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by D. L. Birchfield


The Navajo Nation covers a territory larger than the combined states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It is the largest reservation-based Indian nation within the United States, both in land area and population. More than 200,000 Navajos live on the 24,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation. The Navajos' name for themselves is Diné, meaning "the people." The Spanish and Mexicans called them "Apaches de Navajo": "Navajo" is a modified Tewa word meaning "planted fields" and "Apache" is the Spanish version of the Zuñi word for "enemies." In 1969 the Navajo Tribal Council officially designated the nation the "Navajo Nation."


In the early nineteenth century, Navajos lived in what is now New Mexico in an area that was under Spanish colonial rule. Navajos lived too far from the colonists, who were concentrated in the upper Rio Grande Valley, to be subjected to the disruption of their lives that the Pueblos suffered at the hands of the Spanish. At times the Navajos were allied with the Spanish against other Indians, principally the Utes; other times the Spanish joined forces with the Utes and fought the Navajos. For the Navajos, the most important by-product of Spanish colonization in New Mexico was the introduction of horses and sheep; the smooth, long-staple, non-oily wool of the Spanish churro sheep would prove ideal for weaving. When the United States claimed that it had acquired an interest in Navajo land by virtue of having won a war with Mexico in 1848, the Navajos were not particularly impressed. But when the U.S. Army arrived in force at the conclusion of the American Civil War, matters took a grim turn for the Navajo. In the army's scorched-earth campaign, led by Colonel Kit Carson, the Navajo homeland was devastated. Half of the Navajos, demoralized and starving, surrendered to the army and were marched 370 miles to the Bosque Redondo concentration camp on the Pecos River, where many of them died2,000 of them in one year alone from smallpox. After four years of imprisonment they were allowed to return to their homeland in 1868, now reduced to one-tenth its original size by treaty that same year. They began rebuilding their lives and their herds, virtually unnoticed in an area that most Americans considered worthless desert wasteland.


Modern Navajos remain in their ancestral homelands in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. In both the 1980 and 1990 census, Arizona and New Mexico ranked third and fourth, respectively, for the largest number of Native American residents within each state. The contemporary government of the Navajos is the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona. The Navajo Nation comprises approximately 16 million acres, mostly in northeastern Arizona, but including portions of northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. It is a land of vast spaces and only a few all-weather roads. Eighty-eight percent of the reservation is without telephone service and many areas do not have electricity.

The local unit of Navajo government is called the Chapter. There are more than one hundred Chapter Houses throughout the nation, which serve as local administrative centers for geographical regions. Before the 1990 tribal elections, the tribal council system of government was reorganized into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In 1990 Navajos elected a tribal president for the first time, rather than a tribal chairman. The tribal budget exceeds $100 million annually, with much of the revenue coming from mineral leases.

The Navajo reservation, as created by treaty in 1868, encompassed only about ten percent of the ancestral Navajo homeland. The land base soon tripled in size, largely by the addition of large blocks of land by executive orders of presidents of the United States during the late nineteenth century, when Americans still considered most of the desert Southwest to be undesirable land. Dozens of small increments were also added by various methods until the middle of the twentieth century.

Navajos of the mid-1990s were still adjusting the boundaries of their nation, especially by trading land in an attempt to create contiguous blocks in an area called the Checkerboard, which lies along the eastern boundary of the Navajo Nation. More than 30,000 Navajos live in this 7,000 square-mile area of northwestern New Mexico. They are interspersed with Anglo and New Mexican stock raisers and involved in a nightmare of legal tangles regarding title to the land, where there are 14 different kinds of land ownership. The problems originated in the nineteenth century, when railroad companies were granted rights of way consisting of alternating sections of land. They were complicated by partial allotments of 160-acre parcels of land to some individual Navajos, the reacquisition of some parcels by the federal government as public domain land, and other factors. Crownpoint is the home of the Eastern Navajo Agency, the Navajo administrative headquarters for the Checkerboard. As recently as 1991 the Navajos were still attempting to consolidate the Checkerboard, exchanging 20,000 acres in order to achieve 80,000 acres of consolidation.

There are three isolated portions of the nation in New Mexicosatellite reservations known as the Ramah Navajo, the Cañoncito Navajo, and the Alamo Navajo. Canoncito was first settled around 1818. Ramah and Alamo had their origins in the late 1860s when some Navajos settled in these areas on their way back toward the Navajo homeland from imprisonment at the U.S. Army concentration camp at Bosque Redondo; approximately half the Navajos had been incarcerated there. Ramah is rural and is a bastion of traditional Navajo life. More than 1,500 Navajos live at Ramah, which is between the pueblos of Zuñi and Acoma, near the El Malpais National Monument. More than 1,700 Navajos live at Canoncito, which is to the east of Mt. Taylor near the pueblos of Laguna and Isleta, and more than 2,000 live at Alamo, which is south of the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna.


Navajos and Apaches, as members of the Athapaskan language family, are generally believed to have been among the last peoples to have crossed the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska thousands of years ago during the last Ice Age. The Athapaskan language family is one of the most widely dispersed language families in North America, and most of its members still reside in the far north in Alaska and Canada.


It is not known, and will probably never be known, exactly when the Navajos and Apaches (Southwestern Athapaskans) began migrating from the far north to the Southwest or what route they took. Linguists who study changes in language and then estimate how long related languages have been separated have offered the year 1000 a.d. as an approximate date for the beginning of the migration. It is clear, however, that the Southwestern Athapaskan did not arrive in the Southwest until at least the end of the fourteenth century. Until that time what is now known as the Navajo homeland was inhabited by one of the most remarkable civilizations of ancient people in North America, the Ancestral Puebloans. Ancestral Puebloan ruins are among the most spectacular ruins in North Americaespecially their elaborate cliff dwellings, such as the ones at Mesa Verde National Park, and such communities as Chaco Canyon, where multistory stone masonry apartment buildings and large underground kivas can still be seen today.

Scholars originally thought that the arrival of the Southern Athapaskan in the Southwest was a factor in the collapse of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization. It is now known that the Ancestral Puebloans expanded to a point where they had stretched the delicate balance of existence in their fragile, arid environment to where it could not withstand the severe, prolonged droughts that occurred at the end of the fourteenth century. In all likelihood, the Ancestral Puebloans had moved close to the more dependable sources of water along the watershed of the upper Rio Grande River and had reestablished themselves as the Pueblo peoples by the time the Navajos entered the Southwest. The Navajos then claimed this empty land as their own. They first settled in what they call Dinetah, which means "homeland of the Diné," in the far northwestern corner of what is now New Mexico. After they acquired sheep and horses from the Spanishwhich revolutionized their livesand acquired cultural and material attributes from the Puebloswhich further enhanced their ability to adjust to the environment of the Southwestthe Navajos then spread out into all of Diné Bikeyah, "the Navajo country."

Acculturation and Assimilation

Because they have remained relatively isolated from the centers of European population, because they have been able to hold onto a large part of their ancestral homeland, and because of the great distances and poor roads within the region, Navajos have been more successful than most Native Americans in retaining their culture, language, and customs. Until early in the twentieth century Navajos were also able to carry out their traditional way of life and support themselves with their livestock, remaining relatively unnoticed by the dominant culture. Boarding schools, the proliferation of automobiles and roads, and federal land management policiesespecially regarding traditional Navajo grazing practiceshave all made the reservation a different place than what it was in the late nineteenth century. As late as 1950 paved roads ended at the fringes of the reservation at Shiprock, Cameron, and Window Rock. Even wagons were not widely used until the early 1930s. By 1974, however, almost two-thirds of all Navajo households owned an automobile. Navajos are finding ways to use some changes to support traditional culture, such as the adult education program at Navajo Community College, which assists in teaching the skills that new Navajo medicine men must acquire in order to serve their communities. Bilingual education programs and broadcast and publishing programs in the Navajo language are also using the tools of change to preserve and strengthen traditional cultural values and language.


Navajo traditional life has remained strong. In 1941 an anthropologist interviewed an entire community of several hundred Navajos and could not find even one adult over the age of 35 who had not received traditional medical care from a "singer," a Navajo medicine man called a Hataali. Today, when a new health care facility is built on the reservation it includes a room for the traditional practice of medicine by members of the Navajo Medicine Man's Association. Virtually all of the 3,600 Navajos who served in World War II underwent the cleansing of the Enemyway ceremony upon their return from the war. There are 24 chantway ceremonies performed by singers. Some last up to nine days and require the assistance of dozens of helpers, especially dancers. Twelve hundred different sandpainting designs are available to the medicine men for the chantways.

Large numbers of Navajos also tend to identify themselves as Christians, with most of them mixing elements of both traditional belief and Christianity. In a 1976 survey, between 25 and 50 percent called themselves Christians, the percentage varying widely by region and gender. Twenty-five thousand Navajos belong to the Native American Church, and thousands more attend its peyote ceremonies but do not belong to the church. In the late 1960s the tribal council approved the religious use of peyote, ending 27 years of persecution. The Native American Church had originally gained a stronghold on the Ute Mountain Reservation, which adjoins the Navajo Nation on the northeast. In 1936 the church began to spread to the south into the Navajo Nation, and it grew strong among the Navajos in the 1940s.


The premier annual events open to visitors are the Navajo Fairs. One of the largest is the Northern Navajo Fair, ordinarily held on the first weekend in October, at Shiprock, New Mexico. The dance competition powwow draws dancers from throughout the continent. Another large Navajo Fair is held annually at Window Rock, usually during the first week in July. Other Navajo fairs are also held at other times during the year. All-Indian Rodeos are also popular, as are competition powwows.


Except for powwow competition dances and singing, most Navajo traditional dances and songs are a part of healing ceremonies, at which visitors are allowed only with the permission of the family. Photography and video or tape recording of the ceremonies are not permitted without the express authorization of the healers. Charlotte Heth of the Department of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, noted in a chapter of Native America: Portrait of the Peoples, that "Apache and Navajo song style are similar: tense, nasal voices; rhythmic pulsation; clear articulation of words in alternating sections with vocables. Both Apache Crown Dancers and Navajo Yeibichei (Night Chant) dancers wear masks and sing partially in falsetto or in voices imitating the supernaturals."


The suicide rate among Navajos is 30 percent higher than the national average. Another severe problem is alcoholism. Both of these problems are exacerbated by poverty: more than half of all Navajos live below the poverty line.

Four full-service Indian hospitals are located in northwestern New Mexico. The one at Gallup is the largest in the region. The others are at Crownpoint, Shiprock, and Zuñi. In northern Arizona, full-service Indian hospitals are located at Fort Defiance, Winslow, Tuba City, and Keams Canyon. Indian Health Centers (facilities staffed by health professionals, open at least 40 hours per week, and catering to the general public) are located at Ft. Wingate and Tohatchi in northwestern New Mexico and at Greasewood, Toyei, Dilkon, Shonto, Kayenta, Many Farms, Teec Nos Pos, and Chinle in Arizona. Indian Health Stations (facilities staffed by health professionals and catering to the general public, but open only limited hours, often only one day per week) are located at Toadlena, Naschitti, Navajo, Pinedale, Pueblo Pintado, Ojo Encino, Torreon, Rincon, and Bacca in northwestern New Mexico and at Gray Mountain, Pinon, Dinnebito Dam, Red Lake, Page, Coppermine, Kaibito, Dinnehotso, Rock Point, Rough Rock, and Lukachukai in Arizona. Indian School Health Centers (facilities meeting the same criteria as Indian Health Centers, but catering primarily to school populations) are located at Crownpoint, Sanostee, and Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico and at Leupp, Tuba City, Holbrook, and Chinle in Arizona. Additionally, non-Indian hospitals are located in Flagstaff, Winslow, and Holbrook in Arizona, in Gallup, Rehoboth, Grants, and Farmington in New Mexico, in Durango and Cortez in Colorado, and in Goulding, Utah. In keeping with the recent trend throughout the United States, Navajos are now administering many of their own health care facilities, taking over their operation from the Public Health Service. The Navajo Tribal Health Authority also plans to develop an American Indian medical school at Shiprock, New Mexico.

Traditional Navajo healers are called Hataali, or "singers". Traditional Navajo medical practice treats the whole person, not just the illness, and is not conducted in isolation but in a ceremony that includes the patient's relatives. The ceremony can last from three to nine days depending upon the illness being treated and the ceremony to be performed. Illness to the Navajos means that there is disharmony in the universe. Proper order is restored with sand paintings in a cleansing and healing ceremony. There are approximately 1,200 designs that can be used; most can be created within the size of the average hogan floor, about six feet by six feet, though some are as large as 12 feet in diameter and some as small as one foot in diameter. The Hataali may have several helpers in the creation of the intricate patterns. Dancers also assist them. In some ceremonies, such as the nine-day Yei-Bei-Chei, 15 or 16 teams of 11 members each dance throughout the night while the singer and his helpers chant prayers. When the painting is ready the patient sits in the middle of it. The singer then transforms the orderliness of the painting, symbolic of its cleanliness, goodness, and harmony, into the patient and puts the illness from the patient into the painting. The sand painting is then discarded. Many years of apprenticeship are required to learn the designs of the sand paintings and the songs that accompany them, skills that have been passed down through many generations. Most Hataali are able to perform only a few of the many ceremonies practiced by the Navajos, because each ceremony takes so long to learn. Sand painting is now also done for commercial purposes at public displays, but the paintings are not the same ones used in the healing rituals.


The Athapaskan language family has four branches: Northern Athapaskan; Southwestern Athapaskan; Pacific Coast Athapaskan; and Eyak, a southeast Alaska isolate. The Athapaskan language family is one of three families within the Na-Dene language phylum. (The other two, the Tlingit family and the Haida family, are language isolates in the far north, Tlingit in southeast Alaska, and Haida in British Columbia.) Na-Dene is one of the most widely distributed language phyla in North America. The Southwestern Athapaskan language, sometimes called Apachean, has seven dialects: Navajo, Western Apache, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa-Apache. In 1987 approximately 125,000 Navajos on the reservation still spoke Navajo fluently.

Family and Community Dynamics

No tribe in North America has been more vigorously studied by anthropologists than the Navajos. When a man marries, he moves into the household of the wife's extended family. The Navajos joke that a Navajo family consists of a grandmother, her married daughters and their husbands, her daughters' children, and an anthropologist. A Navajo is "born to" the mother's clan and "born for" the father's clan. The importance of clans, the membership of which is dispersed throughout the nation for each clan, has gradually diminished in favor of the increasingly important role of the Chapter House, the significance of which is based on the geographical proximity of its members. Traditional prohibitions against marrying within one's own clan are beginning to break down. The girl's puberty ceremony, her kinaalda, is a major event in Navajo family life. Navajos maintain strong ties with relatives, even when they leave the reservation. It is not uncommon for Navajos working in urban centers to send money home to relatives. On the reservation, an extended family may have only one wage-earning worker. Other family members busy themselves with traditional endeavors, from stock tending to weaving.

From the late 1860s until the 1960s, the local trading post was the preeminent financial and commercial institution for most Navajos, serving as a local bank (where silver and turquoise could be pawned), a post office, and a store. One of the most famous, Hubbell's Trading Post, is now a national monument. Traders served the community as interpreters, business managers, funeral directors, grave diggers, and gossip columnists. The automobile and big discount stores in the urban centers at the fringes of the nation have greatly diminished the role of the trading posts.


Navajo jewelry, especially work done in silver and turquoise, is internationally famous. Navajo silversmithing dates from 1853, when a Mexican silversmith arrived at Fort Defiance in what is now Arizona. The Navajo 'Atsidi Sani learned the craft from him and taught it to others. By 1867 several Navajos were working with silver, and by 1880 they had begun to combine turquoise with their designs. At the turn of the century the Fred Harvey Company asked Navajo silversmiths to make lighter pieces for the tourist trade and guaranteed them a sales outlet. Today silversmithing is a widespread craft practiced by many Navajos.

Weaving is also an important economic activity throughout the nation. Navajo weaving has undergone many changes in designs. Navajos are continually creating new ones, and various locations within the nation have become famous for particular types of rugs and patterns. Weaving underwent a revival in the 1920s, when Chinle weavers introduced the multicolored Wide Ruins, Crystal, and Pine Springs patterns. The rug weavers auction at Crownpoint is known worldwide. The Navajo Nation owns the Navajo Nation Arts and Crafts Enterprise at Window Rock, where customers can be assured of purchasing authentic Indian crafts made by Indian people.


An 1868 treaty provided for schools for Navajo children. The number of schools increased greatly after compulsory school attendance was mandated in 1887. In 1907 a Navajo headman in Utah was imprisoned without trial for a year and a half for speaking out against forced removal of local children to the Shiprock Boarding School. Others were strongly in favor of schools, especially after 19 influential Navajo headmen were exposed to the outside world at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Until 1896 Navajo schools were operated by missionaries, who were frequently more interested in attempting to eradicate the Navajo religion, culture, and language than in educating their charges. The establishment of boarding schools far from Navajo homes, subjected Navajo children to the trauma of being removed from their families and their cultures for extended periods of time. Instruction was conducted only in English. With the secularization of the federally maintained Navajo public school system in 1896 civil servants replaced the missionaries, but lack of understanding and appreciation of Navajo cultureand instruction only in Englishcontinued to be the norm. Some religious-affiliated schools continue to the present day, but they display a greater appreciation for Navajo culture and traditions than their nineteenth-century predecessors. By 1958, 93 percent of Navajo children were in school.

In the 1960s Navajos began to exercise much stronger management of their children's education with the establishment of community-controlled contract schools. The Rough Rock Demonstration School was the first of these schools. It introduced bilingual education for young children, the adult training of Navajo medicine men, and other innovative programs based on the perceived needs of the local community. It should be pointed out that the bilingual education introduced was, and is, to teach Navajo language, not to transition into English. This is not an additional tool of assimilation, but rather a reinforcement of traditional language and culture.

In 1969 the Navajo established Navajo Community College, the first college operated by Indians. At first located at Many Farms High School, it moved to Tsaile, Arizona, with the opening of its new campus in 1974; there is a branch campus in Shiprock, New Mexico. In 1972 the College of Ganado, a junior college in Ganado, Arizona, was incorporated as a successor to the Ganado Mission School. Following the lead of the Navajos, there are now a total of 29 Indian institutions of higher education in the United States, all members of an American Indian higher education consortium. Navajo Community College Press is a leading native-owned academic press. A number of state supported baccalaureate institutions are located near the Navajo Nation. These include branch campuses of the University of New Mexico at Gallup and Farmington, Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, and Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. In 1987 more than 4,000 Navajos were attending college.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Nearly every Navajo extended family has members who engage in silversmithing and weaving as a matter of occasional economic enterprise. Farming and stock raising are still important in the economic life of the nation. But the largest employers of Navajo people are the federal and tribal governments. The Navajos have their own parks and recreation department, fish and wildlife department, police department, educational programs, and health service, as well as many other jobs in tribal government and administration. Many federal agencies have offices either on or near the reservation. Other Navajos are employed at the tribally operated electronics plant at Fort Defiance, Arizona, and at the Navajo Forest Products Industry, an $11 million sawmill also run by the tribe. It is located at Navajo, New Mexico, the only industrial town on the reservation, which was created and planned to serve the needs of its industry.

Until the early twentieth century Navajos were able to continue deriving their livelihood from their traditional practices of stockraising. Since the 1920s fewer and fewer Navajos have been able to maintain themselves in this manner. Chronic high rates of unemployment and dependency on governmental assistance have gradually replaced the traditional way of life. In 1941 Navajos had earned only $150,000 from industry, but World War II was a boom time for the economy, giving the Navajos a taste for money and what it could buy. More than half the Navajos 19 and older had wartime jobs; in 1943 they earned $5 million. After the war in the late 1940s the annual family income averaged $400.

By 1973 a study released by the Navajo Office of Program Development found that only 20,000 people were employed on the reservation, of which 71 percent were Navajos. Nine communities were found to account for 84 percent of the jobs held by Navajo people: Shiprock, 3,616; Chinle, 2,284; Window Rock, 2,100; Ft. Defiance, 1,925; Tuba City, 1,762; Crownpoint, 1,149; Navajo, 697; Kayenta, 571; and Ganado, 311. Public service jobshealth, education, and governmentwere found to account for nearly three-fourths of all employment on the reservation. In 1975 the Navajo unemployment rate was 67 percent. Median Navajo annual household income declined during the 1970s, standing at $2,520 in 1979. In 1991 the unemployment rate was 36 percent and remained at about that level in 1999.

Since the late 1960s, developing projects have been diversifying employment within the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP) is projected to irrigate 110,000 acres of cropland from water impounded in the upper San Juan River basin, using open canals, pipelines, lift stations, and overhead sprinkler systems. The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI), a tribal enterprise, manages the program. It includes agribusiness plant sites, grazing lands and a feedlot for cattle production, and an experimental research station. Instituted by act of Congress in 1962, the first 10,000 acres were brought into irrigation in 1976, producing crops of barley and cabbage. By 1981 the total irrigated acreage had increased to 40,000 acres, and crop diversification had added alfalfa, pinto beans, corn, and milo. In 1982 a cattle feedlot operation began to make use of grain and forage crop production. NAPI showed its first profit in 1986. By 1991 more than half of the projected acreage had been brought under irrigation. A coal-gasification plant near Burnham and Navajo-Exxon uranium leases, along with the irrigation project, are making northwestern New Mexico and the eastern portion of the Navajo reservation the focus of new economic activity. Uranium mining, however, has produced health risks, including alarmingly high rates of cancer. In 1979 a broken tailings dam belonging to United Nuclear Corporation at Church Rock, New Mexico, discharged 100 million gallons of radioactive water into the Puerco Riverthe largest release of radioactivity in United States history.

Because of their legal status, Navajo business-people must deal with state and federal agencies as well as Navajo officials and must pay both state and Navajo taxes. In addition, complicated paperwork requirements for obtaining business licenses and land leases for businesses hamper start-up. IINA (which means "life" in Navajo), an initiative started by Navajo Duane "Chili" Yazzi, is currently underway, and is aimed at reducing red tape by delegating control to local tribal chapters. Another objective is to use part of the nation's assets, some $1.2 billion, as venture capital for Navajo entrepreneurs.

The Navajo people's biggest economic ventures have been coal leases. By 1970 the Navajo Nation had the largest coal mine in the world. The 1964 and 1966 Black Mesa coal leases to Peabody Coal Company have become a source of controversy within the nation, as more and more Navajos decry the scouring of their land, the displacement of families for the sake of mining activity, and the threat to sacred places posed by mining operations.

Little has been done to develop tourism, despite its potential as a source of income. Only four motels exist on the reservation, in contrast with neighboring Gallup, New Mexico, which has more than 35. The Navajo Nation maintains four campgrounds: Monument Valley, Four Corners, Tsaile South Shore south of Lukachukai, and Little Colorado River. Other economic ventures under way include shopping centers and motels. Hunting and fishing provide economic activity and jobs in the portion of the reservation lying in northwestern New Mexico, where 16 lakes offer fishing for trout, channel catfish, bass, northern pike, and bluegill. Hunting permits may be obtained for deer, turkey, bear, and small game.

Politics and Government

The basic unit of local government in the Navajo Nation is the Chapter, each with its own Chapter House. The Chapter system was created in 1922 as a means of addressing agricultural problems at a local level. Before the 1920s, the nation had no centrally organized tribal government. Like many other Indian nations, the tribe was forced to create a central authority by the United States. For the Navajos, the seminal event was the discovery of oil on the reservation in 1921, after which the United States desired some centralized governmental authority for the Navajos for the purpose of executing oil leases, largely for the benefit of non-Navajos. At first the Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed three Navajos to execute mineral leases. In 1923 this arrangement gave way to a plan for each of several Navajo agencies to provide representatives for the Navajo government. After World War II the Navajo Tribal Council became recognized as the Navajo government.


Navajos have served with distinction in the armed forces of the United States in every war in the twentieth century, including World War I, even though theyand other reservation Indiansdid not become citizens of the United States until citizenship was extended to them by an act of Congress in 1924. Their most heralded service, however, came during World War II in the U.S. Marine Corps, when they employed the Navajo language for military communication in the field as the Marines stormed Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. They have become known to posterity as the Navajo Code Talkers.

Philip Johnson, born to missionaries and raised on the Navajo reservation, is credited with a leading role in the formation of the Navajo Code Talkers. As a child he learned fluent Navajo, as well as Navajo culture and traditions. At the age of nine he served as interpreter for a Navajo delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., to present Navajo grievances to President Theodore Roosevelt. After serving in World War I, Johnson was a civil engineer in California. When war broke out with Japan in 1941, Johnson learned that the military hoped to develop a code using American Indians as signal-men. He met with Marine Corps and Army Signal Corps officers and arranged a demonstration of Navajo as a code language. The demonstration took place on February 28, 1942, at Camp Elliott with the cooperation of four Navajos from Los Angeles and one who was in the Navy in San Diego.

Within a year the Marine Corps authorized the program, which at first was classified as top secret. Johnson, though over age, was allowed to enlist in the Corps and was assigned to help supervise the establishment of the program at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. In May 1942 the Marine Corps, with the approval of the Navajo Tribal Council, began recruiting Navajo men at Window Rock, Arizona, for the program. The first group to receive training consisted of 29 Navajos who underwent basic boot camp training at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot. They were then sent for four weeks to the Field Signal Battalion Training Center at Camp Pendleton, where they received 176 hours of instruction in basic communications procedures and equipment. They were later deployed to Guadalcanal, where their use of the Navajo language for radio communication in the field proved so effective that recruitment for the program was expanded. Eventually, approximately 400 Navajo Code Talkers saw duty in the Pacific in the Marine Corps. By the end of the war they had been assigned to all six Marine divisions in the Pacific and had taken part in every assaultfrom Guadalcanal in 1943 to Okinawa in 1945. Today the surviving Navajo Code Talkers maintain an active veterans' organization. In 1969, at the Fourth Marine Division Association reunion in Chicago, they were presented with a medallion specially minted in commemoration of their services.


Much friction has resulted between the Navajos and the United States over the management of Navajo livestock grazing. The original Navajo Reservation in 1868 encompassed only a small portion of the ancestral Navajo rangelands. The size of the reservation tripled between 1868 and the mid-1930s by 14 additions of blocks of land from 1878 to 1934. This would give the appearance of a rapidly expanding amount of rangeland available to the Navajos. In fact, just the opposite was true.

When the Navajos returned to their homeland from the Bosque Redondo in 1869, the government issued them 1,000 goats and 14,000 sheep to begin replacing the herds that the U.S. Army and New Mexico militia had either slaughtered or confiscated. In 1870 the Navajos were issued an additional 10,000 sheep. With practically no Anglo encroachment on their ancestral rangeland, reservation boundaries had little meaning. The Navajos spread out over their old estate and their herds began increasing. The Bureau of Indian Affairs forbade the selling of breeding stock, eager to see the Navajos regain self-sufficiency. The Navajo population increased steadily, from an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in 1868 to nearly 40,000 by 1930, and their herds increased accordingly, though there were large fluctuations in the numbers year by year due to occasional drought and disease. At the same time the appropriation of the ancestral rangelands outside the reservation boundaries by Anglo cattle operations and other interests had accelerated, forcing

"O n the wind-beaten plains once lived my ancestors. / In the days of peaceful moods, / they wandered and hunted.... / Now, from the wind-beaten plains, only their dust rises."

From the poem "Ancestors" by Grey Cohoe, on the rising consciousness of the American Indian.

the Navajos onto an ever smaller amount of range. By the 1920s a serious soil erosion problem on the reservation was being blamed on overgrazing. The Navajos tried to alleviate the problem by seeking more land and renewed access to the ancestral rangelands from which they had gradually been forced off. The United States believed that a solution to the problem was to force Navajo livestock reductions by killing the animals it deemed to be unnecessary. Thus began a 20-year conflict between the Navajos and the United States, in which the U.S. government, in attempting to implement its policies, found itself disrupting traditional Navajo economic, social, and political life to a far greater extent than at any time in the past.

The tool of the government in this matter was the creation of land management districts, first established in 1936 and adjusted to their preset boundaries in 1955. In attempting to change Navajo livestock practices, the U.S. government subverted and altered Navajo culture in the process. Today the federal land management districts on the reservation are still important factors in Navajo livestock practices. The grazing committees of the Navajo Chapter Houses must work closely with the districts to set the herd size for each range. The extreme turmoil that the stock reduction crisis caused in traditional Navajo lifeand the tactics used by the U.S. government to subvert traditional Navajo culture and government during the height of the crisis in the 1930s and 1940sare the subject of an extensive, detailed study by Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos.

Indians in Arizona and New Mexico were not allowed to vote in state and national elections until 1948. In 1957 Utah finally allowed Indians living on reservations to votethe last remaining state to do so. It required a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to force Apache County, Arizona, where the population was 70 percent Navajo, to allow Navajos to serve on its board of supervisors. As of 1984 no Native American had ever been elected to public office in Utah. In that year the U.S. Department of Justice ordered San Juan County, Utah, where the population was 50 percent Navajo, to redistrict. The next year a Navajo was elected county commissioner.

The most divisive issue among the Navajos in recent years, and the cause of the greatest strain in relations with the United States, has been the so-called "Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute," in which thousands of Navajos have been forced to relocate from lands that were jointly held by the two tribes since 1882. Many prominent Navajos and some prominent Hopis believe that the relocation of the Navajos and the division of the 1882 Joint Use Area has been undertaken by the U.S. government for the benefit of the American extraction industry, so that valuable mineral deposits within the area can be strip-mined.

Individual and Group Contributions


Among the first Navajos to earn a Ph.D., Ned Hatathli (1923-1972) was the first president of the Navajo Community Collegethe first college owned and operated by the Navajo people. Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910 ) is a public health educator responsible for largely eliminating tuberculosis among the Navajo Indians. Wauneka was later elected to the Navajo Tribal Council and was the first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Peterson Zah (1937 ) is an educator and leader who has devoted his life to serving the Navajo people and retaining Navajo culture, especially among young people. In 1990 Zah was elected the first president of the Navajo people; he was later awarded the Humanitarian Award from the City of Albuquerque and an honorary doctorate from Santa Fe College.


Harrison Begay (1917 ) is one of the most famous of all Navajo painters. Noted for their sinuous delicacy of line, meticulous detail, restrained palette, and elegance of composition, his watercolors and silkscreen prints have won 13 major awards. Carl Nelson Gorman (1907 ) is a prominent Navajo artist whose oil paintings and silk screening have won acclaim for their divergence from traditional Indian art forms. His contributions to Navajo and Native American art and culture inspired the dedication of the Carl Gorman Museum at Tecumseh Center at the University of California at Davis. Rudolpf Carl Gorman (1931 ) is one of the most prominent contemporary Native American artists of the twentieth century. His art combines the traditional with the nontraditional in style and form.


Navajo author Vee Browne has achieved national recognition with her retellings of Navajo creation stories. Her books have included Monster Slayer and Monster Birds, a children's biography of Osage international ballet star Maria Tallchief, and a volume in a new series of Native American animal stories from Scholastic books. Her honors include the prestigious Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in 1990. A guidance counselor by training, Browne is active in helping emerging Native American writers hone their skills and find outlets for their work, serving as a mentor in the Wordcraft Circle of Native American Mentor and Apprentice Writers. She has also served on the 1994-1996 National Advisory Caucus for Wordcraft Circle.

Elizabeth Woody (1959 ), born on the Navajo Nation but raised mostly in the Pacific Northwest, has been influenced by the Pacific Northwest tribes as well as her Navajo heritage. She returned to the Southwest to study poetry and art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her first volume of poetry, Hand Into Stone, published in 1988, won the American Book Award. Her other books include Luminaries of the Humble and Seven Hands, Seven Hearts. Woody's poetry has been anthologized in Returning the Gift and Durable Breath; her short fiction, "Home Cooking," has been anthologized in Talking Leaves; her nonfiction, "Warm Springs," has been anthologized in Native America. Woody now teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her illustrations can be found in Sherman Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins, and her art has been the subject of a five-week exhibit at the Tula Foundation Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.

Actress/writer Geraldine Keams has appeared in several films, including The Outlaw Josey Wales, and has been published in Sun Tracks and The Remembered Earth. Jean Natoni has published her work in The Remembered Earth, as have Aaron Yava, a Navajo/Hopi, and Genevieve Yazzie. Yava's drawing have appeared in Border Towns of the Navajo Nation, Man to Send Rain Clouds, and A Good Journey. Yazzie's work is also featured in New America, and she worked on the Navajo-English dictionary project.

Rex Jim, a highly regarded medicine man, is the first author to have published a volume of poetry in Navajo, with no translation, with a major university press (Ahi'Ni'Nikisheegiizh, Princeton University Press). Jim's fiction and nonfiction have also been published by Rock Point Community School in the Navajo Nation and include such works as "Naakaiiahgoo Tazhdiya" and "Living from Livestock."

Laura Tohe's volume of poetry, Making Friends with Water, was published by Nosila Press, and her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as Nebraska Humanities, Blue Mesa Review, and Platte Valley Review. Tohe received her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Nebraska and teaches at the University of Arizona. Tohe's latest project is a children's play for the Omaha Emmy Gifford Children's theater. Like Vee Browne, Tohe is a mentor in the Wordcraft Circle program and is also a member of its 1994-1996 National Advisory Caucus.

Lucy Tapahonso (1953 ) is the author of four books of poetry, including Saanii Dahataa. She is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Della Frank lives and works on the Navajo Nation. Her poetry has appeared in such publications as Blue Mesa Review and Studies in American Indian Literature and has been anthologized in Neon Powwow and Returning the Gift. She is co-author of Duststorms: Poems From Two Navajo Women. Rachael Arviso (Navajo and Zuñi) lives and works on the Navajo Reservation; her short fiction has been anthologized in Neon Powwow. Esther G. Belini's poetry also appeared in Neon Powwow; she received her B.A. degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Other Navajos whose work has been anthologized in Neon Powwow include Dan L. Crank, Nancy Maryboy, Irvin Morris, Patroclus Eugene Savino, Brent Toadlena, Gertrude Walters, and Floyd D. Yazzie. Aaron Carr (Navajo and Laguna Pueblo) has published poetry and short stories in The Remembered Earth anthology, in Sun Tracks, and in Planet Quarterly. Bernadette Chato's work has appeared in New America and The Remembered Earth. Grey Cohoe's work has appeared in several anthologies, including Whispering Wind, The Remembered Earth, and The American Indian Speaks. Larry Emerson's column "Red Dawn" appeared in a number of Indian newspapers, and his work has been anthologized in New America and The Remembered Earth. Nia Francisco, who has taught at the Navajo Community College, has been published in Southwest: A Contemporary Anthology, College English, The Remembered Earth, Cafe Solo, New America, and Southwest Women's Poetry Exchange.


Nuclear physicist and educator Fred Begay (1932 ) has served as a member of the technical staff at the Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1971. His research is directed primarily toward the use of laser, electron, and ion beams to demonstrate the application of thermonuclear fusion; this technique will provide future economical and environmentally safe and clean power sources.



Bear Track.

Address: 1202 West Thomas Road, Phoenix, Arizona 85013.

Diné Baa-Hani'.

Address: Box 527, Ft. Defiance, Arizona 86504.

Dinehligai News.

Address: P.O. Box 1835, Tuba City, Arizona 86045.

DNA in Action.

Address: DNA Legal Services, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Four Directions.

Address: 1812 Las Lomas N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131.

Indian Arizona.

Address: 4560 North 19th Avenue, Suite 200, Phoenix, Arizona 85015-4113.

Kachina Messenger.

Address: P.O. Box 1210, Gallup, New Mexico 87301.


Covers history, art, culture, events, and people relevant to the Navajo Indians.

Contact: Michael Benson, Editor.

Address: Box 1245, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (602) 729-2233.

Navajo Assistance.

Address: P.O. Box 96, Gallup, New Mexico 87301.

Navajo-Hopi Observer.

Weekly newspaper in English. Founded in 1981.

Contact: Jay Lape, Publisher; Tanya Lee, Editor.

Address: 2608 North Stevens Boulevard, Flagstaff, Arizona 86004.

Telephone: (520) 526-3115.

E-mail: [email protected]


Navajo Nation Enquiry.

Address: P.O. Box 490, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Navajo Times.

Weekly newspaper that contains articles of interest to the American Indian community and the Navajo people.

Contact: Tom Arviso Jr., Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 310, Window Rock, Arizona 86515-0310.

Telephone: (602) 871-6641.

Fax: (602) 871-6409.


Address: P.O. Box 12, Pine Hill, New Mexico 87321.


Address: Northern Arizona University, Campus Box 5630, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011.


The following radio stations are owned by the Navajo Broadcasting Company: KDJI-AM (1270); KZUA-FM (92.1); KTNN-AM (660); KNMI-FM (88.9); KPCL-FM (95.7); KABR-AM (1500); and KTDB-FM (89.7).


KOBF-TV (Channel 12).

Broadcasts "Voice of the Navajo" on Sunday mornings.

Address: 825 W. Broadway, Box 1620, Farmington, New Mexico 87401.

Telephone: (505) 326-1141.

Fax: (505) 327-5196.

E-mail: [email protected]

Organizations and Associations

Arizona Commission for Indian Affairs.

Contact: Eleanor Descheeny-Joe, Executive Director

Address: 1400 West Washington, Suite 300, Phoenix, Arizona 85007.

Telephone: (602) 542-3123.

Fax: (602) 542-3223.

Diné CARE Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.

Environmental activism group.

Address: 10A Town Plaza, Suite 138, Durango, Colorado 81301.

Telephone: (970) 259-0199.

Navajo Code Talkers Association.

Contact: Dr. Samuel Billison, President.

Address: 1182, Window Rock, Arizona 86515-1182.

Telephone: (520) 871-5468.

Navajo Nation.

Address: P.O. Box 308, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (602) 871-6352.

Fax: (602) 871-4025.


Navajo Tourism Office.

Address: P.O. Box 663, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (602) 871-6436.

Fax: (602) 871-7381.

Navajo Way, Inc.

United Way for the Navajo Nation.

Address: P.O. Box 309, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (520) 871-6661.

Fax: (520) 871-6663.

New Mexico Commission on Indian Affairs.

Address: 330 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.

New Mexico Indian Advisory Commission.

Address: Box 1667, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87107.

Tseyi Heritage Culture Center.

Contact: Jim Claw Sr., President.

Address: P.O. Box 1952, Chinle, Navajo Nation, Arizona 86503.

Telephone: (520) 674-5664.

Fax: (520) 674-5944.


Museums and Research Centers

Albuquerque Museum and Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico; American Research Museum, Ethnology Museum, Fine Arts Museum, Hall of the Modern Indian, Institute of American Indian Arts, and Navajo Ceremonial Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Art Center in Roswell, New Mexico; Black Water Draw Museum in Portales, New Mexico; Coronado Monument in Bernalillo, New Mexico; Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado, Arizona; Heard Museum of Anthropology in Phoenix, Arizona; Milicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico; Navajo National Monument in Tonalea, Arizona; Navajo Tribal Museum in Window Rock, Arizona; Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff; and the State Museum of Arizona in Tempe.

Sources for Additional Study

Bailey, Garrick, and Roberta Glenn Bailey. A History of the Navajos: The Reservation Years. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press,1986.

Benedek, Emily. The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Correll, J. Lee. Through White Men's Eyes: A Contribution to Navajo History (A Chronological Record of the Navajo People from Earliest Times to the Treaty of June 1, 1968), six volumes. Window Rock, Arizona: Navajo Heritage Center, 1979.

Forbes, Jack D. Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969; with new introduction, 1994.

Goodman, James M. The Navajo Atlas: Environments, Resources, People, and History of the Dine Bikeyah, drawings and cartographic assistance by Mary E. Goodman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Iverson, Peter. The Navajos: A Critical Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Navajo History, Vol. 1, edited by Ethelou Yazzie. Many Farms, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press for the Navajo Curriculum Center, Rough Rock Demonstration School, 1971.

Navajo: Walking in Beauty. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.

Simonelli, Jeanne M. Crossing Between Worlds: The Navajos of Canyon De Chelly. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1997.

Thompson, Gerald. The Army and the Navajo. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Trimble, Stephen. The People: Indians of the American Southwest. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sar Press, 1993.

Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, photographs by Kenji Kawano, foreword by Carl Gorman, introduction by Benis M. Frank. Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Publishing, 1990.

White, Richard. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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Navajo (pronounced NAH-vah-ho .). The name comes from a Tewa (Pueblo) Indian word, Navahu, meaning “the large area of cultivated fields.” The Navajo call themselves Diné (“the People”).


The Navajo make their home on a federal reservation called the Navajo Nation. The largest reservation in the United States, it covers more than 26,000 square miles (67,340 square kilometers) of their former homelands in the canyons, mountains, deserts, and forests of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. Three other bands live on small reservations in western New Mexico. Some Navajo also share the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation in Arizona with the Hopi, Mohave, and Chemehuevi.


In 1868 there were about ten thousand Navajo. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 225,298 people identified themselves as Navajo. In 2000 that number increased to 276,775, making the Navajo tribe the second largest in the United States.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Navajo accounts of their own history correspond with what scientists and historians say about Navajo ancestors moving from the far North to the Southwest over long periods of time. The Navajo traditions tell of the First World, or Black World, which is similar to that of a frigid flatland area, possibly the far north in Alaska. The Navajo Second World (Blue-Green World) features landmarks and animal life similar to those found in western and central Canada. The Navajo Third World (Yellow World) contains mountains and plains that resemble those on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. The Navajo Fourth World (Glittering World) reflects the surroundings at the Navajo Nation today in northwestern New Mexico. The Navajo have probably inhabited the Southwest for nearly one thousand years. Their closest allies were the Apache and the Pueblo.

Once a group whose fierce warriors struck fear in the hearts of their enemies, the Navajo are a mysterious, complex people who have maintained more of their culture than most other tribes. In the early twenty-first century the majority of Navajo are under the age of thirty, and nine out of ten tribal members inhabit reservation lands. Although the people live a variety of lifestyles and work at many different jobs, they value their traditions and strive to keep alive the ancient Navajo ways.


Outside influences

The Navajo may have arrived in the American Southwest as early as the eleventh century. Until about 1650 the people were mainly hunters and gatherers who noted the practices of other societies and adopted those that they thought would be useful to them.

The Spanish came to the land of the Navajo in the seventeenth century and tried to convert the Native Americans to the Spanish way of life. From around 1650 to 1775 the Navajo learned from both the Spanish and the Pueblo (see entry) how to farm corn, herd sheep, weave wool, and work silver. The Spanish also taught them how to grow new fruits and vegetables such as peaches, wheat, and potatoes, and introduced them to the cattle, sheep, and horses that over time would become important to the Navajo way of life. By the late 1600s the use of horses allowed the Navajo to travel far distances on horse raids and increase the scope of their trading. But very few Navajo converted to the Catholic religion of the Spanish, perhaps because the Spanish showed disrespect for the Native culture.

Beginning in the late 1600s the Navajo moved westward into the lands of present-day New Mexico and Arizona because of hostilities with Comanche and Ute tribes (see entries) and Spaniards who lived on three sides of their territory. The Navajo did not like the customs of the Spanish, who fought with the Native Americans and sometimes took them as slaves. The Navajo joined the Pueblo and Apache (see entry) to fight off the Spanish. Around 1750 the tribe established a fortified town in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY .). The next several decades were marked by the development of the arts and intricate ceremonies.

Important Dates

1626: The Spanish first encounter the Navajo people.

1864: The devastating Long Walk, a forced removal from their homelands, leads the Navajo to a harsh exile at Bosque Redondo.

1868: The Navajo reservation is established by treaty with the United States, and the people return from Bosque Redondo.

1923: The Navajo unify under a tribal council.

1941–45: Navajo Code Talkers send and receive secret messages in their Native language, making a major contribution to the U.S. war effort during World War II.

1974: The U.S. Congress passes the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which established a Joint-Use Area and requires the relocation of individual tribe members to their own tribal lands.

1996: The Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Act allows the Dinéh more time to relocate, but some stay.

U.S. government dealings with Navajo

Even though they were mainly farmers and herders, the Navajo sometimes raided neighboring societies. Usually they did this to feed themselves after a crop failure, to get more horses and other livestock, or to rescue their children who had been captured for the slave trade.

In the early 1800s the original Spanish colonists in the Southwest rebelled against Spain and founded the nation of Mexico. Although they claimed the northern territory where the Navajo lived as their own, most Mexicans lived farther south. Then the United States took possession of most of the Southwest in 1848, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States). At first the Americans made an effort to establish a treaty-based relationship with the Navajo. The Americans, however, mistakenly assumed that the leaders of the Navajo bands who signed various treaties represented all Navajo people. In fact each headman represented only his own band.

When bands that had not signed treaties continued to raid, the Americans thought their agreements had been violated. As further land disputes arose, people on both sides were killed. In 1864 the U.S. government decided to settle the “Navajo problem” by adopting an all-out policy of subduing the entire Navajo population. Kit Carson (1809–1868), an early frontiersman, led the American troops. Rather than engaging in military battles, Carson and his army proceeded through Navajo lands taking livestock and burning homes and crops. In the process some women and children were molested, and some of the captured women were sold into slavery. Finally Carson’s troops attacked Canyon de Chelly, crushing most of the remaining Navajo resistance. Thousands of nearly starving Navajo surrendered.

The Long Walk

During 1864 eight thousand Navajo were resettled at a place called Bosque (pronounced BOSK .) Redondo near Fort Sumner in east central New Mexico. They made the 300-mile (483-kilometer) journey on foot, a terrible event that has become known as the Long Walk. Those who could not keep up were either taken into slavery or were shot by military guards. People who complained of illness, including women soon to give birth, were also shot. More than two thousand died during the forced march.

Once they arrived at the 40-square-acre reservation at Fort Sumner, the brokenhearted Navajo found the land unsuitable for growing adequate food. On this land where agriculture was impossible, the Navajo were expected to become farmers. The water was bad, firewood was in short supply, and insects plagued them. They also fell victim to raids by their Native American enemies. More than two thousand more Navajo died at Bosque Redondo from starvation and diseases.

During their period of exile at Bosque Redondo only about half of the Navajo survived. Hundreds of people escaped and returned to their homelands to join the thousands of other Navajo who had remained free. Those who avoided the relocation by hiding on their lands grew crops, gathered wild foods, and raised livestock, confident that in time the others would come home from the Long Walk. They built homes and planted gardens, trying to reestablish their former way of life before their kinspeople returned.

The U.S. government did little to help the sick and dying Navajo until a Santa Fe newspaper wrote about the terrible conditions on the reservation, and the American public protested. In time, the U.S. government admitted that the resettlement had been a terrible mistake. In 1868 Congress created a reservation within the original Navajo homelands, and invited Navajo people to return from Bosque Redondo. But they were only permitted to return to an area called “Treaty Reservation,” a section of land that was only 10 percent of their former lands. This land was surrounded by non-Native Americans who had moved in while the Navajo were gone and had established towns and trading posts. Before long the Santa Fe Railroad brought even more whites to the area.

Four Navajo reservations

The 3.5-million-acre Navajo Nation reservation established by the U.S. government was expanded over time by additional grants of land. The reservation is now the largest Native American reservation in the United States; it includes more than 17 million acres and is about equal to the size of West Virginia.

After their departure from Bosque Redondo, three bands of Navajo chose to settle apart from the main tribe. These bands established three small, isolated offshoot reservations in western New Mexico. Today more than 5,800 Navajo live on the Ramah, Cañoncito (now called To’Hajiilee), and Alamo Reservations. The vast Navajo Nation boasts spectacular scenery, but not much of the land is useful for farming or grazing.

Modern life

Coal and oil were first found on the Navajo Nation around 1920, and the Navajo have made some money from these resources. As of 2007 mining was one of the largest sources of income for the tribe. Along with coal and oil, natural gas brought in more than $75 million in royalties for the tribe. In 1997, concerned over resources being mined for others’ use while many tribal members had no electricity or gas in their homes, the Nation created the Navajo Oil and Gas Company. By 2008, however, both mining companies will shut down, causing a loss of revenue and jobs.

Many Navajo volunteered for military service in World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). In 1924 all Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship largely because of that. The Navajo made a very important contribution during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). Men called Navajo Code Talkers used the Navajo language to send secret messages to branches of the American military. Their messages baffled enemy Japanese code-breakers. Survivors of the 420 Code Talkers who served with the U.S. Marines remain among the most respected elders of the modern Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Code Talkers

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government declared war on Japan and entered World War II (1939–45). Americans discovered that the Japanese were eavesdropping on the U.S. Marines and decoding their secret messages. In early 1942 a white man who had been brought up at the Navajo Nation suggested that the military could use Navajo men to devise unbreakable codes. Other than fifty thousand Navajo, fewer than thirty people in the world knew the Navajo language; none were Japanese.

Young Navajo men were recruited as Code Talkers. Because the Navajo language lacked words for modern military terms, Navajo Code Talker Carl Gorman (1907–1998) and others worked out a two-tier code in which English military words were represented by different Navajo words. For example Navajo words for different birds substituted for names of planes. When the Japanese figured out Marine radio operators were speaking Navajo, they forced a captured soldier who spoke the language to translate. Although he knew a term such as chay-da-gahi meant turtle, he did not know that “turtle” meant “tank” to the code talkers.

Young Navajo soldiers proved to be adept at night scouting and were excellent undercover fighters. They lived off the land in Japan and made stew from chickens, goats, and horses they killed with slingshots. Now the Navajo, who at one time were forbidden to speak their own language by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, used that language to help the United States win the war. In 1982 President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1881–89) proclaimed August 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day. Most Code Talkers who are still alive do not partake in the celebrations, however, because they do not believe in glorifying war.

The Navajo-Hopi land dispute

Since the founding of their reservations, the Navajo and Hopi have been engaged in a land dispute. The original Navajo Nation authorized by Congress included only ten percent of the tribe’s original land. The Hopi reservation was created adjoining the Navajo Nation in 1882, and in 1934 Congress expanded the Navajo reservation so that it completely surrounded the Hopi reservation. Each tribe thought that land given to the other was rightfully their own.

In 1962 a federal court ruling established an area surrounding the Hopi land as a Joint Use Area (JUA) for both tribes. The discovery of oil and coal in the JUA made the tribes more interested in clearly defining ownership. When the U.S. Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act in 1974, it authorized the division of the JUA between the two tribes and required people living on the other tribe’s land to relocate. (This applied to nearly ten thousand Navajo.) Thousands of people voluntarily moved, but many became separated from their extended families and relocated to suburban-area homes where they could not find work. In time, one-third of them lost their new homes.

After a long delay the matter neared a resolution in 1997. The Navajo still living on Hopi land were permitted to stay in their homes if they signed a non-renewable, 75-year lease and agreed to live under Hopi regulations. The choice was a difficult one for the Navajo because of spiritual ties, the fact that they would be obliged to ask for Hopi permission to conduct many of their ceremonies, and because they would not be allowed to bury their dead on the leased land. Still most Navajo signed the lease in March 1997. But the long dispute disrupted many lives and further strained relations between the two tribes.

The Navajo today

At the start of the twenty-first century the Navajo educational system, economy, and government had grown strong despite some leaders who misused tribal money. Young Navajo continued to learn their language and participate in tribal ceremonies, and the tribe is preserving their ancient culture.


The Navajo religion helps the people strive for harmony with nature and with others. The tribe sees the universe as orderly. Everything in the world, no matter how tiny, has an important place.

Among the Navajo gods are many Holy People, including Changing Woman (who created the People from cornmeal and flakes of skin that had fallen from her own body), Spider Woman (who taught the People to weave), Talking God (who showed the People how to build their houses), and Coyote (an occasionally helpful, clever prankster whose tricks provide many lessons). Ceremonies called “Blessingways” are given in thankfulness for a long and happy life or to celebrate the occasion of a new house or a new marriage.

Mountain Earth bundles are the most important ceremonial objects. They are made of tanned, undamaged buckskin taken from a deer suffocated during a special ritual. The bundle contains small pouches of soil and other items from the top of each of the four sacred mountains that surround the Navajo homeland.

>Anything But Piñon Pitch

One day Coyote was out walking. He was walking in the forest. He saw Rabbit. He started to chase Rabbit. Rabbit ran in a hole. Coyote said: “I’ll get you out of that hole. Let me think.” Coyote sat down to think. “Now I know. I’ll get you out. I’ll get weeds. I’ll put them in the hole. I’ll set fire to them. Then you will come out,” said Coyote.

Rabbit laughed. “No, I will not come out, my cousin. I like weeds. I’ll eat the weeds.”

“Do you eat milkweeds?” asked Coyote. “I’ll get milkweeds.”

“Yes, I like milkweeds. I’ll eat milkweeds,” said Rabbit.

“Do you eat foxtail grass?” asked Coyote. “I’ll get foxtail grass.”

“Yes. I like foxtail grass. I’ll eat foxtail grass.”

“Do you eat rabbit brush?” asked Coyote. “I’ll get rabbit brush.”

“Rabbit brush? I like rabbit brush best of all. I’ll eat rabbit brush, too,” said Rabbit.

“I know,” said Coyote. “Piñon pitch.”

Rabbit looked sad. “You will kill me. I do not eat piñon pitch,” said Rabbit.

Coyote was happy. He ran from piñon tree to piñon tree. He gathered piñon pitch. He put the piñon pitch in the hole. He set the piñon pitch on fire. He bent low. He blew on the fire.

“Come closer,” said Rabbit, “blow harder.” Coyote came closer. He blew harder. “I’m nearly dead,” said Rabbit, “come closer. Blow a little harder.”

Rabbit turned. He kicked hard. The fire flew in Coyote’s face. Rabbit ran away. He was laughing very hard.

Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Viking, 1998.

Navajo Christians

Roman Catholic missionaries in the 1600s were only the first of various Christian groups that tried to convert the Navajo to their faith. In the late 1860s and 1870s Presbyterians and Mormon missionaries were a presence on the reservation. In the 1890s Catholic priests began a mission, St. Michael’s, and later opened a school that became a center for studying the Navajo religion, language, and way of life. In time other Protestant denominations also began churches and schools, and many Navajo became Christians.

Present-day Navajo often combine Christianity with their traditional religious beliefs and practices. About twenty-five thousand Navajo are members of the Native American Church, which was formed in 1918 by followers of the Peyote (pronounced pay-O-tee, ) religion who had developed an intricate belief system embracing traditional Native American values and visions of the spiritual world attained through the use of dreams, prayers, rituals and the peyote plant. Thousands more participate in peyote ceremonies without claiming membership in the church. Peyote is a substance that comes from cactus; when it is consumed, it causes the taker to go into a trance-like state and see visions. The use of peyote was prohibited on the Navajo Nation for twenty-seven years, until the tribal council legalized its religious use in 1967.


Navajo and six Apache dialects (varieties) make up the southwestern branch of the Athabaskan language family. The language includes sounds from the natural world and pronunciation requirements are very strict. Spoken Navajo has a mechanical flavor about it that almost sounds like the talk of a robot. Language experts say that the only people who can pronounce Navajo perfectly are the native-born.

The Navajo believe that some words have the power to ward off evil, while others are so dangerous that only special persons under specific conditions can speak them. Unlike many other tribes, the Navajo rarely add words from other languages into their vocabulary. Instead, they combine traditional terms to describe new objects or events. For example, the Navajo word for “elephant” means “one that lassoes with his nose.” An automobile is a “chuggi,” which sounds like a car’s engine, and gasoline is described as “car’s water.”

Navajo Words

  • ahe’ee … “thank you”
  • at’ééd … “girl”
  • aoo’ … “yes”
  • ashkii … q>boy”
  • gah … “rabbit”
  • hooghan … “homeq>
  • líí’ … “horse”
  • nahosdzáán … “earth”
  • ólta’ … “school”
  • deesháál … “I will come/go.”
  • jiní … q>it is said”


Until modern times the tribe consisted of small, independent bands headed by chiefs or headmen. The discovery of coal and oil on the Navajo Nation in 1920 made it necessary for the tribe to organize in a different way. The U.S. government founded the Navajo Business Council in 1922 to grant oil and mineral leases in the name of the Navajo Nation, but many leases were not favorable to the Navajo.

In 1938 the Navajo rejected the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which would have given them a federally structured tribal government and constitution. Instead, with the federal government’s permission, they held their own constitutional convention. The tribe wrote a constitution that would give them independence from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The U.S. government rejected this plan and formed a new Navajo Business Council. This council was composed of 74 elected Navajo members and became known as the “Rule of 1938.” This was the basis for the present Navajo Tribal Council.

Since 1922 local government has been organized into chapters, each with its own Chapter House. The nation is headed by an eighty-eight member council representing the 110 chapters, and it has a three-branch government—executive, legislative, and judicial—headed by a president who is elected every four years. A speaker is elected every two years to head the legislative branch. A chief justice is appointed to oversee the court system.


Farming and ranching

Traditionally Navajo farmers did not irrigate their fields; their seeds could be sustained by underground water. But farming methods have changed. In the 1960s Congress approved the Navajo Irrigation Implementation Project (NIIP). The system used canals, pipelines, pumping stations, and sprinklers to irrigate crops. Water was stored thirty miles away behind a new dam on the San Juan River. In the mid-1990s a 70,000-acre tribal farm called Navajo Agricultural Products Incorporated (NAPI) began producing profitable harvests of alfalfa, pinto beans, potatoes, onions, and mushrooms. In addition to growing crops, NAPI processes and packages them.

Traditional ranching, too, underwent changes. Since the seventeenth century sheep herding has been a vital part of Navajo life. Sheep provided meat, their tendons made bowstrings, and their wool was woven into clothing and blankets. During the late 1930s an extreme drought made the central and southern United States so dry the area was called the “dust bowl.” At this time the U.S. government decided that the Navajo were raising too many sheep and that their grazing resulted in soil erosion by stripping plant cover off topsoil, causing it to dry out and blow away. Agricultural Department agents killed tens of thousands of Navajo sheep. For several decades after this relations between the Navajo and the U.S. government were hostile. During the twentieth century cattle raising largely replaced sheep herding on the reservation.

Other sources of income

In the early twenty-first century, in addition to tax revenue, the Navajo Nation gains income by leasing its land for gas and oil drilling as well as through coal mining, forestry, and the operation of seven industrial parks. In the mid-1990s the Navajo Oil and Gas Company built its own oil refinery. Manufacturing businesses on reservation lands produce missiles, wood products, circuit boards, locomotive computers, modems, computer parts, and many other products. More than 250 trade operations, including shopping centers and banks, also operate on the reservation, and construction workers are building new homes and buildings there.

Navajo weavers command good prices for their handmade woolen rugs, belts, and blankets. Navajo trading posts sell crafts objects such as silver work, an art form they learned from the Mexicans. Navajo artisans make silver bracelets, rings, earrings, necklaces, and belts decorated with the opaque blue stone called turquoise.

Service businesses make substantial profits from the more than 2.5 million annual visitors who come to the reservation. Several resort facilities operate there, including the Chinle Holiday Inn and the Navajo Nation Inn in Window Rock. In 1997 the tribe entered into a partnership with the U.S. National Park Service and developed a new resort and marina complex at Antelope Point on Lake Powell.

Daily life


Navajo family units were made up of two or more families centered around a mother and her daughters. The unit was bound together by ties of marriage and close relationships. Women held an important social position.

Navajo society is based on clans (groups of people who claim descent from a common ancestor). Some clans trace their origins to creation by the Holy People. The original clans were Towering House, Bitterwater, Big Water, and One-who-walks-around. Other clans arose when new groups became Navajos. Each Navajo person is associated with four different, unrelated clans.

Among the Navajo a person’s ancestry is traced through the mother’s side of the family and determines the clan to which a person belongs. A child must marry outside his or her clan. Navajo relationships are often hard for outsiders to understand as the people have different terms for aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives.


Traditional Navajo houses are called hogans. Older versions, built around a wooden post frame, were cone-shaped. Beginning in the mid-1800s log cabins with beehive-shaped log roofs became more popular. Usually the roofs, and sometimes the walls, were covered with packed earth. A smoke hole was left at the center of the roof. When wood was scarce, hogans were built of stones held together with mud mortar.

In recent years cinderblock houses have become more popular, and family homes usually include several additional structures. There are corrals made of brush, open-walled workspaces with flat roofs, and storage structures or dugouts. Usually a sweat lodge, built like a small version of the old, conical hogans, sits nearby in a secluded spot, since curing ceremonies can only be conducted in the traditional structure.

Newly built hogans are sprinkled with corn pollen or meal, and prayers are offered to ensure they will be places of happiness. According to legend the Holy People built the first hogans from such precious materials as turquoise, jet, or shell. Now, as then, hogan doors face east, toward the rising sun. Navajo families often have two homes: one to live in during the cold winter months, and one to stay in while farming in the summer.

Clothing and adornment

Early Navajo clothed themselves in breechcloths (flaps of material that cover the front and back and are suspended from the waist), leggings, skirts, and blankets woven from the yucca plant or cedar bark or made of fur. Animal skins were used to make moccasins with braided yucca soles.

By the early seventeenth century men wore tanned buckskin clothing, and women wore dresses of fabric, often wool. By the time of the Long Walk clothing had become quite colorful. Some men wore knee-length buckskin pants decorated with brass and silver buttons along the outer seams and woolen leggings dyed blue and held up by bright red garters. Women’s ankle-length dresses, fashioned from two woven panels and sewn together along the sides and over both shoulders, were belted at the waist with a red woven sash. Women also wore leggings made by wrapping strips of dyed buckskin around the legs from ankle to knee; these were adorned with silver buttons.

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century women usually wore long, full skirts of cotton with bright blouses, often made of velveteen fabric. Men usually wore blue jeans, colorful shirts (sometimes of velveteen), boots, belts decorated with decorative silver disks, and headbands made of rolled kerchiefs. Both men and women have traditionally worn their hair long, wound into an hourglass shape at the base of the neck and bound with wool string. Silver and turquoise necklaces, earrings, and bracelets have long been popular with both men and women.


When they first moved to the Southwest between the ninth and twelfth centuries the Navajo hunted and gathered wild vegetation. They learned from the Pueblo Indians how to grow corn, beans, and squash. The Spanish, who came in the 1600s, taught the Native Americans to grow wheat and oats and to herd sheep and goats.

By the time of their exile to Bosque Redondo the Navajo commonly ate mutton (sheep meat), corn, frybread (plate-sized disks of bread fried in hot fat), and coffee laced with sugar and goat’s milk. They picked corn early to avoid frost damage. Then they husked, sun dried, and removed it from the cob before storing it in bags for later use. Fresh corn served as a special treat. The people often ate a cooked mush made from cornmeal or wild seed meal mixed with water or goat’s milk. This substance was used to prepare many foods. The addition of garden vegetables and meat—prairie dog continues to be a favorite—made the mush a well-balanced meal.

Navajo Peach Pudding

The Southwest produces a small peach that is sweeter than the peaches usually available commercially. That peach is recommended for this Navajo recipe, updated by Lois Ellen Frank.

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 pound fresh peaches, pitted and peeled
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 package unflavored gelatin
  • 1 cup whipping cream

In a food processor, purée the honey and peaches together. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, mix together the water and gelatin and let stand 1 minute. Over medium-low heat, stir mixture until the gelatin has completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, slowly add the gelatin mixture to the peach honey, and blend thoroughly.

While the peach mixture is cooling, beat the cream until firm peaks form, about 2 minutes [For best results, use an electric mixer, a chilled bowl, and chilled beaters].

Fold the whipped cream into the peach mixture in a circular motion, leaving swirls of white cream in the peach pudding. Do not mix together completely.

Place the pudding in the refrigerator and chill until firm. Scoop out servings with a large spoon.

Serves 6.

Frank, Louis Ellen. Native American Cooking: Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, . New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1991, p. 78.


For centuries Navajo children learned skills by observing their parents and members of their extended families. During the nineteenth century the Navajo opposed efforts to start white-style schools for their children. Until 1896 missionaries ran most of the schools and tried to change the student’s religion. Navajo parents saw these schools as a threat to their way of life and to their families. Many Navajo, whose children had been sold into slavery, were also reluctant to let their other children leave home for anywhere from two to eight years.

In 1907 a Navajo who protested against children attending Shiprock Boarding School was jailed and remained in prison with no trial for over a year. In spite of the tribe’s objections, children were taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools, where they were taught to speak and dress like whites.

During World War II many families lived off the reservation to take advantage of work opportunities, and their children attended public schools. In the mid-2000s the Navajo Nation’s educational facilities included state schools that serve grades K–12 as well as several Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools and some private mission schools. Northland Pioneer College, Crownpoint Institute of Technology, and Diné Community College (formerly Navajo Community College) at Tsaile, Arizona, along with its five branch campuses, offer students a variety of courses of study.

Healing practices

For the Navajo sicknesses are an indication of disharmony. Curing ceremonies treat the cause of the ailment rather than the symptoms. When a person gets sick he or she normally goes to a person called a stargazer or hand trembler, who tells the patient the cause of the illness. The stargazer then recommends that the person see a special medicine person and take part in a particular ceremony. Illnesses can be caused by the accidental or intentional breaking of one of the society’s many taboos, by contact with a ghost, or by the spell of a witch.

The medicine person recommended by the stargazer is known as a Hataali (“singer”). The Hataali conducts a ceremony in which both the patient and his or her relatives participate. The ceremony may last nine nights and include the performance of more than five hundred songs. Sometimes the singer is assisted by dancers who wear masks representing appropriate spirits, called Yeis. A sand painting, created during the ritual, is destroyed at the completion of the ceremony. (Sand painting is a Navajo and Pueblo tradition in which sands of different colors are used to create a ceremonial design.) During a ceremony the healer may employ objects with special powers, medicines made from plants, and lengthy prayers. Ideally curing rituals are followed by the singing of the Blessingway, a prayer to restore harmony that has been called the backbone of the Navajo healing system.

In modern times, with the breakdown of the traditional, family- and clan-based educational systems, Diné Community College and other institutions have begun teaching Native healing arts. At the Medicine Man School in Rough Rock, Arizona, aspiring singer-healers are taught their trade from experienced healers. The students learn during actual ceremonies because it is wrong to address the spirits without a genuine need for healing or blessings. Because the training period cannot be scheduled and the ceremonies are complex, it can take four to six years to learn one of the longer rituals. Each singer is trained in a specialty that includes being able to perform between one and six different ceremonies. Although women are permitted to become singers, they rarely do, perhaps because they fear that some event or spirit they could encounter might affect their unborn children.

In the early twenty-first century Indian Health Service hospitals on the reservation have special rooms where medicine men can conduct traditional curing ceremonies. This new spirit of cooperation between modern and traditional medical people is bringing more Navajo people in for treatment. Medicine men display a knowledge of the use of native herbs for birth control, mild diabetes, and seizures.



Navajo women in traditional times were known for their excellent pottery, including ladles, jars with pointed bottoms, and variously shaped decorated bowls. They also made coiled baskets, food containers, and water bottles. The women learned to weave from the Pueblo people and produced rugs and blankets with intricate, unique designs, colored with natural dyes. Navajo craftspeople are also renowned for their unique silver and turquoise creations.



The Navajo believe that the sacred order of the world must be maintained to avoid illness or other misfortunes. They accomplish this, in part, by observing many taboos (forbidden things or acts). A few of the thousands of actions that are forbidden include not touching lightning-struck trees; not killing coyotes, bears, snakes, and certain birds; never combing their hair at night; and never stepping over the body of another person sleeping in a hogan, no matter how crowded it may be. Pregnant women and their husbands or a person who has recently undergone a curing ritual observe even more taboos.


Young girls undergo one of the oldest ceremonies of the Navajo culture, the “kinaaldá.” The two-day ritual takes place after a girl’s first menstrual period and is designed to teach her lessons she will need in adult life. The girl must perform several exhausting runs to ensure her physical conditioning and endurance. In addition, she must grind by hand some of the cornmeal and wheat she will use to prepare a traditional cake; in the process she is accompanied by the chanted prayers of a medicine man. Near the end of the ceremony a female relative massages the girl’s body to make it more beautiful. Then the girl prays over a group of young children. Following the ritual she is accepted into the community as an adult and is ready for marriage.

Ceremonies and festivals

Traditional rituals

Rituals were developed in ancient times to cope with the dangers and uncertainties of the universe. The Navajo have been able to preserve their traditional beliefs and practices in the face of long-time pressure from white culture. Many Navajo ceremonies are healing rituals used for many types of physical and emotional imbalances and problems of social maladjustment.

The most common ceremony may be the War Dance, which has the official name of The Enemyway. A three-day ceremony held in summer, it comes from the legend of Changing Woman’s twin sons, who went to see their father, the Sun, to seek his help in slaying the monsters who inhabit the earth so they could make it safe for the Navajo people.

The Enemyway sounds like a ritual to get ready for war, but it actually is a way for a patient to be rid of the effects of some “enemy.” For example it is held for people who feel weak or faint from the sight of blood or who have scary dreams. The ceremony involves the use of a Rattle Stick, a piece of juniper about 18 inches long carved with meaningful designs. Burnt herbs and melted wax are placed on the stick and on the face of the afflicted, and a complicated ceremony follows, ending with “killing” the enemy ghost and scattering his ashes, followed by a feast and final dance.

Modern festivals

Throughout the year a number of fairs, festivals, and rodeos are held at various sites around the reservation. As part of these activities people use sand painting, singing, dancing by masked impersonators of Holy People as well as cornmeal, corn pollen, feathered prayer sticks, and bundles containing sacred items.

Each year more than one hundred thousand people attend the Navajo Nation Fair, a five-day festival in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation. The fair features Navajo traditions centering on the sacredness of food. It also offers art, crafts, chants, dances, and stories.

Courtship and marriage

Relatives usually arrange Navajo marriages after the boy reaches the proper age. Often an expensive gift (sheep or horses) is given to the girl’s family by the boy’s family. When a couple marries, the grandmother of the bride presents the new couple with a basket of cornmeal at the wedding site. Then the bride and groom exchange a pinch of cornmeal, from which they receive the strength and blessing of the spirit world.

Newly married couples usually build their houses near the home of the wife’s mother. This permits the wife and her children to have close contact with the maternal grandmother. But a large space is left between the homes, because a man is forbidden to look at or speak to his mother-in-law.


The Navajo feared dead people and ghosts. Immediately after the death of a family member, close relatives showed their sadness by weeping and wailing, cutting their hair, and putting on old clothing. Elderly relatives washed the deceased’s hair and body and dressed the body in fine clothes. Burial took place in the daytime, and as soon as possible. They placed the corpse on a horse along with many personal possessions and took it far away, possibly to the hill country. A crevice in the rocks that could be covered with brush served as a grave. The horse was killed at the grave site, because the dead person would need it in the afterworld.

Those who accompanied the body returned home and burned their own clothing. Then all the mourners burned sage, or some other strong-smelling plant, and bathed in the smoke. Ashes were scattered around the camp to discourage the return of the dead one. The remaining possessions were broken or burned; nothing was kept that would remind the living of the dead person. No one mentioned the name of the deceased again. The building in which the death occurred was moved to different site. For a time mourning relatives did not participate in social events.

Current tribal issues

A current Navajo land ownership issue revolves around a 7,000-square-mile (18,130-square-kilometer) area known as the Checkerboard. When railroads were built in the late 1800s alternating sections in this region were granted to the railroad companies. Federal programs in the early twentieth century further fragmented lands in the area. At present nearly thirty thousand Navajo live in the Checkerboard. The tribe is making efforts to trade or buy land to create larger, more useful parcels.

One major concern of the tribe today is the high rate of cancer, especially in young females. Many believe it is a result of environmental pollution from uranium mining. Mining has also caused other difficulties, including sinkholes in the Hopi reservation. The two large mining companies that generate a great deal of income for the reservation are slated to close by 2008.

A related environmental problem—construction of the coal-fired Desert Rock power plant, the third power plant in the Four Corners area—has led to clashes between Navajo politicians and Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (Diné CARE). While the politicians point out the benefits of additional power as well as more employment for the Navajo Nation, Diné CARE members’ concerns are expressed by Bradley Angel of Greenaction who opposes: “a coal-fired power plant that would contribute to global warming, contaminate the air with asthma-inducing pollutants and cause the eviction of Navajo elders from their homes … and of course, disturb the burials and cultural sites in the immediate vicinity of Desert Rock.”

Notable people

Navajo Peterson Zah (1937–), once a teacher on his reservation, served served as chief executive officer of the Navajo Nation government and chief fundraiser for the Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation. In 1988 he founded a private firm that provided educational services to school districts on and off the reservation and worked to secure funds for new school construction on the Navajo and San Carlos Apache reservations.

Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910–1997), the first woman to be elected to the Navajo Tribal Council, was a strong advocate for the Navajo people in politics, economics, and health. In 1964 she became the first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Manuelito (1818–1894) was a powerful warrior in raids against the Mexicans, Hopi, and Zuñi, and rose to prominence within his band. Of all the resistant Navajo bands, Manuelito’s held out the longest against Kit Carson’s troops, who tried to kill hostile Navajo and relocate the rest to Bosque Redondo. Faced with army pursuit and starvation, Manuelito surrendered with his remaining warriors. He later traveled to Washington, D.C., to petition for the return of the Navajo homelands, then successfully served as principal Navajo chief and chief of tribal police.

Over a period of seventy years Henry Chee Dodge (c. 1857–1947) played a major role in forming a modern identity for the Navajo nation. Following the death of Manuelito, Dodge was chosen as Navajo head chief. Under his leadership, the tribe participated with the federal government in making and carrying out policies for mineral development, land rights issues, and federal programs like school development. In 1923 he was elected chairperson of the first Navajo tribal council.

Denetdale, Jennifer. The Long Walk: The Forced Navajo Exile. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.

Dutton, Bertha P. Indians of the American Southwest. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Glipin, Laura. The Enduring Navajo. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Santella, Andrew. Navajo Code Talkers. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2004.

Sonneborn, Liz. The Navajos. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2007.

Trimble, Stephen. The People: Indians of the American Southwest. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1993.

Woods, Geraldine. The Navajo. New York: Franklin Watts, 2002.

The Navajo Nation. (accessed on July 31, 2007).

“Navajo Pottery.” ClayHound Web. (accessed on July 31, 2007).

Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards

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LOCATION: United States (Arizona; New Mexico; Colorado, Utah)
POPULATION: 269,202 (2000 census)
LANGUAGE: English; Navajo
RELIGION: Native American Church; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Native North Americans


The Navajos are descended from a band of Athabascans who split off from the rest of the Athabascans in Canada sometime around ad 850 and migrated southward. About 200 years later, they settled in what is now north-central New Mexico among Pueblo peoples who had lived there since ad 400. Though the Navajos were originally hunter-gatherers, they were very adaptable people who adopted some of their Pueblo neighbors' ways. Pueblo Indians were farmers, and the Navajos learned from them how to cultivate corn and other crops. They made the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists so successfully that they came to be known as the Navajo—a name that most likely comes from the Tewa word návahu'u, or "the arroyo (riverbed) with the cultivated fields." The Navajo call themselves Diné, or "the People." The first recorded mention of the Navajos is from an account written in 1626 by Fray Zárata Salmerón. By the 1630s the Navajo had definitely become a large and powerful tribe, spreading across northern New Mexico into eastern Arizona. At this time they still hunted and gathered some of their food, and they supplemented their supplies by raiding other villages. But they had also begun to live in semi-permanent homes and grow crops, such as corn, beans, and squash. The preferred type of dwelling was the hogan, a dome-shaped structure (usually round, but sometimes hexagonal or octagonal) built of logs covered with mud, or sometimes rocks, with a central air vent in the roof. After the Spanish arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Navajo adopted the use of horses and began to raise livestock such as sheep, goats, and cattle. The traits the Navajo borrowed from both the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish eventually distinguished them from their Apache relatives (also descended from the same Canadian Athabascans).

Conflicts between the Navajos and first the Spanish, then European Americans, escalated during the 19th century. Raids by the Navajo on Spanish settlers, and then European American travelers and settlers, continued despite peace-keeping efforts by the Spanish, however, and the U.S. Army finally decided to do something about the "Navajo problem." U.S. Army General James Carleton began a campaign to round up all the Navajos and incarcerate them in a concentration camp called Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. Carleton enlisted Christopher "Kit" Carson to help. Together they burned Navajo villages, destroyed their crops (including extensive peach orchards in the Canyon de Chelly), and drove all Navajos who refused to surrender into the mountains to freeze and starve. Eventually, all the Navajos who had not been killed, or had not died of starvation and exposure, surrendered to Carleton and Carson and allowed themselves to be marched to the camp. The route was 370 miles, or 470 by an alternate route, and the Navajos covered it entirely on foot. It is remembered as the "Long Walk of the Navajos." Hundreds died en route, and hundreds more died from the horrible conditions at the camp once they arrived. A few escaped to try to survive in the inaccessible canyons of the area. Conditions at Bosque Redondo were so bad that even European Americans complained about the mistreatment of the Native North Americans there. The U.S. Army decided to relieve General Carleton of his duty in 1866, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over management of the Navajos and others at Bosque Redondo. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government established a reservation for the Navajos on their former homelands, though the reservation covered only a small portion of their original territory.

Some 25 Navajos volunteered to serve in the U.S. military during World War I in 1917–18. By the time of World War II (1939–45) Native North Americans were draftable U.S. citizens. As a result, at least 3,600 Navajos served in that war. The most famous and honored of those World War II Navajo servicemen were the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of 420 Navajo men who devised a code based on the Navajo language that was used for military purposes in the Pacific campaign. The Japanese never broke the code. In 1938 the Navajo Tribal Council had been formed to represent the interests of all Navajos. In 1969 the Navajo Tribal Council passed a resolution to call their land "the Navajo Nation." The Navajo Nation is currently the largest reservation-based Native North American tribe in the United States. The government of the Navajo Tribal Council was reorganized after the conviction of Chairman Peter Mac-Donald on 41 counts of corruption in 1989. Executive, judicial, and legislative branches have been established with a system of checks and balances.


The Navajo reservation is located in the Four Corners area of the United States (where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah have a common corner). Most of the reservation lies in Arizona, with the eastern border extending into New Mexico and a small southern portion in Utah. The total area of the reservation is approximately 25,000 sq mi, comprising some 17 million acres. The entire area is an almost level plateau with an average elevation of 5,500 feet. Mountains in some places rise to over 10,000 feet, and deep canyons cut through the plateau. The region is desert or semi-desert with very little rainfall. It is difficult to farm without irrigation. Winters are quite cold, and summers are hot. Navajos also live on other small reservations, such as Ramah in northwestern New Mexico (about 540 square miles, supporting a population of more than 2,000 Navajos), the Alamo (or Puertocito) Navajos in New Mexico (with a population of more than 1,900), and the Cañoncito Navajos, also in New Mexico, with a population of over 1,650. Over 25,000 Navajos also live in the "checkerboard area," which covers the range east of the main Navajo reservation to the Jicarilla Apache reservation in New Mexico. This region is called the "checkerboard area" because lands were allotted in such a way that each alternate square mile belongs to Native North Americans, and the others belong to European Americans.

The total population of Navajos in 2000 census was nearly 300,000. The number of Navajos living on reservations in that year was about 174,000—the largest reservation-based Native North American population in the United States. The main Navajo reservation is by far the largest Native North American reservation in the United States: it contains a total of 17 million acres.

The Cañoncito Navajos descend from those who favored peace with the European Americans and even worked as scouts for the U.S. Army in campaigns against their own people. Because of this, they came to be known to other Navajos as "Enemy Diné." That negative name was dropped some time ago.


The Navajo language is part of the Athabascan (also Athapaskan) family of Native North American languages. At least 125,000 Navajos were still fluent in their native tongue in 1987. The Navajo language is one of the few Native North American languages that has been fully documented. Current education policies among the Navajo aim at restoring the language to its mother-tongue status among Navajos. All Navajo-run education is done in both English and Navajo.

Though all Native North American cultures were (and still are, to a large extent) oral cultures, transmitting all information through songs, stories, and chants, the Navajos developed especially long chants compared to other Native North Americans.


The Navajos tell of their creation with an emergence-type story. First Man and First Woman lived in the first or Black World. When the insect beings that also lived there began to quarrel, First Man and First Woman were forced to leave that world through the east and emerge into the second or Blue World. The Blue World was populated by blue-feathered birds and other animals and beings that did not get along. First Man and First Woman eventually moved to the third or Yellow World where they lived with Coyote (the Navajo trickster figure), Bluebird, and other beings. When Coyote stole the Water Baby, Water Monster flooded the Yellow World. First Man quickly ordered everyone to climb into a reed that gave them entrance into the fourth world. In the fourth world the people discovered that Coyote had stolen the Water Baby. When Coyote took Water Baby back to its mother, the waters receded immediately. However, the beings already living in the fourth world required the entering third-world beings to pass certain tests in order to live there. Locust, the being chosen to take the tests, passed them all, and the people entered safely into the fourth world.

Later, First Man and First Woman formed the four sacred mountains with dirt they had brought from the first (Black) world. Their daughter, White Shell Woman, later gave birth to twin sons. The Twins became the settlers of the Navajo lands and established the plant crops and animals given to them by their father, the Sun. The Twins are regarded as sacred.

Changing Woman is the mother of the four main Navajo clans. She took the people of the clans to the San Francisco Peaks, where the spiritual beings gave the Navajo people their language and also taught them how to use it in prayers and songs. Another important figure is Spider Woman, who taught the Twins how to overcome adversity.

Between ad 700 and 1400, the majority of Navajos gradually followed the San Juan River and migrated to the southwestern United States.


According to the Navajo, the universe has two classes of people: human beings and Holy People (supernatural beings). The universe functions according to a fixed set of rules, and these rules must be learned and followed to ensure safety. Hózhó is the Navajo concept of beauty, harmony, balance, health, goodness, etc. Ceremonies are performed to maintain or restore hózhó. There are six main groups of ceremonies: Blessing Way (to gain the good will of the Holy People and bring good fortune); War (no longer practiced); Game Way (hunting rituals—no longer practiced); Holy Way (to attract good); Evil Way, or Ghost Way (to exorcise evil), and Life Way (to cure bodily injuries). Each group of ceremonies contains a number of specific ceremonies. For example, the Holy Way group includes Beauty Way (if snakes have been offended), Shooting Way (if thunder and lightning must be appeased), and Mountain Top Way (for conflict with bears). Each ceremony has its own set of chants, and every chant has its own particular sand painting. Two important ceremonies for the Navajos are the nidáá' (called the "squaw dance" by European Americans), which is a three-day healing ceremony held in the summer, and the yé'ii bicheii (or Nigh Way), which is a nine-day healing ceremony held in the winter.

There are about 1,200 different designs for traditional sand paintings for use in specific ceremonies to treat specific illnesses. Details of each of these designs is handed down by memory from one healer to the next. Each chant also has its own songs, prayers, and herbal medicines. Blessing Way songs are sung in approval of a new headman, for an impending birth, for men leaving for or returning from military service, marriages, and girls' puberty ceremonies.

Navajos believe that diseases and accidents result from an attack by the Holy People in return for some transgression or offense by the victim. The curing ceremony mends the wrong done. If the person is not cured after the ceremony, this means that the actual wrong that person committed has not yet been uncovered, and the search must continue. The cost of ceremonies is borne by the patient or her or his family. The Blessing Way is the backbone of the Navajo ceremonial system. It is performed frequently throughout the year. Other ceremonies are more specific, or more extensive, and are therefore only performed on occasion or at certain times of the year.

Peyotism took hold among the Navajos around the 1930s. Peyote, first described as a "narcotic cactus," was used as a sacrament and for religious purposes, but its use was prohibited on the Navajo reservation. In 1955 its use was approved by the Tribal Council. About 25,000 Navajos now belong to the Native American Church (incorporated as the peyote religion), and as many as 12,000 more probably attend services without being registered on the rolls. Many Navajos are also at least nominally Christian, though even Christian Navajos usually continue to practice their native religion. One of the keys to understanding the Navajo religion is recognizing that they focus on living well in the world rather than focusing on an afterlife, and they seek to live in harmony with nature.


As U.S. citizens, Navajos celebrate the Fourth of July, or Independence Day, and Christian Navajos celebrate Christian holidays.


The most important rite of passage still celebrated among the Navajo is the kinaaldá—the girls' puberty rite. The ceremonies last for more than four days and involve foot races and other rituals related to the ceremony.


Navajos communicate by listening quietly to one another. They speak slowly and thoughtfully, as if they are "weaving" their words. They also make decisions slowly, talking and thinking things over for a long time. Traditionally, Navajos preferred to reach consensus rather than letting majority rule. Today, their government is based on majority rule.

Sharing and reciprocity are central to Navajo interpersonal relations. If a favor is done, a favor can be expected in return, if an injury is done, an injury can be expected in return, unless some kind of compensation is provided: in other words, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," in both good and bad ways. Navajos are very generous as well and share what they have with those in need. However, in response to the modern world around them, Navajos are becoming more aggressive.


Some Navajos still live in traditional hogans (round, or sometimes hexagonal or octagonal dwellings built of logs and mud, or rocks, with a central air vent in the roof). Most today, however, live either in modernized hogans or Western-style homes or trailers. Almost all homes, whether modern or traditional, are still built facing east, an ancient Navajo custom. The Western-style housing provided by the government at low cost on the Navajo reservations does not always fit well with the Navajo lifestyle. In addition, the cheap, lightweight construction often cannot stand up to rough use. Also, maintenance is neglected and funds for upkeep are often difficult to obtain. Most Navajo homes are still without telephones, and those in more remote or isolated areas of the reservations have no running water or electricity. Some families must haul water many miles to use for bathing and cooking. Water conservation is of utmost importance.

Navajos have many health problems stemming from poverty, lack of access to modern health care, the effects of coal and uranium mining (such as very high cancer rates), and pollution in the water, soil, and air. In 1979, near Gallup, New Mexico, gallons of radioactive water accidentally spilled into the Puerco River from the United Nuclear Corporation's uranium mill, making the water undrinkable. It remains undrinkable today both from the uranium spill and other sources of pollution. The Navajo health care system incorporates both Western and traditional Navajo healing methods. New Indian Health Service hospitals provide a room in which traditional Navajo healers may conduct curing ceremonies. Navajo health was greatly improved by Annie Wauneka, who headed a crusade against tuberculosis in the mid-20th century. The number of Navajos with the disease was reduced by almost half between the years of 1953 and 1960. Wauneka received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 for her work.

A road-improvement campaign on Navajo reservations in recent years has led to many miles of paved roads and even more graveled ones (as opposed to the dirt tracks common and sufficient before the increased use of automobiles).


The family and clan are central to Navajo life. It is believed that every full-blooded Navajo is generally related to no fewer than 12 clans. Clan relationships can be quite complex. Matrilineal and matrilocal, Navajos trace their descent through their mothers, and newly married couples live near the wife's mother. The home, crops, and livestock are owned and cared for by women, while the men represent their families in public and at ceremonials. Extended families are very important to Navajos, with Grandmother holding a place of great respect.


Navajo men today wear Western-style clothing for everyday use: denim jeans, colorful shirts, cowboy boots, and Stetson hats, if they can afford them. Older women tend to wear more traditional dress, dating back to the 1860s: long, full, colorful skirts with velveteen blouses. For very special occasions, some women wear a biil (blanket dress), worn with buckskin leggings. Some Navajos still wear leather moccasins for everyday purposes. Navajos are known for their silver and turquoise jewelry.


Although many Navajo children are fond of hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, French fries, and soft drinks, mutton stew and fry bread are favorite foods for many Navajos. No Navajo gathering is complete without one or more booths making and/or selling mutton stew and fry bread. Navajo fry bread is fairly simple to make; the recipe follows:

Navajo Fry Bread

4 cups flour (the modern standard is Bluebird brand milled wheat flour, though any brand will do—white flour makes lighter, fluffier breads)
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup powdered milk
Warm water
Vegetable oil for frying

Sift dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, and powdered milk) together into a large bowl. Stir in water a little at a time until dough is soft. Knead dough with hands until smooth. Cover bowl with cloth and let dough "rest" for about 2 hours Pat or roll 2" balls of dough into circles about 8 inches in diameter and ¼ inch thick. Make a small hole in the center of each circle of dough with your finger. Pour vegetable oil in frying pan or electric skillet to a depth of about ½ inch. Heat oil to 400° (or until a small pinch of dough browns quickly but does not burn). Slide a circle of dough into hot oil—dough will puff up as it cooks. Turn bread over when top is golden brown and fry for one or two more minutes. Repeat with remaining breads. Serve hot, with honey or cinnamon-sugar, or just plain. Serves about 6 people.

(Recipe courtesy of the Navajo Nation Division of Education.)


Navajos today place a great emphasis on education. The Navajo Nation has set up a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund to help worthy Navajo students attend the college or university of their choice. In 1987, more than 4,000 Navajos were students in higher education. The first college ever founded and run by Native North Americans was the Navajo Community College (NCC), opened on the Navajo Reservation in January 1969, near Tsaile, Arizona. Students at NCC are taught to be bilingual, with classes in both Navajo and English. Navajo culture and language is also taught at NCC.

Plans for Ramah Navajo High School began in 1970, the first Native North American-controlled high school since the closing of the Five Civilized Tribes' school systems by the U.S. government in the early 1900s. The educational goals of Ramah High School are to make students bilingual in Navajo and English; to develop their self-esteem as Navajos; to teach them to be analytical and critical of all things, including Navajo history and culture; and to give them the skills they need to be successful in today's world. Ramah children are "children of the Navajo Nation." In 1991, about 70% of Navajo children attended public schools. One recent study found that of Navajos 25 years old and older about 50% had graduated from high school, 25% had some college, only 4.5% had completed college to receive a Bachelor of Arts or higher degree, and 28% had less than a ninth grade education.

The federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) has provided Navajo workers with jobs and job training since the 1970s.


Navajo culture is orally transmitted, since for most of Navajo history there was no written language (today, Navajo is written with an adapted Roman alphabet). Because religion cannot be separated from the rest of Navajo life, all music and oral literature was traditionally associated with religious rites, ceremonies, and teaching stories. Today, Navajos are writing works of literature, such as poet Rex Lee Jim, who has published several books of poetry in Navajo.

Navajo rugs and silver and turquoise jewelry have transcended the level of craft to become fine arts. Rug weaving, done on an upright loom adapted long ago from the neighboring Pueblo tribes, is traditionally a woman's art, with patterns passed down from mother to daughter. Intricately patterned rugs are woven without a printed design to follow. The designs are instead kept entirely in the woman's memory. Silver and turquoise jewelry is crafted by both men and women. Navajo jewelry has come to be highly prized by investors and collectors worldwide.

Sand paintings began as a religious tradition and have recently become a sought-after art form. Sand paintings made for show and/or sale are altered enough in design so as not to offend the Holy People. Traditionally made for use in curing ceremonies, sand paintings have specific designs for treating specific illnesses. In all, there were about 1,200 individual designs that healers had to memorize. Today those 1,200 designs have been supplemented by the secular patterns used for non-religious sand paintings. A traditional sand painting may range in size from 1 to 12 feet in diameter (if circular, or the equivalent if square or rectangular), but most are about 6 feet by 6 feet. They are done with sand colored with natural dyes on a tan sand base. Designs are made up of angular figures made of straight lines and zigzags, representing Navajo spirits, scenery, animals, corn, sun, sky, and rainbows. A sand painting often takes hours to complete. When finished, in a healing ceremony the ill person sits in the center of the painting and the healer transfers the orderly goodness of the painting into the patient and transfers the illness from the patient into the painting. The sand painting is then erased at the end of the ceremony.


Most Navajos are small farmers and herders. Some Navajos serve in the U.S. armed forces. Others work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), state, or Navajo tribe. Some find seasonal off-reservation employment. The timber industry and Navajo Tribal Utility generating plant provide some revenue and employment for the Navajo Nation, but unemployment on the reservation remains high. Silversmithing, performed by both men and women, was a traditional source of income, but today crafts are only a minor source. Women have been the most dependable source of income for generations through their weaving of Navajo rugs for sale. The Navajo Nation also leases land to oil and gas companies for drilling, and to mining companies for the extraction of vanadium, uranium, coal, sand, and gravel. But the Navajos get very little return from these operations. The Fort Defiance industrial park financed and built by Navajos and now leased to General Dynamics provides a somewhat better return, but poverty, unemployment, and underemployment are still serious problems for the Navajo Nation. The overall Navajo unemployment rate has remained constant at nearly 40% since the 1990s. Many Navajos must leave home to find work in cities.


Rodeo is very popular among the Navajos. Dine College even has a rodeo coach on staff. Winning top honors at the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Finals is considered a high achievement.


The Navajo Nation Fair, held in Window Rock, Arizona, for nine days each year in September, is the largest such fair in the United States. The smaller Northern Navajo Fair is held in Shiprock, New Mexico, usually the first weekend in October. Both fairs feature competitions in traditional song and dance.


Rug weaving and jewelry making are crafts that have risen to the status of fine arts, along with the making of sand paintings. The traditional crafts of basketry and pottery are currently being revived. Pottery and basketry are considered women's crafts.


Like most Native North Americans today, Navajos suffer from widespread alcoholism and drug abuse. Perpetual conflicts exist between more "traditional" Navajos, who want to continue living in traditional ways, and the more "progressive" Navajos, usually the younger generations, who want to modernize life on the reservation. Navajos have a high rate of suicide, even among Native North Americans (all of whom have higher suicide rates than all other races in the United States and Canada). Child abuse is also becoming a serious problem in Navajo society.

The Navajo homelands, or Dinétah, are being destroyed by environmental damage from oil drilling, mining operations, and overgrazing. Efforts to restore the lands to health are insufficient and not very successful so far. Since 1974, the Navajos have been embroiled in a conflict over what was known as the Joint Use Area—a region shared with Hopi Indians since the late 19th century. In 1874, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that partitioned the area between the Hopis and Navajos, requiring about 100 Hopis and thousands of Navajos to relocate. Many of these people had been living on that land for generations. After years of wrangling with each other, the Hopis and Navajos realized that it is not they but the Peabody Coal mining company that wants this land partitioned (the coal company wants access to the coal located there). The Navajo Nation joined the Hopi Tribe in filing a joint lawsuit against Peabody Coal in May of 2000. The Hopi and Navajo are asking for $600 million in lost revenue.


In traditional Navajo ideology, there are four separate cultural categories of gender: women, men, nádleehé, and dilbaa. Nádleehé is "a person who is in a constant state of change," but is a feminine persona who was born with both male and female genitalia and dresses and functions in Navajo society as a woman. Dilbaa were persons born with both male and female genitalia but in adult life dressed and functioned as men. The dilbaa was the first of these gender categories to disappear from Navajo gender classification; the process began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Nádleehé are still recognized and still can be found in Navajo society today.

The sex of a child, while determined at conception in Navajo traditional belief, can be externally influenced both before and after conception. Navajo parents believe that there are many concrete procedures that can be followed to influence the sex of child; however, that only relates to the categories of males and females, not to that of nádleehé and dilbaa.

Boys and girls enter adulthood at the onset of puberty. For boys, this is signaled by the deepening of the voice, and for girls, by the onset of menstruation. The kinaaldá ceremony mentioned in section 7 above is the girl's puberty ceremony that socializes her into the role of an adult woman. For boys, there are several ceremonies that prepare them for the roles they assume as adult men in Navajo society.

In Navajo oral history, there was a separation between men and women. The two lived apart from each other for four years. After that time, both realized that they could not live without the other and rejoined. Men and women agreed to assume separate but complementary roles and responsibilities. Women were in charge of the household, the livestock, the agricultural fields and the products thereof. Men were in charge of hunting, politics, and ceremonies. This complementary division continues in modern Navajo society and has even been applied to the modern political arena of the Navajo Nation government where men are in control.


Dutton, Bertha P. American Indians of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Eagle/Walking Turtle. Indian America: A Traveler's Companion, 4th ed. Santa Fe: John Muir Publications, 1995.

Gattuso, John, ed. Insight Guides: Native American. Boston: APA/Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

House, Deborah. Language Shift among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.

Iverson, Peter. Dineì: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

———. The Navajo. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.

Lester, Richard. "What Should You Know About Teaching on the Navajo Reservation?" Orientation Handbook, revised edition. Window Rock, AZ: Navajo Nation Division of Education, n.d.

Navajo Division of Education, Office of Diné Culture, Language and Community Services. "Diné Oral Tradition." Curriculum Framework. Photocopy. n. d.

Reddy, Marlita A., ed. Statistical Record of Native North Americans. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Thomas, W. "Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender." Two-Spirit People. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Trimble, Stephen. The People: Indians of the American Southwest. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1993.

Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Facts On File, 1988.

—revised by J. Williams

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ETHNONYMS: Apaches de Nabaju, Dine, Dineh, Dinneh, Navaho, Nabajo, Nabaju


Identification. The Navajo are a large American Indian group currently located in Arizona and New Mexico. In sixteenth-century Spanish documents the Navajo are referred to simply as "Apaches," along with all the other Athapaskan-speaking peoples of the New Mexico province. The more specific designation "Apaches de Nabaju" appears for the first time in 1626 and sporadically thereafter until the end of the seventeenth century. From about 1700 on, the people are always called "Navajo" (or "Nabajo") in Spanish documents, and the name has been retained throughout the Anglo-American period. The source of the name is uncertain, but is believed to derive from a Tewa Pueblo Indian word for "cultivated fields," in recognition of the fact that the Navajo were more dependent on agriculture than were other Athapaskan peoples. The spelling "Navaho" is common in English-language literature, but "Navajo" is officially preferred by the Navajo Tribe itself. In their own language, however, the Navajo refer to themselves as "Dine," meaning simply "the people."

Location. In the Southwest, the traditional home of the Navajo has been on the Colorado Plateauthe arid and deeply dissected upland of northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. Elevations range from thirty-five hundred to more than ten thousand feet, with hot summers, cold winters, and relatively scant rainfall Most of the area is covered by a scattered growth of piñon and juniper trees and sagebrush, but there are also extensive pine forests at the highest elevations and open grasslands at the lowest. The earliest known home of the Navajos was in the area between the Jemez and Lukachukai mountains, in what today is Northwestern New Mexico, but subsequently the people expanded westward and northward into portions of present-day Arizona and Utah. The present Navajo Reservation occupies about twenty-five thousand square miles in the Four Corners area where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado come Together.

Demography. The Navajo population in 1864 was probably somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000. By 1945 it had increased to about 55,000, and in 1988 it was estimated at about 200,000. The Navajo are the largest Indian tribe in North America today. There are large off-reservation Navajo populations in many cities of the Southwest, but the great majority of Navajo still live on the Navajo Reservation.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Navajo language belongs to the Apachean branch of the Athapaskan family and is particularly close to the languages of the Tonto and Cibecue Apache tribes.

History and Cultural Relations

Ancestors of the Navajo and Apache peoples are thought to have migrated to the Southwest within the last one thousand years, probably from somewhere in the prairie regions of Western Canada. They were originally hunters and foragers, but some of the groups, most particularly the Navajo, quickly adopted agriculture, weaving, and other arts from the sedentary Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. There then developed a kind of symbiotic relationship in which the Navajo supplied hides, piñon nuts, and other goods to the Pueblo villages in exchange for agricultural products, woven goods, and pottery. The coming of Spanish rule in 1598 created a new political and economic order, in which the Pueblos were directly under Spanish rule, whereas the Navajo and Apache were never subjugated but remained intermittently at war with the colonial overlords for the next two and a half centuries. From the newcomers the Navajo soon acquired sheep and goats, which provided them with a new basis of livelihood, and also horses, which greatly increased their ability to raid the settled Communities both of the Pueblo Indians and of the Spanish settlers. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Navajo as well as the Apache had become widely feared raiders throughout the Southwest. The American annexation of New Mexico in 1848 did not immediately alter the pattern of Navajo raiding on the settlements of the Rio Grande Valley, and it was not until a decisive military campaign in 1864, led by Col. Kit Carson, that the Navajo were finally brought under military control, and the Navajo wars came to an end. About half the tribe was held in military captivity at Fort Sumner, in eastern New Mexico, until 1868, when a treaty was signed that allowed the people to return to their original homeland along the Arizona-New Mexico border. Since that time the tribe has steadily increased both in numbers and in territory, and the original Navajo Reservation has been enlarged to more than four times its original size.

Modern Navajo culture exhibits a unique blend of Athapaskan, Puebloan, Mexican, and Anglo-American influences. The Navajo preference for a scattered and semimobile mode of existence, in marked contrast to the Pueblo Neighbors, is part of the original Athapaskan legacy, as is the Ceremonial complex centering on the treatment of disease. On the other hand, much of the Navajos' actual mythology and ritual is clearly borrowed from the Pueblos, along with the arts of farming and weaving. From the Mexicans came the dependence on a livestock economy and the making of silver jewelry, which has become one of the most renowned of Navajo crafts. From the early Anglo-American frontier settlers the Navajo borrowed what has become their traditional mode of dress, as well as an increasing dependence on a Market economy in which lambs, wool, and woven blankets are exchanged for manufactured goods.


Unlike other agricultural peoples of the Southwest, the Navajo have never been town dwellers. In the late prehistoric and early historic periods they lived in small encampments clustered within a fairly restricted area in northwestern New Mexico. Later, increasing warfare with the Spanish forced them to adopt a more mobile existence, and bands of Navajo might range over hundreds of miles between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River. Since their pacification in the 1860s, the Navajo have lived in extended-family encampments, Usually numbering from two to four individual households, that are scattered over the length and breadth of the vast Navajo Reservation. Many extended families maintain two residential encampments a few miles apart. The summer camps are located close to maize fields and therefore are concentrated to some extent in the more arable parts of the reservation; the winter camps are more scattered and are located primarily for easy access to wood and water.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The society and economy of the Navajo have been continually evolving in Response to new opportunities and challenges since their first arrival in the Southwest, so that it is difficult to speak of any traditional economy. During most of the reservation period, from 1868 to about 1960, the people depended on a combination of farming, animal husbandry, and the sale of various products to traders. The cultivation of maize was considered by the Navajo to be the most basic and essential of all their economic pursuits, although it made only a relatively small contribution to the Navajo diet. The raising of sheep and goats provided substantial quantities of meat and milk, as well as hides, wool, and lambs that were exchanged for manufactured goods at any of the numerous trading posts scattered throughout the Navajo country. Additional income was derived from the sale or exchange of various craft products, Especially rugs, and of piñon nuts. Beginning in the early 1900s, a few Navajo were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in off-reservation towns and ranches, but wage work did not become a significant feature of the Navajo economy until after World War II. By the 1980s, wage work was contributing about 75 percent of all Navajo income, although the more traditional farming and livestock economies were still being maintained throughout the reservation as well. Tourism, mineral production, and lumbering are the main sources of cash income on the Navajo Reservation.

Industrial Arts. The oldest of surviving Navajo crafts is probably that of pottery making. Only a few women still make pottery, but they continue to produce vessels of a very ancient and distinctive type, unlike the decorated wares of their Pueblo neighbors. The art of weaving was learned early from the Pueblos, but the weaving of wool into heavy and durable rugs in elaborate multicolored patterns is a development of the reservation period and was very much stimulated by the Indian traders. For a time in the late nineteenth century the sale of rugs became the main source of cash income for the Navajo. While the economic importance of weaving has very much declined in the twentieth century, most older Navajo women and many younger ones still do some weaving. Apart from woven goods, the most celebrated of Navajo craft Products were items of silver and turquoise jewelry, combining Mexican and aboriginal Southwestern traditions. Although many Navajo still possess substantial quantities of jewelry, the silversmith's art itself has nearly died out. Other craft products that are still made in small quantities are baskets and brightly colored cotton sashes, both of which play a part in Navajo ceremonies.

Trade. In the prehistoric and early historic periods there was a substantial institutionalized trade between the Navajo and many of the Pueblo villages, and this persists on a small scale today. Since the later nineteenth century, however, most Navajo trade has been funneled through the trading post, which in most respects resembles the old country general store. Here clothing, housewares, bedding, hardware, and most of the other material needs of the Navajo are supplied in exchange for livestock products or, more recently, are sold for cash. Traditionally, most Navajo families lived on credit for much of the year, paying off their accounts with wool in the spring and with lambs in the fall.

Division of Labor. In the traditional Navajo economy there was a rigid though not total division between male and female tasks. Farming and the care of horses were male activities; weaving and most household tasks were female activities. More recently, however, both sexes have collaborated in lambing, shearing, and herding activities, and both men and women are now heavily involved in wage work. Although males played the dominant roles in Navajo ritual activities, there has always been an important place for females as well.

Land Tenure. Families traditionally have exclusive use rights to agricultural land as long as they actually farm it; if it lies uncultivated for more than two years another family may take possession. All range land, however, is treated as Common and collective property of the whole community and is unfenced.


Kin Groups and Descent. Every Navajo belongs to one of sixty-four matrilineal clans, but is also said to be "born for" the clan of his or her father. Strict exogamy is practiced on both sides. Apart from the clans, there are no formally designated units of kinship in Navajo society; people are known by the household or extended family in which they reside rather than by membership in a named kin group. Property, like clan membership, is inherited mainly in the female line.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms conform to the basic Iroquoian system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Navajo marriages are the result of economic arrangements between kin groups. The great majority of Marriages were always monogamous, but polygyny was permitted until recently, and it is estimated that about 10 percent of Navajo men had two or more wives. By far the most common form of polygyny was sororal. Residence for newly married couples was ideally uxorilocal, but there were many departures from this practice when economic circumstances made another arrangement preferable. It was also fairly common for couples to move from the wife's to the husband's residence group, or vice versa, at some time after their marriage. Neolocal residence was very unusual in the past, but is becoming increasingly common today, as couples settle close to where there are wage work opportunities. Both marriage and divorce involve very little formality, and the rate of divorce is fairly high. But the great majority of divorces take place between spouses who have been married less than two years.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit in Navajo society is the biological or nuclear family. Its members traditionally live together in a single hogan (an earth-covered log dwelling) and take their meals together. The basic economic unit is the extended family, a group of biological families who live close together and share productive resources such as a maize field and a flock of sheep and goats in common. An extended family unit most commonly comprises the household of an older couple, plus the households of one or more of their married daughters, all situated "within shouting distance" of one another.

Inheritance. Basic productive resources are the collective property of the extended family and are not alienable by Individuals; they are passed on from generation to generation within the group. Jewelry, saddles, horses, and many kinds of ceremonial knowledge are treated as personal property, However. Individuals have considerable freedom in disposal of these, although it is always expected that a woman will leave most of her personal property to her daughters and that a man will leave much of his property to his sister's children.

Socialization. Children were and are raised permissively, and there is a marked respect for the personal integrity even of very young children. The main sanctioning punishments are shaming and ridicule. Children receive a good deal of Formal training in various technical and craft activities from their parents, and boys may be schooled in ceremonial lore and ritual practice by their fathers or by their mothers' brothers. The recitation of myths by grandparents and other elders also contributes to the education of Navajo children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There was no ranking in traditional Navajo society; social obligations were determined entirely by kinship and residence. Both men and women had fairly specific, lifelong obligations toward the family into which they were born as well as toward the family into which they were married. The father in each household was the recognized household head, and the father in the oldest household was the headman of each residence group, with considerable authority over the allocation of labor and resources among all the members of the group. The status of women was notably high.

Political Organization. There was no system of formal authority among the Navajo except that embodied in kinship relationships. In the preservation period, however, the Population was divided into a number of localized bands, and each of these had its recognized leader, although he had no coercive powers. In the reservation period, the organization into bands disappeared, but respected singers (medicine men) may act informally as local community leaders and as arbitrators of disputes. Political organization of the tribe as a whole was instituted only in 1923 and is modeled on the Institutions of European and American parliamentary democracy rather than on aboriginal tradition. There is a tribal chairman and a vice chairman, elected by reservationwide popular ballot for four-year terms, a Tribal Council made up of elected delegates from each of about one hundred local "chapters," and an Executive Committee elected by the Members of the council. In most parts of the reservation there are also locally elected chapter officers who attend to the political needs of the local community.

Social Control. The principal mechanism for the maintenance of order has always been the concept of collective responsibility, which makes all members of a family, or even of a clan, responsible for the good behavior of any individual member. Maintaining the good name of the family or clan within the community is an important consideration for all Navajo. In addition, the accusation of witchcraft was likely to be directed against persons who were considered to be "bad characters"; this in effect defined them as public enemies.

Conflict. Conflict between individuals or families might arise for a variety of reasons. Disputes over the possession of farmland and disputes arising from poor marital relations were especially common in earlier times. All infractions Except incest and witchcraft were treated as private wrongs, to be settled by negotiation between the kin groups involved. Locally respected medicine men might be called upon to arbitrate or advise in these disputes. There is, in addition, a System of Navajo Tribal Courts and a code of offenses adopted by the Navajo Tribal Council, but most Navajo still prefer to settle disputes without recourse to these institutions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Navajo gods and other supernatural powers are many and varied. Most important among them are a group of anthropomorphic deities, and especially Changing Woman or Spider Woman, the consort of the Sun God, and her twin sons, the Monster Slayers. Other supernatural powers include animal, bird, and reptile spirits, and natural phenomena or wind, weather, light and darkness, celestial bodies, and monsters. There is a special class of deities, the Yei, who can be summoned by masked dancers to be present when major ceremonies are in progress. Most of the Navajo deities can be either beneficial or harmful to the Earth Surface People, depending on their caprice or on how they are approached. Navajo mythology is enormously rich and poetically expressive. According to basic cosmological belief, all of existence is divided between the Holy People (supernaturals) and the Earth Surface People. The Holy People passed through a succession of underworlds, each of which was destroyed by a flood, until they arrived in the present world. Here they created First Man and First Woman, the ancestors of all the Earth Surface People. The Holy People gave to the Earth Surface People all the practical and ritual knowledge necessary for their survival in this world and then moved away to dwell in other realms above the earth. However, they remain keenly interested in the day-to-day doings of the Earth Surface People, and constant attention to ceremonies and taboos is required in order to keep in harmony with them. The condition of hozoji, or being in harmony with the supernatural powers, is the single most important ideal sought by the Navajo people.

Religious Practitioners. The most respected of Navajo Ritual practitioners are called "singers." These are men (or, very occasionally, women) who can perform in their entirety one or more of the major Navajo ceremonies. They are not shamans but priests who have acquired their knowledge and skills through long apprenticeship to an established singer. They are the most highly respected individuals in traditional Navajo society and frequently act as informal community leaders. Men with a lesser degree of ritual knowledge who can perform only short or incomplete ceremonies are referred to by another term, which might be translated as "curers." There is in addition a special class of diagnosticians, or diviners, who use various shamanistic techniques to discover the source of a person's illness or misfortune and who then prescribe the appropriate ceremonial treatment.

Ceremonies. In aboriginal times there were important Navajo ceremonies connected with war, hunting, agriculture, and the treatment of illness. In the reservation period, nearly all of the major public ceremonies have come to focus on curing in the broadest sensethat is, on the restoration of harmony with the supernaturals. There are, or have been, at least sixty major ceremonies, most of which involve an intricate combination of songs, prayers, magical rituals, the making of prayer-sticks and other paraphernalia, and the making of an elaborate dry-painting using colored sands. Masked dancers also play a part in some ceremonies. Ceremonies may last for two, three, five, or nine nights, depending partly on the Seriousness of the condition being treated.

Arts. The artistic creativity of the Navajo finds expression in a wide variety of media, including poetry, song, dance, and costume. The most celebrated of Navajo artistic productions are the brightly colored rugs woven by women, and the intricate dry-painting designs executed by the singers as a part of each major ceremony. Dry-paintings were traditionally destroyed at the conclusion of each ceremony, but permanent reproductions of many of the designs are now being made on boards for sale commercially. In the present century, a number of Navajo have also achieved recognition as painters and have set up commercial studios in various western cities.

Medicine. In traditional Navajo belief, all illness or misfortune arises from transgressions against the supernaturals or from witchcraft. Consequently, medical practice is essentially synonymous with ceremonial practice. There are particular kinds of ceremonies designed to treat illnesses caused by the patient's transgressions, by accidents, and by different kinds of witchcraft. Apart from ceremonial practices, there was formerly a fairly extensive materia medica of herbs, potions, ointments, and fumigante, and there were specialists who collected and applied these.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, Navajo were morbidly afraid of death and the dead and spoke about them as little as possible. The dead were buried promptly and without public ceremony, although a great many ritual taboos were observed by the close kin of the deceased and by those who handled the corpse. Ideas about the afterlife were not codified in a Systematic way, but varied from individual to individual. There was no concept of rewards and punishments for deeds done in this life; it seems that the afterworld was not thought of as a happy or desirable place for anyone.


Kluckhohn, Clyde, and Dorothea Leighton (1946). The Navaho. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leighton, Dorothea, and Clyde Kluckhohn (1948). Children of the People. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Locke, Raymond F. (1976). The Book of the Navajo. Los Angeles: Mankind Publishing Co.

Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. (1983). Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, 489-683. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Underhill, Ruth (1956). The Navajos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


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The Navajo, who in 2007 numbered approximately 290,000 people, the majority of whom occupy a thirteen-million-acre reservation that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, understand themselves to be a chosen people living within a sacred geography. A rich oral tradition documents the travails of their ancestors as they traverse a series of three or four underworlds, each of which is portrayed in some state of chaos and disorder resulting in the need for migration upward into the next world. The oral tradition also documents the preparation of this world and the creation of the Navajo people and establishes tenets for living. In the last underworld, First Man and First Womanthe first beings with humanlike formwere created; they and their progeny flourished until lust led to a conflict between First Man and First Woman, which resulted in an event now referred to as the separation of the sexes. While men and women lived apart, libidinous desires led women to masturbate with quills, cacti, antlers, stones, and bones. The men relieved their longing with mud or the flesh of freshly slain game animals. Eventually the men and women agreed to rejoin and live as one group.

Shortly after the reunion, circumstances necessitated their escaping upward through a great female reed. Their journey culminated on the earths surface at the Hajiináí, or the place of emergence. There First Man and First Woman built a sweat house in which to think and sing the Navajo universe into existence. By some accounts, this world was first conceived in thought, after which its form was projected onto primordial substance through the compulsive power of speech and song. The newly created world was said to be in a state of natural order in which all living things were in their proper relationships with all other living things. This orderliness was disrupted as a result of the sexual aberrations and excesses of the last underworld. The women who had masturbated with foreign objects gave birth to twelve misshapen creatures that grew into monsters and preyed on healthy children, pushing Navajo ancestors to the brink of extinction. The Holy People resolved this dilemma by arranging for Changing Woman to be found, grow in a miraculous way, and give birth to warrior sons who slew the monsters. It is she who created the original Navajo matrilineal clans and turned the world over to them.

As with Native Americans across North America, complex changes have occurred in Navajo society since their initial contact with Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans. At the time of European contact, the Navajo subsisted on hunting and gathering supplemented by some agriculture. Extended family units, generally centered on matrilocal residence and the strength of their clan system, lived in widely dispersed settlements. Spanish Franciscans first attempted to convert Navajo people when they built a mission along the Rio Grande in 1627; it was soon abandoned. Subsequent efforts over the next two centuries met with little success.

Upon the introduction of livestock into the region, a herding economy based on sheep and goats developed. The Navajo population and their area of settlement gradually expanded as new crops, animals, and technological innovations were added to their subsistence base during the Spanish and American periods. In 1848 the United States defeated Mexico in war and through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo assumed political jurisdiction over most of what is known as the American Southwest. Members of an 1849 American military expedition into Navajo country were impressed by the size of the Navajo sheep and goat herds as well as the well-nourished and healthy condition of tribal members.

Westward expansion resulted in frequent clashes between Navajos and outsiders, leading to American military intervention. The general good health noted in the 1840s was undermined when Kit Carson (18091868) and his troops, with scorched-earth tactics, rousted nearly 9,000 Navajos from their homeland and forced them to walk several hundred miles to Hweeldi, the place of suffering, where they were incarcerated from 1863 to 1868. At Fort Sumner in New Mexico, the Navajo suffered under difficult living conditions, some of which hastened or exacerbated the spread of disease. In addition unfamiliar foods and alkaline water led to gastric upset and other problems.

Since their capture and internment at Hweeldi and the establishment of a reservation on a portion of their homelands in 1868, the Navajo have been in a relationship of constant domination and control by the larger American society. The colonial assault was repeated at different points in time through repression of the native language and traditions, enforcement of boarding school attendance, impediments to religious freedom, and threats to Navajo land and resources by stock reduction in the 1930s and 1940s, timber harvesting, and coal and uranium mining. These concerns developed alongside a gradual shift to wage-work economics among the Navajo, a recession in the 1970s and 1980s, resource depletion, unsuccessful attempts to preserve sacred sites, Navajo job-preference problems, deaths from improperly regulated uranium mining, radioactive waste spills, continuing poverty for many, and land disputes.

In what is known as the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, Navajo individuals were forced to move off land partitioned by the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974. This political drama stems from President Chester A. Arthurs (18291886) executive order of 1882, which granted 2.5 million acres of land around the Hopi mesas to the Hopis and such other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon, ignoring the Navajo families who had lived in this area for centuries. Attempts were made to reconcile boundary conflicts between Navajo and Hopi families by legal means on numerous occasions between 1891 and 1962, when a federal court ruled that 1.8 million acres of the 1882 reservation were jointly owned. This legislation led to mandatory livestock reductions beginning in 1972 and land partition in 1974. The latter mandated the relocation of all members of either tribe living in the area granted to the other, slating over 10,000 Navajos and 100 Hopis for compulsory relocation. Despite the commitment of enormous amounts of time and money toward resolution by all parties, this dispute remains unresolved.

By the last decades of the twentieth century, the Navajo had moved toward political self-determination and cultural renewal. But many Navajo families have been shattered due to complex social and health problems, including economic underdevelopment and chronic unemployment. Thousands of Navajos are gainfully employed in the fields of health care, education, government service, and commercial farming or resource-extraction industries. Yet reservation unemployment rates far exceed national norms, resulting in the need for many Navajos to work off the reservation in construction or other fields to support their families.

Changes in mode of production and diet have had grave consequences on Navajo health. Diabetes mellitus is more prevalent among Navajos than in the general U.S. population, and clinical diagnoses are rising. As a consequence, the Navajo have the highest lower-extremity amputation rate in the world. American Indians and Alaskan Natives have a 3.5 times higher prevalence of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) than white Americans, and due to its skyrocketing rate of diabetes mellitus, the Navajo population has an even higher rate of ESRD. Alcohol abuse contributes to these complex health concerns. It is within this context of rapid cultural change, health crises, and fragmentation that members of the Navajo Nation have searched out new sources of spiritual and curative powers, including those available from biomedical technologies and Christianity, especially fundamentalist forms and the Native American Church.

SEE ALSO Confiscation; Land Claims; Native Americans; Religion; Spirituality


Aberle, David. 1993. The Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute and Navajo Relocation. In Anthropological Approaches to Resettlement: Policy, Practice, and Theory, ed. Michael Cernea and Scott Guggenheim, 153200. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Frisbie, Charlotte. 1992. Temporal Change in Navajo Religion: 18681990. Journal of the Southwest 34 (4): 457514.

Hodge, Frederick, George Hammond, and Agapito Rey, eds. 1945. Fray Alonso de Benavides Revised Memorial of 1634, with Numerous Supplementary Documents Elaborately Annotated. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Iverson, Peter. 2002. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Johnson, Broderick, ed. 1973. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press.

Kunitz, Stephen, and Jerrold Levy, with K. Ruben Gabriel et al. 2000. Drinking, Conduct Disorder, and Social Change: Navajo Experiences. New York: Oxford University Press.

Narva, Andrew. 2003. Pathophysiology and Etiology of Chronic Renal Disease. Kidney International 63: S738S742.

OBryan, Aileen. 1956. The Diné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Reichard, Gladys. 1950. Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism. New York: Pantheon.

Schwarz, Maureen Trudelle. 1997. Molded in the Image of Changing Woman: Navajo Views on the Human Body and Personhood. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Schwarz, Maureen Trudelle. 2001. Navajo Lifeways: Contemporary Issues, Ancient Knowledge. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Trennert, Robert. 1998. White Mans Medicine: Government Doctors and the Navajo, 18631955. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Unwin, Nigel. 1998. Epidemiology of Lower Extremity Amputation in Centers in Europe, North America, and East Asia. British Journal of Surgery 87 (3): 328337.

Wilkins, David. Governance within the Navajo Nation: Have Democratic Traditions Taken Hold? Wicazo Sa Review 17 (1): 91129.

Yazzie, Ethelou. 1971. Navajo History. Vol. 1. Navajo Curriculum Center. Rough Rock, AZ: Rough Rock Demonstration School.

Maureen Trudelle Schwarz

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NAVAJO. The Navajos, or Dine (the People), as they call themselves in their own language, are the most populous Indian community in the United States. A majority of the community's more than 225,000 members reside within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, a sprawling enclave of 25,000 square miles, approximately the size of West Virginia, that is situated in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah.

Until the late twentieth century most archaeologists thought that the Navajos, and their linguistic relatives the Apaches, had arrived perhaps two centuries before the Spanish incursion in the region in the sixteenth century. They generally portrayed the Dine as dependent upon the Puebloan peoples for survival in a harsh, new land. Further research, however suggests that the Navajos came to the Southwest a century or two earlier than had been assumed. It also suggests that the Navajos absorbed other peoples, including some of the Anasazi, forming a dynamic, expansionist culture that by the time of Coronado had become a significant force in New Mexico. The Navajo clan system reflects the incorporation not only of Puebloan peoples but also of Utes, Apaches, Paiutes, and Spanish or Mexican individuals and groups.

The Spanish presence created many difficulties for the Navajos, including the evolution of a vast slave trade that forced many Dine women and children into involuntary servitude. However, the Spaniards also brought livestock, the addition of which transformed the Navajo world. It would be hard for later observers to imagine the Dine without sheep, horses, goats, and cattle. Livestock, especially sheep, quickly became central to the workings of Navajo society. The Navajos became extraordinary weavers. Sheep also fed people and helped pay for ceremonial services. To be sure, the Dine gave no credit to Spain for introducing these animals. Rather, the elders told the children that the Holy People had brought these wonderful beings to the Navajos, charging the Dine with the responsibility of caring for them properly.

The Navajos often raided Spanish communities in order to obtain additional livestock and to seek revenge for their relatives who had been incarcerated. From their administrative headquarters in the northern Rio Grande valley, the Spanish dispatched punitive expeditions against the Dine. But the Navajos remained elusive; any treaty or agreement signed with one group of the Dine was not considered binding on another group some distance away. After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexicans experienced comparable problems. When the United States claimed the region during and following the war

with Mexico in the late 1840s, it was determined to assert its authority over these uncooperative residents.

American aggression brought about what the Navajos would call "the fearing time." Within a generation, most of the Dine had been forced to surrender and, in the early to mid-1860s, departed on forced marches into captivity hundreds of miles from their home country. "The Long Walk," as it became known, took them to Fort Sumner, a newly constructed post in east-central New Mexico. There the head military officer for New Mexico Territory, James Carleton, expressed the hope that away from "the haunts and hills and hiding places" of their own country, the Navajos would become a contented and peaceful people.

Fort Sumner, or Hweeldi, as the Navajo termed it, never came close to fulfilling Carleton's dreams. Instead, it brought enormous hardship and anguish to the captive Dine. Disease and despair swept through the people, who desperately wanted to return to their homeland. In 1868 two members of the U.S. Peace Commission, William Tecumseh Sherman and Lewis Tappan, arrived at Fort Sumner to negotiate what turned out to be one of the final treaties signed by the United States with an American Indian nation. Sherman had suggested the possibility of the Navajos moving to Indian Territory, but this notion was immediately protested by Barboncito, the head Dine spokesperson, who argued that the Holy People had intended that the Navajos should live only within the boundaries of the four sacred mountains of their home country.

The Treaty of 1868 represented in many ways a triumph for the Navajos. Not only did they return to a portion of their homeland, but they succeeded in adding substantial amounts of acreage through a series of executive orders. Land became more difficult to obtain after New Mexico and Arizona became states in 1912, but by that time the essential Navajo land base had been established. In the early 1900s the photographer Edward Curtis used a group of Navajos on horseback to exemplify the notion of Indians as a vanishing race, but the twentieth century would prove him to be incorrect.

In the 1930s Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier imposed a drastic program of livestock reduction upon the Navajos. Although launched in the name of soil conservation and the well-being of the Dine, the program brought trauma and enormous suffering to thousands of Navajos. It also began to prompt a movement by many of the Dine into the wage economy, a movement that accelerated with the Navajo participation in World War II. Finally, the program initiated the transformation of the Navajo Tribal Council from an entity initially imposed upon the Navajos in the 1920s as a means to approve oil leases to a unit that represented the people.

The Navajo Code Talkers—a special unit in the U.S. Marines that employed the Navajo language as the basis

for an effective code—played a vital role in the Pacific Campaign during World War II. Several hundred Dine became Code Talkers, and thousands worked in warrelated industries. After the war the Dine leadership launched a program of sweeping modernization, including a new emphasis on formal education, industrialization, and road construction. Aided by funds from the Navajo-Hopi Long Range Rehabilitation Act of the 1950s, the Navajo tribal government began a nationalistic movement to gain greater control over Dine lives and lands.

The last decades of the twentieth century brought sweeping, and at times overwhelming, social and cultural change to Dine Bikeyah (the Navajo country). Only a minority of the people, most of them elderly, herded sheep, and most Navajo children grew up speaking English as a first language. Yet many of the traditional values within Navajo society are still observed and honored. The Dine bring new elements into their culture and, over time, make them Navajo. Members of the Navajo Nation struggled to control their own educational systems, to develop their economies in an appropriate way, and to live within the sacred mountains. Their very presence, the continuation of their language and their arts, and their successful incorporation of old and new means of competing and achieving (ranging from chess, basketball, and rodeos to tourism, education, and the arts) deny the old image of the vanishing Indian. As the twenty-first century began, the Navajos were clearly here to stay.


Iverson, Peter. Dine: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Photographs by Monty Roessel (Navajo).

Iverson, Peter, ed. "For Our Navajo People": Navajo Letters, Speeches, and Petitions, 1900–1960. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Photographs by Monty Roessel (Navajo).


See alsoTribes: Southwestern .

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Navajos (also Navahos and Diné) are an Athapaskan tribe that settled in the American Southwest between 1000 and 1525 ce. The Navajos likely experienced some demographic decline after Spanish contact, but their isolation contributed to a rapid resurgence in their numbers. Relations between the Spaniards and the Navajos were marked by bitter warfare, fueled by the trade in captives in which both groups participated. Navajos allied with the Puebloans in the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, after which their lands became a refuge for those who resisted the Spanish reconquest (1692–1693). Many of the fugitives remained among the Navajos, exposing Navajo culture to Hopi and Pueblo influences. Internal division resulted from conflicts between Puebloan and Athapaskan values within the Navajo Nation. Tensions were exacerbated by drought and the increasing incidence of Ute attacks. Together these pressures led to a revitalization of Navajo culture. By 1774 the Navajos had driven the Spaniards from much of their traditional lands in northwestern New Mexico and settled down to a life of agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, and gathering.

After Mexican independence (1821), the Navajos became the target of slave traders from New Mexico. Warfare between the Navajos and the New Mexicans escalated rapidly in the 1830s as did the trade in Navajo captives. The burdens of war fell heaviest on the isolated Navajos, who again experienced internal division as a result of outside pressure.

The Navajos' fate did not improve when the United States usurped Mexico's position as the dominant force in the Southwest in 1846. In an ill-conceived plan to relocate the Navajos, the tribe was moved to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in the infamous Long Walk of 1864. The resettlement plan was a disaster: the Navajos suffered from drought, disease, blight, and ultimately starvation. In 1868 the Navajos returned to their reservation, which was now only a fraction of their former homelands.

Over the twentieth century the Navajo Nation slowly recovered in both population numbers and land base. In 2002, the Navajo Nation counted 250,000 members, and their territory spanned approximately 25,000 square miles in southern Utah, northern Arizona, and northern New Mexico. All Navajo land is communally owned and administered by the Nation's government. Although poverty and unemployment continue to plague Navajo communities, rich mineral deposits on Navajo land and the construction of the Navajo Nation's first casino may improve the local economy.

See alsoIndigenous Peoples; Pueblo Indians; Pueblo Rebellion; Slavery: Indian Slavery and Forced Labor.


Frank McNitt, Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids, and Reprisals (1972, 1990).

Myra Ellen Jenkins and Ward Alan Minge, Navajo Activities Affecting the Acoma-Laguna Area, 1746–1910 (1974).

Peter Iverson, The Navajo Nation (1983).

                                     Aaron Paine Mahr

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Nav·a·jo / ˈnavəˌhō; ˈnä-/ (also Nav·a·ho) • n. (pl. same or -jos) 1. a member of an American Indian people of New Mexico and Arizona. 2. the Athabaskan language of this people. • adj. of or relating to this people or their language.

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Navajo (Navaho) Athabascan-speaking tribe, the largest group of Native Americans in the USA. Their reservation in Arizona and New Mexico is the biggest in the country. Today, the population numbers c.150,000.

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Navajo •Tajo •boho, coho, Moho, Soho •Idaho • Arapaho • Navajo