December 17, 2007

Symbolism of the USS Mesa Verde

With the USS Mesa Verde commissioned this week, it's worth pondering what the connection is between the US Navy and ancient Pueblo Indians.

Navy's newest amphibious transport dock ship named for U.S. national park"Mesa Verde is a jewel of our National Park system that celebrates the extraordinary beauty and diversity of that region and our nation," said Mr. Danzig. "The real richness of Mesa Verde and that of our country's naval service, however, lies in the people—the remarkable legacy of their past and a future with great promise. The naming of Mesa Verde establishes a strong and fundamental link between this nation and those who serve and truly value that bond."

Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt expressed his support. "Congratulations to Secretary Danzig and the Department of the Navy. The Department of Interior is especially appreciative that the Navy named the third amphibious transport dock ship after Mesa Verde," said Babbitt. "Naturally, we find the name choice excellent because it honors early American culture as well as the first national park created to preserve cultural history. It seems somehow fitting to name a state-of-the-art ship with a name connoting timeless cultural values in Colorado."
Comment:  Nice try, but the name still seems like a misfit to me. The people of Mesa Verde don't have "a future with great promise" because there aren't any people at Mesa Verde. "State of the art" and "timeless" are more like opposites than equivalents. Colorado has nothing to do with the ocean. Etc.

How about honoring actual Pueblo values rather than these made-up qualities? For instance, the Hopi values of "humility, cooperation, respect, balance, and earth stewardship" (according to the Museum of Northern Arizona)? I don't think humility, respect, or protecting the environment are on the Navy's mind when they transport troops to invade another country (e.g., Iraq, Somalia, Panama, Grenada).

I wonder if the Navy consulted any Pueblo or Indian people before choosing this name. If so, I wonder what these people said. "Thanks for naming a warship after us. What's next, the Pueblo land mine? The Anasazi smart bomb?"

The name is disquieting for a couple reasons. One, the Ancestral Puebloans weren't especially warlike. Two, their civilization existed in the distant past. Is this another case of "honoring" Indians for what (we imagine) they were and not what they are today?

Consider what I wrote about Indian mascots in Smashing People:  The "Honor" of Being an Athlete:We memorialize ferocious beasts—lions and tigers and bears—as sports teams. And in reality, we shoot them, cage them, or wipe out their habitats because they're an obstacle to civilization. We memorialize "savage" Indians for the same reason: because we, the full-fledged people of destiny, are better than them, the one-dimensional warrior losers.

That's about what a mascot is. It's a museum piece, a trophy on the wall, a monument to a vanquished people. Why would anyone want to be associated with that?
The Mesa Verde crest

But wait, there's more. I gather each ship in the US Navy has its own website. Here's the website for the USS Mesa Verde, and here's what it says about the meaning of the name:Shield:

Mesa Verde’s status as a World Cultural Heritage Site and National Park is recalled by the shape of the shield and the representation of the Cliff Palace dwellings. The yucca, an indigenous plant and staple as valuable raw material to early Indian settlers refers again to the region which gives LPD 19 its name and denotes hardiness and survival. The compass rose symbolizes worldwide capabilities and expertise. Gold signifies achievement and excellence.

Crest:

The green plateau represents the Mesa Verde region which gives the ship it’s name. The bald eagle symbolizes the United States; the juniper is native to the Mesa Verde region and the sprig held by the eagle bears twenty-four berries representing the twenty-four modern tribes which trace their ancestry to the region. The trident denotes authority and mastery at sea.

Motto: Courage Teamwork Tradition

For 750 years, the Ancestral Puebloans occupied the area within the park and their construction efforts culminated in approximately 600 cliff dwellings between 1100 and 1300 A. D. in southwest Colorado. Just as Mesa Verde National Park commemorates the Courage, Teamwork, and Tradition of these Native Americans, so too will the Sailors and Marines in LPD 19.
Comment:  Hmm. When I think of the Ancestral Puebloans, I don't think of eagles or berries. I definitely don't think of compasses, swords, or tridents. I don't even think of courage or teamwork (I'm sure they had both, but no more than any other people).

The compass is a peculiarly Western way of dividing the landscape. Most tribes divide it into four directions, not eight. They use colors to signify the directions, not points. If this is an example of respecting Native values, it falls short.

The trident is the symbol of the Roman god Neptune and the Christian Devil. Neither is a friend of indigenous people. If the trident stands for authority and mastery, that's about what Western civilization brought: authority and mastery over the non-Western civilizations it met.

The Navy missed a bet by saying the color gold, like the metal gold, signifies "achievement and excellence." This is a Western take on gold that has no counterpart in Native tradition. In fact, singling out people for gold stars is contrary to Native tradition, which extols the community over the individual.

One Native alternative would be to say gold stands for corn, which signifies the sacredness of life and the connectedness of all things. But I suppose that's not a message the Navy can endorse. We wouldn't want to empathize with the people we're shooting, right?

Honoring Indian ruins

One could spin the Mesa Verde crest another way. Compasses are what Euro-Americans used to march into Indian territory. Gold is what they sought. Swords are what they used to conquer the people they found. Tradition is what they stomped on. Ruins are what's left of the societies they devastated.

That's one vision I got from this odd amalgam of Western and Native symbols. While we're honoring our own non-Western people, let's go attack some non-Western people elsewhere. After we defeat them, maybe we can honor them too.

When the USS Mesa Verde does something Pueblo Indians would do, then I'll be impressed. Conveying delegates to a peace conference or corn to a drought-ridden country, perhaps. Until then, color me unimpressed.

P.S. I know the 20 Pueblo tribes trace their ancestry to the "Anasazi." But who are the other four tribes?

If one is the Navajo, that's a problem. The Navajo occasionally have claimed a relationship with the Anasazi to validate their cultural views, but nobody buys it. The Navajo entered the Four Corners area a few hundred years after the Anasazi left it.

7 comments:

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Not that writerfella's researches agree with your opinions, BUT -- you must get your terminology straight, or your 'superiority' comes into question. The term is NOT 'Puebloans,' but rather more properly is 'Pueblans.' It's rather like calling the 'Italians' the 'Italins.' And boy, would Tony Soprano be somewhat unforgiving of that!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Having read a hundred books and a thousand articles on the Pueblo people, I can assure you the correct term is "Puebloan." But if you want to start a campaign to get every government, academic, and popular institution to switch from "Puebloan" to "Pueblan," be my guest.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Pueblo_Peoples

Ancient Pueblo People or Ancestral Puebloans were a prehistoric Native American culture centered around the present-day Four Corners area of the Southwest United States, noted for their distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles. The cultural group is often referred to as the Anasazi.

http://www.desertusa.com/ind1/ind_new/ind12.html

The Puebloan cultures emerged from ancient hunting and gathering traditions. Their earliest ancestors, the nomadic Paleo Indians, followed and hunted the big game and harvested wild plant foods in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico during the Ice Ages.

http://www.nps.gov/archive/meve/park_info/park_history.htm

Mesa Verde, Spanish for "green table", rises high above the surrounding country. For 750 years, the Ancestral Puebloans occupied the area within the park.

Rob said...

Anonymous adds:

Mesa Verde is a Spanish name meaning "Green Mesa." The Pueblo people have other names for that area.

Which is valid point. Using the common but non-Pueblo name is another subtle sign of disrespect. It's like saying, "We honor our version of you, not your version of you."

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Oh, bother. "Pueblan" means someone who lived or lives in a Pueblo. Check your Strunk & White, Rob, that is if you haven't colored in all the pages yet...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

I guess you want me to check Strunk & White because you're too lazy to check it yourself. Or too lazy to find the equivalent rule using Google. As usual, your lack of evidence is noted.

FYI, Strunk & White doesn't list every grammatical rule and its exceptions. As you'd know if you had actually read it. It's not even clear to me you own the book, since you're comically unable to use it.

I cited several reputable sources for "Puebloan." I could cite several hundred more. It doesn't matter what you dream the rule is because "Puebloan" is the established and correct form.

If you weren't so pathetically inept, I'd be laughing uproariously at you. Instead, I'm only chuckling mildly. It's sad to see someone who couldn't quote a source if his life depended on it.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
The best proof of writerfella's arguments is that he uses far less verbiage than does Rob, and that leads to one more question: WHO is paying ROB by the word?
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Translation: "I lose another debate. Rob wins again."

Since you were too lazy, ignorant, or afraid to address my argument, I'll merely repeat it:

I cited several reputable sources for "Puebloan." I could cite several hundred more. It doesn't matter what you dream the rule is because "Puebloan" is the established and correct form.