The Navajo have an amazingly rich history and cultural background. One of the best known Native American groups because of their weaving and silver jewelry, it is difficult to adequately paint their picture in a condensed historical portrait. The Navajo, also known as Dine (or “the people”), are relative newcomers in the American Southwest. More than 1,000 years ago (ca. AD 1000), the Navajo migrated south from northern Canada to the American Southwest.
When they arrived, this region was already occupied by ancestral Puebloan populations. The ancestral Puebloans lived in settled agricultural communities, a way of life that conflicted with the nomadic hunting and gathering practices of the Navajo. Prior to their arrival in the Southwest, the Navajo primarily hunted animals such as deer and buffalo, and gathered wild plant foods. Although hunting and raiding were formerly important in Navajo economy, they are essentially obsolete today. Their cultural adaptability is compelling, as is their ability to remain relatively unchanged; maintaining their original lifeway was a struggle for the Navajo as they negotiated relationships with their new Puebloan neighbors and strained under the arrival of Europeans.
Adaptation and Survival
The Long Walk
In 1860, the Navajo attacked Fort Defiance, a post that had been established in their territory. As a result, the U.S. military planned the evacuation of the Navajo homeland, and forced resettlement of Navajo and Apaches at the Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner) in eastern New Mexico, where they were to be taught how to become farmers. The plan, and subsequent “long walk” (of more than 270 miles), were carried out between 1863 and 1864; more than 8,000 Native Americans were led to Fort Sumner. The attempt at forced acculturation at Fort Sumner was a disaster; the land was unsuitable for farming and sheep herding, and there were inadequate supplies of water and fuel. Finally, in 1867, those held captive at Fort Sumner were allowed to leave, and a reservation that was created for them in 1868 contained less than 10% of the land they had originally used.
Despite their status as newcomers in this region and the reduction in their territory, however, the Navajo currently comprise one of the largest Native American tribes in North America, numbering around 200,000 members on a 17 million acre reservation that extends from southern Utah to the northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico. Hoover stated that “the solid block of Navajo reservation area included 25,000 square miles or 16,000,000 acres. Nine states of the United States are smaller. The real Navajo country, the country occupied chiefly by Navajo, comes nearer to 28,000 square miles, an area larger then Ireland.” The land that was designated to the Navajo was land that was considered of no real use or benefit. Some parts are considered desert, and other parts have intermittent trees. Over the subsequent years, this reservation land has been greatly expanded, removed, renegotiated, exchanged, and disputed, but the region of the land has generally remained constant.
A Changing Way of Life
Following the failed experiment at Bosque Redondo, the Navajo way of life changed significantly. Continued contact with Pueblo culture certainly affected that change. Although the Navajo continued to supplement their diet with foraging and minimal hunting, reduced territory greatly affected their ability to continue to survive as hunter-gatherers. Sheep and goat herding increased in importance. Goat herds provided sources of meat, milk, and cheese, whereas the maintenance of sheep herds provided meat and the ever-important wool used for weaving blankets and garments. Some families also kept pigs and chickens to use for other food sources, as well as horses for transportation and for an additional meat source. Minimal farming of items such as corn, squash, beans, and melons was also a small aspect of changing Navajo subsistence strategies, but sheepherding eventually became the primary focus of subsistence strategies.
Although herding still continues, much of the economic survival of the Navajo today depends upon artistic traditions such as silversmithing, especially with turquoise; hand-woven blankets, rugs, and garments; and pottery. The Navajo learned silverworking from the Spanish and pottery-making from their Puebloan neighbors, and both of these crafts are certainly coveted by collectors. The beautiful baskets, rugs, and blankets woven by the Navajo are one of the signatures of their culture. These crafts are typically the art of women, and even though weaving provides significant economic assistance to the Navajo, its significance is so much more than economic. The Navajo have a history of myths that continues to inspire them in daily life; weaving is one aspect of that inspiration. As McPerson noted, “The knowledge associated with it originated in the times of the Myths, when Spiderwoman taught the first Navajos this trade.”
Spider Woman instructed the Navajo women how to weave on a loom which Spider Man told them how to make. The cross poles were made of sky and earth cords, the warp sticks of sun rays, the healds of rock crystal and sheet lightning. The batten was a sun halo, white shell made the comb. There were four spindles; one a stick of zigzag lightning with a whorl of cannel coal, one a stick of flash lightning with a whorl of turquoise; a third had a stick of sheet lightning with a whorl of abalone; a rain streamer formed the stick of the fourth, and its whorl was withe shell. (Navajo Legend)
Stephen Jett noted that “despite modifications during the several centuries that the Navajo (Dine) have inhabited the Southwest, basic Navajo settlement practices derive from those of the Navajo Northern Canadian Athapaskan hunting and fishing forebears who migrated to the Southwest.” A distinctive feature of Navajo material culture is the hogan, a traditional domed dwelling that today is used almost exclusively for ceremonial purposes. Hogans are generally one-room structures made of wooden poles, tree bark, and mud with doorways always facing east. The entrance faces the rising sun because the hogan is designed to symbolize the security of shimah (the Navajo mother or the earth). On reservation lands, hogans are often still used as residential structures, but their use for this purpose is decreasing. These domed, mud structures can also often be seen in the back yards of city Navajo, although plywood and lumber versions are becoming common in such locales. Despite the persistence of the hogan as a ceremonial structure, Navajo spirituality has changed over the years.
A distinctive feature of Navajo religion is the sand paintings created during a ritual in order to ascertain the cause and cure of a malady that may be spiritual, physical, or emotional. The sand paintings are filled with a religious symbolism that is indicative of the nature of Navajo spirituality today. They frequently feature images or embodiments of the First Man and First Woman. Interestingly, the Navajo origin myths embodied in these sand paintings share much with the Christian story of creation. It is such similarities that allow for spirituality that blends Christian beliefs with traditional ones. “Most native Americans believe the universe has some kind of Almighty, a spiritual force that is the source of all life. The sun is viewed as the power of the formless and exists in the universe. The sun is viewed as the power of the Almighty.” It is said that the Indians do not worship the sun but the symbol for which it stands. They look at the land on which they live in the same way; they often feel that the land has some kind of life and power, and that it is a deity in itself. McPherson said that “the Navajo perception of their land was rooted in their belief that it was imbibed with power and religious significance. The earth was a living breathing entity that nourished, blessed, healed and protected its people.” Rather than existing in conflict with, such traditional ceremonialism exists side by side with the practice of Christianity. It is this side-by-side existence that allows for the malleability of the Navajo culture.
The Present Day
The Navajo contribution during World War II continues to demonstrate the flexibility of the Navajo and the richness of their culture. Navajo soldiers served as “Code Talkers” during this war. Their role was in secret communications because the language of the Navajo was recognized as an impermeable military code. The Navajo language was so complex that with every syllable change, the meaning of the words changed. This made the Navajo a great asset to the United States. During this war, they fought in battles as well as used their language to code secret messages to other parts of the Army. Despite their ill fate during the early years of European colonization, the Navajo took an active part in World War II. They volunteered for service and fought overseas battles, while the women worked for the Red Cross on the Navajo reservation. These brave men and women have only just been recognized by the United States. In July 2001, more than half a century after the end of the war, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers who developed the code were given the Gold Congressional Medal of Honor.
Following World War II, cultural changes emerged in the Navajo nation. In modern times, although sheep and goat herding are still carried out and crafts are still produced for sale to tourists, much economic revenue on the Navajo reservation is generated from the extraction and processing of oil, coal, and timber. The importance of these commodities and the amount of revenue they generated led to the formal creation of a self-governed Navajo tribal council. The Navajo gained authority over education, health services, cultural resources, and other important aspects of culture as they created a new infrastructure. Today, the Navajo Nation Council has grown into the largest and most sophisticated American Indian government in the United States.
The story of the Navajo is one of strength and perseverance. Once strangers in a new land, they have shown that through adversity, they are survivors, accepting change yet maintaining key traditional values. The continuing success of the Navajo nation is certain because of this persistence.
- Griffin-Pierce, T. (2000). Native peoples of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Hoover, J. W. (1937). Navajo land problems. Economic Geography, 13, 281-300.
- Jett, S. C. (1978). The origins of Navajo settlement patterns. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 68, 351-362.
- Jevec, A., & Potter, L. (2001). The Navajo code talkers: A secret World War II memorandum. Social Education, 65,262-268.
- McPherson, R. (1947). Navajo land, Navajo culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Oswalt, W. H., & Neely, S. (1999). This land was theirs: A study of Native Americans. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.