Navajo Tribe

Navajo Nation, Navajo Indians, Navaho Indians, Navaho Tribe (pron. Na’-va-ho, from Tewa Navahú, the name referring to a large area of cultivated lands; applied to a former Tewa pueblo, and, by extension, to the Navajo, known to the Spaniards of the 17th century as Apaches de Navajo, who intruded on the Tewa domain or who lived in the vicinity, to distinguish them from other “Apache” bands. 1 Fray Alonso Benavides, in his Memorial of 1630, gives the earliest translation of the tribal name, in the form Nauajó, ‘sementeras grandes’ – ‘great seed-sowings’, or ‘great fields’. The Navajo themselves do not use this name, except when trying to speak English. All do not know it, and none of the older generation pronounce it correctly, as v is a sound unknown in their language. They call themselves Dǐné´, which means simply ‘people’. This word, in various forms, is used as a tribal name by nearly every people of the Athapascan stock).

An important Athapascan tribe occupying a reservation of 9,503,763 acres in northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and southeast Utah. Here they are supposed to remain, but many isolated families live beyond the reservation boundaries in all directions. Their land has an average elevation of about 6,000 ft above sea level. The highest point in it is Pastora peak, in the Carrizo Mountains, 9,420 ft high. It is in arid region and not well adapted to agriculture, but it affords fair pasturage. For this reason, the Navajo have devoted their attention less to agriculture than to stock raising. There were formerly few places on the reservation, away from the borders of the Rio San Juan, where the soil could be irrigated, but there were many spots, apparently desert, where water gathered close to the surface and whereby deep planting crops of corn, beans, squashes, and melons were raised. Within the last few years the Government has built storage reservoirs on the reservation and increased the facilities for irrigation.

Navajo Tribe History

The Navajos believe that they passed through different worlds before arriving in the Southwest. Their recollections of prehistoric times portray a hunting-gathering society coming into contact with different people, interacting with them, and ultimately being asked to leave due to their actions. A close analysis of the different prehistoric worlds in Navajo oral tradition reveals details that give merit to the Bering Strait migration theory.

When the Navajo people arrived in the Southwest, they left archaeological evidence indicating that they had no organized ceremonialism or belief system. However, linguistic evidence shows that they were more than willing to learn from new experiences and adapted alien cultures to fit the Navajo way of life.

During the Gobernador Phase (c. 1650-1775), the Navajo people settled down from a hunting-gathering society to an agricultural, ranching, and ceremonial people. They acquired new farming techniques, rituals, songs, prayers, and stories from the Puebloan peoples. They also created entire ceremonies of their own and developed the art of silversmithing from the knowledge of blacksmithing acquired from the Spaniards.

During the Canyon de Chelly Phase (c. 1775-1863), the Navajo people moved west and made Canyon de Chelly their stronghold. This time was marked by prosperity and an increase in population, but also conflict with the Spaniards, Comanches, and Utes.

It may be that under the loosely applied name Apache there is a record of the Navajo by Oñate as early as 1598, but the first to mention them by name was Zarate-Salmeron, about 1629. They had Christian missionaries among them in the middle of the 18th century, but their teachings did not prevail against paganism. For many years previous to the occupancy of their country by the United States they kept up an almost constant predatory war with the Pueblos and the white settlers of New Mexico, in which they were usually the victors. When the United States took possession of New Mexico in 1849 these depredations were at their height. The first military expedition into their country was that of Col. Alex. W. Doniphan, of the First Missouri Volunteers, in the fall of 1846. On behalf of the United States, Doniphan made the first treaty of peace with the Navajo Nov. 22 of that year, but the peace was not lasting. In 1849, another military force, under the command of Col. John M. Washington, penetrated the Navajo land as far as Cheldy canyon, and made another treaty of peace on Sept. 9, but this treaty was also soon broken. To put a stop to their wars, Col. “Kit” Carson invaded their territory in 1863, killed so many of their sheep as to leave them without means of support, and took the greater part of the tribe prisoners to Ft Sunnier at the Bosgite Redondo on the Rio Pecocs, New Mexico. Here they were kept in captivity until 1867, when they were restored to their original country and given a new supply of sheep.

After returning from the Bosque Redondo, the Navajo people rebuilt their society and modernized their way of life. They began trading, embraced a pastoral lifestyle, and were introduced to wage work and the market economy. This period of rebuilding and modernization allowed the Navajo people to continue their tradition of adaptation and resilience.

Navajo Indians Legends

According to the best recorded version of their origin legend, the first or nuclear clan of the Navajo was created by the gods in Arizona or Utah about 500 years ago. People had lived on the earth before this, but most of them had been destroyed by giants or demons. When the myth says that the gods created the first pair of this clan, it is equivalent to saying that they knew not whence they came and had no antecedent tradition of themselves. It is thus with many other Navajo clans. The story gives the impression that these Indians wandered into New Mexico and Arizona in small groups, probably in single families. In the course of time other groups joined there until, in the 17th century, they felt strong enough to go to war. Some of the accessions were evidently of Athapascan origin, as is most of the tribe, but others were derived from different stocks, including Keresan, Shoshonean, Tanoan, Yuman, and Aryan; consequently, the Navajo are a very composite people. A notable accession was made to their numbers, probably in the 16th century, when the Thkhapaha-dinnay joined them. These were a people of another linguistic stock – Hodge says “doubtless Tanoan” – for they wrought a change in the Navajo language. A later very numerous accessions of several clans came from the Pacific coast; these were Athapascan. Some of the various clans joined the Navajo willingly, others are the descendants of captives. Hodge has shown that this Navajo origin legend, omitting a few obviously mythic elements, can be substantiated by recorded history, but he places the beginning at less than 500 years.

Pre 1900 Navajo Culture

The Navajo are classed us belonging to the widespread Athapascan linguistic family, and a vocabulary of their language shows that the majority of their words have counterparts in dialects of Alaska, British America, and California. The grammatical structure is like that of Athapascan tongues in general, but many words have been inherited from other sources. The grammar is intricate and the vocabulary copious, abounding especially in local names.

The appearance of the Navajo strengthens the traditional evidence of their very composite origin. It is impossible to describe a prevailing type; they vary in size from stalwart men of 6 feet or more to some who are diminutive in stature. In feature they vary from the strong faces with aquiline noses and prominent chins common with the Dakota and other northern tribes to the subdued features of the Pueblos. Their faces are a little more hirsute than those of Indians farther east. Many have occiputs so flattened that the skulls are brachycephalic or hyper brachycephalic, a feature resulting from the hard cradleboard on which the head rests in infancy. According to Hrdlicka 2 they approach the Pueblos physically much more closely than the Apache, notwithstanding their linguistic connection with the latter. In general their faces are intelligent and pleasing. Hughes 3 says of them: “They are celebrated for intelligence and good order, the noblest of American aborigines.” There is nothing somber or stoic in their character. Among themselves they are merry and jovial, much given to jest and banter. They are very industrious, and the proudest among there scorn no remunerative labor. They do not bear pain with the fortitude displayed among the militant tribes of the north, nor do they inflict upon themselves equal tortures. They are, on the whole, a progressive people.

The ordinary Navajo dwelling, or hogán, is a very simple structure, although erected with much ceremony 4 . It is usually conical in form, built of sticks set on end, covered with branches, grass, and earth, and often so low that a man of ordinary stature can not stand erect in it. One must stoop to enter the doorway, which is usually provided with a short passage or storm door. There is no chimney; a hole in the apex lets out the smoke. Some hogáns are rude polygonal structures of logs laid horizontally; others are partly of stone. In summer, “lean-to” sheds and small inclosures of branches are often used for habitations. Sweat houses are small, conical hogáns without the hole in the apex, for fires are not lighted in them; temperature is increased by means of stones heated in fires outside. Medicine lodges, when built in localities where trees of sufficient size grow, are conical structures like the ordinary hogáns, but much larger. When built in regions of low-sized trees, they have flat roofs. Of late, substantial stone structures with doors, windows, and chimneys are replacing the rude hogáns. One reason they built such houses was that custom and superstition constrained them to destroy or desert a house in which death had occurred. Such a place was called chindi-hogan, meaning ‘devil-house’. Those who now occupy good stone houses carry out the dying and let them expire outside, thus saving their dwellings, and indeed the saint, custom is sometimes practiced in connection with the hogán. No people have greater dread of ghosts and mortuary remains.

The most important art of the Navajo is that of weaving. They are especially celebrated for their blankets, which are in high demand among the white people on account of their beauty and utility; but they also weave belts, garters, and saddle girths – all with rude, simple looms. Their legends declare that in the early days they knew not the art of weaving by means of a loom. The use of the loom was probably taught to them by the Pueblo women who were incorporated into the tribe. They dressed in skins and rude mats constructed by hand, of cedar bark and other vegetal fibers. The few basket makers among them are said to be Ute or Paiute girls or their descendants, and these do not do much work. What they make, though of excellent quality, is confined almost exclusively to two forms required for ceremonial purposes. The Navajo make very little pottery, and this of a very ordinary variety, being designed merely for cooking purposes; but formerly they made a fine red ware decorated in black with characteristic designs. They grind corn and other grains by hand on the metate. For ceremonial purposes they still bake food in the ground and in other aboriginal ways. For many years they have had among them silversmiths who fabricate handsome ornaments with very rude appliances, and who undoubtedly learned their art from the Mexicans, adapting it to their own environment. Of late years many of those who have been taught in training schools have learned civilized trades and civilized methods of cooking.

Modern Navajo Culture

In the 20th century, the Navajo people faced new challenges and opportunities, including the establishment of the Navajo Nation government, education, and health services. The discovery of oil, coal, and uranium on their land led to resource development and a shift in their economy. However, the exploitation of these resources had adverse effects on their environment, health, and cultural values. Throughout the century, the Navajo people maintained their unique identity, adapting to new technologies and modern lifestyles while preserving their traditions and language. In the process, they became leaders in the fields of education, tribal government, and economic development.

In the 21st century, the Navajo people have continued to embrace change, taking an active role in shaping their destiny. They have taken steps to protect their cultural heritage and environment, foster economic growth, and ensure the health and well-being of their people. The Navajo Nation has made strides in areas such as renewable energy, self-sufficiency, and education reform. Additionally, they are working on developing a diversified economy that allows for sustainable growth and reduces dependency on natural resources.

Navajo Indians Religion

Investigations conducted in the 1880’s showed that the Navajo, contrary to early published beliefs, are a highly religious people having many well-defined divinities (nature gods, animal gods, and local gods), a vast mythic and legendary lore, and thousands of significant formulated songs and prayers which must be learned and repeated in the most exact manner. They also have hundreds of musical compositions which experts have succeeded in noting and have pronounced similar to our own music. The so-called dances are ceremonies which last for 9 nights and parts of 10 days, and the medicine-men spend many years of study in learning to conduct a single one properly. One important feature of these ceremonies Is the pictures painted in dry powders on the floor of the medicine lodge. All this cult’s is of doubted antiquity.

The meat revered of their many deities is a goddess named Estsánatlehi, or a ‘Woman Who Changes’, ‘Woman Who Rejuvenates Herself’, because she is said never to stay in one condition, but to grow old and become young again at will. She is probably Mother Nature, an apotheosis of the changing year.

By treaty of Canyon de Chelly, Ariz., Sept. 9, 1849, the Navajo acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States. By treaty of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, June 1, 1868, a reservation was set apart for them in Arizona and New Mexico, and they ceded to the United States their claim to other lands. Their reservation has been modified by subsequent Executive orders.


The philosophy of s’ah naaghai bik’eh hozhoon has been the guiding principle for the Navajo people throughout their history. It has allowed them to navigate the challenges of their environment, adapt to new cultures and technologies, and remain resilient in the face of adversity. The Navajo people’s ability to change and adapt while maintaining their cultural heritage and identity will continue to serve them well in the future, ensuring their success and prosperity for generations to come.

  1. Hewett in Am. Anthrop., viii, 193, 1906.[]
  2. Hrdlicka in Am. Anthrop., it, 339, 1900[]
  3. Hughes, Doniphan’s Exped., 1846[]
  4. See Mindeleff in 17th Rep. B. A. 1898[]

Athapascan, Navajo,

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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