Sacred El Quartelejo was once the pueblo home of immigrants from Taos, New Mexico
Article and photos by Steven A. Arts
A little-known sacred place in southwestern Kansas was called El Quivira by the old Spaniards. This was the land through which Coronado journeyed some 400 years ago, searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. This was also the land to which some natives from Taos, New Mexico fled, to escape the tyranny of the Spanish.
Some time ago I discovered this little-known ruin on a road map and decided to go on a trip to explore it. While driving south toward the site once known as El Quartelejo, I felt isolated by the vastness of the land spread out before me, even though there were plenty of cars on the highway. The place had an otherwordly feel to it, and I could tell that it was still special.
North of the site and off the highway, down a dirt road, stand several limestone outcrops, leftovers from the time when Kansas was part of a vast inland sea. The natives must have known about these outcrops, now called the Kansas Pyramids. One is shaped like an Egyptian Sphinx. As I would soon find out, the Taos natives of El Quartelejo did consider it to be a sacred place, and they even had a mythological story associated with it.
About halfway between Denver and Kansas City, the site of El Quartelejo lies some ten miles north of Scott City, Kansas, in Scott County Park. The ruins are now merely foundations, dug up over 100 years ago by early archaeologists. This was once a fairly thriving community.
Taos natives from what is now New Mexico traveled to the site and built it, several times. They were forced back to New Mexico by the Spaniards many years later.
The religion of the Taos and Picuris, who lived at El Quartelejo is pantheistic. There are many gods, a sun and moon deity. There are star gods, an Earth mother and animal deities.
Most identifiable today are the kachinas, or spirits. There are about 200 of these happy spirits. Men perform various religious ceremonies in kivas, where women and children are not allowed. The men put on masks and are said to become the true representations of a kachina, taking on aspects of that particular spirit.
The dances that start within the confines of the kiva often end with the masked kachinas dancing in public ceremonies. There are sacred clowns who follow the masked kachinas and taunt them. These clowns often chastise people in the crowd who have somehow transgressed against the community.
Fetishes and other sacred objects are kept within the kiva compound. The kiva has a stone-lined pit that represents Sipapu, a gateway to the land in the north where man first entered their land from underground. Perhaps the Taos runaways were looking for Sipapu by heading far north from their native land.
Boys between five and nine years old were initiated into the kivan society. A boy was sponsored by a ceremonial “father” and not by blood kin. Many of the rituals are designed to weaken the bonds to a child’s biological father. This is similar to the ancient Celtic custom of fosterage, where a child was brought up by someone other than his biological family. The Celtic institution of fosterage may have started out as a hostage situation, and later evolved into the more benevolent form. In Pueblan society, the real father’s family is last, as far as tracing lineage is concerned.
There are six major divisions in the Pueblan pantheon that the El Quartelejo natives would most likely have followed. Sun, rain gods, kachinas, priests of kachinas, war gods and beast gods. The pueblo inhabitants of the American southwest are still among the most religious people in the world. We could safely conclude that the El Quartelejo people were just as religious. The entire community was intertwined by membership in a variety of complex societies.
The dances they performed dealt mainly with the vital aspects of pueblo life: rain, corn, agriculture, war, birth and death. Due to the arid conditions of the southwest, it is not surprising that most of the ceremonies centered around rain and farming, two vital aspects of their agrarian society. Without rain or irrigation, famine would soon ensue. The Taos natives spend half their waking hours at religious tasks, events and ceremonies. This is mainly the province of men. Their dances are replete with religious significance, each movement choreographed by tradition and repetition. There must have been such religious ceremonies preceding the construction of the irrigation canals which were vital to the agricultural society of El Quartelejo.
There is an odd legend related to this Kansas ruin. A man named Builder, so named because he loved to use his hands, and belonging to the clan of Chief Many Scalps, became betrothed. His wedding dance was set, but a case of spotted skin (perhaps smallpox?) swept through the tribe, killing many people, including Builder’s bride-to-be. When the young man heard that his people were fleeing north, he decided to join them. It was a time for great adventure.
At about that time, far to the north, a Jicarilian Apache girl was born with golden hair. She was almost put to death at first, but then the chiefs thought that since she was so very different, she may have been sent by the gods. She was named Golden Flower, daughter of Sunset Flame, so named because of her red hair. Obviously the Apache did not consider red hair as odd as blonde.
The Apache worshipped Golden Flower, perhaps as a living goddess, yet they also shunned her as an outcast. This odd story ends with the girl standing, as was her usual way, alone on a hilltop, watching the Taos immigrants arriving from the south. Could it be that Golden Flower symbolizes the nearby Kansas Pyramids, which stand lonely guard to the north of El Quartelejo? Does she represent a solar deity? Perhaps her mother, Sunset Flame, is the old, original solar deity, replaced by her daughter.
Even today the site is in desolate country. It is in the middle of ranches and farms, with a few towns nearby. While driving through this countryside in southwestern Kansas, I felt the isolation of the area, which was what the Taos were seeking. They wanted to be out of the reach of Spanish authorities. The Taos and the Plains Apache lived together in relative peace, as attested to by folklore and archaeology. The so-called pyramids add an extra touch of the sacred to the site today. Indeed, these limestone outcrops must have been the most sacred site in the area. But the natives could not hope to be out of the reach of Spanish colonial authority forever. Eventually the Spanish located El Quartelejo and forced the natives back to New Mexico. The site fell into disuse and was buried by the sands of time.
All that remains of El Quartelejo are the excavated foundations of the pueblo. It has not been inhabited for hundreds of years, but the site is a reminder that the native people of the western hemisphere had advanced civilizations and societies that enabled them to carve out homes in this strange and forbidding land; even in places as desolate as El Quartelejo remains today.
About the author:
Steven A. Arts is a journalist and photographer who now resides in Iowa.
This article was originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Power Trips magazine, and is published with permission from the author.