March 2007

‘The stink’? A talk about the term 'Anasazi'

Craig Childs discusses his new book and the ancient culture that did not vanish

By Mary Sojourner

“Earth is the region of the fleeting moment,” sang Tecayehuatzin, Aztec prince of Huexotzinco, in a Nahuatl poem. (Leon-Portilla, 1969-81.)

The 1995 Desert Writers’ Workshop reading was over. We were in the dining room of Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab, Utah. I had read from my novel, “Sisters of the Dream,” a woman’s story set partly in 12th century Wupatki, an ancestral Hopi city.

I stepped away from the podium. I heard a man’s voice with the rough sheen of badger fur. When I turned, I looked into eyes both feral and curious. “I’m Craig Childs,” the man said.

We spoke for a few minutes. I took the silver bracelet from my left wrist and gave it to him. He put it on and told me that sometimes he was in Flagstaff. “Till next time,” we said.

Childs was 28, a wanderer, an archaeologist, a sunglint brought by his own intention under a magnifying glass, hotter, hotter, till smoke rose from the object of his scrutiny.

Ten years later, Childs and I met for perhaps the tenth “next time” in Bellavia, a little restaurant in the heart of Flagstaff.

Craig spoke my name. I have heard him begin an incantatory essay with that tone. I looked up. His gaze was no less feral, no less curious... though walking and writing the terrains of seven books, and marriage, and fatherhood had carried him since we first met.

“So what about using the word ‘Anasazi’?” he said. “In this next book. I’m following Southwest migration routes.”

We were not new to the conversation. “You know what it means in Navajo,” I said. “Something insulting, something like ‘Ancient Enemy’.”

“Worse,” he said. “‘Asshole.’ Almost literally. ‘The stink’.”

We were quiet. Our food came.

“Why not use ‘Ancestral Puebloans’?” I said.

“That’s better, but it’s still a blanket term and one white academics made up. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office uses the term ‘Hisatsinom’.”

“There it is,” I said. “What’s left to discuss?”

“I’m still not convinced,” he said. “Nobody really knows that word... ‘Honantszin’... and those who migrated were not just ancestral Hopi.”

He made another note in his journal. Something about his pen moving over the page struck me. “What if,” I said, “you write this conversation... open it out, play with it... we could e-mail each other, get a deeper conversation going. Then use it as the prologue in your new book. No matter what names you decide to use for the early people, you will add to a necessary exchange and conflict.”

“Convince me more,” he said.

“I wish,” I said, “you could see the look in my Hopi friends’ eyes when they hear somebody say ‘Anasazi’.”

He picked up his pen. “What? What are those looks?”

I hoped we were at a tipping point. “Sorrow. Deep sorrow.”

Two years moved between us. In December 2006, he wrote, hoping I would read the review copy of his new book, “House of Rain,” and give him my reaction. The book arrived. I read the first sentence in the second paragraph of the preface and stopped:

“As I walked, I carefully studied the passing ground for broken artifacts left by the Anasazi, a people once balanced on the imaginary tightrope stretched between B.C. and A.D.”

I skimmed the book. Anasazi. Anasazi. Anasazi. Then, on page 264, this: “ ...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 — word used to describe the final corporeal decay as body turns to bones and is strewn about by erosion and scavengers.”

I called Craig. “We’ve got to talk. I don’t think you’re going to want me to review this book. You write what ‘Anasazi’ means... ‘stinking zombie killer’... and you still use it.”

“No,” Craig said, “it’s not that simple.”

I flipped through the book and in the next instant, as mysteriously as the fate of the “Anasazi” is not mysterious, I found the words that told me he had understood the Hopis’ sorrow, and the deep imperative that their name and the truth of their story be honored.

“OK,” I said, “I’ll dig deeper.”

I read “House of Rain” in two days. Childs’ prose is a topo map, a weaving as complex as the ancient red sash of feathers he studied for long moments in the Edge of the Cedars Museum. I could have been seduced by the audacious beauty of his sentences, words strung as essential and weathered as shell beads on yucca fiber. I was not.

By the time I had finished reading, I was not content with his partial resolution. He had not locked a portal to the further use of ‘Anasazi’; he had left that door open. Still, he had recognized the existence of other openings. I wrote him that I wanted us to move through them. Yes,” he said, “let’s go.”

This is the way the Hopi deal with the future — by working within a present situation which is expected to carry impresses, both obvious and occult, forward into the future event of interest. — Benjamin Whorf

I sent Childs four inquiries. He responded quick as breath:

I experience your mapping as both internal and external. What are your coordinates for “House of Rain”?

Childs: The Southwest, because of its austerity and dryness, and its extraordinary geology, is a map of stark and unrepeatable landmarks. You don't need a paper map. You've got one made of earth. The landscape ends up looking like the night sky, fixed points and constellations from horizon to horizon, patterns of buttes and mountains that fuse into the eye, into memory, never forgotten. Internal and external become the same.

Put the dark hood of Sleeping Ute Mountain in your center. You see it from the barren tip of Comb Ridge wrapping around Monument Valley. You see it from the ruin-strewn rims of the Great Sage Plain and Hovenweep in Colorado. You see it from between the twin buttes of the Bear's Ears in Utah. Even from the edge of Skeleton Mesa over Kayenta in Arizona — there it is on your horizon, a shroud in the distance.

A landmark becomes your axis and you begin turning around it. Everything you do becomes part of that sphere, walking, driving, sleeping, eating in great circles. The same happens around the San Francisco Peaks, around Navajo Mountain, in the blank hole of Chaco, along the Mogollon Rim, and in the Sky Islands of south- east Arizona. This book is a dance between these center places.

It is a series of journeys that gravitate toward one point and the next, and in the end connect the Four Corners to the Sierra Madre Occidental. By the time I was done, I realized I had mapped out my very heart, the outside landscape matching the one within.

The Chinese say that when a child is born there is a red thread connecting the infant to everyone s/he will know. They stretch but never break. When did you first find the thread(s) you follow in your walking?

Childs: It is impossible to say when the first threads began to appear. I picked up an arrowhead at an early age. My father took me into the desert and showed me shattered, pre-Hispanic pottery, and told me people had lived here long ago. I learned how to find water in unlikely places, how to discern routes between cliffs and canyons. I began walking for weeks and then months, following invisible trails.

“House of Rain” is simply my attempt to salt a little science over these trails and make them visible, in the context of archaeology. I did this because I keep finding myself where people had been before. We keep performing the same kinds of acts in the same places, as if the threads were here to begin with, before we were ever born. Each of us looks up every once in a while and realizes what we are part of, that these threads extend through time well beyond the span of our own lives, yet we are inextricably tied to them.

You write of the word “Anasazi,” which you tell us means “enemy ancestors” in its simplist form, and in deeper translation “foreign adversaries who are now strewn like a corpse torn apart by ravens and coyotes.” What is the trajectory of your understanding of this word? How does its use link with common human unease?

Childs: The problem with writing is that you have to use words, and words have definitions. I first wrote the book without the word “Anasazi.” But I realized that no matter how crude, it is still a useful term. I put it back in and let the word transform across the length of the book. I broke it down, saying that there was never a group called “Anasazi.”

There were many ethnicities, clans, and people speaking different languages on the pre-Columbian Colorado Plateau, and many lived under the rubric of corn, kivas, and pottery. But the people were not Anasazi. The word is merely a category. It encompasses a constellation of archaeological traits. It is not the name of a people.

The middle of “House of Rain” occurs at Hopi, where I bring in the perspective that “Anasazi” is an insult, a word coined by Navajos that denigrates Pueblo ancestry. It is like “nigger,” or even “celtic” in its original use (from the Greek keltoi, dating to the 6th century B.C., describing barbarians living far north of the Mediterranean Sea). After that, the word rarely appears again in the book, replaced by a number of other terms. Many archaeologists implored me to use “Ancestral Puebloan,” a term that is also useful, but just as crude in its own right, painfully dry on the tongue, and geographically nonspecific (does it include Hohokam, Mogollon, Salado, Sinagua?).

Hearing people say that we've decided to change the name for the better makes my stomach turn. Is it any less of a violation to turn Pueblo ancestry into a semantic ping-pong game? For the Hopi, I imagine Ancestral Puebloan is far better. And there is “Hisatsinom,” the Hopi term for their ancestors, which leaves out equally valid words used by Zuni, Tewa, Acoma, etc. Should a person absolutely unfamiliar with the ancestry of Hopi be using the word “Hisatsinom”? It feels like a smug, false acquaintance coming from my mouth.

When many people who are not Pueblo speak of these ancient people, they are actually talking about Anasazi. That is, Anasazi: how Anglos envision ancient civilization on the Colorado Plateau. I believe we should be sophisticated and worldly enough to use more than one term. I would not throw out Anasazi any more than I would Ancestral Puebloan or Hisatsinom. They each serve a unique purpose. Permanently choosing only one, and not allowing the scope of others, is human unease, as you put it. It is our inability to shift vantages when need be, leaving much of our vision in the dark. So, I call them Anasazi, Pueblo, Ancestral Puebloan, Hisatsinom, and many other things across the length of this book, each word telling its own story.

What might be weaving here, in your work, in these old old discoveries? What don't we want to see?

Childs: What I am first trying to weave is vision of the Southwest, filling its empty spaces with a cultural continuity once stretched seamlessly from the Four Corners to northern Mexico (and from there onward, into Mesoamerica). A strong cultural map still exists through modern Pueblo people, archaeologists, and wilderness travelers. This map covers the land, a tapestry of memory left from an ancient civilization. So often, Pueblo ancestry is seen as a purely legendary phenomenon, and I am writing beyond mere mythology, describing actual people, people who once walked, hunted, farmed, and drank precious water.

Part of this vision is an unwanted view of the past. Certain chapters of “House of Rain” focus on evidence of violence, massacres, and cannibalism. I want to shred the misnomer that prehistoric Native America was a mere peaceful, agrarian state. That idea is an invention, a wish. But these people were humans, as capable of episodes of peace as they were of extraordinary violence.

The ways in which people were killed in the Southwest often points toward ritualistic hostility; body parts collected in rooms or plazas, skeletons missing hands and feet, children sacrificed and buried under ball courts or at the foot of pillars in important rooms. The ventilator shaft of a kiva at Mesa Verde was found stuffed with human skulls, so that the air entering this ceremonial space passed through the jaws and nosebones of dead men. Most of the American continents from this time show elaborate signs of ceremonial, even holy violence, shedding light on a deeper part of ancient American society or cosmology.

Exceptional sacrifice was embedded into the Americas. To one degree or another, violence was not prosaic the way most of us now see it. It was part of a reciprocal arrangement with deities who had sacrificed themselves to create the earth. Spanish Conquistadors rolling across continents, overtaking and killing everything in their path, were a thoroughly alien sight, even to Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas who indulged heavily in heartrending human sacrifice. Neolithic New World violence and industrial Old World violence are at their core very different experiences.

It would have been easy to linger on violence as a theme, but in this book I tried to cover as many bases as possible, filling out a vision of Southwest ancestry. We see cliff dwellings, potsherds, and rock art, but we may not comprehend where these came from, what message they might carry. What many witness as a vacant, arid landscape dotted with ruins, is actually a place that holds the key to an ancient lifeway.

Does that answer the question?

“Yes,” I thought, “though there is this... that vacant, arid place may also hold a key to future lifeways, to how our species might better occupy this place.”