Monday, June 22, 2009


Kneeling stick-figure Flute Player,
McElmo Canyon, Colorado.
Photo: Peter Faris
In one section of McElmo canyon south of Cortez, Colorado, an apparently unique form of Kokopelli (the hump-backed flute player) figure can be found. In a number of instances the figure consists of a simple humanoid portrayal with a strange backward bend to the legs, playing a flute that they hold with both hands.

These unique images are found in the vicinity of The Kelley Place, in McElmo Canyon, Montezuma County, Colorado. This area was populated in Pueblo III times by individual farm and small farming settlements. The rock art imagery is relatively crude, showing no signs of the kind of technical skill that is acquired by specialists through long practice. This suggests that they images were made by non-artists, basically regular people, the residential population, instead of more practiced and sophisticated specialists.

Kneeling Flute Player, solidly
pecked. McElmo Canyon,
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

The importance of the flute player to Ancestral Pueblo peoples is attested to by its presence throughout the area they inhabited in the rock art they left, as well as the omnipresence of flute players in the mythology of their descendants. The most commonly known flute player today (at least among tourists and Anglo enthusiasts) is Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player. Thought to represent a figure with a pack slung on his back, Kokopelli is variously interpreted as a fertility figure or an agricultural deity. In his agricultural role the pack on his back is thought to be full of seeds that he can spread throughout the land to provide the plant resources that the people and animals depend upon.

The kneeling flute players of McElmo Canyon might represent a local religious cult or belief. It only makes sense that the religion of the ancestral Pueblo people was not a monolithic belief, identical throughout the region. Indeed, what we know about the religions of most Native American peoples suggests that they were individual and based upon revelation. I would expect a certain amount of similarity in religious beliefs throughout the region (as is the case with today’s pueblos), but also local variants, much like the historic proliferation of sects within the Christian church.
It is tempting to believe that these kneeling flute players represent evidence of a local cult, and may have been the local response to a spiritual revelation. And in our world torn by religious conflict and all the suffering we see as a result, what a wonderful image, a religion inspired by music.

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