Ep. 043: The Stone Lions of Cochiti

An ancient Native hunting shrine in New Mexico

The 1990s were a time--for me, at least--of personal, domestic, and occupational distress (if not downright catastrophe). I turned in those days to the American Southwest for what author Gretel Ehrlich aptly described as The Solace of Open Spaces. What many before me have found in the mountains or by the sea, I was able to find in the canyons and mesas of the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Come with me and explore a part of that area in this episode of


A pleasant hour's drive from the Plaza in Santa Fe brings one to the Visitor Center at the slightly-over-a-century-old Bandelier National Monument. Closed during World War II, when the Monument's lodge housed personnel from the Manhattan Project being conducted in nearby Los Alamos, it is again closed at this writing for the Covid outbreak.

But the "permanent residents" don't mind, having moved out half a millennium ago (or more). The thousands of smaller ancient dwellings, and four or five large ones, protected by the Monument were primarily built between 1150 and 1600 CE.

Bean Canyon

Tyuonyi Ruins in Frijoles Canyon

The Visitor Center sits in a broad canyon alongside a stream properly called the Riito de Los Frijoles--Bean Stream--though in recent years the first word has been shortened by one letter, making it "Rito," so the name now means "Bean Ritual" (though no one else seems to have noticed). And in that Canyon de Los Frijoles is the 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail that takes day-trippers past the large Tyuonyi Pueblo and Long House, as well as small cavates, natural caves in the cliff walls that were enlarged (excavated--get it?) for human habitation. Rock paintings and petroglyphs can also be seen along the way.

These are all that's left of habitation by people considered to be the direct ancestors of the local Puebloan peoples. The traditions at Cochiti tell of a series of migrations from the northerly parts of the area down to the current Cochiti Pueblo. San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Kewa (formerly Santo Domingo), and San Felipe Pueblos also claim ancestral rights to sites in Bandelier.

The kiva in Alcove House Ruin, formerly called "Ceremonial Cave"

At the far end of the Main Loop Trail, a half-mile trail leads to Alcove House--called Ceremonial Cave in my day, but since it wasn't used exclusively for ceremonies, and it's not a cave but an open-faced shelter, the name was changed in the early 2000s. This points up an interesting dynamic at Bandelier: the need to balance education and interpretation for the public, with respect for the wishes of the local Puebloan tribes who have ancestral connections. One area of conflict is some tribes' opposition to excavation of any kind within the Monument, and especially to the disturbance of any human remains.

Anyway, located 140 feet above the canyon floor, Ceremon--uh, Alcove House--is up a series of four ladders, and was home to about 25 Ancestral Pueblo people. The kiva (a ceremonial structure that may also have served as men's quarters) was first reconstructed in 1910, and is one of the most famous images in the Monument. I have shot it on numerous occasions: in color, black and white, and even on 4x5 film.

Cavates and holes above Long House Ruin, from an old Park Service brochure

Holes in the rock above and below many of the cavates hint that these were the "back rooms" of houses that once extended out from the cliff walls; ruins (or rubble) often still lie below. What may appear as a small cave three stories "in the air" was in fact accessed by ascending through lower floors (though the bottom floor usually had no door, being entered by the rooftop reached by climbing a ladder that could be pulled up in times of war).

Also in Frijoles Canyon is a pair of stone mountain lions--or at least there were. I can find no trace of them online, except for a note in a National Park Service report dated April 2000. It reads, in part, "In July 1991, following a meeting among officials of Cochiti Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, and the monument, a number of considerations were proposed by the NPS to 'de-emphasize' public interpretation of the Shrine of the Stone Lions." Point number 5 reads, "to remove and destroy the replicas of the Stone Lions located near the Visitor Center..."

Yes, replicas, because these concrete figures represented two far more fascinating sculptures that... well, let this serve as a teaser for... the REST of the story!

I Got My Kicks on Route 66

When I told my wife Lila about some of my adventures in Bandelier she looked frankly skeptical. "By yourself?" she asked accusingly, and "Really?!"

"What?" I asked, trying to be nonchalant. "You don't believe I was ever that cool?"

What's the big deal about this? One year in the early '90s, I decided to visit Bandelier on a long Thanksgiving weekend. The school where I worked then gave Wednesday off as well as the usual Thursday and Friday, so I made reservations at a hotel in Santa Fe and flew to Albuquerque Tuesday night. I had booked a local tour guide to pick up my backpack and me Wednesday morning in Santa Fe and drop us off at the Bandelier campground. (In researching this episode, I noted that the guide, Georgia Strickfaden, retired this January after 35 years of running Atomic City Tours--Buffalo Tours when I was there--out of Los Alamos, where she was born in the late ‘40s.)

Anyway, what happened was, my backpack, containing everything I was carrying, got waylaid at my Phoenix connecting flight. It would be delivered to my Santa Fe hotel the next morning. Then: I missed my bus from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. So I walked out of the airport and north a couple of miles to Central Avenue--the old Route 66--where I found a $19 motel room. (Along the way I chatted with a girl who was Gene Roddenberry's cousin--no kidding!) Getting to my room, I thought, "I should journal this." But $19 motel rooms have no pen, or paper. Or toothbrush. Or burn-hole-free sheets. Or...

Anyway, I caught the first bus to Santa Fe the next morning, waited at the hotel for my bag, Georgia picked me up, and away we went.

Into the Back Country

After spending the night in the campground "near" (two miles from) the Visitor Center at Bandelier, I checked in for a back-country pass, and endured all the usual warnings: it's cold in late November, there are no trail patrols, etc. And off I went. To be continued...

Trail worn in volcanic tuff by ancient feet

Now, I need you to picture what I was dealing with. Bandelier is on the Pajarito ("Little Bird") Plateau, a place of stunning beauty and difficult hiking. For one thing, it's above 5600 feet, high enough to make one appreciate oxygen a little. For another, being composed of volcanic tuff (consolidated ash), it has easily been carved by water (and in fact, even by the bare or moccasined feet of the natives of the past).

So approximate as to be nearly useless. But "handy"--get it?

So I want you to do this: set your left hand down on the table, fingertips pointing right, little finger away from you, fingers slightly spread. Across the ends of your fingers runs the more-or-less north-south Rio Grande. The spaces between your fingers are canyons, cut by riitos (streams). And the tops of your fingers are mesas, called here usually potreros, a long mesa which slopes up toward a mountain at one end, in this case the Jemez Mountains--the back of your hand. North of your hand--away from you--is Los Alamos and the town of White Rock. If you drew a line to the right (east) from there, then turn sharply south (toward you), you would reach Santa Fe somewhere to the southeast of your thumb.

Let's put Frijoles Canyon and the Visitor Center between your little finger and your ring finger. (There are actually many more potreros and riitos than there are fingers and spaces.) To reach the Stone Lions, the goal of this trek and this episode, you'll need to climb up over the ring finger, heading southwest-ish around six miles. Sometimes you'll follow a finger (potrero) or the table (a canyon) one way or the other, but mostly you'll just climb, cross, and descend into Lummis Canyon; climb, cross, and descend into Alamo Canyon; climb again until at last you reach a particular potrero called by some the Potrero de las Vacas ("of the cows") occupied by a ruin called Yapashi, which might mean "stone idols" or something like it, but the redoubtable linguist and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961), late of the Smithsonian, says it means "sacred enclosure," or, more completely, "place of the large round stone enclosure where the two mountain-lions sit or crouch."

Yapashi Ruin, from an old Park Service brochure

The village, as I said, is in ruins. We have noticed along the way that we are sometimes walking across what seem to be cobblestones--actually fallen walls embedded in earth. Yapashi has a few low walls, which once were occupied, it is presumed, by the creators of the Stone Lions crouching a few hundred yards west of the ruin.

The Stone Lions

The Stone Lions as I last saw them

Let me turn the description of this landmark over to one of my heroes, Charles F. Lummis (1859-1928), former Librarian of the City of Los Angeles and founder of the Southwest Museum. This quote is from his Land of Poco Tiempo:

A few hundred yards up the dim trail which leads from the ruined town of the Potrero de las Vacas toward the near peaks, one comes suddenly upon a strange aboriginal Stonehenge. Among the tattered pinons and sprawling cedars is a lonely enclosure fenced with great slabs of tufa [tuff] set up edgewise. This enclosure, which is about thirty feet in diameter, has somewhat of the shape of a tadpole [Governor Bradford, whom we'll meet below, gives the inside diameter as only 18 feet in a 1903 publication]; for at the south-east end its oval tapers into an alley five feet wide and twenty long, similarly walled. In the midst of this unique roofless temple of the Southwestern Druids are the weathered images of two cougars, carved in high relief from the bedrock of the mesa. The figures are life-size; and even the erosion of so many centuries has not gnawed them out of recognition. The heads are nearly indistinguishable, and the fore-shoulders have suffered; but the rest of the sculpture, to the very tips of the outstretched tails, is perfectly clear. [Though I must add that regional archaeologist Erik K. Reed wrote in 1940 that "they have been mistaken for lizards."] The very attitude of the American lion is preserved: the flat, stealthy, compact crouch that precedes the mortal leap. Artistically, of course, the statues are crude; but zoologically, they bear the usual Indian truthfulness. As to their transcendent archeologic value and great antiquity, there can be no question. The circumstantial evidence is conclusive that they were carved by the Cochitenos during the life of the town of the Potrero de las Vacas.

Lummis adds regarding Pueblo practice:

The hunter carries a tiny stone image of this most potent patron, and invokes it with strange incantations at every turn of the chase. But it was reserved for the Cochitenos to invent and realize a life-size fetish therefore, one nearer the actual divinity symbolized, and more powerful. And from that far, forgotten day to this incongruous one, the stone lions of Cochiti have never lost their potency. Worshipped continually for longer ages than Saxon history can call its own, they are worshipped still. No important hunt would even now be undertaken by the trustful folk of Cochiti without first repairing to the stone pumas, to anoint their stolid heads with face-paint and the sacred meal, and to breathe their breath of power.

Diagram of the original enclosure by L. Bradford Prince

Of course, that was published in 1897. There is little left of the enclosure. Also, the Smithsonian's Harrington reports that an 1880 visitor describes the figures as being in "perfect condition;" it was sheep-herders using the enclosure for shelter in 1904 that defaced the figures. Harrington also points out, by the way, that, as was the custom, the southeast-facing entryway points toward Cochiti, the founding pueblo, 10 or 12 miles away. L. Bradford Prince (1840-1922), late governor of the Territory of New Mexico (he once lived in the Palace of Governors on the Plaza in Santa Fe, now a museum) and former president of the New Mexico Historical Society, adds to the description:

The easterly half of the circle is vacant, but in the other, facing directly toward the rising sun, and with their heads just reaching the center line, are the Two Great Stone Lions. Originally there must have been a huge rock here, but this was in the first place divided by a deep groove extending below the surface of the ground, and so making of it apparently two entirely distinct pieces of material, and each of these was then shapen and carved into the semblance of the mountain lion.

And then:

The body of each lion is thirty-eight inches in length, and the broad flat tails, which stretch straight back, reach thirty-two inches more, making almost six feet in all. Each is about two and a half feet wide, with tails eight inches wide; and the distance between them is about one foot.

Two Visits to the Stone Lions

The antler enclosure as I first saw it (from Wikimedia--I can’t find my own picture!)

The first time I saw the Lions was in bright, sunny weather, and as a dedicated child of the New Age I was duly impressed. They were surrounded by a low fence of interlaced deer (or elk?) antlers, and the tree branches that overhung them were festooned with crystals, turquoise pendants, ribbons, and all manner of decorations.

The next time I came, in that early winter trip we started above, only a desultory ring of stones remained. What had happened?


Let's go back to my hike.

I was carrying about 60 pounds--near my limit--which included my 4x5 camera, film holders, a changing bag, and a tripod, as well as a tent, food, a single-burner camp stove and small tank, water filter, clothes, etc. On the way in, a ranger came up behind me on horseback. I told him I thought there were no patrols; there weren't, he explained, he was just on his way to the cabin where he was stationed in case of a distress call. Made sense.

Anyway, he must have sensed the amount of exertion required to haul that bag, so he offered to take it on his horse and deposit it in the campground in Capulin Canyon. Would it be safe, I wondered? No problem, he said: I was the only visitor back there.

So on we went, he to his cabin (after delivering my bag) and me to the Stone Lions, which I reached just before sundown, where I discovered the site had been denuded as described above.

I saw the ranger, Dale Coker, later, back at the Visitor Center. He explained that a new headman had come to Cochiti, and requested the removal of all the frippery, which had been placed there by New-Agers. It was not appropriate to the site, Dale said, like someone hanging birthday decorations in the Sistine Chapel, or adding graffiti to some ancient Olmec stone heads. I later learned that the lions were not only sacred to the Cochiti, but that the Zuni--who lived over 200 miles away--also reverenced them as an "umbilical spot," an entrance to the underworld dwelling place of a supernatural being.

I got it.

What looks like badly-laid cobblestones--or mere rubble--is in fact a fallen stone wall.

Anyway, when I reached the Lions, at the very edge of Capulin Canyon, I sat down and read aloud in the waning light the "thanksgivings" written by my students and colleagues at the school where I taught, fulfilling the promise I had made them. Then, descending several hundred feet into Capulin in near-darkness, I found my bag and set up camp along the stream. In the dark.

The next morning, I awoke in my borrowed Mega-mid, a floorless tent, to discover that my condensed breath had frozen into solid sheets on the inside of its sloping walls. Reasoning (ha!) that lighting my stove would cause the water to gently roll down the sides, I fired it up--and loosened the sheets enough that they fell on me! Out I scurried to get some water to cook my ramen, where I had to break through ice on the stream. Yeah, it was cold, yo.

Stowing most of my stuff, I hiked the five-mile round-trip to the Cueva Pintada (Painted Cave) to shoot it with the 4x5, spent another night in the cold camp, hiked out to the Visitor Center where I stayed in the campground the next night, then Sunday morning Georgia picked me up for a bus and a plane back to L.A.

Incidentally, Ranger Dale and I corresponded off and on for a year or two, especially about Lummis, who had been a friend of the Swiss-American anthropologist Adolph Bandelier for whom the park was named. I also corresponded (remember, this is in the days of postal mail) with Roddenberry's cousin, whose name is now lost to the mists of time.

Lions and More Lions

Now, about those replicated lions at the Visitor Center: At some point in the '90s the Park Service began omitting the real Stone Lions from their literature, and newer trail signs began to obscure their location, per the "de-emphasizing" of the lions I mentioned earlier, which was suggested in 1991. For a while, it seemed that the casual visitor was allowed to believe that the replicas were the real Stone Lions--and they had seen them! Removing them (if such has happened) would destroy that decoy value.


There is yet another lion--once part of a pair--of which I knew nothing until the days of the internet, long after my back-country hiking days were over.

Regional Archaeologist Reed wrote in 1940:

On another mesa-point further south, the Potrero de los Idolos, there was formerly another pair of rudely carved lions. One of them was destroyed 60 or 70 years ago with dynamite by some ignorant treasure-hunter. The other lion is in fair condition. The Cochiti Indians told Adolph Bandelier in the 1880's that the lions on the Potrero de los Idolos were made by the people of Kuapa (a ruin very near, and ancestral to, Cochiti, occupied during about the same period as Yapashi).

Bandelier himself wrote in 1892 that "One of them is completely destroyed by treasure hunters, who loosened both from the rock by a blast of powder, and then heaved the ponderous blocks out by means of crowbars."

Even with the internet, the location of this is a deep, dark secret.

In fact, the most interesting thing I read about it is on a site called "Above Top Secret," a "discussion board community... on a wide range of 'alternative topics'"--which may or may not be reliable. In a post by user "HardCorps" we learn that the remaining lion was "abducted" on March 7th, 1970, by the Anthropology Department of the University of New Mexico, which intended to relocate it (by helicopter!) to the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque. (The story contains accounts of several "mysterious accidents" caused in the process.)

But "the people of the San Felipe Pueblo were furious!" when they learned what had happened. It seems that the Cochiti tribal council had given the museum permission, but neither the people of Cochiti, nor the government of San Felipe, were aware of the move. In 1981, with "the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act," the lion was returned (though, interestingly, a member of Cochiti Pueblo comments on the article "that the single 'stone lion' we know it as a Stone Lizard...")


I did in fact find this story--without reports of the alleged mishaps--in a more reliable source, which explained that, as part of a "mitigation plan" to deal with the rising waters of Cochiti Dam, which opened in 1973, the single lion (or lizard!) was removed by chopper "bundled in a mattress." The controversy was part of "an ugly internal fight about the building of the dam in the first place."

Well, that's it. How I'd love to see that single remaining lion with a hole blown next to him; or see the Lion Shrine at Yapashi again; or heck, just take a stroll through Frijoles Canyon on an unlikely--but not impossible!--day trip from Santa Fe to see if the replica lions are really gone.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Let's take a look at a pilgrimage which, while not as famous as the one on Shikoku, is still of great significance: the 33 Kannon Temples of Saigoku, around Kyoto.