Naming the Essence

By Glenda | November 13, 2014

Mesa Verde (640x480)The following excerpt concerns a people and a place about which I personally know almost nothing, but about which I have long been deeply interested and to which, somehow, on a spiritual dimension, at least, I feel connected.

The quote comes from a book given to me recently by a friend who feels, as I do, that honoring the ancestors as well as honoring with respect the history, taboos and protocols of individual spiritual traditions, while yet seeking the bedrock wholeness of all things, is vitally important.  Whenever I can, I like to foster this awareness among my own scattered “tribe,”  and it seems to me that this book does just that.

The quotations that follow speak for themselves in this regard.  They are from House of Rain, by Craig Childs.  This fascinating read is an autobiographical exploration of land and people, history and prehistory  that is fashioned by a man imbued with respect and indeed love for his subject, both the land itself and the ancient peoples whose pathways the writer is following on a life-long and often arduous trek.

Childs writes in his introduction:

“…The Colorado Plateau is…a 150,000-square mile blister of land that rises across the dry confluence of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.  Its surface is incised with countless canyons and wrinkled into isolated mesas and mountain ranges that stand suddenly from the desert floor up to 13,000 feet in elevation.  The combination of irregular topography and infrequent rainfall gave rise to the Anasazi, an indigenous people who knew how to move.  Small family groups and clans readily skirted around climate changes, transferring their settlements to high, wetter mesas or down to the sunbaked lowlands whenever the need arose….”

In later parts of the book, Childs echoes the most recent consensus among “experts” that the “mysterious abandonment” of literally countless ancient sites like Mesa Verde and others was not simply a one-time thing, and not, at least until the very last, simply because of sudden devastating circumstances, but was rather an amazingly organized and ritually orchestrated cooperation of an incredibly observant people with their always changing environment.

He points out, for example, the roads, radiating straight out from Chaco Canyon in all directions for hundreds of miles, with beacon towers perched atop the highest spots or built of masonry on man-made mounds along the way, so that an almost instant communication was possible over vast distances.

This, and much else, on many topics, fascinated me about Child’s book, and I highly recommend it.

But the excerpt which follows, as I came upon it this morning in my reading, became the important bit I felt it my duty to pass on.  In the chapter “Antelope Mesa,”  Childs writes:

“…As Yeats and I walked through the ruins, I asked him about ancestry—the relationship between Hopi and Anasazi.  But when I used the word Anasazi, Yeats put his hands in his pockets and looked uncomfortably at the ground.

“’I’m sorry,’ I said.  ‘I wasn’t thinking.’

“Yeats shook his head as if to say it was nothing, but I knew better than to use that word here.  Yeats reminded me that the Hopi prefer the word Hisatsinom, a Hopi term for their ancestors.  Anasazi, I knew, was an insult.

“The word Anasazi was crafted by the Navajo, who in the 1800s were paid by white men to dig skeletons and pots out of the desert.  The Navajo who came up with this name probably did not arrive in the Southwest until the sixteenth century, nomads from present-day southeast Alaska and British Columbia moving into a land left mostly empty by the departure of the previous civilization.  Their reservation now dwarfs the Hopi reservation and surrounds it on all sides.  Understandably the Hopi do not like having their ancestors named by the Navajo.  For a long time Anasazi 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, a notoriously complex and subtly coded language, ‘Ana’I’ means ‘alien, enemy, foreigner, non-Navajo.’  ‘Anaa’ means ‘war.’  Sazi translates as something or someone once whole and now scattered about—a word used to describe the final corporeal decay as a body turns to bones and is strewn about by erosion and scavengers.

“’You understand why it is an unpopular term,’ Yeats said.  ‘It is not a name the Hopi chose.’

“I understand,” I told him…”

“…I told him that I could find no easy solution for what to call these people I was following, that I understood naming the past can either connect people to their ancestors or alienate them.  I politely suggested that although Hisatsinom is an adequate word for the Hopi, like Anasazi it does not take into account other names and languages.  How do the Zuni feel about using a Hopi word for their ancestors?  What about…” (all the other Pueblo peoples).

“…Among those language families are numerous dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible even if they belong to the same family.  The linguistic background of the Pueblo people points to incredibly different histories, which are glaringly oversimplified by the word Anasazi. 

“I spoke to many people—natives, scientists, wilderness travelers—in search of a consensus about what to call these ancestors, but I found none.  Most archeologists and Pueblo people implored me to switch from Anasazi to Ancestral Puebloan.  One could argue that this rather bleak term is a combination of English and Spanish, neither having linguistic roots in the Southwest…

“…Each name is history—or prehistory—seen from a particular vantage….”

“…Each is a tool with its own limitations—inadequate in some senses, revealing in others.  The most common denominator is the name Pueblo.   Referred to now or a thousand years ago, these are the Pueblo people, a culture based on corn and kivas, their masonry rooms butted against one another, forming compact pueblos, an architectural hallmark.  Though it is a Spanish word, an outsider’s term, Pueblo reasonably encompasses both history and prehistory, telling of a people who have been here from the beginning.

“Yeats stopped atop a hill of broken pottery, at the peak of this buried pueblo.  We stood beside each other gazing south across dry, maize-colored washes, a brindle expanse.  He said, thoughtfully, ‘Maybe it’s more than Anasazi you’re looking at.’

The desert spread a hundred miles into the distance.  Everything looked so deathly dry that it seemed no one could possibly live here.  Yeats is right, I thought.  This was not a mere culture I was following, at least not in the common use of the word.  It was a form of organization carried across a landscape, a means of orchestrating a mobile civilization in the face of a marginal, unstable climate where geography presents boundless possibilities.  It was an umbrella covering many heritages and clans, something that could be traded, incorporated, fought for, resisted.  It was a time, a place, and a way of living…”

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