Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region

Today: Mid-1900s to the Present



More than 150 years after becoming a part of the United States, the Mesa Verde region is both a melting pot of peoples and a remarkable example of cultural perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. American Indians are members of, and participate in, a regional community dominated by Americans of European descent, yet they have succeeded in preserving their own distinctive identities and cultures.

For much of the preceding history, the Mesa Verde region has been defined in archaeological terms, and most of our knowledge of the peoples who have lived in the region has come, not from written records, but from the physical clues—bits of broken tools, scraps of food, and the remains of houses—they left behind. In contrast, the Mesa Verde region today is defined in terms of modern political subdivisions, and much of our knowledge of the people living in the area is derived from censuses and other official government records.

American Indian reservations in the Mesa Verde region. Map by Neal Morris; copyright Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

The Mesa Verde region today includes all or portions of three American Indian reservations: Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, and Navajo. (See enlarged map.)

The Mesa Verde region is divided among three states—Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah—and seven counties, including Montezuma County, Colorado, where the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is located. The region is home to more than 100,000 people of diverse ancestry. More than 20,000 American Indians live in the region today, but the majority of the population consists of non-Indians—primarily peoples of European descent, but also individuals of African, Asian, and mixed heritage. All contribute to the complex fabric of community life, which reflects a unique blend of age-old traditions and twenty-first-century American culture.

What is life like in the Mesa Verde region today? There continues to be a sizeable rural population, but many people also live in several main towns and cities, including Cortez, Dolores, Dove Creek, Durango, Ignacio, Mancos, and Towaoc in Colorado; Blanding and Monticello in Utah; and Farmington and Shiprock in New Mexico. The region includes all of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, most of the Southern Ute Reservation, and a small portion of the Navajo Reservation.

Montezuma County. Map by Neal Morris; copyright Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

Montezuma County is centrally located in the Mesa Verde region. (See enlarged map.)

More than 2,000 years after Pueblo people first planted corn in the Mesa Verde region, agriculture continues to be an economic mainstay, with today's farmers practicing both dryland and irrigation techniques. Dryland farmers don't irrigate their fields. Instead, they rely on winter snowmelt and summer rain to grow drought-tolerant crops such as beans and wheat. Other farmers take advantage of large-scale irrigation (made possible by federally funded water projects) to grow alfalfa and other crops requiring supplemental water.

The archaeology of the region contributes to the local economy in two ways: first, through activities associated with tourism and, second, through employment opportunities for archaeologists. Every year, ancient Pueblo sites in places like Mesa Verde National Park, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Salmon Ruins attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, contributing to a thriving industry that includes restaurants, motels, shops, and trading posts.

Throughout the twentieth century, federal and state laws were passed to protect archaeological sites and regulate their excavation. So when the McPhee Dam was constructed on the Dolores River in the 1980s, a massive effort was undertaken to excavate some of the sites in the valley that would be flooded. The Dolores Archaeological Program—one of the largest federally funded archaeological projects ever conducted in the United States—brought hundreds of archaeologists to the Mesa Verde region. Some stayed after the project was completed and continue to work on other archaeological projects in the area today. The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, founded in 1983, employs a number of former Dolores Program archaeologists.

Ranching, real estate, oil and gas development, and recreation round out the local economy. The Mesa Verde region and greater Four Corners area are popular destinations for people who enjoy a wide variety of outdoor recreation, including hunting, hiking, biking, skiing, and water sports.

As the people of the Mesa Verde region look to the future, one of their greatest challenges will be to find a balance between economic development and the preservation of the cultural diversity and natural and cultural resources that give the region its distinctive character. It's a new chapter in an age-old story of human adaptation—a story that began with the hunter-gatherers and farmers of the past and continues to the present day.

Learn more . . .

Compare the population of Montezuma County today with the population of the same area during the mid–A.D. 1200s.

What is the relationship between the federal government and American Indian tribes?

Read about laws that regulate archaeological investigations on government lands.