Call Me Bilagáana

As some of you know, I’ve sold my house in Colorado and me, my wife and greyhound are currently homeless living out of our van.

We took a trip down to the Mesa Verde National Park which I haven’t visited in many moons. If you get nothing more out of this article, if you were taught the word “Anasazi” to mean early indigenous peoples, you are racist of the first order. If you are a racist anyway, this may help round out your resume.

It turns out that the word “Anasazi” is more or less a Navajo word and, in some translations, “Anasazi” means “enemy of the Navajo.” If you think you’re cool and hip because you think you know what Anasazi means, be assured it is now considered a huge insult to the other tribes living near Mesa Verde.

I, of course, am a 21st century man who is concerned that we call everyone whatever they want to be called so I walked up to the Park Ranger’s table and said “where is the Indian stuff?” Yes, I really did. He looked at me for a moment and decided I wasn’t worth the effort so he went through his spiel.

We bought a ticket for the tour of Cliff Palace which is really a wonder to see in person. Our very young Park Ranger Tour Guide named Mira asked our group “what became of the people who lived here?” The answers ranged from killed in battles with “other Indians” (I think this guy might have been from Texas) to “they all died from lack of water during a drought.”

Rather nonplussed, Ranger Mira yelled “you should all know! They went into the valley and became the ancestors of the 24 tribes in the region!” I raised my hand to ask Ranger Mira “and we know that how?” but she’d already pegged me as a troublemaker so we just moved on. It’s probably one of those questions you’re not supposed to ask anyway.

A big deal has been the reburial of indigenous peoples’ artifacts on Mesa Verde and was kicked off by the  federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that was passed in 1990. The problem was that the 24 tribes couldn’t decide how to do it and they argued about it for 13 years.

Twenty-four tribes initially told park officials that they believed their people are descendants of the prehistoric Mesa Verde dwellers. Later, those 24 tribes selected the Hopi, Zuni, Zia and Acoma to represent them in the negotiations.

The reburial is complete and if you’re a card carrying member of the 24 tribes, you can get special access to the burial sites. We wound up talking to a volunteer named Lillian who was awesomely knowledgeable. We sat and just listened to her answer questions for about an hour. At one point, she said “how wonderful it must be to know exactly where your ancient ancestors lived!” Mine came through Ellis Island which is good enough for me and I have no desire to visit there.

What do you call the indigenous people from these 24 tribes? Lillian said “we’ll call them whatever they decide they’d like to be called.” Very well but it turns out that the tribes that built pueblos like to be called “Pueblo people” or “Puebloans” but, unfortunately “Pueblo” is a Spanish word so that does feel right either. Its not nearly woke enough.

I’m going with the term indigenous people to try to at least a little bit politically correct until the truly woke among the tribes sort all of this out.

Here’s an interesting tidbit of unintended consequences. When the site was excavated years ago, the archaeologists used Portland cement to reinforce the buildings. Unfortunately, the Portland cement expands at a much different rate than the sand and mud that the whatever they’re called people used causing the destruction of everywhere it was placed. But their intentions were good.

Here’s another tidbit for you. Mesa Verde is actually not a Mesa at all! It’s technically a cuesta. The proof is left to the student.

I did learn a new word from Lillian which is “bilagáana” and means white guy in the Navajo language. She asked “how would you like it if everyone started calling you bilagáana?” Actually, I think that’s pretty cool!

Mark Rosneck

Written by Mark Rosneck

Site owner and bilagáana


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