Residence, noun: a person’s home; the place where someone lives. The official house of a government official.

I am granted a month as an artist-in-residence in a government house I lived in as a child, at Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona. There are few requirements: I can use the time and space to write or think or draw inspiration from the place.

There are, however, rules about the house itself. The National Park Service employee who checks me in, explains them:

Don’t put holes in the walls or alter the historic building in any way. Clean up after yourself. The fireplace has been sealed and is not to be used. Don’t burn candles. A plate holding three partially burned candles that look like aspen rounds sits on an end table. “I should take those away,” she says. She doesn’t take them away. She is a family friend, and the script we follow is expected but awkward. I am not stepping naturally into my role. I am eight years old in this house and at first find it difficult to be otherwise.

She demonstrates how the window blinds can be raised or lowered from the bottom or the top, and explains how the winter sun hitting the bedroom window hits at an angle that surprises some people with its heat, and I may wish to close the shades to moderate this. I cannot hold back the story: “I boiled our fish that way,” I announce, remembering the time I failed to close the curtains one morning, and we arrived home to hot water and floating pet fish in the small tank. She seems unclear on whether this affirms that I understand the power of passive solar or if I need further explanation about the blinds.

When we arrive at the closet door behind which the water valves can be shut off if needed, I refrain from the urge to tell her about the time I caught my little brother joyfully scribbling across the door with orange crayon. “Every kid is an artist in residence,” I want to say, feeling clever, but don’t.

The garage is off limits due to packrat infestation. All cars parked overnight should have their hoods propped up to discourage packrat nesting. I sign a form acknowledging that I understand hanta virus. (I don’t really understand hanta virus.)

I sign other forms. I will not kill fish with sunlight. I will not burn candles that look like trees or heat with wood. I will not contract hanta virus. I will not dig holes or scrape paint from closet doors to find out what’s underneath.


When my father was hired as the district ranger at Wupatki, I was five.

The house we moved into was built to match the landscape: red Moenkopi sandstone walls tucked against the slight slope on the south side of the Wupatki visitor center. It is positioned as an unobtrusive sentinel, offering a sense of privacy despite the wall-length windows and lights visible for miles on a dark night. It’s a compact but open-feeling house, built in a U-shape around an enclosed courtyard, and didn’t feel cramped for our family of four.

I liked the house. I liked the isolation. I liked the long school bus ride into Flagstaff. I liked school and also the apartness I felt from town while I was there. I liked walking past the “authorized use only” sign on the path from the National Park Service visitor center to our front door. I liked watching the light change across the Painted Desert from the rock walls of the front yard.


The house has its own history, of which we were only a small part.

In the 1930s, the National Park Service tasked the Civilian Conservation Corps with building a suitable dwelling for the couple caretaking the still-new national monument, Davy and Courtney Jones. Architect Cecil Doty, whose resume would eventually include dozens of national park visitor centers and other buildings around the US, designed the house.

The Joneses spent their first three years living in two reconstructed rooms of Wupatki Pueblo, the largest excavated structure and main attraction of the national monument, as had their NPS predecessors. An edited collection of Courtney’s letters from those years are published in a book called Letters from Wupatki, and a theme of her correspondence was the shifting timeline for the completion of the house. In 1939, she wrote to a friend that it “won’t be finished till spring at the earliest…(but) the house is simply beautiful—according to the report it may not be entirely comfortable—but I really have never seen anything quite so swell…”

The house wasn’t completed until three years later, falling at an intersection of construction delays and government budgets during wartime. The couple finally took up residence in the house in 1942, vacated for a time during World War II, and returned until 1947. Others moved in and out, as is the way of houses and government careers.


In a writing workshop, the instructor asked us to describe our childhood homes, and to examine what these places taught us about our household’s economic class.

Description of the Wupatki rock house came easy: ponderosa pine ceiling beams stained brown and the way last light made a pink swath across distant cliffs before fading, the feeling of pride I felt when my first grade class arrived on a bus for a field trip I didn’t have to leave home for, and the strange fact of a six-year-old white kid calling the trail circling an ancestral Puebloan village a part of her home. But I struggled to translate commonly understood class markers onto the house itself. We were financially comfortable; my dad’s government salary was and remains public information, and was solidly middle class. We paid rent to the government, and we were not allowed to paint the walls (or scribble on them with crayon) or otherwise alter the house. Repairs were done by NPS maintenance staff, who were also our neighbors and came over for potluck dinners. We were often cold in winter; the sandstone brick construction left no leeway for retrofitting insulation, and when the fire burned down overnight, ice would form on thin windowpanes.

But on the school bus, I had the newest and sharpest colored pencils and bright-colored metal-edged slap bracelets, and the kids from the Navajo community at the end of the bus route and neighboring white ranches bargained with me to borrow them for a school day or take them home overnight, which taught me something of where I fell in the wider regional economy.

In Having and Being Had, Eula Biss writes about money and home ownership. Upon purchase, or, rather, financing, of her first house, she concludes, “the house isn’t mine. I don’t own it so much as take care of it…The house is just passing through my hands.”

How one maps this sentiment onto rented government houses might be partly shaped by how one views government generally: as for, by, and of the people, a civic-minded network doing the work of making a society run, filling out forms, installing window blinds, sharing information, keeping the lights on; or, alternately, as an unwelcome restrictive force on freedoms believed otherwise to exist, or maybe as an imperial power violently defending its access to extracted goods and stolen lands at the expense of distant or displaced populations. Any American taxpayer might have opinions on the color of the walls, feeling entitled to know how their money is being spent.

My parents recall waking on Christmas morning to a man lounging in the hammock strung from the porch to the cottonwood tree neighboring the visitor center. Courtney Jones wrote to her sister in 1941 about one incident in the long series of delays on their move into the rock house, “The venetian blinds can’t be bought till there are more appropriations, and wouldn’t it be fun to live in a government house with the visities peeking in the windows. R.E. had a funny experience. A woman started peeking in her window [at Saguaro National Monument, near Tucson] while she was bathing…She went over and pulled that shade down in the woman’s face, and the woman went to the next window and R. pulled down THAT shade, and so on around the whole house. Then she tried to get in the door, and R. told her she couldn’t come in and she said, ‘Well, it’s a government house, isn’t it?’ and R. said yes but we rent it and it’s private, and the woman started to come in anyway…”

On my first few nights back in the house since childhood, I get stuck on definitions. “Residence” feels like a government word, not a home word, as in “the residence to the left of the visitor center” or “there are seven residences in the area.” It can also mean the fact of living in a particular place: to have taken up residence.

For example: Packrats have taken up residence in the garage, or in the truck’s engine. Early National Park Service employees took up residence in the rebuilt ruins of Wupatki Pueblo, until they moved into a new residence built for them. Years later, my family took up residence in the same house.

I don’t know what makes residence in some places feel like home. “The packrats live here,” the ranger who has taken on the role of community rodent mitigation tells me. “I’m just a resident.”

For decades, my mom reminded us of the time she found a wood tick hitchhiking on our dog, engorged with blood to the size of a grape two weeks after our return to Wupatki from a road trip to see her family in Wisconsin. She pried it loose and buried it eight inches down in the mix of sand and volcanic cinder, against the wall enclosing the small front yard. Several more weeks passed, until, curious, she dug it up again. The tick was still there, still plump, six legs still kicking towards the sky. Disgusted, she reburied it.

As I settled in to “our” old house for my month in residency, she told the story of the tick again. “Dig it up,” she said, laughing. “See if it’s still alive.”


Excavation, noun: The act of digging out material from the ground, especially from an archeological site.

The land has its own history, of which the house is only a small part.

During the Permian Period, the region that is now the Colorado Plateau was flooded periodically under shallow seas. When the seas retreated, the deposited sediment became a layer of white-gold limestone. Rivers flowed across the region, leaving a blanket of iron-rich silt, which took on deep reds as it oxidized. Dinosaurs left footprints in mudflats. The red silt hardened into sandstone, now known as the Moenkopi Formation, some of which still holds the solidified ripples of long-dry rivers.

The earth’s surface shifted. Volcanoes erupted. The youngest of the volcanoes in what’s known as the San Francisco Volcanic Field, in English called Sunset Crater, spouted cinder across the region around the year 1065, streaking the sandstone landscape with black and deep red. People living in the area found that the layer of cinder held rainwater better than sediment, and built villages at the edges of the eruption’s reach. They built with Moenkopi sandstone bricks and beams from pine trees whose years of narrow rings showed that they had survived the eruption.

Poet T.C. Tolbert writes, “I like to think that spaces ask people to turn them into rooms,” and walking the land here is evidence of how often the request was made and honored. Scattered pottery shards and fallen and partially buried walls emerge from the cinder. Remnants of built structures line washes and crown mesas. A Zuni tribal member quoted in a Wupatki visitor center exhibit says “…where people stopped and built homes are all sacred places.”

Wupatki Pueblo was among the largest population centers of the region for a few generations, containing up to 100 rooms, with dozens of other dwellings within a day’s walking distance. Trade items found nearby show that people traveled and were visited often from every direction, exchanging shells, feathers, beads, and cultural practices. The ballcourt, located down a small slope from the pueblo, is the furthest north structure of its kind. The large structure that archaeologists called an amphitheater is typical of pre-European contact villages further east.

When conditions changed, people moved elsewhere. Wind blew sand into doorways, and eroded clay mortar between sandstone bricks. Walls collapsed. In a faraway corner of the same continent, a new nation of foreigners declared itself free.

Diné sheepherders migrated from the east, and mostly kept their distance from the Puebloan dwellings. They built with sandstone too, shelters and blinds in washes. Later, lines were drawn and redrawn determining who could live where and in what way, pushing most Diné families in the area across the Little Colorado River.

When white settlers arrived, some dug up rooms and took what they wished. Some used intact ceramic pots, or ollas, for target practice. The federal government intervened on behalf of more prominent archaeological sites, including Wupatki Pueblo and the neighboring structures, designating a small national monument in 1924. Government archaeologists arrived, surveying for piles of rock that looked like fallen walls and digging where they found them, uncovering everything that made up life and death: pottery, corn cobs, clothing, weapons, and human remains. Sometimes, walls were rebuilt and stabilized with sandy concrete, leaving anachronistic gray stripes between red sandstone. Sometimes, found objects were taken from their original location for display or further study. Digging was viewed as fundamental to knowledge.

Throughout the 1980s, archaeologists conducted a thorough survey and inventory of the monument, enumerating nearly 2,700 sites of varying sizes.  Integrating this recently extracted information into the National Park Service’s narrative of the place was part of the work my dad stepped into when he took the district ranger job in the late eighties, and recognizing the varying ways one might arrive at truth was part of my inheritance in those years.

I have to look up facts like “when was the Permian” or “types of Puebloan pottery,” but I will never forget the feeling of shaping tiny clay pots on the rippled sandstone bricks on the front wall of the house, imagining that something I made would last as long as the black-on-white or red or grayware or corrugated shards that found their way to the surface. But of course, nothing I made was built to last.


In Becoming Hopi: A History, the authors note that “published accounts of Hopi history”—including early studies of Wupatki, where some Hopi trace their ancestry—“have mostly been written by outsiders—historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists—who, by and large, assigned little credibility to Hopi traditional knowledge.” Many of those written histories spoke of ancestral Puebloans’ departure from places like Wupatki as “abandonment,” as if thousands of people simply vanished from their homes for reasons no one could ascertain. As if migration is an anomaly in human history.

Becoming Hopi describes the late 1200s as “one of the most significant periods in the history of Native American occupation of the northern Southwest,” as people from throughout the region moved to the Hopi Mesas, the geographic center of contemporary Hopi culture. Prophecy and environmental change informed the timing of migrations, and ancestral connections to specific places ancestors vacated remain deeply important to descendants.

A 1995 National Park Service planning document for updating the monument’s 1950s-era visitor center exhibits called for a fuller telling of the region’s history, including removal of the word and concept of “abandonment” from educational materials and recognition instead of “a continuum of culture.” My dad approved the document in May of that year, and in the years to come, the exhibits were updated to tell a fuller story. One exhibit includes a quote from Lyle Balenquah (Hopi), saying “We didn’t go anywhere…For countless years, archeologists debated this issue, all the while, the descendants of these peoples continued to wave their hands and say, ‘Here we are.’ Yet very few early archeologists acknowledged this fact.”

By this time, my dad’s job had changed, and we’d moved into Flagstaff. Our TV there picked up more than two channels, and that same spring an episode of The X-Files titled “Anasazi” aired, in which a character says, “Historians say the Anasazi disappeared without a trace,” and suggests that the entire tribe may have been subjects of a mass alien abduction.

I’d become a diehard X-Files fan, and I wanted to love the episode; it included important developments in the series’ story arc. But the specific suspension of disbelief this episode required was impossible, even as I understood the impulse to adhere to the colonial myth of disappearance. If no one else is around, you can make up whatever you want.


Abandon, verb: to cease to support or look after (someone); to give up completely (a course of action, a practice, or a way of thinking).

On moving day, I hid in the stacks of boxes in the bedroom my brother and I had shared, hoping I would be forgotten in the shuffle. I could not imagine life in town would be as vibrant or interesting as in the Wupatki rock house.

After the move, we visited Wupatki with visiting relatives or friends, the way people in towns visit a nearby tourist attraction. In high school, I worked summers and weekends selling postcards at another nearby national monument visitor center, and sometimes picked up shifts at Wupatki. The winter after I graduated college, I spent one month working for the National Park Service, and lived in one of the other residences, a small apartment in the row of four that was built in the 1970s. I’d find mouse poops on the kitchen counter in the mornings, but never made much effort to trap them.

I was, after all, only a resident.

Advocates for public lands as managed by the National Park Service and other government agencies might say that supporting robust funding of conservation efforts and recreation is the best way to maintain a relationship with places like this. But those, too, are government words.

Counterpoint: During the month I spend as artist in residence, Diné anarchist activist Klee Benally passed away. The program distributed at a celebration of his life in Flagstaff shared an excerpt of a piece he’d written “Against settler belonging.” “If the terms of your existence on occupied lands is not unsettling, then you are flowing with the force of ongoing anti-Indigenous violence,” Benally wrote. “…Let this statement haunt and comfort you: you have never belonged.”

Much of this history is not mine to tell.


Artifact, noun: an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest.

My brother and I played house in the spaces between Apache plume and Mormon tea shrubs on the cinder mesa rising above the housing area, visitor center, and Pueblo. We arranged the pottery shards we found around the base of a particular bush, and after heavy rains we might have to scour the cinder below to uncover them again. After we moved, though, we weren’t allowed to climb the mesa during the day anymore, and by the time we were able to return, the shards were gone.

Further up, towards the basalt outcropping at the top of the mesa, we once found a half-buried pile of metallic foil and fiberboard that my dad said might have been a weather balloon. For a time, I accused him of lying; the government was always lying about weather balloons.


Migration, noun: seasonal movement of animals from one region to another.

The winter mornings I spend in residency at the rock house are punctuated by visits from a flock of white-crowned sparrows. Twelve to twenty birds descend on the spindly cottonwood tree growing slant against the front wall, perching on its leafless branches.

I’m not much good with birds, but I know these sparrows from Alaska, where theirs was one of the first calls I learned to identify with confidence and whose northern departure marks the quick slide into fall. I should have known to expect them, but I didn’t.

Bird guides often distinguish between resident species and migrants, as if movement is a separate act from living.



In addition to the texts directly cited, William Stoutamire’s dissertation, Creating the Monuments: Exploiting, Owning, and Protecting the Past in Flagstaff, Arizona (Arizona State University, 2013) informed this piece, as well as conversations with my parents, Kim and Val Watson, Mary Blasing, and Inez Paddock. Any errors are my own.