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We were recently updating a page on our website and were surprised when we came across some text using the outdated term “Anasazi.”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

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

  1. Opinion02122 says:

    THANK YOU! I was a teacher, years ago, and the text that was part of our social studies curriculum, called the people the Anasazi, and said it meant ancient enemy. I told my “kids” that it must have been a term used by other Native Americans who, obviously, didn’t like them. Who else would called others by that term?

    I have tremendous respect for Native Americans. So, I’m very glad to read the truth here. I have seen, and heard, from different sources, different meaning of the word, and I was concerned that I had misinformed my “kids.”

    I pray that you and yours stay healthy during this pandemic! Stay safe.

    Again, thank you. I love learning about all Native Americans.

  2. Willie Candler Muhammad says:

    My grandma is Evelyn Peggy Candler she was Cherokee and I am researching Our Family ROOTS

  3. Sherry Gutzman says:

    Thank you very much for the accurate historical explanation of the name Anasazi! I sincerely appreciate an open, truthful account of a name’s origin, and the reasons it is being changed, rather than just “erasing” history! One question: When (date) was this decision made by IPCC? I hope you will continue to tell the story of the original name as well as changing it to the more respectful term. – That story itself represents a part of your people’s history as well.

    • We’re glad you found the blog interesting and insightful. We began implementing the change in early 2018 after discovering the term used in older content on our website, and thought it would be best to explain the change instead of just quietly making it as we do with other random updates.

  4. Dawn Murtaugh says:

    Thank you for enlightening the public about the words discarded and the words used. The truth in history can only be known when perspective is understood. I grew up with great respect for the first people of this land and am grateful to learn more.

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