Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Of William Prescott and Aztec misnomers

When William Hickling Prescott, the historian who documented the rise and fall of the Spanish empire, died in 1859, he could not have known that four years later a fledging town in American Southwest, a region he had never visited, would be named after him. He might have been pleased by this commemoration of his historical acumen that his then extremely popular book “A History of the Conquest of Mexico” did much to advance. But had he known that not only had his book caused a town to be named after him, but that the impressive and then unexplained ruins of the southwest were given Aztec names based on the conclusions of his book, he might have been doubly pleased for having left an imprint by sheer virtue of his scholarly work.

And had he lived on, the same indispensable curiosity that had brought him this far might have egged him on to research the region further, perhaps even visit it, to see that while many Aztec influences might have been absorbed by the Native Americans of the southwest, their communities – quite diverse themselves – had their own distinct identities and cultural accomplishments, developed and sustained independently of the Aztec. But that, of course, was not to be; Prescott was destined to rest in his grave, and I’ll permit myself to imagine that his left eye that had been bizarrely blinded by a hard crust of bread – hurled at dinnertime by a Harvard classmate; apparently there had been a fracas that night in the Commons– still twitches with excitement as the many dimensions of the histories of Mexico and Peru and other Native American empires are unraveled.

Prescott’s work and the other articles that posited the Arizona origins of the Aztec engendered a slew of misnomers that exist to this day. The town of Aztec in New Mexico famous for its centuries-old ruins, also called Aztec – in fact the latter inspired the former – is one example. The Native Americans who once lived and built their houses and ceremonial structures there are today referred to as the “Anasazi” or “Pueblo” (these names, too, have their own stories). The Puebloans had nothing to do with the Aztec. Neither did the Sinagua whose cliff dwelling in the Central Highlands region of Arizona is called Montezuma Castle, after the Aztec king. (The view that people living in relatively close proximity had “nothing to do” with each other cannot be literally true. Ideas are sure to have diffused through the vast trade networks that existed then; ideas as profoundly transformational as the cultivation of corn. But certainly there is uniqueness in how a community shapes external influences.)

One is justified in asking: What’s in a name, after all? Should these mistakes be panned so much when history was and still is a work in progress? The issue is not so much with the errors themselves as with the notions that lie behind them. Kirk Peterson, a ranger at the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park (also in New Mexico, a 3-hour drive from Aztec) articulated this well: “There was a school of thought that the natives who lived here were not capable building these structures.” He was referring to the ruins of the massive houses constructed from the eighth to tenth centuries. “And so it was natural to look to the nearest empire that could have.”

In addition to its architectural feats, Chaco canyon is also known for its sophisticated solstice marker on Fajada Butte (unfortunately the butte is off limits for visitors). And then there is the Great North Road that is within half of degree of being exactly north. The woman at the Visitors Center at Aztec where we had stopped by to get some information before proceeding to Chaco told us of her own visits to Chaco. “These were no rock pounding Indians,” she said, obviously quite impressed with what she had seen. But implicit in her remark is a slight of another kind.

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