What Does Chichilticalli Mean?

In both Zuni and Hopi traditions the color red represents the south. Hopi mythology tells of a Red City of the South, Palatkwapi literal meaning “red city” and many have assumed either the city or the surrounding countryside was red in color, but since red is used to represent the south, red could merely imply the direction in which this city was located in much the same way that we refer to east Asian countries as the orient and people from those lands as oriental, the word orient coming from the Latin word for east.

The same assumptions are commonly made of the pueblo of Chichilticalli, people looking for this pueblo down through the years have looked for red earth or assumed it was daubed with red ochre. Even expedition chronicler Pedro Casteneda says “this building was made of red earth”, but one should remember that he likely had a knowledge of the Nahuatl language in which Chichilticalli means “red house” and that he wrote many years after the expedition. It is conceivable that the ruin was made of earth that became redder in his memory over the years influenced by the ruin’s name “red house”.

How Chichilticalli came to have a Nahuatl name is quite mysterious too, the ruin was much too far north to have been known to the Nahuatl speaking Aztecs, furthermore in no other place along the expedition’s journey was given a Nahuatl name. Casteneda says that “he (Coronado) was much affected by seeing that the fame of Chichilticalli was summed up in one tumble-down house without any roof”, the use of the term “the fame of Chichilticalli” suggests that Chichilticalli was known about before Coronado in the forward party arrived there, the name had to have been given by a previous group, but who? There were several parties that visited the ruins before the forward company of Coronado’s expedition arrived there, in reverse chronological order they were Melchior Diaz, Marcos de Niza and possibly even Cabeza de Vaca. Cabaza de Vaca did not have any Aztecs with him, but both Marco’s de Niza and Melchior Diaz probably did, it is conceivable that these natives acted as interpreters for their parties, after all Nahuatl is in the Uto-Aztecan language family as is Opatan, Piman and Hopi.

There is good reason to believe that Chichilticalli was a southern outpost of the Northern Pueblos, a last holdout to the violence that inspired the wholesale abandonment of the Southern Pueblo region in the 1400s. It is often assumed that Coronado followed existing Native American trade routes, no doubt these well established trails continued to pass through this pueblo long after its abandonment especially since it was in a well watered valley. This last pueblo along the southern trade route no doubt came to be known as the “Red House”, indicating its location far to the south. This name given by members of the northern tribes was then passed along to Opata or Pima trading partners farther to the south, these then told the Nahuatl speaking interpreters that it was called “red house” who started calling it Chichilticalli which means red house in their tongue. The reason it was not interpreted further into Spanish (Casa Rojo) is unclear but perhaps the name was not directly transmitted from Opata to Spanish, instead it was translated from Opata to Nahuatl, then transmitted to other Nahuatl speakers who then themselves translated it to Spanish, and having received the information second hand, did not realize that Chichilticalli was itself a translation and not the actual name. Whatever the case, it is clear that the name Chichilticalli (Chichilticale, Red House) does not necessarily indicate that the ruin was red in color, but instead “red” denotes its location far to the south of Zuni and Hopi, the last surviving vestige of Pueblo culture in the Southern Southwest.

5 thoughts on “What Does Chichilticalli Mean?”

  1. Hi,

    driving from Zuni to Gallup, I fell upon a road sign leading to Chichiltah, in the Navajo reservation. In Gallup, I asked what Chichiltah means, and was ansered “the place of oaks”, or “the spring with oaks”. Later, I found confirmation that chichil means oak in athapaskan languages, while calli has no meaning.

    I feel possible that, when a Spanish group or another came with nahuatl speaking people, the name of the place was asked from “local” people, got an answer in athapaskan and, “chichil” being misunderstood, the whole name was turned to nahuatl, which would explain “calli”.

    Castaneda speaks of the “local” people as “most barbarous”, which may fit with early Athapaskans (Apaches, or maybe Janos).

    This could explain the name.

    A paper from Carroll Riley in “Collected Papers in honor of Alber H Schroeder” is much more explicit about all that.


    Jacques Seassau

    1. Great point Jacques. It would be great if there were some hard evidence that the Athapaskans were in the area that early, it would certainly answer a slew of questions. I have never understood why archaeologists act like it is certain that they arrived in the 1600s when their material culture leaves so few traces of their passing. By the way, I have seen the same sign and had to take a picture.

  2. Thanks Andy.
    That’s it: Jones Ranch. Chichiltah.

    One more thing, if you find Riley’s paper (if you don’t, send me a personal e-mail and I can send you a copy): Carroll Riley writes that Coronado speaks of the “Port of Chichilticalli”.

    In the Pyrenees, border between France and Spain, a port is a mountain pass (nothing to do with the sea)! And, in Spanish, puerto is a current world to designate a mountain pass (which may not be obvious for English speakers).

    I hope this helps.


  3. Peter D. Tillman

    ” in Spanish, puerto is a current world to designate a mountain pass
    (which may not be obvious for English speakers).”

    That used to confuse the hell out of me, reading Mexican topo maps. I think a Mexican geologist set me straight. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Hi Peter,
    if it may be of any use, you can find some spanish topographical words with their description in english in William Emory’s report of the “United States and Mexican boundary survey” 1857. Best way to find them is searching for “cuchilla” in the text.
    I managed to download the report for free a few weeks ago, but could not find from which web site when I looked back.

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