Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Out of the Four Corners."
A thousand years ago, when their civilization arose in the Southwest, the people who built these great stone structures did not call themselves Anasazi. The word did not even exist: It was created, centuries later, by Navajo workers who were hired by white men to dig pots and skeletons out of the desert. It’s a word that recently has fallen out of favor.
What is wrong with "Anasazi"? For starters, it is a Navajo word unrelated to any of the Pueblo peoples who are modern-day descendants of the Anasazi. But more than that, the word is a veiled insult.
For a long time, it was romantically — and incorrectly — thought to mean "Old Ones." It actually means "Enemy Ancestors," a term full of political innuendo and slippery history.
In Navajo, ’Ana’í means alien, enemy, foreigner, and non-Navajo. ’Anaa’ means war. Sází translates to something or someone that was once whole and is now scattered, a word used to describe the final point of corporeal decay, as a body turns to bones and is strewn by scavengers and erosion.
Pueblo people have expressed serious concerns about this word. Naming the past can either connect people to their own ancestors or alienate them, and a word as loaded as Anasazi is likely to erode crucial links to the past.
Some have suggested using the Hopi word Hisatsinom, a term referring to ancestors. But because Hisatsinom is a Hopi word, it does not account for other Pueblo groups, such as the Zuni or Acoma, or the many pueblos along the San Juan River and the Rio Grande in New Mexico.
Many archaeologists and media outlets have turned to using "Ancestral Puebloans," an expression that is rapidly gaining popularity. But the modern Pueblo tribes trace their ancestry to nearly all of Arizona, and as far away as the Mexico City region — far beyond the Colorado Plateau where the Anasazi once lived.
Using any single, overarching name, politically correct or not, is simply misleading, because it reinforces the notion that the Anasazi were one distinct group of people. And that is just not true: The archaeological record and reports from living Puebloans reveal myriad ethnicities occupying the Four Corners a thousand or so years ago.
So, what name should we use? There is no simple answer. These people were Ancestral Puebloan, Hisatsinom, and Anasazi. And they were none of these.