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Earth Notes: Little Springs Lava Flow

A field of dark boulders, with rock structures in the foreground and pine trees in the background.
Kathleen Van Vlack
Little Springs Lava Flow, with structures in the foreground.

The rugged, windswept country north of the Grand Canyon is home to the Southern Paiute. About a thousand years ago, it was blasted by a volcanic eruption and covered in a dark, spiky lava flow. Non-Native scientists long assumed that Indigenous people fled from the eruption in fear. But the Southern Paiute have a different story to tell. For them, the Little Springs Lava Flow is a ceremonial landscape.

Many cultures around the world see volcanic eruptions as powerful events, linked to ideas of rebirth, renewal, and creation. Modern-day Paiute say their ancestors anticipated the Little Springs eruption and had time to prepare their response. They pressed pottery into the hot lava to create unique “sherd rocks,” similar to the “corn rocks” created by their neighbors when Sunset Crater Volcano erupted.

Paiute returned to the lava flow after it cooled to build elaborate trails, walls, and structures. Anthropologist Kathleen Van Vlack, in consultation with the Kaibab Band of the Southern Paiute, estimated they made about twenty-five hundred round trips with baskets full of cinders.

Some scientists believe these are defensive structures, built to withstand attack. But the Paiute say the trails are ceremonial. The lava flow became a destination for Paiute seeking knowledge, healing, and spiritual enrichment. Hot springs and natural water catchments are special places of power.

These stories show the importance of listening to those who have lived on a landscape, as the Paiute say, since ‘time immemorial.’ Their histories illuminate how volcanoes can be, not places of fear, but gifts from Mother Earth.

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

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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