I was surprised after we moved to Utah to find the Anasazi term used so much to label a group of Native Americans that “inhabited southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico and northern Arizona from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300” (Utah History to Go).  On our visit to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado shortly before moving to Utah we were told that the term had fallen out of favor.

The term Anasazi is described by many, including Utah History to Go, as meaning “Ancient Ones”.  The term was originally used by the Navajo to describe the ancestors of the Hopi and other Puebloan tribes (actual descendants of the “Anasazi”) from the Navajo words Ana’í meaning alien, enemy foreigner, and non-Navajo and Sází translates to something or someone that is scattered.  The Hopi translate it as “Enemy Ancestors” and don’t find the term complementary.  Hisatsinom (ee-SAH-tse-nom) is the term preferred by the Hopi in referring to their ancestors which means “Ancient People”.  Other descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans who speak one of the Tewa (or Tano) languages use the term Se’da which means “Ancient Ones”.

If you are a descendant of the Ancestral Puebloans, it appears that Anasazi is a derogatory term meaning “Enemy Ancestors” but if you are not it means “Ancient non-Navajo” or “Ancient Ones”.  From the Navajo word it seems it can go either way and not be incorrect but many internet sources go with one or the other.  I ran into an old 1999 Salt Lake Tribune article written by Christopher Smith that was reprinted in the Seattle Times (this article brought up another subject I found interesting and will touch on another time).  In that article he quotes Irv Francisco, a ranger at Navajo National Monument near Kayenta Arizona, “We’ve been told we should maybe use the word `Hisatsinom,’ instead of Anasazi, and that’s a Hopi word that I, as a Navajo, don’t use.  It’s my language, not theirs, and Anasazi is our own form we use to refer to these people.”

Irv Francisco has a good point.  We call several countries, people or cultures using English words or terminology because that is the language we speak.  What is wrong with the Navajo using a Navajo word to describe the Ancestral Puebloans (as long as its not meant in a derogatory way)?  However, why should others use that same Navajo term when they are not Navajo?  The Hopi and other descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans appropriately call their ancestors by terms in their language.

If you can’t tell, my preference is to use terminology that is in my language and call the Anasazi/Hisatsinom/Se’da the Ancestral Puebloans.  I think the expanding usage of this term has shown broad acceptance and does not seem at odds with the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.  I think it would be nice to see more mention in history texts in Utah of this terminology and maybe even a brief excerpt on what these people were called by their descendants and even the Navajo.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  Apparently, the term Navajo was from the Spanish Apachu de Nabahu which in turn was derived from the Tewa word navahū meaning “large arroyo with cultivated fields” – so Apaches of the large arroyo with cultivated fields (the Apache and Navajo are related and are jointly referred to by some as the Apachean people and are said to be of the Athabascan people that originated in Northwestern Canada and Alaska).  The term Apache was first recorded being used by Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate in 1598.  Some sources claim the term Apachu came from the Zuni (descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans) and means “enemy”.  I found little proof of this but the possibility is interesting.

So, the Navajo apparently tolerate being called a term from the language of descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans themselves and don’t seem to insist we refer to them as Diné, the term the Navajo refer to themselves as. On top of that, my reading of various sources state that the Navajo had a good trading relationship with the Puebloans and learned crop farming techniques from them.  It would seem unlikely that the Navajo would use the term Anasazi as derogatory considered their relationship with the Puebloans.

3 Responses to “Anasazi”

  • Appreciate your treatment of this issue. Using a foreign name for a people is a common issue. I, for example, am Cherokee, which is not what we call ourselves: we call ourselves, aniyvwiya.

    When I spoke to a Navajo, who had never heard the term “anasazi” used regarding an ancient people, he said it meant: Ancient Others.

    The problem I have with Ancestral Puebloan and `Hisatsinom for the specific people descended from the Basketmakers and Pueblo I through III is that there were any number of other peoples who also occupied the broader Four Corners area, who also lived in pueblos and also “disappeared,” such as the Mogollon and Sinagua who likely also were ancestral puebloans, but culturally quite distinct. Also they teach at Chaco Canyon that four cultural groups occupied that area, so all the “anasazi” weren’t Hopi. (I have no idea why “they” believe there were four groups.)

    So, what we call the Anasazi probably were ancestral puebloans, but they weren’t the only ancestral puebloans. A term such as Anasazi is helpful, then, to distinguish them from the Mogollon and Sinagua, et al. That said, the Anasazi at Keet Seel, probably were related to the Hopi, but not, IMHO, all of those we have called, Anasazi.

    Enjoyed your pages…..ken

    • Curtis says:

      Interesting information. I think we label different peoples for convenience but reality it is hard to pinpoint for sure who is who and at what time. It is not known what happened to the Fremont people but I doubt they just went “poof!” and disappeared off the face of the earth. I’m sure they merged with other cultures and peoples. The Navajo have gotten official share of the claim (among other cultures) to Chaco Canyon but I just don’t understand it considering the building of Chaco Canyon predates the Navajo entering the area.

  • Curtis. The whole field of Indian sovereignty is inherently political. Until recently, one would not see a Hopi Ranger at Mesa Verde, for example. Now with the various Federal laws, there is a high premium placed on staking a prehistoric claim to an area.

    It is really very sad to see how much Native American life has become bureaucratic and political at the Federal level.

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