After a longer interlude than I was intending (it turns out graduate school is a lot of work!), I have more to say on Keith Kloor’s Chaco article. I have two major criticisms of it, and while they’re closely related, I think it will be easier for me to express them clearly if I put them in separate posts. Thus, this post talks about one issue, and a later post will talk about the other, which I think is probably more important.
The issue I want to address here has to do with one of the major themes Keith uses to structure the article: identity. He puts the controversial theories espoused by John Stein and Taft Blackhorse about the relationship between the Chacoans and the Navajos in the context of recent disputes between the Navajos and other tribes, especially the Hopis, over Navajo claims to cultural affiliation with many of the archaeological sites in the Southwest that archaeologists generally identify as being ancestral to the Pueblos but not to the Navajos. This is definitely a major issue, although I think it probably has more to do with contemporary intertribal politics than with issues of cultural identity.
Be that as it may, however, obviously the controversy here has to do with the idea that the Navajos are “affiliated” with ancient sites which are clearly Puebloan in material culture. The way Keith phrases the article implies, though it doesn’t quite explicitly say, that this means the Navajos consider themselves descendants of the Chacoans, appealing to their oral traditions as evidence. He contrasts this with the attitudes of archaeologists, who are generally in agreement that the Navajos didn’t even enter the Southwest until long after the fall of Chaco and therefore couldn’t have had anything to do with the Chacoan system. He talks specifically about some research Richard Wilshusen has done on Navajo ethnogenesis putting it as late as the seventeenth century. (This is problematic for reasons that I’ll go into in a later post.)
So the claim here seems to be that the Pueblos and the Navajos both claim to be the descendants of the Chacoans, and the archaeologists, judging from the evidence they have accumulated through their research, side with the Pueblos against the Navajos. If you look carefully at the article, though, this isn’t really what it says is going on. Probably the best way to think about this is to ask who is claiming what about who the Chacoans were and who their descendants are.
The position of the Pueblos, especially the Hopis, is clear: the Chacoans were Puebloans, and their descendants are the modern Pueblos. All the Pueblos claim some connection, although some are more specific and forceful about their claims than others. Most archaeologists basically agree, although they are rather vague about the specifics. The Park Service, through its decision designating the Navajos as one of the tribes with an “ancestral affiliation” with Chaco, is claiming some sort of connection involving descent, although again the specifics are vague. The only people claiming a really strong and specific connection between Chaco and the Navajos are John Stein and Taft Blackhorse. They say that the Chacoans were Navajo, although they acknowledge that Puebloans were involved too, and that the modern Navajos are therefore directly connected to Chaco by virtue of being the descendants of the people there. The implication is that they speak for the Navajos in general, and that the Navajos therefore make the same claim. But do they?
Well, yes and no. The answer to the question “Do the Navajos claim to be descended from the Chacoans?” really comes down to two more questions: “Which Navajos? Which Chacoans?” The Navajos are a diverse people with a population of about 300,000 divided into about sixty clans, each of which has its own origin story. Some of these stories clearly claim that the clan was originally Anasazi and joined the Navajos at some point, and a few name specifically Chacoan sites as part of the story. So members of those clans, assuming they believe the origin stories, certainly believe themselves to be descended from the Anasazi or from the Chacoans specifically. Some clans derive from quite recent migrations of people from various Pueblos within historic times, so if the Pueblos are considered descendants of the Chacoans members of those Navajo clans must also be so considered. Even below the clan level, many Navajos today are descended from women (usually) who were captured in raids on Pueblos in the nineteenth century, or from other sorts of individual-level intermarriage events in the very recent past (i.e., involving specific, named individuals from the Pueblos). In one sense, then, “the Navajos” certainly claim descent from the Chacoans, and at least some do so in a way that even the most skeptical southwestern archaeologist would accept.
That isn’t all of the Navajos, though. Plenty of clans don’t claim any Pueblo or Anasazi connections, and many members of those clans would probably not claim to be directly, personally descended from the Chacoans. There are still the more general traditions about contact between the Navajos and the Anasazi, some of which, like the Gambler story, mention Chaco specifically, so even if there isn’t a relationship of direct descent, most traditional Navajos probably still believe that they have a close connection to Chaco based on their oral traditions.
This is where Taft Blackhorse comes in. Keith describes Taft’s theories as “straight out of Navajo oral history,” which they are, but Navajo oral history is a complicated, multifarious thing, and there is no one canonical version of any of the stories. Note that the clan traditions I mentioned above mostly don’t fit Taft’s theories: they generally posit a sharp distinction between “Anasazi” or “Pueblo” and “Navajo,” with the clan starting out as one and ending up as the other. Even just sticking to the Gambler story, several versions have been recorded by anthropologists over the past hundred and thirty or so years, and while they all bear many similarities in their overall structure, they also differ considerably in both details and tone. To give a concrete example, the version recorded by Washington Matthews in the 1880s differs from Taft’s version not in the overall sequence of events, but in the way it presents them. While in Taft’s version the Gambler and most of the people he enslaves are implied to be Navajo, granting that there were also some Puebloans around, in Matthews’s version the Navajos show up at Chaco only after the Gambler has been there for some time and successfully enslaved many of the Pueblos. They witness him enslave the people of “Blue House” (usually identified with Wijiji), then cooperate with a variety of animal spirits to overthrow him by outgambling him. In this version, which is interesting and which I will discuss at greater length at some point, the cultural distinction between Pueblo and Navajo is clear, although both groups are present, and this is typical of most Navajo traditions about the Anasazi, as discussed in an important paper on this issue which I will talk about more in my next post on Keith’s article.
I’m not saying Keith got anything wrong, exactly, in the way he wrote the article (well, except for one thing). In general, what he says is accurate as far as it goes. The problem, though, is that he seems to want it to go further than it really does. There certainly are complicated and contentious issues about identity and history surrounding Navajo claims to affiliation with Anasazi sites, but John and Taft aren’t really central to them in the way that Keith implies. While he is quite right in noting that they are very far out on the fringe of archaeological thought, it’s important to note that they’re pretty far out on the fringe of Navajo thought too. There certainly are Navajos who agree with their theories, at least in part, but I doubt there are very many who buy the whole thing. There are too many other traditions out there, and they can be interpreted in too many ways. If there is a problem with Keith’s article in this respect, it’s in the lack of other Navajo perspectives. Taft is the only Navajo quoted or even mentioned by name in the piece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important not to take him as a representative of the Navajos as a whole. He doesn’t speak for the Navajos. No one person can speak for the Navajos.
But who are the Navajos? What does it even mean to be “Navajo”? That’s a crucial question, but one that will have to wait for the next post.