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Relational Landscapes: Teaching Chaco Canyon with Immersive Technology

This lesson employs 360 and satellite images in a planetarium to encourage college-level students to understand and experience Chaco Canyon (850-1150CE) and its monumental architecture as a relational landscape.

Published onJul 21, 2021
Relational Landscapes: Teaching Chaco Canyon with Immersive Technology


Chaco Canyon in northeastern New Mexico was a major Southwestern cultural center. It is now a National Historic Park and preserves a core of twelve great houses and many Great Kivas; these structures were connected to numerous roads and outlying communities over a 90,000 square mile area. The scale of construction and the range of the site’s inspiration are unparalleled in ancestral Southwestern Indigenous history. The place continues to be an important source of knowledge for Chacoan descendants, contemporary Pueblo peoples. This revised version enhances this lesson’s accessibility for visually impaired students.

A preliminary version of this lesson was published in the Humanities Commons CORE Repository.

Instructional Partners 

While this lesson was conceived as a class taught solo by an art history professor, the inclusion of immersive and accessible technology in the instruction lends itself to collaboration with digital technology librarians, Indigenous Studies and astronomy faculty, and planetarium staff.

Curricular Context


This lesson is created for a large class of first- and second-year college students in a semester-long face-to-face Native North American art history or visual culture course with 80-minute sessions. The students were not art history majors.

Considering many programs do not have courses in Native North American art history, variations for general surveys of North American arts, Western European arts, or of global art histories are offered in the Reflection section. In addition, components of this approach could be adapted to a one-shot instruction session related to frameworks such as “Research with Primary Sources,” (see below) especially for first-year composition or general education courses. This version provides visual accessibility options, both to create a more inclusive learning environment and to increase the felt experience of this place.

This lesson employs 360 and satellite images within a planetarium context to encourage students to understand and experience Chaco Canyon (850-1150CE) and its monumental architecture as a relational landscape. The lesson took further advantage of Michigan State University’s Abrams Planetarium Sky Theater and its director to introduce students to the relations between the surrounding geography, the cosmological alignments, the architecture, and the sensations of Chaco Canyon. 

The original lesson was revised to include methods for engaging visually impaired students through 3D terrain models of the site and one of the great houses Pueblo Bonito. Our GIS librarian Amanda Tickner has also published a wonderful resource that can be useful for considering accessibility for web visual tools and resources: Accessible Data Visualization and Mapping | MSU Libraries

During the immersive experience, a Powerpoint lecture, 360 photographs from Chaco Canyon, and satellite images of the park and surrounding New Mexico geography were projected onto the dome. Students mostly viewed the images while remaining seated; the professor and planetarium director narrated the viewing experience live and used microphones because of the challenging acoustics in a domed room. We also simulated an equinox across the dome and on top of a 360 photograph of one of the architectural sites. The simulated sun rose and fell on the points of the structure with which it was built to align. I let the director control the transitions of media, but it’s possible for the professor to do so using an iPad tool.

The associated assignment exposes students to the varied ways of seeing and experiencing Chaco Canyon architecture using a small selection of Indigenous and early non-Indigenous authored primary sources. They are encouraged to think about the way peoples’ cultures and worldviews influence how they see, exist, and build in the world. The lesson works well after an introductory lecture on ancestral Pueblo architecture and societies, as well as following a discussion of Santa Clara Pueblo architect and historian Rina Swentzell’s (1939-2015) essay on Puebloan cosmologies and related concepts of form and space (1990).


Why an immersive experience?

Humans often design their environments to organize social relations and to teach or reinforce knowledge about their worlds; this is a felt, as well as visual, experience. According to Santa Clara Pueblo architect and historian Rina Swentzell (1990), Pueblo stories, songs, and prayers present a house not as an inanimate object but as part of a cosmological worldview that recognizes interconnectedness and cyclic temporality. Many Native peoples do not primarily view ancestral places as mundane scientific resources or picturesque sights. In a Puebloan perspective, people and memories are part of the land (Ferguson and Colwell-Chanthaphonh, pp.27-31). In order to convey Swentzell's theory, an immersive visual experience of Chacoan structures offers a pedagogical advantage over conventional slides or other two-dimensional representations. It further advances Indigenous perspectives over their cultural heritage. Rather than observing the sites from a distance, students would physically engage Pueblo knowledge and history as embodied in that cultural landscape.

Why primary sources? Why compare viewpoints?

The construction of history is a selective process. Some aspects of the past have been deliberately erased, dismantled, or negated. Considering the on-going legacy of US and Canadian colonialism, and the long-standing practice of ignoring or eradicating Indigenous voices from academic, museum, and art worlds, students should be asked and taught how to question and rethink what they know about North American Indigenous peoples and their cultures. Primary sources afford this opportunity as they provide first-hand accounts from residents, cultural descendants, witnesses or recorders who experience(d) the place, the conditions, and/or have ongoing relationships with the space. 

In their use of primary sources, students will review the impressions of the canyon architecture and its makers published by some of the site’s first Euro-American explorers in the nineteenth century, as well as Pueblo descendants. [See Primary Sources; also see Supplementary Materials: Primary Sources Background Information] 

Why visual ?

Increasingly, educators are being asked to create more inclusive learning environments. In response, this lesson focuses on creating tactile aides, specifically 3D models of the canyon’s central section and surrounding terrain, as well as of the largest of the monumental houses: Pueblo Bonito. The 3D terrain map will help visually impaired students track the relationships of four central buildings (including Pueblo Bonito) to each other and their canyon locations. The Pueblo Bonito 3D model is intended to enhance the traceability of the daily solar paths and the equinox along the east/west and north/south walls. The steps I used for creating these models is outlined below.

Learning Outcomes

1. Students will learn how to teach the bodily (visible and non-visible) relationship to Pueblo Bonito’s and Chaco Canyon’s structural geometries through virtual immersion aided by accessible tools such as 3D terrain maps.

2. Students will evaluate Indigenous-authored and non-Indigenous-authored primary sources on the human and non-human relationships to Chaco Canyon.

3. Students will articulate cultural differences in ways of understanding the Chaco Canyon built and expressive environment, and the significance of these differences.

4. Students will recognize how an immersive learning environment with accessible aides offers a pedagogical advantage for visually impaired learners, as well as advances a Pueblo philosophical perspective in the interpretation of these works by engaging the viewer beyond the eyes.

Preparation for the Immersive Experience

 Creating or Obtaining the Images

  1. Create or obtain 360 images of Pueblo Bonito, or another one of the great houses at Chaco Canyon. (Mine were taken with an Insta360Pro camera, but 360 images can be taken with cellphones too.) 

    1. Find out from your institution’s digital or photography technicians what equipment is available to use. 

    2. Identify and reserve the location or room where you’ll be able to show 360 images. At MSU, this kind of visual experience is possible in the planetarium, which has a Digistar star projector (see above), along with slide and video projectors. If your campus has a Digistar planetarium, you can contact the Abrams planetarium staff for copies of my images. [Planetarium Staff may be interested in accessing the Digistar scripts we used for the lesson.]

  2. Familiarize yourself with the surrounding terrain and layout of the Chaco Canyon architecture using Google Earth or similar application. 

  3. Identify the points of interest you want to locate, and when you want the wide view, and when you want to move in for close-ups. [Supplementary Materials: Immersive Experience Key Takeaways]

  4. To advance learning outcome number one and number four, I focused on the first two above-mentioned key takeaways. I created a white, plastic 3D terrain map using Terrain 2STL, and superglued black letter beads to the surface to demarcate the locations of the four central great houses in the canyon (Figures 1 and 2). For more instructions see Supplementary Materials: Terrain2STL and Creating a 3D Map.

White, plastic 3D terrain map of Chaco Canyon with superglued black letter beads to the surface to indicate houses.

Figure 1. Terrain map.

Figure 2. Terrain map.

  1. The second 3D tool I created was a white, plastic model of Pueblo Bonito (Figures 3 and 4). The goal for this model was for the student to be able to feel the D-shape of this house and the alignment of the two straight walls with the cardinal directions. The model features the central, interior wall, which divides the house in half and marks the noon day sun, as well as the external straight wall, which is aligned on an east/west axis. The oldest group of rooms in the northern sections are also the highest in this model; this further enhances the northern axis of the house. 

[For more detailed instructions see Supplementary Materials: Creating a 3D Model of Pueblo Bonito]

3D printed model of a house in Chaco Canyon.

Figure 3. Model of Pueblo Bonito.

3D printed model of a house in Chaco Canyon. A hand appears in the picture for scale.

Figure 4. Model of Pueblo Bonito.

  1. Another possibility for advancing learning outcome four, which I have not yet explored, is the creation of a tactile book. With one’s fingers, a tactile book could be used to help track the daily solar paths and the eclipse in relationship to Pueblo Bonito’s walls. Some planetariums have had them created for visually impaired visitors, such as this one created by David Hurd. The minimum cost was quoted as around $125 but that did not include binding, covers, number of copies and the number of pages.

  2. Once you have gathered together the above resources, do a practice session. 

Locating Research Resources for Students

  1. Select primary source readings by Indigenous authors and by European visitors to the sight. See Primary Resources below for some suggestions.

Ancestral Southwest Introductory Lecture

  1. Prior to the immersive experience, and as a separate class, provide an introductory lecture to ancestral Pueblo architecture and societies. For sight-impaired students, you might review your web and Powerpoint resources for their accessibility. See References below for some content sources to consult. I also include a review of terms such as worldview. I ask students to consider the ways religious structures such as Gothic cathedrals are expressive of a Christian worldview before moving on to examining kivas. 

  2. In order to familiarize students with Rina Swentzell’s interpretation of Pueblo architectural philosophy, they should read her work “Pueblo Space, Form, and Mythology” in Pueblo Style and Regional Architecture, edited by N. C. Markovich, W. F. E. Preiser, and F. G. Sturm, pp. 23-30. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1990. Swentzell’s article can be difficult for students who are not familiar with Pueblo origin stories or philosophies. In addition to guided reading questions, I suggest assigning the Pre-Writing Exercise to highlight the parts of the text that connect Pueblo worldview with specific architectural or site design features. For more ideas see Supplementary Resources: Teaching Swentzell’s Architectural Philosophy.


1. Access to a room that will allow presentation of 360 images.

2. List of Selected Primary Sources by Puebloan and European Authors.

3. 360 photos of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon.

4. Access to the internet, Google Earth or similar application (see point two under Preparation).

Session Outline: The Immersive Experience

The immersive experience took place in the Abrams Planetarium at MSU for an entire class period. All images were projected onto the dome.

1. Introduction

As described above, I begin in Google Earth, providing an expansive view of San Juan River Basin moving in slowly to canyon, and Chaco Center, holding focus on the central canyon, above the largest of great houses. Chaco Canyon National Park The goal is to introduce students to the larger geographic region, the natural resources that were available, and explain various theories as to why Chacoans chose the canyon to set up this cultural center. I used Anne Marshall’s chapter “The Siting of Pueblo Bonito,” in Neitzel’s Pueblo Bonito to develop this part. Neitzel’s chapter “Architectural Studies of Pueblo Bonito,” in Lekson’s The Architecture of Chaco Canyon.

2. Central Chaco

Google Earth - 4 key central buildings and Great North Road

Still using Google Earth, we move in closer to the central structures, sometimes called “downtown Chaco”. The projector will have to move south a bit from the canyon to locate Tsin Kletzin.

Central Chaco consists of four key buildings organized in a cardinal relationship to each other: Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl are aligned on an east/west axis. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletzin are aligned on a north/south axis.

At this point, the 3D terrain model can be used with visually impaired students, while verbally describing the primary geographic features and the four central great houses.

For more information on describing this section see Supplementary Materials: Description of Chaco Resources.

3. Pueblo Bonito

Google Earth 

Here the projector moves in on top of Pueblo Bonito to learn more about its alignments and orientation. 

At this point, the 3D model of Pueblo Bonito can be used with visually impaired students, while verbally describing it.

For more information on describing Pueblo Bonito, see Supplementary Resources: Description of Pueblo Bonito Resources

4. Pueblo Bonito

360 photos and equinox simulation

At this point, we switch from Google Earth to projecting the 360 images onto the dome; the first images positions viewers on the path along the east/west straight wall of Pueblo Bonito (Figures 5 and 6). 

View of road and remains of a house in Chaco Canyon

Figure 5. Google Street View of Pueblo Bonito.

360 view of the remains of a house in Chaco Canyon

Figure 6. Google Street View of Pueblo Bonito.

The actual cardinal directions are noted on the dome, along with the names of the three unseen houses of Pueblo Alto, Chetro Ketl, and Tsin Kletzin. When sitting or standing inside the planetarium, students then are made aware of their relation to the cardinal directions and to the placement of the unseen houses north, east and south of Pueblo Bonito. We applied a caption with the name of those houses onto the image so it would project onto the dome. Those names appear in the sky of the photo, above the walls of Pueblo Bonito. The photo was taken about noon, so I also note its placement in the sky and the lack of shadows along the central north/south wall. I point out that their relations with the other buildings, roads, and other geographical landmarks are sometimes visible, other times invisible. There’s a visual, but also felt way of knowing the time of day, as well as the seasonal cycles and placement within the Puebloan universe. Their relation to the north, northern core of rooms, and Great North Road is also pointed out to highlight the visual and felt relationship to Puebloan migrations, origins, and ancestry. 

At this point, the 3D model of Pueblo Bonito can be used with visually impaired students to highlight the location of the walls, the shape of the house, and the northern core of rooms, while the professor verbally describes it. The student can be directed to hold it as they sit/stand facing north within the planetarium.

In the last few minutes of the immersive experience, an equinox is simulated across the sky, beginning with its rise at the east of the wall and fall at the west end. Viewers are standing roughly in the center of the wall so they would have to adjust their bodies to follow the path of the sun. Students are asked to watch, and then stand and watch again. They are asked to pay attention to their own positions/perspectives/sensibilities within the structure while the simulation takes place, and then jot down their reflections.

At this point, the 3D model of Pueblo Bonito can be used with visually impaired students to follow the east/west wall through touch, while the professor verbally describes the rise and fall of the sun. The student can be directed to hold it as they sit/stand facing north within the planetarium. 

5. Conclusion

At the end of the immersive experience, I reviewed the instructions for the follow-up writing assignment due later. (See Writing Assignment below).

Pre-Writing Assignment

Instructions: Prior to your immersive experience in the Abrams planetarium, you need to read Rina Swentzell’s (Santa Clara Pueblo) text, “Pueblo Space, Form, and Mythology,” In Pueblo Style and Regional Architecture (1990). The following questions should be answered using complete sentences and submitted for review. 

Length: 100 word minimum for each question (except for the first and last question).

  1. If you had to use one word to describe the Native North American architecture that we’ve studied, what would it be and why?

  2. Rina Swentzell indicates that, “…the Pueblo myths, stories, songs, and prayers describe a world in which a house is not an object….but is part of a cosmological world view that recognizes multiplicity, simultaneity, inclusiveness, and interconnectedness.” (p. 29) Explain what she means by this using 2 examples from her article.

  3. What kinds of human-built spaces make you think about your family, community, the environment, or non-human relationships? 

  4. What kinds of human-built spaces prevent you from connecting to family, friends, non-humans, or nature? (For example: windowless structures/rooms might prevent you from seeing the outdoors, or not attending the church or other specific religious building you are a member of might prevent you from connecting to your family/friends/non-humans. What about prisons? Medieval castles?)

  5. In research, what is a primary source?

Writing Assignment

The immersive experience in the Abrams Planetarium introduced you to the relations between the geography, the cosmological alignments, the monumental architecture, and the felt experience of Chaco Canyon. According to Santa Clara Pueblo architect and historian Rina Swentzell (1990), Pueblo stories, songs, and prayers present a house not as an inanimate object but as part of a cosmological world view that recognizes interconnectedness and cyclic temporality. What can we find out about the relationships of Chacoans, of other Pueblo descendants, and of the earliest non-Indian visitors to this place (both the geography and the built environment) from primary sources? How might you explain any differences in perspectives on the environment, the makers of this place, and on the Chacoan structures? 

Task 1: Find one non-Indigenous-authored historical primary text related to Chaco Canyon history from the list provided. See Chaco Primary Sources. Describe who wrote it. When and where was it published? 

Task 2: Using this same source, explain what it tells you of the Chacoan or Pueblo relationship to this place? What was the intent of the author(s)? What does it tell you that the Berlo and Phillips (secondary source) textbook didn’t? Is there a bias in the source? Using details from the text to support your assertions, explain how you assess the author’s perspective. Does the author(s) imagine or explore any kind of bodily relationship of the Chacoans to their built environment, cosmology, or natural world? Does the author explore any of their own relations/sensibilities to the place? 

Task 3: Choose one of the Pueblo-authored primary sources. Describe who wrote it. When and where was it published? Using details from the text to support your ideas, explain how their work complements or challenges the non-Indigenous primary source you are working with? 

Task 4: By way of conclusion, reflect on the ways the primary sources better inform or challenge your Chaco Canyon immersive experience. How might you explain any differences in perspectives on the environment, the makers of this place, and on the Chacoan structures? What further research might you need to do to try and confirm this?


Lesson Variations

For my North American arts and Western European Arts surveys I have incorporated a version of this lesson where there is more focus on religious architecture comparisons. In Western Survey II, the lesson focused more on comparative worldviews as expressed in religious architecture. This is a class whose enrollment ranges from 90-130 students. Our planetarium easily accommodated such a class. Immersive experiences can provide pedagogical advantages for teaching architecture, especially for large classes in auditoriums where students are generally sitting quite far away from Powerpoint images. In addition to the Pueblo Bonito images, our planetarium visit also included 360 images both inside and outside St. Peter’s Cathedral. The writing assignment then asks students to reflect on the impact one's viewing position within each structure and how that reinforces the relevant worldview. They also compared viewing experiences in various media such as Powerpoints and videos to the virtual immersive experience. The planetarium director led a discussion on equinoxes and solstices before I introduced Chaco Canyon. One year of this class’s planetarium visit, I was honored to have our professor of Baroque arts co-lead a discussion on St. Peters. 

Research with Primary Sources

The aspect of comparing “eyewitness” or cultural viewpoints or viewing experiences, as described above, could be translated into a lesson on primary sources. There could be a wider selection of primary sources presented, and more of an overview in the beginning on defining primary sources, the different types, and their use in research. With cellphones, students could create their own 360 guided tours of a local architectural site, drawing from several different perspective derived from primary sources. The student’s own immersive experience would then be another primary source with which to compare to the others.

Chaco Primary Source Readings

Nineteenth-Century Euro-American Descriptions of Chaco

Colfax Chronicle [Colfax, Louisiana] November 4, 1893. “Interesting Exhibits: The Pueblos of the Aztecs in Miniature at the World’s Fair.” Review of Chaco Canyon exhibit at the World Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

 The Louisiana Democrat [Alexandria, Louisiana] March 9, 1887. “Nature in Ruins: An Unexplored Region in the Wonderland of the Far West.” 

Jackson, William H. 1878 “Report on the Ancient Ruins Examined in 1875 and 1877,” in Tenth Annual Report of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories Embracing Colorado and Parts of Adjacent Territories, Being a Report on the Progress of the Exploration for the Year 1876, by F. V. Hayden, Part III, pp. 431-451. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 

Morgan, Lewis H. 1869 The “Seven Cities of Cibola.” North American Review 108:457-498. Boston. 

Simpson, James. 1874 The Ruins to be Found in New Mexico and the Explorations of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in Search of the Seven Cities of CibolaJournal of the American Geographical Society 5:194-216. 

Puebloan Accounts of Chaco

Kuwanwisiwma, Leigh J. 2004 Yupköyvi. The Hopi Story of Chaco Canyon. In In Search of Chaco. New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma, edited by David Grant Noble, pp. 41-47. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Ortiz, Simon J. 1994 What We See: A Perspective on Chaco Canyon and Its Ancestry. In Chaco Canyon: A Center and Its World, by Mary Peck, Stephen H. Lekson, John R. Stein, and Simon J. Ortiz, pp. 65-72. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

Swentzell, Rina. 1990 Pueblo Space, Form, and Mythology. In Pueblo Style and Regional Architecture, edited by N. C. Markovich, W. F. E. Preiser, and F. G. Sturm, pp. 23-30. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

2004. A Pueblo Woman’s Perspective on Chaco Canyon. In In Search of Chaco. New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma, edited by David Grant Noble, pp. 49-53. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.


Berlo, Janet Catherine, and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Chaco Canyon: A Center and Its World, by Mary Peck, Stephen H. Lekson, John R. Stein, and Simon J. Ortiz. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Ferguson, T. J., and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh. History is in the Land: Multivocal Tribal Traditions in Arizona’s San Pedro Valley. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2006.

Lekson, Stephen, ed. The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007.

Neitzel, Jill E. Pueblo Bonito: Center of the Chacoan World. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003.

Noble, David Grant, ed. In Search of Chaco: New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 2004.

Reed, Paul F. The Puebloan Society of Chaco Canyon. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Sofar, Anna, ed. Chaco Astronomy: An Ancient American Cosmology. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ocean Tree Books, [2008] 2014.

Stoffle, R. W., M. J. Evans, M. N. Zedeño, B. W. Stoffle, and C. J. Kesel. American Indians and Fajada Butte: Ethnographic Overview and Assessment for Fajada Butte and Traditional (Ethnobotanical) Use Study for Cacho Cultural National Historical Park, New Mexico. Office of Cultural Affairs, Historic Preservation Division, State of New Mexico, and Regional Ethnographer, Southwestern Regional Office, National Park Service, Santa Fe, 1994.

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