The Navajo name for Farmington, New Mexico is Tóta’, which literally means “between the waters” and refers to the area in the acute angle formed by the Animas and San Juan Rivers just east of their confluence, an area which is sometimes called “the peninsula” by Anglo inhabitants of Farmington. The term is also used by Navajos to refer to Farmington as a whole, as well as to the general area around it, however, and it is in this broader sense that Peter McKenna and Wolky Toll used it, in the anglicized form “Totah,” to refer to the archaeological region formed by the valleys of the San Juan, Animas, and La Plata Rivers in their 1992 paper that introduced both the term and the concept to the mainstream of Southwestern archaeology. As I noted in the previous post, this area had previously been mostly overlooked by archaeologists, who interpreted its culture history in terms of migration and/or influence from Chaco to the south and Mesa Verde to the north on the rare occasions when they deigned to consider it at all.
Recently this is beginning to change, thanks in no small part to Toll and McKenna themselves, as well as to some major archaeological efforts in recent years to look more carefully at the archaeological record of the Totah and bring it into clearer focus on its own terms. One of these efforts has been the project by the Center for Desert Archaeology to publish and re-examine the data from the 1970s excavation of Salmon Ruin, one of the biggest and most important sites in the Totah. One of the results of this effort has been a book of papers by a variety of authors giving updated information and interpretations of Salmon as well as the Totah in general and its relationship to Chaco and Mesa Verde.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this book, but one underlying issue throughout it relates to terminology, and it’s clear that the various authors do not agree on the rather basic issue of what the region they are all discussing should be called. Several, including Toll, Ruth Van Dyke, and Linda Wheelbarger, refer to “the Totah,” but others, including the book’s editor, Paul Reed, instead say “the Middle San Juan,” a rather ungainly mouthful. In his introduction Reed notes that “[s]ome archaeologists use the Navajo name Totah to describe the ancient Puebloan homeland in the Middle San Juan region” but states that he and his colleagues at the CDA “prefer the longer, more inclusive, and neutral term: ‘Middle San Juan region.'” In a footnote to his own chapter, Toll counters:
A disclaimer and position statement about the term Totah: I have no idea how long this Navajo word has been in use, but I feel safe in assuming that it predates any European names for the region, whether Spanish or English. The position has been expressed to me that its use somehow has a cultural implication for the sites in the area, or indicates a political preference for the Navajo Tribe in ongoing disputes among Native American groups. This was never my intention, and to suggest that it is, to my mind, is an over-reaction. Much like the term Chaco, it is a concise, specific, old term that refers exactly to the area in which we are interested, though it carries far less baggage than does Chaco. Navajo names are a fact throughout the Four Corners region, and I have chose[n] to retain this particularly useful one.
So what’s going on here? What are these “ongoing disputes among Native American groups” that Toll refers to, and why would the term “Totah” have any relevance to them.
The disputes, of course, are those between the Navajos and the Hopis over a variety of contemporary political issues. These have led to continual sparring over the definition of archaeological cultures and the terms used to describe them, and in recent years these have become more intense as NAGPRA has led to a push to define “cultural affiliation” between specific archaeological remains and specific modern tribes. One recent example was the National Park Service’s decision to include the Navajos in consultations about the park’s collection of archaeological human remains, which outraged the Hopis.
The basic issue behind all this is that the Hopis are a Pueblo people, one of several tribes presumed to be descended from the prehistoric inhabitants of the Four Corners region, while the Navajos live a very different lifestyle and are presumed to have entered the region from the north much more recently but currently live in an area with very extensive prehistoric Pueblo remains. Because they live in the area and encounter the sites regularly, the Navajos have traditions about them, but many Hopis and other Pueblos reject the validity of any such traditions and assert that only they, the modern Pueblos, have any legitimate cultural affiliation with these sites. (I’m painting this picture with a broad brush, and both Navajo and Pueblo opinion is in reality more diverse and nuanced than this caricature suggests, but the broad outlines hold at least in the sense of what people tend to say in public.) This is all complicated, however, by the fact that there has been very extensive interaction between the Navajos and various Pueblo groups for hundreds of years, including at least some level of migration, assimilation, and intermarriage, which has led Navajo culture to be significantly more Pueblo-like than is apparent at first glance and also means that many individual Navajos have some amount of Pueblo ancestry. The question of whether “the Navajos” have a right to claim cultural affiliation with a site like Chaco turns out to be largely a question of what it means to be Navajo and to what extent the Navajo Nation as a governmental organization has the authority to speak for all Navajos. These are not simple questions, and while they are difficult to answer, “Hopis are Pueblo and Navajos are not, therefore Hopis are affiliated with Chaco and Navajos are not” is a much too simplistic way to look at the issue.
Furthermore, there’s the issue of terminology. This stems mainly from the fact that when Anglo archaeologists began exploring and excavating sites in the Four Corners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they relied largely on local Navajos for assistance and information. Those Navajos of course gave names of places and of peoples in Navajo and related what traditions they had from a Navajo perspective, resulting in Navajo names being “a fact,” as Toll puts it, throughout the region. McKenna and Toll’s use of “Totah” falls into this tradition, although it was introduced about a century later than most of the other commonly used terms for archaeological sites and districts that are of Navajo origin (such as Kayenta, Chuska, Kin Klizhin, Keet Seel, etc.). Note that in and around the Hopi Reservation, where these early archaeologists relied on Hopi guides and informants instead, sites tend to have Hopi names (e.g., Wupatki, Homol’ovi).
The most problematic term resulting from this process of archaeologists relying on Navajos is “Anasazi.” This term is used by Navajos to refer to the inhabitants of the abandoned Pueblo sites throughout the Navajo country, and it was adopted in the early twentieth century by many archaeologists as a convenient term for the archaeological culture area encompassing these sites (not exactly the same thing as what the Navajos were using it to describe), owing in part to Richard Wetherill‘s promotion of the term. The etymology of the word within Navajo is somewhat obscure, but one possible interpretation is “enemy ancestor.” The role the Anasazi play in the actual oral traditions of the Navajos implies that “enemy” is perhaps not the best translation in context even if it is literally accurate etymologically, but obviously this term infuriates the Hopis, who hate the idea of their ancestors being described by archaeologists as “enemies” using a word derived from their current adversaries in ongoing political disputes.
It is in this context that the use of Navajo terms to describe Pueblo cultural manifestations has become controversial among archaeologists, many of whom prefer to retreat to safer, more anodyne (or, as Reed puts it, “neutral”) terms like “ancestral Pueblo” rather than “Anasazi” and “Middle San Juan” rather than “Totah.” This makes a certain amount of sense with regard to “Anasazi,” just because the term has become so politically charged and because of the ambiguities about its literal meaning. When it comes to “Totah,” however, I’m on board with Toll. This is not an ambiguous term, it has an obvious, completely inoffensive, and accurate meaning, and it doesn’t imply anything about Navajo connections to the prehistoric sites in the area it describes. Furthermore, while the Navajos may not have any cultural connection to sites in this area, they do live there now, which the Pueblos do not.
This case makes it particularly clear, I think, that this business of avoiding Navajo names really is about avoiding Navajo names specifically rather than incorporating Pueblo perspectives into archaeology (which is a good idea, of course). “Middle San Juan” is a mix of English and Spanish that is applied to this area completely arbitrarily, and the fact that it, rather than a term from one of the several languages spoken by the Pueblos, is the preferred alternative shows that anything is okay as long as it isn’t Navajo. The Hopis would prefer that Hopi terms were used, of course, and their official position I believe is that Pueblo rather than non-Pueblo terms should be used for Pueblo sites and societies. But what’s the Hopi term for the Totah? Is there one? There may be, but if there is no one outside the Hopi Tribe seems to know what it is (and many Hopis may prefer it that way). For archaeologists who want to mollify the Hopis, then, awkward English/Spanish circumlocutions are acceptable means of avoiding Navajo terms, even for areas inhabited historically and currently by Navajos. (Compare “ancestral Pueblo,” another decidedly non-Pueblo phrase for a group of people who were by definition Pueblo.) I’m focusing on the Hopis here because they’re the main public voice for the Pueblo side of this, which I think is because they’re the main Pueblo group that gets embroiled in political conflicts with the Navajos; the other Pueblos probably agree with them, but they don’t say much about this stuff in public.
I was born in Farmington. My family has lived there since the 1870s, which is a long time for white people, and many members of my family have spent much of their time (on the order of decades) since then trading with the Navajos. For all these biographical reasons, plus the more “objective” reasons given above, I feel strongly that the term “Totah” is the most appropriate way to refer to the part of northwestern New Mexico where the rivers come together, and I will continue to use it even if others prefer not to.