I mentioned that I have some criticisms of Keith Kloor’s article on Chaco, and I do, but before getting to the more substantive issues I’d like to just mention a minor error of fact. This is a very common mistake, and it’s certainly not Keith’s fault for making it, but I think it’s important to point it out when I see it precisely because it’s so common.
The article begins at Kin Klizhin, which John Stein and Taft Blackhorse are showing to Keith and interpreting in their own inimitable way. In an aside Keith says that the name of the site means “Black Charcoal” in Navajo, which it most certainly does not. It means “Black House,” which is a rather generic name for an Anasazi ruin that has been applied to many different sites. I even once heard a Navajo from the Chaco area use it for Pueblo Alto, which is interesting given that site’s more common name “Gambler’s House.” While confusions of Navajo words are very common among Anglos who only know a little bit of Navajo, this is a very straightforward, obvious name. Navajo kin means “house” (specifically a “square” Pueblo or Anglo house as opposed to a hogan), and łizhin means “black.” These are both common words, and there’s nothing confusing about their combination here. The voiceless lateral fricative at the beginning of łizhin is often rendered “kl” in English transliterations of Navajo words, since English doesn’t have this sound.
Nevertheless, the translation of “Kin Klizhin” as “black charcoal” or something similar persists, even in the official park interpretive literature, which is probably where Keith got it. (I can’t imagine John and Taft would have gotten this wrong; indeed, Taft is known for making fun of Anglos mispronouncing or misinterpreting Navajo words.) The description of the site on the park website gets the translation right, because I wrote it, but the official site brochure linked as a (rather slow-loading) pdf from that site still translates it as “black wood.”
So where does all this mistranslation come from? It seems to come from a confusion between Kin Klizhin and another site with a similar name: Tsin Kletzin, which is atop South Mesa in the main unit of the park. There are a variety of versions of the Navajo name for Tsin Kletzin, but they all seem to mean “charcoal” or something similar. The standard English name “Tsin Kletzin” seems to come from tsin, meaning “wood,” and łizhin, the same term for “black” found in “Kin Klizhin” (perhaps involving some confusion with the word łitso, meaning “yellow,” as in Kin Kletso, another site in the canyon), which makes the literal meaning “black wood,” i.e., charcoal. There are other ways of describing charcoal, however, such as tsin nitł’iz, meaning “hard wood,” which is sometimes cited as the origin of “Tsin Kletzin” although it doesn’t make much sense phonetically.
As I say, this is a very minor point that doesn’t make much difference to anything, especially since the Navajo names for these sites are by no means fixed. Since it is a very clear mistake, however, and especially since it’s in the very second sentence of Keith’s article, I figured it was worthwhile to point it out and correct it before getting bogged down in more important matters.