Valley of the Hohokam Part II – Hohokam Pima National Monument

The Huhugam Heritage Center is operated by the Gila River Indian Community.
The Huhugam Heritage Center is operated by the Gila River Indian Community.

In Part I of my Valley of the Hohokam Trip Report, I described how the National Park Service is responsible for two national monuments in southern Arizona.   The first visit was to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, which is famous for its Great House.   The Great House has been a landmark for visitors to central Arizona since the earliest Spanish contacts.  The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition to San Francisco passed through this area in 1775, and de Anza himself took a side trip to visit the Casa Grande.  His trip was a follow-up to the reports of Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kindo, who noted the Casa Grande in an expedition to the area all the way back in 1694.

(As an interesting side note, six years after visiting Casa Grande, Father Kino would found the mission Church of San Jose de Tumacacori south of present-day Tucson, Arizona, and which today is preserved by the National Park Service as Tumacacori National Historical Park. )

If we imagine taking a virtual time machine backwards from the days of Father Kino in 1694, we know that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was built in the early 1300’s, and was used for a period of 50-75 years.  By the year 1450, the distinctive cultural identifiers of the people who lived at Casa Grande Ruins, such as pottery patterns and the settlement pattern around irrigation canals, no longer appear in the archeological record.   Thus, archeologists date the end of the “Hohokam culture” to that date.

Going back even earlier, we know that sometime in the 900’s, the structure referred to as a ball court  was built at Casa Grande Ruins.   There is some debate as to whether this ball court was used for the ball game that was played a thousand miles to the south, in southern Mexico, or was actually used for ceremonial dances.    The first permanent settlement at what we now call Casa Grande Ruins probably dates from around this time, or a little before.

Our time machine would have to go back much further to reach the origins of Hohokam Pima National Monument, however, which is located about 25 miles to the north and west of Casa Grande Ruins.   This national monument preserves a site that archeologists call Snaketown.  That site dates back as far as 300 B.C., and it is likely that it was inhabitated continuously through the year 1200.   That would have been long enough for many of the inhabitants of Snaketown to have been contemporaries with the first permanent settlements at Casa Grande Ruins.   Although the people who lived at Snaketown would not have seen the construction of the Great House, maybe its possible that they would have attended games or dances at the ball court there.

Fast forward to the present-day, however, and almost everything about Hohokam Pima National Monument is an anomaly – starting with its name.  As mention in my last post, the word Hohokam comes from a mistransliteration of the word Huhugam from the language of the O’odhom people; Huhugam can probably best be translated as “our ancestors who have perished.”  The word Pima, ironcially appears to be an even worse linguistic crime by the first Spanish-speakers to encounter the O’odhom people, as it appears to have originated from the O’odhom phrase for “I don’t know.”  As we might imagine, the phrase “I don’t know” was surely used a lot during the first contact between two peoples from opposite sides of the world. Nevertheless, when this national monument was established by Congres in 1972, this is the name that was chosen.  I would imagine that if this site were being designated for protection today, its likely that another name would have been selected instead – perhaps something along the lines of Huhugam O’odham National Monument.

An example of how the Great House is being held together.
Exposure to the elements can damage archeological ruins, this picture shows some of the efforts that the National Park Service has taken to protect and stabilize the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

This monument is also unique because the decision has been made to rebury the excavated ruins of Snaketown.   By itself, this decision is not that unusual.  Exposure to the elements is typically not going for archeological resources, which is why a protective shelter was built for the Great House at nearby Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.   Thus, archeologists frequently make the decision to rebury resources in order to preserve them for a future generation of archeologists, who may have investigative techniques that we can’t even imagine yet.   Additionally, this site is located entirely on land owned by the Gila River Indian Community of the O’odham people, who consider the site to be the sacred land of the ancestors.  I would imagine there is also some resentment of the Federal government asserting some control over this site as well.

In any event, what is unusual is that these ruins were reburied in a National Park site that is dedicated to preserving them.  A major reason for that is surely the simple fact that in 1972, when Congress established this national monument, all national monuments were turned over to the National Park Service for management.   It wasn’t until 1978 when Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska were established on US Forest Service Lands, and left under the US Forest Service for management, that national monuments would be managed by an agency other than the National Park Service.   Were this site to be established today, I would also imagine that it would possibly be given to another Federal agency to manage, or else would simply be designated as an extension of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and so not given status as its own national park.

Although Hohokam Pima National Monument is closed to the public - you can see the landscape of the national monument from the observation deck of the Huhugam Heritage Center.
Although Hohokam Pima National Monument is closed to the public – you can see the landscape of the national monument from the observation deck of the Huhugam Heritage Center.  As you can see there’s not a lot to visit.

Nevertheless, Hohokam Pima National Monument poses a dilmma for anyone trying to visit all of the national parks in the U.S. National Park System, as it remains the only national park site that is closed the public – with no plans to ever open it to visitation.   So not only is there nothing to see there, as the archeological ruins have been completely and thoroughly reburied, but attempting to visit Hohokam Pima National Monument directly is also trespassing.   Yes, as it turns out, Interstate 10 technically takes you through the boundaries of this national monument right around mile 170 (and where Goodyear Road crosses the Interstate) – but most people would hardly consider that to be a meaningful visit (and stopping on the side of the road of the Interstate would not only also be illegal, but also not safe).

Nevertheless, to the extent that anyone would want to “count a visit” to a national park that is closed to the public, a visit the Gila River Indian Community’s Huhugam Heritage Center arguably checks all the boxes.  The Huhugam Heritage Center has no affiliation with the National Park Service, so there’s no passport stamp or any of the other usual accountrements of a national park visitor center, but it actually fulfills most everything else that anyone would want out of a visit.

The highlight of the Huhugam Heritage Center is that the University of Arizona returned much of it Snaketown collection to the Gila River Indian Community a few years ago, and some of the most-spectactular artifiacts from that collection are now on display in the Huhugam Heritage Center.  Included in the display are a number of very-large and perfectly-intact pots and jars that were excavataed at Snaketown.  Seeing these artifacts in-person really gives a sense for the impressive accomplishments of these people.  Unfortunately, the Center does not permit photography of the exhibit, and the Center does not have photographs online.  The best photo I could find online of the pottery is included in this nice interactive multimedia program on Snaketown that was produced by the East Valley Tribune.  Click on the link for “Crafts and Trade” in the presentaiton to see an example of the type of pottery on display.  You can also find five photos of pottery excavated at Snaketown at this site from the Arizona State Museum.

The Huhugam Heritage Center also includes a central plaza modeled after the "ball courts" found at Snaketown and Casa Grande Ruins. Tribal tradition, however, holds that these plazas were used for ceremonial dances rather than athletic competitions.
The Huhugam Heritage Center also includes a central plaza modeled after a “ball court.”

Additionally, on the roof of the Huhugam Heritage Center is an observation deck.  From this deck, it is quite possible to view and appreciate the desert landscape where the ruins of Snaketown are now reburied, and where the people who built Snaketown once had a thriving community more tha 700 years ago.   The Center also includes a central plaza modeled after the ball courts found at Snaketown and Casa Grande Ruins.

Overall, a visit the Huhugam Heritage Center is fairly satifying for anyone interested in visiting the national parks.  The artifacts on display in the Center have plenty of “wow” factor to illustrate why Snaketown is so archeologically significant.  Moreover, the exhibits also connect the people who first made the desert bloom with their crops to the people of Gila River Indian Community who are still living there today.   And you can get a good view of what the landscape looks like today.

If you do plan to visit, be sure to call ahead for the latest hours.  As of this writing,their hours are Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 4pm.  they currently have special extended hours on the first Friday of the month when they have a special heritage market.   Our schedule did not align with the heritage market on our visit, but that would surely make for an interesting enhancement to any visit.

Taken together, both Hohokam Pima National Monument and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument remind us that we are not the first people to settle in the valleys of the Gila and Salt Rivers in Central Arizona.

Check out Part I of my trip report on “Valley of the Hohokam” from Casa Grande Ruins National Monument here.

An example of an interpretive display at the Huhugam Heritage Center on the rooftop observation deck.  The picture at lower left is of the original shelter at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument; the illustration at upper right also depicts Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (with the modern shelter).

Update: This post originally stated that Hohokam Pima National Monument was located along Interstate 5.  It is, of course, located, along Interstate 10 and has been corrected.

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2 thoughts on “Valley of the Hohokam Part II – Hohokam Pima National Monument”

  1. I believe you mean Interstate 10, not Interstate 5. I-5 doesn’t even pass through Arizona, much less Hohokam Pima NM. Great post, however – whenever I’m planning to visit southern AZ I’ll use this info.

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