One of my first tours to venture out of the general Tucson Basin area was to Kinishba. The name means “brown house” in Apache (Inde′). It is one of the more important sites in the history of archaeological study at the University of Arizona. When Byron Cummings was lured from Utah to Arizona he immediately began to upgrade the museum collections and archaeological program at his new school. One of his first acts was to begin a program of field training in archaeology for university students.
Excavations were initially begun at a site a few miles east of Tucson called University Ruin. The land was donated to the college by the owner and digging went on there for several seasons. The university still maintains that site and recently archaeological research work by Paul and Susan Fish has been resumed.
Cummings was interested in taking his students farther afield, both figuratively and in actuality. He discussed his intentions with others and secured permission to begin work at a large late pueblo on the Apache reservation near White River. That pueblo was Kinishba.
Kinishba had everything he was interested in: it was remote, the potential for research was enormous and it was located in the temporal and regional frontiers between the Anasazi and what would come to be known as the Mogollon Culture.
Kinishba is a huge site. At one time there may have been as many as a thousand people living there. There are several room-blocks on both sides of the draw that provides water for the site. Room-blocks are clusters of contiguous living rooms that surround a plaza or open area and they can rise up several stories. Cummings chose the southern rooms to focus his excavations on for several reasons. One, it promised to be of more than one story, also the walls seemed most intact. Finally, there was a tantalizing architectural anomaly that attracted him. The southern room-block appeared to him to feature an unusual entry: an ‘L’ shaped corridor that lead into the plaza.
My first visit was back in the 1970s. I had heard of the site and in my inimitable fashion I decided to go there, trusting that I could find it with little or no directions. I knew it was near White River and that it was close to the road. Luck held for me, there was actually a little, very unobtrusive sign pointing to the dirt road turnoff. The site is visible from the highway if you know what to look for. After that it came down to the correct navigation of a few turnoffs and I found myself at Kinishba.
My first visit back in the late 70s found the old museum still occupied by a family that watched over the site, the ruins in fair shape and lots of ceramic debris scattered across the area. I was charmed. Dean Cummings had put a great deal of effort into Kinishba, hoping that by showcasing the site he might be able to wrangle National Park status to protect his protege in perpetuity. His reconstruction included some very speculative features. Though some say there was little evidence to support it, he built his second level on the south ruin. Even more troublesome to other professionals Cummings rebuilt the southern part of the room block with the postulated, ‘L’ shape, covered entrance, a feature that was unparalleled in any other southwestern prehistoric pueblos.
The site itself is large, like many late Mogollon pueblos, with three room-blocks; two on the east side and one on the west side of the wash. After the 1100s there was a move towards aggregation of populations in the region and for a time some pueblos got larger.
Kinishba may have been one of the sites that benefited from this period of growth.
Over the years I made many trips to Kinishba, and while I was always happy to get there, the tour itself became problematic. The distance involved made it a very long day tour and I had no other sites to include other than historic Ft. Apache to turn the tour into an overnight one. I finally solved the apparent quandary by adding Grasshopper and Point of Pines and making it a three-day, Field Schools of the University of Arizona trip.
Unfortunately, over the years another concern arose. From the first trip to to my last I watched the slow decline of the restored ruins and historic buildings that Cummings had constructed. For a time after his retirement in the late 30s Cummings lived at Kinishba in the museum and while there he oversaw it and the other structures though it was difficult because of his original stricture that authentic materials were to be used on the stabilized ruin wherever possible, there was little he could do to prevent steady degradation of the site. After ten years Cummings was too old to stay any longer at Kinishba and he relocated to Tucson and caretakers moved in. They stayed until sometime in the 70s when the site was basically abandoned.
Once that happened the end result was fore-ordained. Year by year, the site became more unstable and occasional incidents of vandalizing exacerbated the decline. My last trip to Kinishba as a tour guide was in 2004. I arrived on an overcast day with a group of five. What I saw broke my heart. There had been a fire at the museum, the building was a ruin now too. I saw graffiti and worst of all the reconstruction that Cummings had done was almost entirely collapsed.
While I was there an odd thing happened. I was wandering the ruins of Cummings outbuildings behind the museum; his garage, the guest houses, and his shed when I clearly heard the distant call of an owl from up the draw. While there was only dim sunlight due to the cloud cover, it was daytime and I could not remember hearing an owl call out like that during the day. Intrigued I left the group and followed the calls which continued to sound in a random fashion. Working my way up through the dense junipers and various shrubs that grew along the edge of the draw I found that I wasn’t getting any closer to the sound of the owl. After ten minutes or so I gave up and turned back.
I did not hear the owl again.
After that visit I wrote to the Heritage foundation on their website that was asking for nominations of historic American sites that were in desperate need of protection. Fortunately my voice was not the only one heard. In the end Kinishba received some long overdue attention and today, it at least looks cared for. The White Mountain Apache Tribe, despite the fact that the site is not part of their cultural heritage, have helped with the process by establishing and maintaining a museum and foundation that oversees Ft. Apache, Kinishba and cultural heritage sites of the people. 1) If you want to see an excellent set of photos of what the site looks like today go to Randall Schulhauser’s Hike Arizona site. 2)
If you want to visit the site, make sure you go first to the museum in White River where you can get a day pass by paying a nominal fee that will help continue to provide the over-watch and protection of Kinishba. Despite all the abuse of time and man Kinishba remains one of my favorite places because it combines potential for prehistoric and historic archaeology research and it represents a major site that was occupied at a time of great change in the southwest.