Mt. Taylor from Seven Lakes, New Mexico
In the previous post I made a distinction between “affiliation” and “identity” that may not have been totally clear. In the context of Keith Kloor’s article on Navajo connections to Chaco, the basic point I want to make could be drastically oversimplified to something like this:
- The Park Service’s finding that the Navajos are “affiliated” with Chaco under NAGPRA is based on the fact that the Gambler story exists, not the idea that it’s true. While there may or may not be a kernel of historical truth to the story, the versions that have been recorded all contain enormous amounts of material that is clearly and obviously mythical. However, the consistency of the accounts, and the strong association with Chaco Canyon and specific locations within it that they tend to share, imply a level of connection to Chaco shared by all Navajos that (along with other traditions) the NPS found sufficient to support a finding of affiliation.
- John Stein and Taft Blackhorse, however, are claiming that the Gambler story actually is true. That’s the crazy part. While, again, there may or may not be some truth hidden somewhere in the story, the specific interpretations they use and the conclusions they present are almost certainly wrong. They’re starting from a widespread tradition that most Navajos probably believe in some sense, interpreting it in an idiosyncratic way, using that interpretation to shape the way they understand and present the archaeological fieldwork they do, and ending up with an account of southwestern prehistory that hardly anyone finds credible.
- It is true, as I just mentioned, that most traditional Navajos probably do believe that some version of the Gambler story is true. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that they or the Navajo Nation in its official capacity believe the version that John and Taft are presenting. That version is unusual, at least the way they present it, in focusing on the presence of Navajos and downplaying the presence of Puebloans, even though they do admit that presence. Most versions of the story that have been recorded present most of the characters in the story as Pueblo, with the Navajos certainly being present but in a more subsidiary role. I don’t know if John and Taft ever explicitly argue that most of the characters in the story are Navajo, but that’s certainly the implication of the way they present their theories and contrast them with the archaeological consensus that the Chacoans were all Pueblo.
- Leaving aside the whole issue of the Gambler story, however, there are a lot of other Navajo traditions involving Navajo connections to Anasazi sites, including Chaco, that are nowhere near as crazy as what John and Taft are saying. These mostly involve the origin stories of specific clans, some of which claim Anasazi ancestry and refer to origins at specific ancient sites, and others of which do not claim Anasazi ancestry but do refer to contact between the early members of the clan and various Anasazi groups. These traditions don’t get as much attention as the flashier stories like the Gambler one, partly because they are traditionally not supposed to be told to outsiders at all. If Navajo oral traditions can be used as evidence of Navajo connections to Anasazi sites, which I would say is still an open question, these are the traditions that are likely to be most reliable. The Navajo Nation’s official position, and the Park Service’s finding of affiliation, rely on these traditions at least as much as on the Gambler story in supporting claims of Navajo affiliation to Chaco.
- Therefore, while Keith’s article is certainly interesting and well-done, it really only skirts the edges of the major issue of cultural affiliation. Claims of Navajo affiliation with Chaco and other Anasazi sites do rest pretty much exclusively on oral tradition, but they don’t rest at all on the speculative theories John Stein and Taft Blackhorse have built out of that tradition.
That’s basically the argument I was making in the last post. I recognize that so far, both in that post and in this one, I’ve just been asserting all this without backing it up beyond vague reference to published sources. That might do in an academic context, but here we’re talking about journalism, so I figure it’s incumbent upon me to support what I’m saying with some quotes.
Sign at Turnoff to Huerfano Chapter House from NM 371
Let’s start with NAGPRA. Here’s how the official Park Service guidelines define “cultural affiliation”:
“Cultural affiliation” means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group.
That seems like a pretty high bar, and note that “identity” is right there in the definition. From just looking at that, it would seem that the only way to establish that the Navajos are culturally affiliated with the Chacoans would be to posit something like what John and Taft are saying: that the Chacoans were Navajo, even if there may have been some Pueblos involved too. But the guidelines go on to water it down quite a bit when they get to the actual standards of evidence:
A finding of cultural affiliation should be based upon an overall evaluation of the totality of the circumstances and evidence pertaining to the connection between the claimant and the material being claimed and should not be precluded solely because of some gaps in the record.
Evidence of a kin or cultural affiliation between a present-day individual, Indian tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization and human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of
cultural patrimony must be established by using the following types of evidence: Geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, anthropological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion.
Lineal descent of a present-day individual from an earlier individual and cultural affiliation of a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony must be established by a preponderance of the evidence. Claimants do not have to establish cultural affiliation with scientific certainty.
The effect of these standards is to make it considerably easier for claimants to establish cultural affiliation, which is a reasonable thing to do given that a lot of tribes would have a hard time finding enough documentation to conclusively prove a connection to an ancestral site. When it comes to Chaco these standards still seem to advantage the Pueblos more than the Navajos, but they leave enough room for a plausible claim that a “preponderance of the evidence” suggests that the Navajos have “a relationship of shared group identity” with the Chacoans. Note that it’s a bit vague on how “group” is to be interpreted. Does it mean the Navajos have to show that the Navajo Nation as a whole is the lineal descendant of the political or cultural unit represented by Chaco? It could be read that way, but the explanations of the standard of proof seem to imply that there are other ways to read it that are to be preferred.
Abandoned Hogan at Tsaya Trading Post, Lake Valley, New Mexico
With that in mind, let’s look at that 1999 NPS finding that Keith mentions as having been so controversial. After a very long list of human remains and grave goods found at Chaco and in the possession of the park, the notice gets to the issue of cultural affiliation. First, the criteria:
Evidence provided by anthropological, archeological, biological,
expert opinion, geographical, historical, kinship, linguistic, and oral tradition sources were considered in determining the cultural affiliation of the above listed human remains and associated funerary objects.
That sounds about right, given the NPS guidelines I quoted above. So what conclusions did these criteria lead to?
Anthropological literature supports the view of many Puebloan communities that the San Juan region, which includes Chaco Culture NHP, belongs to their common ancestral cultural heritage. Archeological evidence indicates that Puebloan people were in Chaco Canyon since at least the Basketmaker period (ca. A.D. 1) and, therefore, supports the affiliation of the above mentioned human remains and associated funerary objects with many modern Puebloan communities. Continuities in architecture, ceramics, agricultural practices, food-processing technology, and rituals from Chaco Canyon’s prehistoric settlements, present-day Pueblos, and Hopi Tribe bolster claims of cultural affiliation by these communities. Furthermore, anthropological research indicates that many Puebloan peoples have additional bases for claiming cultural affiliation with the ancient residents of Chaco Canyon due to clan migrations, intermarriage, and the regrouping of communities over time. Linguistic evidence also suggests that modern Keresan speakers (Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, and Zia) originally occupied Chaco Canyon. Additionally, oral traditions specifically link the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, Zia, and Zuni, as well as the Hopi Tribe, to Chaco Canyon. Furthermore, the Pueblos of Cochiti, Isleta, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Santo Domingo have oral traditions that refer to “White House” as an ancestral place. Some anthropologists maintain that White House was located in Chaco Canyon. Tribal cultural specialists offered expert opinion to support the cultural affiliation of the Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Laguna, Nambe, Picturis, Poaque, San Felipe, San Juan, Sandia, Santa Ana, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni, and the Hopi the Tribe, to Chaco Canyon. Similar expert testimony provided by the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, Pueblo of Jemez, and the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo indicated that these three communities are not culturally affiliated with Chaco Canyon.
Makes sense. As I noted above, the guidelines definitely suggest that the Pueblos would have a strong claim to affiliation based on cultural continuity. The three groups that apparently claimed not to be affiliated are interesting too. The Jicarilla Apaches were in southeastern Colorado at the time of European contact, so it’s hardly surprising that they don’t have any connection to Chaco. Ysleta del Sur is a community near El Paso, Texas descended from Southern Tiwa and Piro people from the Rio Grande valley who accompanied the Spanish when they retreated from New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. It’s a little odd that they wouldn’t claim affiliation but Isleta and Sandia, descended from the Southern Tiwas who stayed in New Mexico after the Revolt, would, but it’s not hard to imagine circumstances under which they would decide they don’t have anything to do with Chaco, which is quite distant from El Paso. The most interesting of the three is Jemez. Alone of all the New Mexico Pueblos, they seem to have actually argued that they don’t have any affiliation with Chaco despite being geographically closer to it than most. Jemez is one of the most conservative Pueblos and one of the ones least inclined to reveal anything about its traditions to outsiders, so it’s likely that the story behind this will remain untold. It’s certainly puzzling, though.
Jemez Electric Pole in Chimayo, New Mexico
With the Pueblos out of the way, here come the Navajos:
In addition to the above listed Pueblos and the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation was found to be culturally affiliated with the ancient residents of Chaco Canyon based upon similar sources of evidence. Anthropological sources indicate extensive intermarriage between Navajo and Puebloan peoples occurred, and that the Navajo have traditional ties to the natural and cultural resources of Chaco Canyon. Additionally, Pueblo cultural traits have been incorporated into Navajo cosmogony, ritual, and secular practices. Historical evidence places the Navajo occupation of Chaco Canyon to at least the early 1700s until 1947. It is also known that after the Pueblo revolt of 1680, refugees from the Pueblos of Jemez, Santa Clara, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Cochiti, and Zuni joined the Navajo and were incorporated into their clan system. During the same period, the Hopi of Awatovi joined the Navajo in the Chinle area. Geographically, Chaco Canyon is within the four sacred mountains that define Dinetah territory, and within the area of Navajo aboriginal use lands established by the Indian Claims Commission. Oral traditions also link the Navajo to sites within Chaco Canyon such as Fajada Butte, Pueblo Alto, Pueblo Bonito, and Wijiji, as well as to the Chacoan sites of Kin Ya’a and Aztec. Finally, Navajo cultural specialists have also provided expert opinion affirming their cultural ties to Chaco Canyon. Navajo oral traditions link the Navajo people to sites within Chaco Canyon, and stories describe their ancestors interacting with the “Great Gambler” in Chaco Canyon when Puebloan people occupied the area.
Note the order here. First, intermarriage, which is documented both historically and ethnographically and is the least controversial way the Navajos can claim to be connected to the Anasazi. Then, traditional ties to “natural and cultural resources” in the park, which is suitably vague that it could cover all sorts of meanings. Next, Pueblo cultural traits adopted by the Navajos, then the Navajo occupation of the Park area in the historical period, followed by the refugees from the Pueblos who joined the Navajos after 1680. It’s only then that specifically Navajo cultural traditions are mentioned, first the indisputable fact that Chaco lies within the area bounded by the four sacred mountains, then the oral traditions linking the Navajos to specific, named Chacoan sites. These traditions are probably the clan origin stories I mentioned above. Only at the very end do we get the stories about Chaco, attributed to unnamed “Navajo cultural specialists,” ending with the Gambler and traditions about the ancestors of the Navajos “interacting with” him “when Puebloan people occupied the area.”
Hogans at Salmon Ruins
Somehow I doubt this is how Taft Blackhorse would have written this paragraph. It still seems to be playing a little fast and loose with the NPS criteria for determining cultural affiliation, but it’s definitely organizing the evidence in a way that emphasizes the connections most plausible given the standard archaeological story about Chaco, with the Pueblo connections first, then the Navajo connections deriving entirely from Navajo contact with the Pueblos, and only mentioning the Gambler stuff at the very end. Still, does this establish a “preponderance of the evidence” that “there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between” the Navajos and the Chacoans? Well, that all depends on what you mean by “shared group identity.” And that, in turn, depends on what you mean by “the Navajos.”
Exterior of Hogan at Salmon Ruins
Today, of course, it’s pretty easy to say who is and who isn’t Navajo. The Navajo Nation is a federally recognized tribe with a defined list of members. Politically, then, being Navajo just means being a member of the Navajo Nation. Culturally it’s also pretty easy to determine what it means to be Navajo today. Traditional Navajo culture has been in decline for the past few decades as younger Navajos become more assimilated to mainstream American culture, but most of its key components are still in place to varying degrees, especially among older generations and in more rural parts of the reservation. This culture and its elements are quite easily distinguished from other indigenous cultures in the Southwest. Navajo society is unique among southwestern tribes in being based on a pastoral sheep-herding economy, and many of its other distinctive characteristics originate in that economic system, including the importance of weaving and the settlement pattern based on scattered, highly mobile extended family residential units living in distinctive dwellings known as “hogans” and very low population density. Other aspects of Navajo society, such as the ceremonial system and the kinship system based on matrilineal clans, are shared with various other tribes, but the combination of all these features is distinctively Navajo.
Ceiling of Hogan at Salmon Ruins
Obviously, however, this society can’t be very old. Sheep were only introduced to the Southwest in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, after all. “Traditional” Navajo society, therefore, certainly can’t be a thousand years old (let along ten thousand), and in fact it really only crystallized in its current form in the late nineteenth century after the return from Bosque Redondo in 1868 and the spread of trading posts providing the processed foods and industrially manufactured goods that are key components of traditional Navajo material culture. Most of the elements, including the sheep, were in place by the early nineteenth century, and they had probably gradually been adopted and transformed over the course of the eighteenth century. The standard model of Navajo ethnogenesis used by most archaeologists in the Southwest in recent decades ascribes a major role to an influx of refugees from the Pueblos after the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico in 1692, the idea being that they introduced many Pueblo ideas and material culture items, including livestock, to the Navajos, who then developed their distinctive culture out of a mixture of inherited Athapaskan elements and adopted Puebloan elements. Keith talks about this in his article, in fact. Here’s how he puts it:
It’s thought that the ancestors of the modern Navajo didn’t even enter the Four Corners until about the 1500s, almost 300 years after Chaco was abandoned. Archaeologists believe the Navajo adopted some Pueblo traits after their arrival in the Southwest. Following the Pueblo Revolt against the Spaniards in 1680, some Pueblo groups sought refuge with the Navajo. The two groups intermarried and their cultures became entwined to a certain extent.
Recently some archaeologists have objected to this story and come up with alternative explanations that downplay the number and impact of Pueblo immigrants, but let’s stick with it for now. Basically what it means is that the term “Navajo” as we use it today refers to a group practicing a culture that developed in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. With that in mind, then, let’s look at another part of Keith’s article:
Stein and Blackhorse concede Navajo legends aren’t well represented in the archaeological record, but they counter by pointing out that there is a dearth of data on Navajo sites in general before the 1700s. So the Navajo say that plenty of earlier sites may be there; they just haven’t been found yet. But that is no longer true.
If we’re defining “Navajo” the way I just did (i.e., as referring to a culture that developed after 1680), then it’s kind of trivial to say that “there is a dearth of data on Navajo sites in general before the 1700s.” Of course there is; there weren’t any “Navajo sites” before then. But the last sentence in the paragraph suggests that this isn’t the only way to define “Navajo” in an archaeological sense. Let’s continue:
The massive Fruitland gas-drilling project that’s been underway since the late 1980s just outside Farmington, New Mexico, has uncovered thousands of new Navajo sites. Richard Wilshusen, now an adjunct curator at the University of Colorado’s Natural History Museum in Boulder, was part of a research team investigating hundreds of these sites in the 1990s. In a forthcoming study, he argues that a wealth of new archaeological data, combined with other lines of evidence, show that the Navajo didn’t emerge as a distinct cultural group until between 1600 and 1650, at least 100 years after scholars once thought.
So here it seems “Navajo” doesn’t refer to the culture we today refer to by that term, but it still refers to some sort of “distinct cultural group” presumably ancestral to that culture. Since one component of the post-1680 Navajo culture is alleged to be influences from Pueblo refugees, this pre-1680 culture must represent the Athapaskan or Apachean component of that culture. Indeed, Wilshusen seems to think so:
Wilshusen says that southern Athabascan speakers ancestral to the Navajo and Apache arrived in the Southwest around 1450. They spread into southern Colorado, and northern and eastern New Mexico–areas that were largely depopulated after the abandonment of Pueblo sites in the Four Corners around 1350. These Athabascan people kept their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for the next 100 years, living in wikiups. By 1525, they separated into Plains and Mountain groups. It was only sometime between 1600 and 1650, Wilshusen argues, “that a distinct Navajo culture emerged in the uplands and the early Apache on the plains.”
Okay, so here we’ve got Athapaskan-speakers living in wikiups entering the Southwest in the fifteenth century, and dividing into Navajo and (Plains) Apache a couple hundred years later. But where is Wilshusen getting these dates?
Out of thousands of sites identified during the Fruitland project, hundreds have been radiocarbon and tree-ring dated. Wilshusen is able to use these dates to trace the development of Navajo culture. He notes an “architectural shift afoot” by 1600, when residential structures became bigger. The most striking changes after 1650, he says, are the clustering of residential timber structures called forked-stick hogans, and the appearance of fortresslike pueblitos and a new polychrome pottery. It’s at this point, Wilshusen concludes, that the Navajo emerged as a distinct group.
You know what would have been really, really helpful here? A mention of what the earliest dates actually are. Does Wilshusen actually have radiocarbon or tree-ring dates for wikiups in the 1400s? He presumably does have dates for the 1500s and the 1600s, since he notes a change “around 1600” involving the emergence of forked-stick hogans, pueblitos and pottery. In any case, regardless of when these dates start, we do seem to have an answer here to what “Navajo” means in the early seventeenth century: forked-stick hogans, etc. This complex of traits does seem to be clearly ancestral to the “Athapaskan” elements of eighteenth-century Navajo culture, so fair enough. This does seem relevant to the question of Navajo ethnogenesis.
Brush Shelter or Wikiup at Salmon Ruins
Does it have anything to do with Navajo connections to the Anasazi, though? Well, no. Wilshusen may or may not be right about when and where the Navajo became “Navajo” and whether the Gathering of the Clans reflects this period (and there is actually quite a bit of evidence from Navajo oral history that is compatible with his ideas, as Keith notes), but the evidence he presents has nothing at all to do with anything that happened before 1450. Even if he does have dates on wikiups from the late fifteenth century, that doesn’t say anything about when Athapaskan-speaking people entered the Southwest. He seems to think it does, but it doesn’t.
Loom in Hogan at Salmon Ruins
Why not? Well, one way to trace a migration in the archaeological record would be to look for similar sites, plausibly reflecting a single cultural group, over the area covered by the presumed migration, with earlier-dated sites occurring closer to the origin point and later-dated sites occurring closer to the end point. In this context, that might mean wikiups starting in Canada with dates around, I don’t know, maybe 1300, and a trail of similar wikiups further and further south, ending up on the San Juan in 1450.
Forked-Stick Hogan at Salmon Ruins
That’s not what Wilshusen has, though. He’s only looking at one small area, at the end of the presumed migration route. He sees wikiups appearing at 1450 (apparently) and presumes that, since there aren’t any earlier ones in the area, that this represents the appearance of this group in the Southwest. And maybe it does. But he doesn’t have any evidence that it does. What if the Athapaskans had just been hanging out in, say, Utah for a few hundred years, then moved into New Mexico? What if they had actually been in New Mexico for a few hundred years, and their wikiups from before 1450 just haven’t survived, being inherently flimsy (as Wilshusen himself says, these things are hard to see archaeologically)? What if they only started living in wikiups in 1450 and had been in the same area but living in some other sort of dwelling before that? What if they had, say, been living in pueblos?
Interior of Forked-Stick Hogan at Salmon Ruins
Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not arguing that any of these other explanations is correct. I don’t have any particular reason to think that. My point is just that Wilshusen doesn’t have any evidence for his argument either. And this is the crucial thing about the perennial question of the Athapaskan arrival in the Southwest: There just isn’t any evidence to show when or how it happened. That’s what John and Taft mean when they talk about a dearth of Navajo sites early on, and nothing Rich Wilshusen has found changes it. Migrations are just inherently difficult to see in the archaeological record.
Sweat Lodge at Salmon Ruins
The key word in Keith’s discussion of Wilshusen’s work is “distinct.” It occurs several times (look back up at the block quotes above to see it). That is, what Wilshusen is saying is that the Navajo only became a distinct culture group between 1600 and 1650. But they, or their ancestors, existed before then. They just weren’t “Navajo” yet. But what does that mean? We’ve already established that it doesn’t mean what it means now. Wilshusen is arguing that it refers to a specific set of cultural traits that distinguished the Navajos from other Apaches. The only clear-cut continuity that I can see is the use of an Athapaskan language. So before 1600, there weren’t “Navajos” in the Southwest, but there were Athapaskan-speaking groups whose descendants would become the Navajos. And we still don’t know how long they had been there.
Mt. Taylor from the Volcanoes Just West of Albuquerque, New Mexico
This is the context within which John and Taft’s theories need to be evaluated. It’s also the context within which other Navajo traditions connecting the Navajos to the Anasazi need to be evaluated. These would be the clan histories mentioned in the NPS finding above. Let’s look at a recent discussion of this issue that takes an approach very different from what John and Taft have been pushing. This is a 2005 paper by Miranda Warburton and Richard Begay. Begay is Navajo; Warburton is not, but she used to work for the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department, which is a different agency from the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department where John and Taft are based. In their discussion of Navajo-Anasazi contacts, they barely mention Chaco, and they don’t mention the Gambler story at all. They rely more on clan histories, although this is a bit difficult to do in this context, as they explain:
For the Navajo, their relationship with the Anasazi is complex, and not all ceremonialists agree on its history or nature. It nonetheless is a critical component of Navajo ceremonialism and thus, according to Navajo tradition, is not to be openly discussed. Although this stricture obtains among Navajo people, it is much more stringent with respect to conversation on the matter between Navajos and non-Navajos: non-Navajos are simply not privy to this information (in anything other than general summaries) in any context.To relate the history carelessly in an essay such as this, or indeed in any context, diminishes the power of the narrative, and thereby diminishes the core of Navajo belief and culture.
They also emphasize that their views are their own and not to be construed as the official position of the Navajo Nation, which is circumspect about the specifics of its position on account of the cultural restrictions on discussing these matters. They also clearly state their position on Navajo-Anasazi relations:
We are not saying that all Navajo came from all Anasazi, but we are saying that some Navajos are the descendents of some Anasazis. It is understood that with the passage of time relations have changed with all of these people. Sometimes the relations
are friendly and at other times hostile; sometimes people have intermarried and exchanged ceremonial knowledge, and at other times these interactions have been frowned on. Culture and interethnic or interclan relations are understood to be mutable.
As I said above, I don’t think anyone would seriously dispute most of this. Similarly with their account of Navajo origins:
The origins of the Navajos are complex. Navajos all come from various peoples (some of whom no longer exist): some small groups of individuals joined existing clans and do not know their own history beyond what they learned from the clan they joined, and other groups were localized ethnic or clan groups who joined
the coalition of what became identified as the Navajo.
This is what the “Gathering of the Clans” means. It’s not so much a single event at a single, identifiable place and time, but a process of accretion, with various groups of diverse origins joining together over a long period of time to become the people we know today as Navajo. Some of these were presumably Athapaskan-speakers whose legacy was the Navajo language. Others came from the various historic Pueblos, and often maintained the name of their place of origin, and their legacy may have been agriculture, weaving, sheep, and ceremonial traditions. Yet others, the way Warburton and Begay tell it, may have come directly from the now-ruined Anasazi pueblos.
Again, though, they’re not talking about the Gambler here. They give an example of a traditional narrative, one of the large group of stories giving the origins of specific clans and ceremonies, involving a family of hunter-gatherers wandering around the Southwest and interacting with various other people, some of whom are clearly Puebloan in lifestyle and live in named Anasazi sites. They may or may not be right that this indicates that the ancestors of the Navajos were in the Southwest before the Anasazi abandonment of the Four Corners around 1300; I’m a bit skeptical, personally, especially since the specific site names they give are actually rather generic Navajo terms for Anasazi or Pueblo sites. I do think they’re quite right in a lot of what they say about the limitations of the way archaeologists generally deal with these issues:
We want to stress that ‘‘Navajo culture and identity,’’ like all culture and identity, is an evolutionary process; that is, Navajo did not always equate to Gobernador Polychrome, hogans, or any other traits used by archaeologists today to define Navajo.
Quite right. Cultures change, and “ethnicity” is not necessarily deducible from material culture.
Many archaeologists are tied to a trait list that they believe defines ‘‘Navajo’’ sites, and even the most open-minded archaeologists and ethnographers have thus far been unwilling to recognize or accept ‘‘non-Navajo’’ Navajo traits.
Again, right, and we see this with Wilshusen’s attitude above. Even if he’s right that “Navajo” culture didn’t develop until the seventeenth century, that doesn’t have any bearing on how long Athapaskan-speaking groups had been wandering around the Southwest. In fact, Warburton and Begay address this very point:
With respect to architecture, if Navajos were highly mobile during this time, we should not expect to find hogans. Ephemeral brush structures would have been their shelter, and these would not be preserved in the archaeological record.
They also have some choice words for archaeological interpretations of “ethnicity”:
We assert that the ethnic divisions and boundaries drawn theoretically by archaeologists do not hold up in the same way in practice. The practical reality in the Southwest for centuries has been an intermingling of peoples, through competition, religious ceremonies, intermarriage, and economic necessity.
Archaeologists study material culture. That’s what they do. Archaeological theories of ethnicity, therefore, tend to be based heavily on material culture and collections of traits. Ethnography and ethnohistory, however, have clearly shown that material culture doesn’t necessarily correspond to ethnicity. Different ethnic groups can have similar physical lifestyles but quite different languages, religious practices, or other aspects of culture that set them apart from each other. Similarly, groups can practice very different lifestyle but share other aspects of culture that they may consider more important in defining their identities. And all of this is in constant flux, particularly in the Southwest. The Navajo are, in fact, practically a paradigm case of the malleability of culture and ethnicity. The “traditional” Navajo lifestyle that now seems so timeless is actually very recent in origin, and understanding what, if anything, it meant to be “Navajo” before that is basically guesswork whether it’s based on material culture or oral history.
Warburton and Begay close with a plea for understanding and cooperation:
Let us broaden our understanding of the past by including the voices and histories of all the people involved in the evident culture change of this time. Let us look at this information as an opportunity to view the past within a structure that allows us to better understand and more comprehensively explain the processes we see writ large in the archaeological record. Accepting a Navajo presence in the late prehistoric Southwest does not in any way detract from other groups’ traditional histories, nor does it detract from other groups’ affiliation claims. Accepting a Navajo presence during this time acknowledges a body of traditional history that has been denied, enhances our appreciation of the complexity of cultural interaction, allows Navajos a say in the disposition of ancestral remains, and
may better explain the archaeological data concerning demographics and abandonment.
They’re talking here both about including oral history in archaeological interpretation and about keeping an open mind about possible contact between the Navajos and the Anasazi. Throughout their article they have presented a sober, serious case for both of these. This is, to put it mildly, not the Stein/Blackhorse approach.
Navajo Petroglyph of a Horse and Rider
So where does this leave us? Are Warburton and Begay right about Navajo-Anasazi contacts? Probably not, but they certainly could be. Are Stein and Blackhorse right? No, their theories are still crazy for all sorts of reasons. Were (some of) the Chacoans Navajo? Not in the modern sense, certainly. Did any of the Chacoans speak Athapaskan languages? Probably not, but there’s not actually any way to tell based on the data we have now. Are (some of) the Navajos today descended from the Chacoans? Yes. Is the Navajo Nation right to claim to be culturally affiliated with the Chacoans? Hard to say. What does it mean to be Navajo? Everything and nothing. It all depends on how you look at it.
Warburton, M., & Begay, R. (2005). An Exploration of Navajo-Anasazi Relationships Ethnohistory, 52 (3), 533-561 DOI: 10.1215/00141801-52-3-533
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