ingredients to make a dough like batter. They then fill a corn husk leaves with the batter, wrap it up tight with more corn husk leaves, and place it in a fire pit. They cover the fire pit and let the bread bake until it is done.
They told me that the bread they were selling had been taken out of the pit only an hour ago. I bought six loaves and they were still hot. I opened one of the corn husks to give it a try. It was different but good. The bread was way too dense for making a sandwich, but it had the perfect texture for eating with stew. As for its taste, it was very earthy and tasted like corn. It is a true local delicacy that would be perfect on cold day with a thick soup.
With our kneel-down bread mission accomplished, it was back to Crownpoint for the rug auction. The monthly auctions are held in the gymnasium of the local elementary school. The weavers show up a couple of hours before the auction to check in and to have time to display their rugs. While waiting for the auction to begin, you can check out the rugs, talk to the weavers, and buy a Navajo taco from the school cafeteria.
The overall experience was very cool. I am not an expert on Navajo rugs and cannot tell you what to buy or the best way to buy one. But buying at an auction does give you a chance to meet the people who make the rugs and to learn something about the story behind the rug. Even if you do not buy a rug, and I didn’t, it is a great place to go for a wandering adventure.
If you’re interested in attending the Crownpoint auction, please click here for more information.