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We were recently updating a page on our website and were surprised when we came across some text using the outdated term “Anasazi.”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

25 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.

  5. S Jones says:

    Thank you,
    I am a social studies teacher. My school just upgraded our curriculum from books that are about 15 years old. The new text mentions the replacement in terms, but not why. This makes perfect sense. I will include this information in my teaching.

  6. My wife and I are from Australia and visited the Four Corners area in 2004 with the specific purpose of visiting Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon and Taos Pueblo as well as some of the other Canyons in Utah and Arizona.
    I sincerely hope we didn’t offend any of the Native Americans if we used the term “Anasazi”.
    Thank you for enlightening me on the change of name an, more importantly, the reasons for doing so,

  7. Kristina E Reeder says:

    This is so good to know! I am just now beginning a unit with my 4th graders about Early Inhabitants of Utah. I am glad I can change my material and teach them accurate information!

  8. James Lenoir says:

    Im very interested in this, my grandmothers maden name was Mesa, she said her ancestry was from Aztec I believe also puebloen ancestry I’m 23percent native American. And very proud of my grandmother history she lived to be 102 and was a loving spirit.

  9. Don West says:

    I worked as an engineering geologist in the Four Corners and Santa Fe regions in the 1980s and 1990s, visited the major public ruins and had the opportunity to examine some non-public sites with working archeologists. I understood the term Anasazi to mean “ancient ones” and I used that term with reverence in my reports. Thank you for setting me straight.

  10. Thomas DeGrandi says:

    Thank you for educating me, it is appreciated!

  11. Alicia C Davis says:

    I am happy to know the correct term and why. Shoot you could be shortening it to AP for ease and not showing disrespect i think? I look forward to returning to the area with a renewed sense of respect and awe for Those Who Came Before. Thank you.
    Alicia Catherynne

  12. Mary Ellen Sinkiewicz says:

    I’m very pleased to have come upon this historical correction. I’m one of a great many Americans who respect and recognize the dignity of the first people and the terrible wrongs that were done to them by the United States. I applaud the clarity with which you explain the use and importance of the term Ancestral Pueblos. Many thanks.

  13. Yannis Batis says:

    I visited NM and The IPCC on Feb 2020. Such a high quality, fantastic work by the IPCC team!
    Here in Greece where i live many people consider Anasazi (the ancient ones) linked to the Hopi culture, influenced by the Ancient Hellenes (Greeks) who travelled there thousands of years ago.

  14. P Goodman says:

    I have known about this for over 10 years now, and have had to educate many people on this and made comments on many different internet forums whenever such terms come up.

    What I would hope is that the IPCC can contact and work with the residents of various subdivisions throughout the state and Southwest that use the term to name their various home subdivisions as such.

    It has even been a topic of conversation when JK Rowling wrote her stories on the Skinwalkers. Having to make various statements to folks in the United Kingdom and other internationally read web sites, this has been a sore spot when folks out of ignorance makes these statements. I hope that the IPCC can further the reach of this point as time progresses.

  15. Marilu Soto says:

    Without knowing the meaning, I though it was a beautiful word. I am so glad I researched and obtaine the true meaning. Thank you

  16. Diane Griffin says:

    Thanks for the information. Always interested in the “ancient Pueblo peoples”. Never realized the Zuni and Hopi are descended from the Chaco canyon peoples. So much to learn;glad you have illuminated this history.
    Many thanks,
    Diane Griffin

  17. David Smith says:

    This is amazing , thank you so much for posting this info as it happens” Anasazi “is the title of a piece of music i discovered composed by. A.Gomez, it is a very nice meditative piece and i enjoy playing it, but i really wanted to know about the meaning of the title and how it connected to the music

  18. Robin says:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to accurately explain both what the term truly means and why you’re replacing it. I was lucky enough to find this site, as many others report an incorrect translation of Anasazi.

  19. nigel mason says:

    This has been so helpful in understanding the respectful way to describe some of the First Nation People. I an Welsh and play many Native American Flutes, I am in the process of buying what is described as an Anastazi flute. I run workshops of early traditional wind instruments so will now refer to the flute as Ancestral Puebloan.
    Thanks for the understanding
    Play in Peace

  20. Suzy says:

    As a teaching assistant several years ago, I was privileged to attend 7th grade social studies with a student. I moved to NM from Ohio and as a history lover and descendent of Cherokee I learned about the origins of Anasazi from a wonderful teacher. The book we used was still using the term but she explained, corrected and provided the actual history not to cancel anything but to return respect and honor to the Pueblo People. I now correct those who still use it and those 7th graders who are on the verge of adulthood also know truth.

  21. Leslie Matteson says:

    perhaps Anasazi should be called by their rightful name too AZTECs, and the word altogether be left in history…

  22. Kirby Gchachu says:

    As a retired educator from the Pueblo of Zuni I have always wondered about the term “Anasazi” applied to Puebloan ruins. If Weatherill is the individual that applied the term while working with the Navajos, it is likely he used a term from the Zunis. A:łashhi meaning the ancient or old ones. Just my observation.

  23. Dan Smiley says:

    I was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation, Navajo is my first language. Ana’- could mean enemy, it is also mean foreigner or not from our clans. Example, today if there is a none Navajo that is an inlaw, they r called “ana’ ” affectionately. Or referring to a friend who are none Navajo the word is used. Zází-is an old word meaning Ancestors, the ancient grandmothers and grandfathers. Today when we speak in a formal setting we use that word for those elders of ancient times.
    Unfortunately there is much animosity between tribes from the past and there are those that would like to see our peoples divide and hate. Just my observation and thought.

  24. Ellen S Romano says:

    When I first visited New Mexico in 1999, I was very confused about who actually made the cliff dwellings. I got the sense they were made by the Anasazi people who then disappeared for some mysterious reason. The term Ancestral Pueblo makes the historical connection much clearer.

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