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

We were recently updating a page on our website and were surprised when we came across some text using the outdated term “Anasazi.”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.

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17 comments

  • Looking for the big ancient puebloan mouthpieceless flute

    Pedro Velascor
  • Looking for the big ancient puebloan mouthpieceless flute

    Pedro Velascor
  • Ana-sazi ana-enemy or bad way, we have ceremonies for both anà or hozhò. Sazì old like ancient; like sà old age. It’s taboo for Navajo to touch any relics left behind by them, it’s believed that they’re cursed and have supernatural effects on ones well being. Growing up on the Navajo Nation I thought this was taught in schools across the country and not just the Rez; especially when you go to border towns and see anasazi inn like establishments. Or my personal favorite, the spunky sqaw website.

    Thomas Begay
  • Thank you so much for sharing this and helping people understand why this term was changed. Too often we are told that some change occurs, but without the “why”, people do not understand the importance and cultural significance behind it.

    I was wondering if you could help me understand a couple other changes I had heard, and whether these are accurate or not.

    1. I have heard that using the term Puebloan to describe the Pueblo people can be disrespectful, as by putting the “-an” at the end, it means the people were like the Pueblo today, but not related to today’s Pueblo.

    2. I have also heard that it is preferred to use a lower case “a” for ancestral Pueblo, as a capital A (Ancestral Pueblo) would grammatically imply that they were different people than the Pueblo today.

    3. Finally, I have heard that using the term “Rock Art” when applied to Petroglyphs and Pictographs is offensive because it implies it was only art and did not have meaning to the people that created it. Is there a preferred term to use?

    Any insight you can provide to these would be much appreciated. I always try to use the most respectful and preferred terms and would love to hear your perspective. Thank you so much for helping us understanding these different meanings and ensuring that we can be as respectful as possible.

    Andy Bleckinger
  • Thank you for the information, I’m thrilled to read the true story of the true meaning of Anasazi.
    Look forward to learning more.

    Alice Chambers

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