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Insider: What's in a Name? Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006

Scientists have long puzzled over the mysterious "disappearance" of the Anasazi from the Four Corners region some 700 years ago. Today, Anasazi are disappearing from sites like Mesa Verde all over again, replaced by "Ancestral Puebloans" or "Ancestral Pueblo People" at the request of modern Native American tribes who claim the word Anasazi is an offensive Navajo term originally meaning "enemy ancestors."

The change has been in progress since the early 1990s, when Hopi and other Puebloan tribes discussed their unhappiness over the use of "Anasazi" with National Park Service officials. Since then, brochures, signage, museum exhibits, and official reports handled by the park service reflect the preferred term, "Ancestral Puebloans." Jim Erickson, science reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, observed that not a single talk among the 30 presented during an archaeological seminar in honor of Mesa Verde's centennial included the word "Anasazi" in its title.

Therein lies the rift. Archaeologists are, for the most part, a reasonable bunch, but what galls many of them about the virtual ban is not any shadow of political correctness but the more ominous specter of historical illogicality.

"There's the issue that 'Anasazi' is a Navajo name, but 'Pueblo' is a Spanish name," points out David Breternitz, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a telephone interview. Even if you ignore the European origins of "Puebloan," Linda Cordell, in her Prehistory of the Southwest, raises the issue of the Mogollon, also considered the forebears of some modern Puebloan tribes. And forget calling the Puebloan tribes by their own word for ancestor. There's the Hopi Hisatsinom, but the Zuni have another name, as do the Acoma.

There is a history of bad blood between the Hopi and the Navajo, however, and the Puebloan tribes are obviously loath to have their ancestors carry the tag of an alleged Navajo slur. Not so, says Breternitz.

"It's right here in the journal Kiva," he announces into the phone, "Volume 66, number 3, 2001. Anasazi is an Anglo construction--it's not Navajo. Navajo is an extremely specific language. This is a new English word that indicates a prehistoric people living in a distinct area with a specific material culture."

Eddie Tso, the Navajo Nation's director of the office of language and culture, has his doubts about that theory. "Oh, Anasazi is a Navajo word, alright. But it's non-threatening--it just means 'those who came before us.'"

Many archaeologists familiar with Anasazi are reluctant to replace it with something bulkier and, for them, no more meaningful. Erickson's May 6 newspaper article quoted one who insists on using the term for National Park Service reports despite the fact that it will be edited out simply "to be obnoxious." Other organizations, such as the School for American Research, also mandate the use of "Ancient Puebloan" instead of Anasazi.

The issue came to a head in late 2004, when several archaeologists accused park service officials at Mesa Verde's bookstores of deliberately shunning titles that included the word "Anasazi." Today, books like David Stuart's Anasazi America are prominently displayed.

Lou Ann Jacobsen, head of the Bureau of Land Management's Anasazi Heritage Center, says there has been some discussion of a name change, but adds that there are bigger priorities right now. "We work with the tribes to incorporate their perspectives into the exhibits, and right now, that's more important," she says, adding "It would be a pretty huge undertaking."

"It would get really confusing," agreed Eddie Tso, when asked why the Navajo Nation continues to use the name given to them by the Spanish at its museums and cultural heritage sites instead of their native name, Dine, which is only used for educational activities. "I don't know why [the Puebloan tribes] are going about changing names."

Breternitz is confident that the name-change growing pains will eventually blow over. But for now, the ancient residents of Mesa Verde will, for the most part, remain nameless. "Most reseachers are just trying not to use either term. They're talking around the barn so that they won't get criticized," he says.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America