What Does “Anasazi” Mean, and Why Is It Controversial?

August 14 2018, 13 Comments

We were recently updating a page on our website and were surprised when we came across some text using the outdated term “Anasazi.” We recognized the need to change the term on that page, and to search the site for any other remaining references. Realizing that people visit the IPCC and our website from all over the world, and that many still search for information by that term, we decided that erasure and replacement wasn’t enough – as a cultural and educational organization, we needed to explain why.

The term “Anasazi” was established in 1927 through the archaeological Pecos Classification system, referring to the Ancestral Pueblo people who spanned the present-day Four Corners region of the United States, including Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, and Aztec. The term is Navajo in origin, and means “ancient enemy.” The Pueblo peoples of New Mexico understandably do not wish to refer to their ancestors in such a disrespectful manner, so the appropriate term to use is “Ancestral Pueblo” or “Ancestral Puebloan.”

According to archaeologist Linda Cordell, “Anasazi” was first applied to the ruins of Mesa Verde by Richard Wetherill, a rancher and trader who was the first Anglo-American known to explore the sites in that area in 1888–89. Wetherill knew and worked with Navajos, and understood what the word meant. The name was further embedded in archaeological circles when it was adopted by Alfred V. Kidder, the acknowledged dean of Southwestern Archaeology, who felt it was easier to use than creating a more technical term.

“It is to my knowledge within our Pueblo communities that we have always referred to our ancestors with proper words to describe their next stage in life with honor and care according to our own language composition,” says Stephanie Oyenque (Acoma Pueblo), IPCC Cultural Education Specialist. “The term ‘Anasazi’ is a word not used within our Pueblo communities. Therefore, how can we, as a universal collective, honor our past people with dignity and respect?  Now is the time to take back control of how to accurately describe our ancestral people.”

In pursuit of accuracy and respect, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and Shumakolowa Native Arts are dedicated to changing all mentions of Anasazi to Ancestral Pueblo or Ancestral Puebloan, and helping to educate others on the reason the term is no longer acceptable. It will only appear on our sites when part of a product or other official name, and in those cases a link to this information will be included.