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“Navajo”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

Traditional Navajo, or Diné, stories tell that First Man, First Woman, the Holy People, and all the animals had to pass through three different worlds before emerging into the Fourth or Glittering World. Here, the People saw four rivers bounded by four sacred mountains, held in place by shafts of sunlight and streaks of falling rain. First Woman instructed the People always to live within the boundaries of the mountains and in harmony with Mother Earth.

Anthropologists tell a story of many tangled migrations. A thousand years ago, nomadic Athapaskans were living in Alaska and western Canada. After centuries of living in small bands, many Athapaskans migrated south. They followed herds of game and harvested wild plants. Sometimes they settled in a place for many years and then moved on. Anthropologists think that around the year 1300, Athapaskan peoples—who spoke a similar language and are now known as Navajos and Apaches—arrived in Arizona and New Mexico.

Navajo Family“Navajo Family,” W.T. Mullarky (Photographer)

The Diné, who would come to be called Navajos, chose a homeland of rivers, canyons and mesas just east of present-day Farmington, New Mexico. They called their land Dinétah. They lived in small hogans made of branches, woven mats, and earth. They hunted and gathered foods. Their encounter with Pueblo villages along the Rio Grande led to both trading and raiding. Pueblo captives who became family members in Navajo homes probably taught the Navajos to farm. Soon they were making tools, storage pots, and baskets to dry their corn and building more permanent hogans. Adopting some Pueblo sacred ideas, they developed prayers to bless their crops with corn pollen.

A combination of drought years and punishing raids by Utes and Comanches drove the Navajos from their lands. They migrated south to Mount Taylor. Moving west into Arizona and north into Colorado and Utah, they were looking for good farmlands and natural strongholds. Sometimes they traded with the Pueblos and Spanish colonists. They continued to raid pueblos and Spanish ranches and farms for sheep, goats, cattle, and horses.

The Navajos were flexible and adaptive. By the early 1600s they had become master horsemen. With horses, they could move around more easily, and independent bands drew closer together as headmen paid visits to each other on horseback. The Spaniards, loaded down with armor and heavy weaponry, were no match for Navajo warriors on war ponies.

In 1680, Navajos joined the Pueblos in a successful revolt against the Spanish. Afterwards, Navajos and Pueblos resumed their trading and raiding encounters. When Don Diego de Vargas marched back into New Mexico to reclaim the lands for the Spanish crown, many Pueblo people fled to Dinétah. They brought with them Spanish goods, tools, and flocks of sheep and goats. Like the introduction of the horse, the introduction of sheep changed Navajo culture. The art of weaving became central to Navajo life.

Navajo Sheep Grazing in Canyon de Chelly“Navajo Sheep Grazing in Canyon de Chelly,” W.T. Mullarky (Photographer)

Unable to stop the Navajos, Apaches, Utes, and Pueblos from raiding, the Spaniards formed a defensive alliance with some Pueblos. Probably searching for better pastures, Navajo bands left the Dinétah. Some moved closer to valued Pueblo friends like the Jemez. Others pushed westward toward the open lands between the Rio Grande and the Hopi mesas.

In August of 1846, the US army rode into Santa Fe. General Stephen Watts Kearny promised the Spanish New Mexicans he would help protect their towns and ranches from raiding Navajos and Apaches. All parties signed peace treaties, and all parties broke them. In 1864, the American army cracked down on the raiders. Colonel Kit Carson was assigned to capture the Navajos and march them to Fort Sumner on the Pecos River. Carson’s troops starved the Navajos out of Canyon de Chelly and other enclaves by destroying their homes, crops, and livestock. They forced some 8,000 Navajos to march 300 miles to Bosque Redondo on the tragic Long Walk. There the US soldiers imprisoned them along with the Mescalero Apaches. Thousands perished from drought, starvation, and hardship, raids by Indian and Hispanic New Mexicans, and a smallpox epidemic. Finally, in 1868, General William Tecumseh Sherman released the People to return to their homeland among the sacred mountains.

Navajo Squaw Dance, 1935“Navajo Squaw Dance, 1935,” T. Harmon Parkhurst (Photographer)

The US government provided 14,000 sheep upon the Navajos’ return. They resumed their traditions of herding and farming. By 1899 the Navajo nation had a million sheep. Trading posts provided outlets for weaving and silver, and turquoise jewelry. At the trading posts, Navajos and Americans created a new system of barter.

The Navajo people value a life lived in hozho, or balance and beauty. Living in close, extended families, they find themselves caught between modern ways and ancient traditions. In the 1920s, outside corporations found and exploited oil, gas, uranium, and coal on Navajo lands. During World War II, Navajo soldiers distinguished themselves as warriors and Code Talkers on the front lines.

The Navajos sustain themselves with their traditions of song, dance, painting, story, and ceremony. Theirs is a world of family and laughter, mountains, plants, and animals contained within their sacred homelands.