It’s the middle of a school day, and a bunch of fourth-graders in bandanas and face paint stand at the trailhead of an ancient path.
“It’s illegal to go up on your own and dig,” says Kimberly Robinson, a teacher with double jagged lines painted across her cheeks. “That’s called treasure hunting. You can come here to enjoy the site, but you can’t take from it.”
The face paint is so volunteers can easily tell apart the six Copper Creek Elementary School classes gathered on Friday, Nov. 21, at Catalina State Park. The hike is so students will own their region’s history.
For 20 years, the school has offered its fourth-graders glimpses of the lives of the Hohokam Indians who used to dwell in these parts. In the early years, inspired educators built a fire pit in a ravine near the school for hardening pottery from art class the ancient way. These days, the pottery books at Catalina State Park, and the annual firing ritual has turned into an all-day field trip.
Adult volunteers arrive at the crack of dawn to build a hot fire from sawdust and horse manure, and students arrive a few hours later for a blessing of their coil pots by a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. This year, it’s Jim Funmaker, the cultural facilitator at the San Xavier del Bac Mission.
As the pots cook, the students eat fry bread and engage in their choice of activities including Indian sand painting, fetish making, weaving and beadwork. Some take the hike to the Romero Ruins.
As Mrs. Robinson bolts up a railroad-tie staircase at the beginning of the trail, her panting fourth-graders count the stairs out loud.
“Your lungs should feel like you’re breathing through a cotton ball,” Robinson says when the last student reaches Stair No. 74, lest anyone think weariness isn’t a natural part of the adventure.
The trail that the fourth-graders are standing on has amazing history, Robinson says, when you stop to think about it. The Hohokam Indians traveled on it for 800 years, starting 1.5 millennia ago. They carried their harvest of corn and beans from the flood plains below, where the students began their journey, to the village above, where they’re headed.
The ancient trail sports an open field that is believed to have been the site of a ball court, an assortment of barrel cacti that act as compasses by leaning southwest — that’s Mrs. Robinson’s favorite part, she says — and a variety of pristine animal droppings that the students seem to like.
But there’s no visible evidence of civilization until the hikers reach the bottom of an odd-looking hill.
Mrs. Robinson bolts up the hill, leaps onto a bench at the top, throws her arms out and proclaims to the fourth-graders, “This is the trash dump of the Hohokam Indians. And let me tell you, their trash is nothing like ours.”
Hohokam trash contains pot tery shards, it turns out, and the bones of bighorn sheep. It contains jewelry made of shells, which must mean, Mrs. Robinson says, that the dwellers traded with Indians who lived near oceans.
From their high lookout point, the hikers can see a dense plume of smoke rising from the desert floor — a sure sign that their pots are busy baking.
Fourth-graders at Copper Creek started learning about techniques for making ancient pottery back in September. They studied the work of Maria Martinez, an artist who developed a new kind of blackware at the San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Each fourth grader then constructed two sturdy coil pots in preparation for Pit Fire Day.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s a dump, it turns out, there’s a village nearby. The fourth-graders turn and look as Mrs. Robinson points out a weathered top of an ancient village wall.
“Woo hoo,” the teacher yells. “Awesome!”
The rock wall is so low that it looks like stepping stones, but Mrs. Robinson explains that most of it is underground, covered by dirt.
The fourth-graders follow the wall with their eyes, impressed by the real piece of ancient history in their midst. But they haven’t seen anything yet. As they turn a corner, the weathered remains of an Indian pit house come into view.
It’s from a village where a hundred or so Hohokam are thought to have lived. Its walls come all the way up to the students’ waists.
In groups of five or six, the hikers walk the perimeter of the home, careful not to disrespect the site as they study its features.
“It’s so cool,” a girl tells her father, who is along as a volunteer. “You can even see where the door was.”
On the desert floor down below, more than 300 coil pots bake to perfection. Parent volunteers start turning their minds to the inevitable task of discarding steaming piles of horse manure.
A pungent odor permeates the park, the pots and most everybody’s clothes. The air smells of long, long ago.