Navajo (Native Americans of the Southwest)

Navajo is a Tewa word meaning "planted fields." The Navajo call themselves Dine’e (Di ‘n?), "the People." Like the Apache, they are of Athapaskan descent.

Location Dinetah, the traditional Navajo homeland, is located on the lower Colorado Plateau, between the San Juan and Little Colorado Rivers, about 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Today’s Navajo Nation occupies a 28,800-square-mile reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Utah. This land is mostly plateau (above 5,000 feet) and is marked by deep, sheer-walled canyons. The winters are cold, the summers are hot, and there is little water.

Population The Dine’e are the most numerous Indian tribe in the United States. In 1990, 144,000 Indians lived on the Navajo Reservation, plus 1,177 at Canoncito and 191 at Ramah (see "Government/ Reservations" under "Contemporary Information"). Many thousands also live off-reservation. More than 200,000 Indians now qualify for membership in the Navajo Nation (officially 219,198 in 1990). Perhaps 6,000 Navajos lived in the Dinetah in 1800.

Language Navajo is an Athapaskan language.

Historical Information

History Roughly 3,000 years ago, the Athapaskans, along with others (all called the Nadene), began a new wave of Asian migration into North America. Nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Southern Athapaskans arrived in the Southwest in roughly 1400 and filled in the mountains around the Pueblo-held valleys. The Northern Athapaskans remained in the subarctic.

To the Athapaskans, Spanish influence (early seventeenth century) meant primarily horses, guns, and places to raid. Consequently their interest in raiding grew, and they effectively established the northern Spanish frontier. Spanish missionaries had little success with the Navajo. Navajos also raided Pueblo Indians for food, women, slaves, and property. Between raids, Navajo and Pueblo people traded with each other. From this contact, the Navajo adopted some Pueblo habits, arts, and customs, especially farming, and settled down. The Navajo became farmers, then herders of sheep, goats, and horses.

Navajos helped the Pueblo people in their great revolt against the Spanish (1680), mainly by accepting, occasionally on a permanent basis, fugitives and refugees. Throughout much of the eighteenth century, the Navajo came in greater contact with Pueblo people and adopted more and more of their ways. Dine’e-Pueblo "pueblitas" became almost a distinct culture in parts of the Dinetah. What is now considered the traditional Navajo culture arose out of this cultural mix.

Animal husbandry, agriculture, hunting, gathering, and weaving wool were the economic base of the Navajo as they began slowly to spread west and south. The early nineteenth century saw much reciprocal raiding with Mexicans, Spaniards, and early travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Faced with the Mexicans’ better firepower, Navajos, especially children, became targets of slave traders during the first half of the nineteenth century. At this time the Navajo possessed no tribal consciousness. They traveled with their livestock in clans (there were over 60) to summer and winter hogans.

In the 1840s, the Navajos held out against U.S. troops in their sacred stronghold, Canyon de Chelly. However, treaties signed then did not stop conflict over grazing lands; white abuses of Indians, including the slave trade; and U.S. Army depredations. Following the Mexican cession (1848), the Navajo were shocked to learn that the United States considered itself as the "owner" of all traditional Navajo territory. In the face of Navajo resistance, the United States determined to take the land by force.

The great warrior and war chief Manuelito attacked and almost took Fort Defiance in 1860. Kit Carson defeated the Navajos in 1864 through a scorched-earth policy: He destroyed their fields, orchards, and livestock and then invaded Canyon de Chelly. Band by band the Navajos surrendered. Manuelito surrendered in 1866. The United States then forcibly relocated 8,000 Navajos to Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner) in eastern New Mexico, with plans to transform them into farmers. Hundreds of Navajos died on the 400-mile walk, and 2,000 more died in a smallpox epidemic the following year. Those Navajos who had not been captured hid in and around Navajo country.

In 1868 the Navajos were allowed to return and were granted 3.5 million acres of land for a reservation. Although the treaty called for a U.S. government-appointed tribal chief, local headmen retained their power. Manuelito returned home to serve as a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)-appointed subchief and then head chief of the Navajo. He also served as the head of the "Navajo Cavalry," the local police dedicated to ending Navajo raiding. After their return, the Navajo turned successfully to horse and sheepherding. Navajo culture changed quickly at that time: Trading posts opened, rug weaving for tourists began to take the place of traditional blanket weaving, children were sent to U.S. boarding schools (although this was fiercely resisted at first), Navajos began working for the railroads, missionaries arrived in force, and non-native health care made inroads into traditional cultural practices.

By 1886 the reservation had grown from 3.5 to 11.5 million acres, although much of the best land was taken for railroad rights of way. Tremendous sheep and goat herds made the Navajo relatively prosperous and independent until the mid-1890s, when economic and natural disasters combined to reduce the herds by 75 percent. Following this period the Navajo switched from subsistence herding to raising stock for market.

The Navajo remained organized primarily by band into the twentieth century and thus knew little or no true tribal consciousness until a business council began to meet in 1922. Local business councils, the first and most important community-level political entities, had been created in 1904 (well over 100 chapters of the councils now exist). In 1915, the BIA divided the Navajo Reservation into six districts (which were in turn reorganized in 1955), each with a non-Indian superintendent. These communities retain their character as government towns. In 1923 the secretary of the Interior appointed a tribal commissioner and a tribal council. In 1923 Henry Chee Dodge, who had assumed the position of head chief after Manuelito, became the first tribal chair. He provided the tribe with valuable leadership until his death in 1947.

Overgrazing was the key issue in the 1930s; a BIA-mandated stock reduction at that time led to dramatically lower standards of living. It also led to rejection by the tribe of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), of which the stock reduction plan was a part. World War II was a watershed for the tribe: Navajos traveled off the reservation in numbers for the first time, and those who returned came home not only with some money but also with a sense of honor gained from fighting as well as from using their language as a code the enemy was unable ever to break. Still, a crisis of unemployment, and even starvation, marked the immediate postwar years for the Navajo.

The 1950s brought large-scale energy development and with it jobs, money, and new social problems. Coal, oil, and uranium were the most important resources. The number of tribal programs increased dramatically, as did the power of the tribal council. The tribe adopted its own court system and legal code in 1959. The new programs culminated in 1965 with the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity (ONEO), led by Peter MacDonald. The ONEO funneled tens of millions of dollars into social programs. MacDonald dominated Navajo politics for 20 years, both as head of the ONEO and as tribal chairman in 1970, 1974, 1978, and 1986.

However, the coal leases of the 1960s included provisions for massive strip mining. Soon the once-pristine region was seriously polluted, and by the late 1970s there was strong sentiment against further development. MacDonald himself was convicted in 1990 and 1992 of several felony corruption-related crimes and later jailed. Peterson Zah served as tribal chairman in 1982, as president of the Navajo Nation in 1990, and as chair of the nation in 1992. The controversy over the degree and type of economic development continues today, the Navajo having achieved a large degree of self-determination.

Religion "Sa’ah Naaghei Bik’en Hozho," which may be characterized as being grounded to the earth, whole, and in harmony with life, is the Navajo Way. Everything is sacred and interrelated. For instance, religion equals identity equals clan equals place. The chief role of ceremonialism is to maintain or restore this harmony. Therefore, most ceremonies are for curing illness, broadly defined as being off balance for any number of reasons, such as contact with non-natives, ghosts, witches, or the dead.

According to legend, Navajos (and all other beings) came to this world 600 to 800 years ago through a progression of underworlds. They were assisted by powerful and mysterious spiritual beings such as coyote, changing woman, spider woman, spider man, and the hero twins. These beings exist in the natural and supernatural worlds and may be called upon for help with curing. Most ceremonies are held when needed, not according to a calendar.

Many important aspects of Navajo ceremonialism, such as the use of masked dancers, feathered prayer sticks, altars, dry (sand) painting, cornmeal, and pollen, were borrowed from the Hopi and other Pueblo people. Traditional Navajo religion excludes organized priesthoods or religious societies. Instead, ceremonies are conducted by "singers" who have mastered one or more of 24 chantway systems. The systems are divided into six main groups: blessingway, war, gameway (hunting), and the three curing ceremonials—holyway, evilway (ghostway), and lifeway. Each group might be composed of 50 or more chants, which in turn might have hundreds of songs or prayers. Specific sandpaintings and social functions often accompany each chant.

As part of the ceremony, the singers use bundles containing items such as rattles, feathered wands and brushes, various stones, and herbal medicines. The most important is the mountain earth bundle, which contains pinches of soil from the tops of the four sacred (bordering) mountains. Around 1940, the Native American Church took its place in Navajo religious practice.

Government Traditionally, the Navajo were organized in a number of bands, each led by a headman (appointed for life) and a clan leader, who were assisted by one or more war leaders. The leaders met formally only every few years. Decisions were taken by consensus.

Customs In general, the individual takes precedence over the group. Property ownership is individual. The residence group, which was organized around a head mother, a sheep herd, and a customary land-use area, was the largest traditional Navajo organization. Clans were both matrilineal and matrilocal. Men were not allowed to see or talk with their mothers-in-law, so families lived near the wife’s mother but in their own homes. The Navajo had a great fear of death. After the dead were buried, their belongings were destroyed.

The extended family was an important economic and social unit, as was the "outfit" in later times, a grouping that consisted of two or more extended families. Home, crops, pottery, and livestock belonged to women and were considered women’s work; men made jewelry and represented the family in public and at ceremonials. A four-day girls’ puberty ceremony ranked among the most important occasions.

Dwellings Navajos lived in hogans. At first they were cone-shaped structures, framed with logs and poles and covered with earth and bark. Later the hogans had six or eight sides and were covered with stone and adobe. Doorways always faced east. The hogans were grouped in rancherias, or small settlements. Other structures included sweat lodges, brush corrals, and ramadas.

Diet Before the Spanish influence, the Navajo grew corn, beans, and squash. Afterward they added fruit trees, oats, and wheat. They hunted antelope, deer, and bear and gathered wild foods such as pine nuts, cactus fruit, wild potatoes, greens, seeds, and herbs. Grazing by sheep, goats, and cattle, acquired from the Spanish in the sixteenth century, destroyed much of their wild food.

Key Technology The Navajo used traps and snares for hunting. After the introduction of livestock, they learned to spin and weave. In the nineteenth century they learned silver work from the Mexicans.

Trade Navajos were part of an extensive Native American trading system. In particular, they traded meat, hides, blankets, and minerals to Pueblo Indians for ceramics and cloth. Extensive trade began after the Civil War, with traders acting in many cases as primary links to the outside world as well as bankers, via a pawn system.

Notable Arts The arts were traditionally seen as ways to relate to and influence spiritual beings and to be closer to the ancestors; as such they were integrated into Navajo ceremonialism. Oral chants told history, traditions, and mythology and were accompanied by music. The Navajo knew several categories of traditional music, from personal/ pleasurable to deeply sacred. The people made paintings on clean sand of mineral powders and pollens, which they destroyed at the end of a ceremony. Weaving, done by women, was learned from Pueblo people around 1700; Navajo weavers created a golden age in the early nineteenth century.

Rugs began to replace blankets after 1890. Women also made pottery. Basketry was more utilitarian than artistic. The Navajo learned the art of making silver and turquoise jewelry in the mid-1800s.

Transportation The Navajo acquired horses from the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

Dress Navajos traditionally dressed in aprons and breechcloths of woven yucca, later buckskin, with feathered headgear. Moccasins were made of juniper bark and yucca, later deerskin and cowhide. By the eighteenth century, women wore belted, black wool dresses with stripes of red, yellow, or blue. Men wore buckskin shirts, leggings, and moccasins. From the 1860s on, women wore long, full, colorful skirts and velveteen blouses. Men wore cotton pants and velveteen shirts. Pendleton blankets became regular items of clothing in the nineteenth century; silver and turquoise jewelry in the twentieth.

Weaving, done by women, as shown in this 1893 photograph, was learned from Pueblo people around 1700. Navajo weavers created a golden age in the early nineteenth century, and rugs began to replace blankets after 1890.

Weaving, done by women, as shown in this 1893 photograph, was learned from Pueblo people around 1700. Navajo weavers created a golden age in the early nineteenth century, and rugs began to replace blankets after 1890.

War and Weapons The Navajo first made points of stone for items such as arrows and lance tips; later they used metal. They made bows of oak and juniper and first acquired guns in the seventeenth century. Beginning about that time the Navajo became inveterate raiders. Their traditional targets included the Spanish and the Ute and Pueblo Indians.

A Navajo couple of the mid-1880s wears silver jewelry and traditionally styled clothing made of nontraditional materials.

A Navajo couple of the mid-1880s wears silver jewelry and traditionally styled clothing made of nontraditional materials.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Navajo Reservation, established in 1868, consists of almost 14 million acres (28,800 square miles) plus several nearby satellite communities. Canoncito Reservation (1868; 76,813 acres) near Laguna Pueblo is one such satellite, where roughly 1,700 people (1990) are descended from generally proassimilation, Christian Navajos who moved south in the early nineteenth century under Spanish pressure. Other satellite communities include Utah (6,000 people), Ramah (1868; 146,953 acres; 1,500 people), and Puertocito, or Alamo (1868; 63,109 acres; 2,000 people). Thirty thousand Navajos also live on the "checkerboard" in New Mexico, a region in which each alternate square mile is Indian owned. Navajos are also represented among the Colorado River Indian Tribes (see Mojave).

Twenty-five energy-producing tribes, including the Navajo, created the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1976 to help tribes exert control over their mineral resources. Despite their array of lawyers, the tribes have found it difficult to resist pressure from the major energy companies to sign exploitative leases.

The U.S. government still officially controls the Navajo tribal government. Elections for the tribal council are held every four years. In 1936 the council adopted a set of rules that serve as a constitution (they formally rejected organization under the IRA). The "Navajo Nation" was formally adopted in 1969. In 1990, the government was reorganized to coincide with the U.S. model, and the offices of president and vice-president replaced those of chair and vice-chair.

Economy Peabody Coal remains the largest single employer of Navajos. Mineral (oil, gas, coal, uranium) exploitation continues, although not without some controversy. Navajo Agricultural Products Industries and Navajo Forests Products Industries are also large employers. Some people still farm, herd, and produce wool. Many are engaged in making arts and crafts, especially weavings, jewelry, baskets, pottery, and commercial sandpaintings. There is some retail business as well as some off-reservation employment. One-third of the tribal workforce is often unemployed.

Legal Status The following are federally recognized tribal entities: Navajo Tribe of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; Navajo Tribe of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (Alamo); Navajo Tribe of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (Canoncito); Navajo Tribe of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (Ramah). The Canoncito Band of Navajos had petitioned for federal recognition as of 1993.

A land dispute with the Hopi dates back to 1882. At that time, the Hopi Reservation included at least 300 Navajos. The Navajos asked for title to the lands in light of Hopi "nonuse": the issue was Hopi "homesteading" versus Navajo "aggressive exploitation." The Hopi refused. A 1962 district court decision (Healing v. Jones) ruled that each tribe had joint interest in most of the 1882 Hopi Reservation.

In 1974 Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, under which each tribe was to receive half of 1.8 million acres of jointly held land. Those people on the "wrong" side were to move. One hundred Hopis moved. Thousands of Navajos did too, but many refused to leave, and the issue is still in dispute. The Hopi refuse money for land. Traditional leaders among both tribes oppose the act, preferring to keep the land in question open and unspoiled. They have formed a unity council to resolve the situation and consider the ongoing tension the work of energy companies and prodevelopment factions on both tribal councils.

The Navajos also have other land conflicts outstanding with the Hopi as well as with the recently recognized San Juan Paiutes.

Daily Life Navajo children attend community schools, private schools, and reservation high schools; some of the curricula are in the Navajo language. The Rough Rock Demonstration School (1964), the first to operate under a contract from the BIA, demonstrated the wisdom of local control. Since 1969, the reservation has been home to Navajo Community College (the first tribally controlled college); since 1972, to the College of Ganado (Presbyterian). Many Navajos live away from the reservation, although ties between urban Navajos and the reservation remain generally close. Within the context of traditional Navajo identity, new ideas and types of knowledge continue to be taught. Though many Navajos are Christian, the traditional beliefs and the Native American Church are even more popular.

Economically, herders often depend upon a family member with a local wage job. Older Navajos in particular experience chronic under- and unemployment. The tribe has plans to develop a marina, an electronics assembly plant, shopping centers, and motels. Tourism is a high priority. Energy resources are a mixed blessing: They bring in money, but the leases remain exploitative, and their development is often accompanied by political dissension as well as the ravages of strip mining and radiation poisoning.

Life in the late twentieth century remains a balancing act for all. Some (up to 25,000) traditional people speak only or mostly Navajo, some are thoroughly acculturated, and many are uncomfortably in the middle. Today, native healers practice alongside modern doctors. The reservation was scheduled to receive complete telephone service in 1995 but was still waiting as of early 1998. Homes look more modern every year, but the hogan remains the spiritual center and the only place for ceremonies. Women have generally continued their traditional matriarchal roles. Alcoholism is widespread, and suicide rates are high. The Navajo religion is alive and strong, although, with singers and dancers to be paid and food, baskets, and other equipment to be bought, some ceremonials can be very expensive. The Native American Church has a strong presence on the reservation, as does Christianity. Radio stations broadcast programs in Navajo.

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