|Regions with significant populations|
| United States
( Navajo Nation, Arizona,
New Mexico, Utah)
|Navajo, Navajo Sign Language, English|
|Navajo Traditional, Christianity (mainly Catholicism and Mormonism), Native American Church|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Apachean (Southern Athabascan) peoples, (Northern Athabascan) peoples|
The Navajo (Navajo: Diné or Naabeehó) are a Native American people of the Southwestern United States. They are the second largest federally recognized tribe in the United States with 300,460 enrolled tribal members as of 2015. The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body that manages the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area, including over 27,000 square miles of land in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The Navajo language is spoken throughout the region with most Navajo speaking English as well.
Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajo were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. When the Spanish arrived, the Navajo began herding sheep and goats as a main source of trade and food, with meat becoming an essential component of the Navajo diet. Sheep also became a form of currency and status symbol among the Navajo based on the overall quantity of herds a family maintained. In addition, the practice of spinning and weaving wool into blankets and clothing became common and eventually developed into a form of highly valued artistic expression.
The Navajo are speakers of a Na-Dené Southern Athabaskan language known as Diné bizaad (lit. 'People's language'). The language comprises two geographic, mutually intelligible dialects. It is closely related to the Apache language as the Navajo and Apache are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside. It has been suggested[by whom?] that speakers of various other Athabaskan languages located in Canada can still comprehend the Navajo language despite the geographic and linguistic deviation of the languages. Additionally, some Navajo speak Navajo Sign Language, which is either a dialect or daughter of Plains Sign Talk, as well as some being speakers of Plains Sign Talk itself.
Archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajo and Apache entered the Southwest around 1400 CE. The Navajo oral tradition is said to retain references of this migration.
Oral history also indicates a long relationship with Pueblo people and a willingness to adapt Puebloan ideas and linguistic variance into their culture, as well as long-established trading practices between the groups. Spanish records from the mid-16th century speak of the Pueblos exchanging maize and woven cotton goods for bison meat, hides and stone from Athabaskans traveling to the pueblos or living in the vicinity of them. In the 18th century, the Spanish reported the Navajo maintaining large herds of livestock and cultivating large crop areas.
The Spanish first used the term Apachu de Nabajo in the 1620s to refer to the people in the Chama Valley region east of the San Juan River and northwest of present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico. By the 1640s, the Spanish began using the term "Navajo" to refer to the Diné. During the 1670s, the Spanish wrote that the Diné lived in a region known as Dinétah, about sixty miles (100 km) west of the Rio Chama valley region. In the 1780s, the Spanish sent military expeditions against the Navajo in the Mount Taylor and Chuska Mountain regions of New Mexico.
It is suggested[by whom?] that during the last 1,000 years, the Navajo have been in an ongoing process of territorial expansion, redefinition of tribal identity, and developing relationships with other indigenous groups based on trade and cultural exchange, likely resulting in endemic warfare, (raids) and commerce with the Pueblo, Apache, Ute, Comanche and Spanish peoples of the Southwest.
The Navajo came into contact with the United States Army in 1846, when General Stephen W. Kearny invaded Santa Fe with 1,600 men during the Mexican–American War. In 1846, following an invitation from a small party of American soldiers under the command of Captain John Reid who journeyed deep into Navajo country and contacted him, Narbona and other Navajo negotiated a treaty of peace with Colonel Alexander Doniphan on November 21, 1846, at Bear Springs, Ojo del Oso (later the site of Fort Wingate). The treaty was not honored by many young Navajo raiders who continued to steal livestock from New Mexican villages and herders. New Mexicans, on their part, together with Utes, continued to raid Navajo country, stealing livestock and taking women and children for sale as slaves.
In 1849, the military governor of New Mexico, Colonel doe Macrae Washington – accompanied by John S. Calhoun, an Indian agent – led a force of 400 soldiers into Navajo country, penetrating Canyon de Chelly, and signed a treaty with two Navajo leaders who presented themselves as "Head Chief" and "Second Chief." The treaty acknowledged the jurisdiction of the United States and allowed forts and trading posts to be built on Navajo land. The United States, on its part, promised "such donations [and] such other liberal and humane measures, as [it] may deem meet and proper." While en route to this treaty signing, Narbona, a prominent Navajo peace leader, was killed resulting in hostility between the treaty parties.
During the next ten years, the U.S. established forts on traditional Navajo territory. Military records cite this development as a precautionary measure to protect citizens and the Navajo from each other. However, Spanish/Mexican-Navajo pattern of raids and expeditions continued. New Mexican citizen and militia raids increased rapidly in 1860–61 and became known as Naahondzood, "the fearing time."
In 1861, Brigadier-General James H. Carleton, Commander of the Federal District of New Mexico, initiated a series of military actions against the Navajo. Colonel Kit Carson was ordered by Carleton to conduct an expedition into Navajo land and gain their surrender. Only a few Navajo surrendered to Carson until he was joined by a large number of New Mexican militia volunteer citizens who aided in a scorched earth campaign against the Navajo. Carson and his forces swept through Navajo land, killing Navajo and destroying any crops, livestock, or dwellings they came across. Facing starvation and death, the last group of Navajo surrendered at Canyon de Chelly and were taken to Fort Defiance for internment on July 20, 1863.
Beginning in the spring of 1864, around 9,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to embark on a trek of over 300 miles (480 km) to Fort Sumner, New Mexico for internment at Bosque Redondo. The internment at Bosque Redondo was a failure for many reasons as the government failed to provide an adequate supply of water, wood, provisions, and livestock for 4,000–5,000 people. Large scale crop failure and disease were also endemic during this time, as well as raids by other tribes and civilians. In addition, a small group of Mescalero Apaches, long enemies of the Navajo, had been relocated to the area resulting in conflicts. In 1868, a treaty was negotiated between Navajo leaders and the Federal government allowing the surviving Navajo to return to a reservation on a portion of their former homeland. The Navajos were not provided with much protection that other enemies of the Navajos would swoop in and take Navajo women and children back to their camps and force them to work as slaves. While at Bosque Redondo the government did not provide the Navajos with food or shelter and some Navajos froze during the winter because of poor shelters that they had to make on their own.
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The United States military continued to maintain forts on the Navajo reservation in the years following the Long Walk. A group of Navajo known as “Indian Scouts” were employed by the military as civilian police through 1895. During this period, Chief Manuelito founded the Navajo Tribal Police, which operated between 1872 and 1875 as an anti-raid task force working to maintain the peaceful terms of the 1868 Navajo treaty.
By treaty, the Navajo were allowed to leave the reservation for trade with permission from the military or local Indian agent. Eventually, the arrangement led to a gradual end in Navajo raids as the tribe was able to increase the size of livestock and crops. In addition, the tribe was able to increase the size of the Navajo reservation from 3.5 million acres (14,000 km2 (5,400 sq mi)) to the 16 million acres (65,000 km2 (25,000 sq mi)) as it stands today; however, economic conflicts with non-Navajo continued for many years as civilians and companies exploited resources assigned to the Navajo. The US government made leases for livestock grazing, took land for railroad development, and permitted mining on Navajo land without consultation with the tribe.
In 1883, Lt. Parker, accompanied by ten enlisted men and two scouts, went up the San Juan River to separate Navajo and citizens who had encroached on Navajo land. In the same year, Lt. Lockett, with the aid of 42 enlisted soldiers, was joined by Lt. Holomon at Navajo Springs. Evidently, citizens of the surnames Houck and/or Owens had murdered a Navajo chief's son, and 100 armed Navajo were looking for them.
In 1887, citizens Palmer, Lockhart, and King fabricated a charge of horse stealing and randomly attacked a home on the reservation. Two Navajo men and all three whites died, but a woman and a child survived. Capt. Kerr (with two Navajo scouts) examined the ground and then met with several hundred Navajo at Houcks Tank. Rancher Bennett, whose horse was allegedly stolen, pointed out to Kerr that his horses were stolen by the three whites to catch a horse thief. In the same year, Lt. Scott went to the San Juan River with two scouts and 21 enlisted men. The Navajo believed Lt. Scott was there to drive off the whites who had settled on the reservation and had fenced off the river from the Navajo. Scott found evidence of many non-Navajo ranches. Only three were active, and the owners wanted payment for their improvements before leaving. Scott ejected them.
In 1890, a local rancher refused to pay the Navajo a fine of livestock. The Navajo tried to collect it, and whites in southern Colorado and Utah claimed that 9,000 of the Navajo were on a warpath. A small military detachment out of Fort Wingate restored white citizens to order.
In 1913, an Indian agent ordered a Navajo and his three wives to come in, and then arrested them for having a plural marriage. A small group of Navajo used force to free the women and retreated to Beautiful Mountain with 30 or 40 sympathizers. They refused to surrender to the agent, and local law enforcement and military refused the agent's request for an armed engagement. General Scott arrived, and with the help of Henry Chee Dodge, defused the situation.
The Navajo Livestock Reduction was imposed upon the Navajo Nation by the federal government in the 1930s. The Federal Government decided that the land of the Navajo Nation could not support the increasingly large flocks of sheep, goats cattle and horses. Land erosion was worsening. Federal officials concluded that the only solution was to drastically reduce the livestock. In 1933, John Collier was appointed Commissioner of what is now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Agreeing with the analysis of his experts, he decided that the Navajo owned far too many sheep, goats, cattle and horses for the carrying capacity of their reservation. The capacity for sheep was about 500,000 but they owned 2 million of them in 1931; they provided half the cash income for the individual Navajo. Collier's solution was to launch a program to purchase and remove over half of the livestock, despite the deep cultural ties the Navajo had to their livestock. Women especially were hurt as many lost their only source of income. The program united the Navajo in opposition, but after Collier had opponents arrested they were unable to stop it. Historian Brian Dippie notes that the Indian Rights Association denounced Collier as a 'dictator' and accused him of a "near reign of terror" on the Navajo reservation. Dippie adds that, "He became an object of 'burning hatred' among the very people whose problems so preoccupied him." The long-term result was strong Navajo opposition to Collier's Indian New Deal.
Some Americans were strongly sympathetic to the Navajo. In 1937, Mary Cabot Wheelright and Hastiin Klah, an esteemed and influential Navajo singer, or medicine man, founded The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. It is a repository for sound recordings, manuscripts, paintings, and sandpainting tapestries of the Navajo. It also featured exhibits to express the beauty, dignity, and logic of Navajo religion. When Klah met Cabot in 1921, he had witnessed decades of efforts by the US government and missionaries to assimilate the Navajo into mainstream society. Children were sent away to Indian boarding schools, where they were forced to learn English and practice Christianity. They were prohibited from using their own languages and religion. The museum was founded to preserve the religion and traditions of the Navajo, which Klah was sure would soon be lost forever.
Many Navajo young people moved to work in urban factories in World War II. Many Navajo men volunteered for military service in keeping with their warrior culture, where they served in integrated units. The War Department in 1940 rejected a proposal by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that segregated units be created for the Indians. They gained firsthand experience with how they could assimilate into the modern world and many did not return to the overcrowded reservation with few jobs.
In the 1940s, large quantities of uranium were discovered in Navajo land. From then into the early 21st century, the U.S. allowed mining without sufficient environmental protection for workers, waterways and land. The Navajo have claimed high rates of death and illness from lung disease and cancer resulting from environmental contamination. Since the 1970s, legislation has helped to regulate the industry and reduce the toll, but the government has not yet offered holistic and comprehensive compensation.
During the time on the reservation, the Navajo tribe was forced to acclimate to white society. Navajo children were sent to boarding schools within the reservation and off the reservation. The first Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school opened at Fort Defiance and led the way for eight others to be established. Many older Navajos were against this education and would hide their children to keep them from being taken. Many children, on the other hand, wanted to attend these schools and would go willingly with the Siláo.
Once the children arrived at the boarding school, their lifestyles changed dramatically. European Americans taught the classes under an English-only curriculum and would punish any student caught speaking Navajo. The children were under militaristic discipline. The Siláo ran the discipline aspect of the school. Through multiple interviews, the interviewees recalled being captured and disciplined by the Siláo if they tried to run away. Other conditions included inadequate food; overcrowding; manual labor in kitchens, fields, and boiler rooms; and military style uniforms and haircuts.
Change did not occur in these boarding schools until the Meriam Report was published in 1929 by the Secretary of Interior, Hubert Work. This report discussed Indian boarding schools as being inadequate in terms of diet, medical services, dormitory overcrowding, under-educated teachers, restrictive discipline, and manual labor by the students to keep the school running. This report was the precursor to education reforms initiated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Under these reforms, two new schools were built on the Navajo reservation. Rough Rock Day School was run in the same militaristic style as Fort Defiance and did not implement the educational reforms. The Evangelical Missionary School was opened next to Rough Rock Day School. Navajo accounts of this school portray it as a family-like atmosphere with home-cooked meals; new or gently used clothing; humane treatment; and a Navajo-based curriculum. Educators found the Evangelical Missionary School curriculum to be much more beneficial to the Navajo children.
The name “Navajo” comes from the late 18th century via the Spanish (Apaches de) Navajó "(Apaches of) Navajó", which was derived from the Tewa navahū "fields adjoining a ravine". The Navajo call themselves Diné.
Like other Apacheans, the Navajo were semi-nomadic from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Their extended kinship groups had seasonal dwelling areas to accommodate livestock, agriculture and gathering practices. As part of their traditional economy, Navajo groups may have formed trading or raiding parties, traveling relatively long distances.
Historically, the structure of the Navajo society is largely a matrilineal system, in which women owned livestock and land. Once married, a Navajo man would move to live with his bride in her dwelling and among her mother's people and clan. Daughters (or, if necessary, other female relatives) were traditionally the ones who received the generational property inheritance. The children are "born to" and belong to the mother's clan, and are "born for" the father's clan. The mother's eldest brother has a strong role in her children's lives. As adults, men represent their mother's clan in tribal politics. The clan system is exogamous: people must date and marry partners outside their own clans, which for this purpose include the clans of their four grandparents.
A hogan, the traditional Navajo home, is built as a shelter for either a man or for a woman. Since they live in the arid Four Corners area, the houses are made of dried mud. Male hogans are square or conical with a distinct rectangular entrance, while a female hogan is an eight-sided house. Both are made of wood and covered in mud, with the door always facing east to welcome the sun each morning. The Navajo construct hogans out of poles and brush covered with earth. Navajo also have several types of hogans for lodging and ceremonial use. Ceremonies, such as healing ceremonies or the kinaaldá, will take place inside a hogan. According to Kehoe, this style of housing is distinctive to the Navajo. She writes, "even today, a solidly constructed, log walled Hogan is preferred by many Navajo families." Most Navajo members today live in apartments and houses in urban areas.
Those who practice the Navajo religion regard the hogan as sacred. The religious song "The Blessingway" (hozhooji) describes the first hogan as being built by Coyote with help from Beavers to be a house for First Man, First Woman, and Talking God. The Beaver People gave Coyote logs and instructions on how to build the first hogan. Navajo made their hogans in the traditional fashion until the 1900s, when they started to make them in hexagonal and octagonal shapes. Hogans continue to be used as dwellings, especially by older Navajos, although they tend to be made with modern construction materials and techniques. Some are maintained specifically for ceremonial purposes.
The Navajo traditionally hold the four sacred mountains as the boundaries of the homeland (Dinétah) they should never leave: Blanca Peak (Sisnaajiní — Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado; Mount Taylor (Tsoodził — Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico; the San Francisco Peaks (Dookʼoʼoosłííd — Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona; and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa — Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado.
Navajo spiritual practice is about restoring balance and harmony to a person's life to produce health. There are also traditional rites of passage, and many ceremonies for blessings. One half of major Navajo song ceremonial complex is the Blessing Way, while the other half is the Enemy Way (Anaʼí Ndááʼ).
Spiritual healing ceremonies are rooted in Navajo traditional stories. One of them, the Night Chant ceremony, is conducted over several days. It involves purification, and prayers to the spirit-beings for the healing of the patient. Each day entails the performance of certain rites and the creation of detailed sand paintings. One of the songs describes the home of the thunderbirds:
- In Tsegihi [White House],
- In the house made of the dawn,
- In the house made of the evening light
The ceremonial leader proceeds by asking the Holy People to be present, then identifying the patient with the power of the spirit-being, and describing the patient's transformation to renewed health with lines such as, "Happily I recover."
Some ceremonies cure people from curses. People may complain of witches who do harm to the minds, bodies, and families of innocent people, though these matters are rarely discussed in detail with those outside of the community.
Silversmithing is an important art form among Navajo. Atsidi Sani (c. 1830–c. 1918) is considered to be the first Navajo silversmith. He learned silversmithing from a Mexican man called Nakai Tsosi ("Thin Mexican") around 1878 and began teaching other Navajo how to work with silver. By 1880, Navajo silversmiths were creating handmade jewelry including bracelets, tobacco flasks, necklaces and bracers. Later, they added silver earrings, buckles, bolos, hair ornaments, pins and squash blossom necklaces for tribal use, and to sell to tourists as a way to supplement their income.
The Navajo's hallmark jewelry piece called the "squash blossom" necklace first appeared in the 1880s. The term "squash blossom" was apparently attached to the name of the Navajo necklace at an early date, although its bud-shaped beads are thought to derive from Spanish-Mexican pomegranate designs. The Navajo silversmiths also borrowed the "naja" (najahe in Navajo symbol to shape the silver pendant that hangs from the "squash blossom" necklace.
Turquoise has been part of jewelry for centuries, but Navajo artists did not use inlay techniques to insert turquoise into silver designs until the late 19th century.
Navajo came to the southwest with their own weaving traditions; however, they learned to weave cotton on upright looms from Pueblo peoples. The first Spaniards to visit the region wrote about seeing Navajo blankets. By the 18th century the Navajo had begun to import Bayeta red yarn to supplement local black, grey, and white wool, as well as wool dyed with indigo. Using an upright loom, the Navajo made extremely fine utilitarian blankets that were collected by Ute and Plains Indians. These Chief's Blankets, so called because only chiefs or very wealthy individuals could afford them, were characterized by horizontal stripes and minimal patterning in red. First Phase Chief's Blankets have only horizontal stripes, Second Phase feature red rectangular designs, and Third Phase feature red diamonds and partial diamond patterns.
The completion of the railroads dramatically changed Navajo weaving. Cheap blankets were imported, so Navajo weavers shifted their focus to weaving rugs for an increasingly non-Native audience. Rail service also brought in Germantown wool from Philadelphia, commercially dyed wool which greatly expanded the weavers' color palettes.
Some early European-American settlers moved in and set up trading posts, often buying Navajo rugs by the pound and selling them back east by the bale. The traders encouraged the locals to weave blankets and rugs into distinct styles. These included "Two Gray Hills" (predominantly black and white, with traditional patterns); Teec Nos Pos (colorful, with very extensive patterns); "Ganado" (founded by Don Lorenzo Hubbell), red-dominated patterns with black and white; "Crystal" (founded by J. B. Moore); oriental and Persian styles (almost always with natural dyes); "Wide Ruins", "Chinlee", banded geometric patterns; "Klagetoh", diamond-type patterns; "Red Mesa" and bold diamond patterns. Many of these patterns exhibit a fourfold symmetry, which is thought to embody traditional ideas about harmony or hózhǫ́.
In 2000 the documentary The Return of Navajo Boy was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It was written in response to an earlier film, The Navajo Boy which was somewhat exploitative of those Navajo involved. The Return of Navajo Boy allowed the Navajo to be more involved in the depictions of themselves.
In the final episode of the third season of the FX reality TV show 30 Days, the show's producer Morgan Spurlock spends thirty days living with a Navajo family on their reservation in New Mexico. The July 2008 show called "Life on an Indian Reservation", depicts the dire conditions that many Native Americans experience living on reservations in the United States.
Tony Hillerman wrote a series of detective novels whose detective characters were members of the Navajo Tribal Police. The novels are noted for incorporating details about Navajo culture, and in some cases expand focus to include nearby Hopi and Zuni characters and cultures, as well. Four of the novels have been adapted for film/TV. His daughter has continued the novel series after his death.
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