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Earth Notes: River House Conservation

River House
River House

Members of the Hopi and Zuni tribes are working alongside archaeologists within the Bears Ears National Monument to preserve masonry structures built by their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Uniquely, they are using methods and materials that reflect traditional perspectives about these places.

The cliff-dwelling known as River House is located along the San Juan River, just downstream from Bluff, Utah. It was built and occupied for over two centuries by ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni and other Pueblo tribes, who constructed the village out of sandstone, soil mortar, and wooden beams.

Today, River House is widely known, with over 15,000 people visiting annually. These visitors negatively impact the site’s condition. Rubber-soled shoes grind bedrock surfaces; shuffling feet knock stones loose; and oily spots on masonry walls show where thousands of visitors have reached for a handhold.

Recent conservation work at River House reverses some of these impacts, while respecting the Hopi belief that these places have a life cycle: they are built from natural materials, and once their purpose is served, they should be allowed to return into the earth.

Materials such as cement and steel rebar, once common in conservation work, go against these perspectives and are no longer used. They are being replaced with local soil mortars and organic materials that replicate the original construction. This approach reinforces Hopi stewardship values placed on their ancestral sites. For them, and many other tribes, these places are not considered ruined or abandoned. They continue to serve as holy ground, where the spirits of ancestors dwell.

This Earth Note was written by Lyle Balenquah and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Lyle Balenquah, Hopi, is a member of the Greasewood Clan from the Village of Paaqavi ("Reed Springs Place") on Third Mesa, located in northeastern Arizona. He currently works as an archaeologist, as well as a river and hiking guide across the Four Corners region. Through his work he advocates for the protection and preservation of ancestral landscapes, combining his professional training with personal experiences and insights about Hopi culture and history.
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