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The Anthropological Context Of The American Southwest

Two major ethnic subgroups can be identified in the indigenous culture of the Southwest. The Pueblos are the region’s autochthonous population, directly descended from the Anasazi9. They include 25 distinct groups (which today number about 45,000 individuals), each with a specific cultural identity, rituals and customs, but a common social structure and the same subsistence farming activity. Their name derives from the term which the first Spanish explorers gave the indigenous populations on their arrival in the territories of the Rio Grande, in what is now New Mexico, at the beginning of the 16th century. The natives lived in villages made up of low houses with flat terrace roofs, built from earth mixed with straw around a central square or plaza. For the Spaniards these settlements bore a surprising resemblance to the villages in their own countryside known as the pueblo, and the term came to be used as the generic name for the indigenous inhabitants, the “Pueblo Indians”, where the misnomer of “Indian” conserves the case of mistaken identity originally made by Columbus. Still today many of the groups of native Americans retain the name given to them by the Spanish missionaries followed by “Pueblo”: Santo Domingo Pueblo, Santa Ildefonso Pueblo, Isleta Pueblo, and so on.

Linguistically the various Pueblo groups reflect their different origins. Essentially three different idioms are spoken: Tanoan10, Keresan11 and Zuni, languages which are not interrelated12 . The Hopis who speak Uto-Aztecan13, identified in some ethnographic classifications as Pueblos, consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group. The Hopi, Zuni, Kerez and Jemez Pueblos all have a social organization based on an exogamic matrilineal clan14, while the Tanoan speaking Pueblos have non-exogamic patrilineal clans15.

The second general classification concerns the two groups of Athapaskan origin, Navajo16and Apache17, which may have migrated from the north or, according to another hypothesis, from the Asiatic continent across the Bering Strait some time in the 13th or 14th century.

The continuous interchange among the Indian ethnic groups brought about radical changes in the means of procuring subsistence. As an example we can cite the Navajo: originally hunters and gatherers, on coming into contact with the sedentary agricultural culture of the Pueblos they acquired some knowledge of farming and adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle. The cultivation of maize, beans and squashes, sheep raising and crafts of weaving on an upright loom and basketry are all activities taken over from Pueblo groups in the relatively recent past.

It is interesting that in their ceremonies the Navajos have retained their characteristic dwellings, the hogan, which may be round or hexagonal in shape and are made out of branches and mud with a central air flue. This construction is surprisingly similar to the yurt, the circular tent of the peoples of Central Asia, and may indicate common Asian origins. The hogan plays a fundamental role in the Navajo social system, symbolising the universe: it represents universal order, being circular like the horizon and domed like the heavens. The door faces east, where the sun rises, and it has four columns oriented according to the equinoxes and solstices, north-east, north-west, south-east, south-west. The hearth is the centre of the universe, and perfumed smoke rising through the central aperture is believed to pass directly to the spirits of the heavens.

This scheme evokes another analogy with the culture of the Himalayas. It is customary among Buddhist peoples to make pictures representing the cosmic order, known as mandalas, and the design of temples, sacred architecture and reliquaries, such as the Tibetan stupa or chorten, is based on analogous maps. Often these symbolic designs, with a central kernel from which the whole pattern is developed, are made using coloured sands, painstakingly laid down one after another in concentric geometrical patterns. Once completed these pictures are destroyed by their maker as a sign of humility and in recognition of the transience of all the things of this world. The Navajos have a similar custom of symbolic painting involving coloured sands, which for centuries have featured in religious rituals, including healing ceremonies. The patterns in sand are created on the ground and, just like in Tibet, are destroyed at the end of the rite. For both cultures, Navajo and Buddhist, these are ritual representations associated with ceremonies designed to re-establish harmony and equilibrium between the individual and the community. And there is one further affinity in the Navajo and Tibetan costumes: the use of coral combined with turquoise in silverware ornaments. Naturally this in itself is not enough to postulate Asian origins for the Navajo Indians, but it does undoubtedly represent one more intriguing coincidence.

Nowadays the territories of the American Southwest are home to more than 230,000 Native Americans18, including about 7000 Hopis, living in Arizona, 12,000 Zunis, in Arizona and New Mexico, 45,000 Pueblos, in the Rio Grande drainage basin of New Mexico, and 173,000 Navajos, the largest group occupying the most extensive Indian reservation straddling Arizona and New Mexico. The current Indian groups constitute only three quarters of the native population which lived here when the Spaniards began their conquest.
9Anasazi is the term used to indicate the ancient Pueblo groups. Although the subject is controversial, it seems that the first archaeological evidence for these cultures goes back to 300 BC.

10The Tanoan idiom comprises the ethnic groups speaking the three languages Towa (Jemez), Tewa (San Ildefonso and Santa Clara) and Tiwa (Taos, Picuris and Isleta).

11The Kerasan language is spoken by the Acoma, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Laguna and Cochiti.

12 Bahti T. and M., Southwestern Indian Tribes, KC Publications, 2003, pp. 6-7; Dutton B. P., American Indians of the Southwest, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1983, pp. 9-62.

13The Uto-Aztecan linguistic group is the largest in Western America, both geographically and in terms of number of speakers, stretching from the territories of the Great Basin to Mexico.

14In exogamic matrilineal clans descent is through the female line and children are obliged to marry outside the kinship group. In the matrilineal system individuals of both sexes are identified with the mother’s clan. In Hopi communities matrilineality determines a division into housing compounds adjacent to the house of the patriarch. The house is an economic unit, and work is shared equally by men and women. Each clan has a presiding fetish which is kept in the “clan house” and cared for by the woman who is considered the clan mother.

15In societies with a patrilineal system it is the father figure which determines internal order, and descent is through the male line, with name, property and lineage being taken from the father. Similarly kinship is identified with the male parent. In the case of Pueblo groups there is no prohibition on marrying within the paternal clan.

16 The term “Navajo”or “Navaho” derives from Navahuu, which in the Tewa language, spoken by some native groups in the Southwest, means “field cultivated in a small watercourse”. In the Navajo language the population refer to themselves with the term Diné (sometimes written Dineh) meaning people.

17“Apache”, like “Navajo”, does not have Athapaskan origins. It appears to derive from the Zuni word Apache, meaning "enemy". The population generally refer to themselves with the term Inde, or Nde, meaning people.

18Data from the United State Census 2000.

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