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First Posted: Oct 22, 2009
Mar 6, 2011

Navajo People

A Navaho man sings about the horses of the Sun-God in order that he, too, may have beautiful horses. Standing among his herd, he scatters holy pollen and sings this song for the blessing and the protection of his animals:

How joyous his neigh!
Lo, the Turquoise Horse of Johano-ai,
How joyous his neigh,
There on precious hides outspread, standeth he; How joyous his neigh,
There of mingled waters holy, drinketh he; How joyous his neigh,
There in mist of sacred pollen hidden, all hidden he; How joyous his neigh,
These his offspring may grow and thrive forevermore; How joyous his neigh!
Native American Legends/Glacier song of the Horses

Department of the Interior. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Portland Area Office. Salt Lake City Extension and Credit Office.

War Department Office of the Chief of Engineers

Navajo People

Manuelito, Navajo Chief

Navajo Woman and Child

Navajo Boy on A Horse

Related Ethnic Groups Other Southern Athabascan Peoples

The Navajo or Diné of the Southwestern United States are the second largest Native American tribe of Northern America. In the 2000 U.S. census, 298,197 people claimed to be fully or partly of Navajo ancestry. The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body which manages the Navajo Indian reservation in the Four Corners area of the United States. The traditional Navajo language is still largely spoken throughout the region, although most Navajo speak English fluently as well. Navajo refer to themselves in their native language as Diné, which is translated as "the People" in English.

Early History

The Navajo/Diné speak dialects of the language family referred to as Athabaskan. These people were once a single ethnic group that probably came from near the Great Slave Lake, in the modern Northwest Territories of Canada, having crossed the Bering land bridge thousands of years previously. In addition to language speakers residing in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, Athabaskan speakers are also found living today in Alaska and parts of northern Canada. An aboriginal people known as Dene live in an area centered around Great Slave Lake and have communities in the far north of adjacent provinces. The Apache, living in the American Southwest and other near by areas, are also Southern Athabaskan speakers and are closely related to the Navajo/Diné. Despite the time elapsed, these people reportedly can still understand the language of their long-lost cousins, the Navajo.

Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajo and Apache entered the Southwest after 1000 AD, with substantial population increases occurring in the 13th century. Navajo oral traditions are said to retain references of this migration.

Navajo oral history also seems to indicate a long relationship with Pueblo people and a willingness to adapt foreign ideas into their own culture. Trade between the long-established Pueblo peoples and the Athabaskans was important to both groups. The Spanish records say by the mid 16th century, the Pueblos exchanged maize and woven cotton goods for bison meat, hides and material for stone tools from Athabaskans who either traveled to them or lived around them. In the 18th century the Spanish report that the Navajo had large numbers of livestock and large areas of crops. The Navajo probably adapted many Pueblo ideas into their own very different culture.

The Spanish first use the word Navajo ("Apachu de Nabajo") specifically in the 1620s, referring to the people in the Chama valley region east of the San Juan River and northwest of Santa Fe. By the 1640s, the term Navajo was applied to these same people. The Spanish recorded in 1670s they were living in a region called Dinetah, which was about sixty miles (100 km) west of the Rio Chama valley region. In the 1780s the Spanish were sending military expeditions against the Navajo in the southwest and west of that area, in the Mount Taylor and Chuska Mountain regions of New Mexico.

In the last 1,000 years, Navajos have a history of expanding their range and refining their self identity and their significance to other groups. This probably resulted from a cultural combination of Endemic warfare (raids) and commerce with the Pueblo, Apache, Ute, Comanche and Spanish people, set in the changing natural environment of the Southwest.

Conflict with Europeans

The Spanish started to establish a military force along the Rio Grande in the 17th century to the east of Dinetah (the Navajo homeland). Spanish records indicate that Apachean groups (that might include Navajo) allied themselves with the Pueblos over the next 21 years, successfully pushing the Spaniards out of this area following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Raiding and trading were part of traditional Apachean and Navajo culture, and these activities increased following the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards, which increased the efficiency and frequency of raiding expeditions. The Spanish established a series of forts that protected new Spanish settlements and also separated the Pueblos from the Apacheans. The Spaniards and later Mexicans recorded what are called punitive expeditions among the Navajo that also took livestock and human captives. The Navajo in turn raided settlements far away in a similar manner. This pattern continued, with the Athabaskan groups apparently growing to be more formidable foes through the 1840s until the United States Army arrived in the area.

New Mexico Territory

Officially, the Navajos first came in contact with forces of the United States of America in 1846 when General Stephen W. Kearny invaded Santa Fe with 1,600 men during the Mexican American War. The Navajo did not recognize the change of government as legitimate. In September, Kearny sent two detachments to raid and subdue the Navajo. Kearny later took 300 men on an expedition to California from Santa Fe. As they traveled past Navajo homelands, his force lost livestock. He ordered another expedition against the Navajo, and this resulted in the first treaty with the United States government in November at Canyon de Chelly.

In the next 10 years, the U.S. established forts in traditional Navajo territory. Military records state this was to protect citizens and Navajo from each other. However the old Spanish/Mexican-Navajo pattern of raids and expeditions against one another continued. New Mexican (citizen and militia) raids increased rapidly in 1860-61 earning it the Navajo name Naahondzood, "the fearing time."

In 1861 Brigadier-General James H. Carleton, the new commander of the Federal District of New Mexico, initiated a series of military actions against the Navajo. Colonel Kit Carson was ordered by Carleton to conduct expedition into Navajoland and receive their surrender on July 20, 1863. A few Navajo surrendered. Carson was joined by a large group of New Mexican militia volunteer citizens and these forces moved through Navajo land killing Navajos and destroying any Navajo crops, livestock or dwellings they came across. Facing starvation, Navajos groups started to surrender in what is known as The Long Walk.

Long Walk

Starting in the spring of 1864, around 9,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced on The Long Walk of over 300 miles (480 km) to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This was the largest reservation attempted by the U.S. government. It was a failure for a combination of reasons. It was designed to supply water, wood, supplies, and livestock for 4,000-5,000 people, it had one kind of crop failure after another, other tribes and civilians were able to raid the Navajo, and a small group of Mescalero Apaches had been moved there. In 1868 a treaty was negotiated that allowed the surviving Navajos to return to a reservation that was a portion of their former nation.

Conflict on the Reservation

The United States military continued to maintain the forts. Some Navajo were employed by the military as "Indian Scouts" through 1895. A Navajo Tribal Police operated between 1872 and 1875 and was used by the Navajo themselves to stop raiders from their tribe; it was created by Manuelito.

By treaty, the Navajo people were allowed to leave the reservation with permission to trade. Raiding by the Navajo essentially stopped, because they were able to increase the size of their livestock and crops, and not have to risk losing them to others. However, while the initial reservation increased from 3.5 million acres to the 16 million acres of today, economic conflicts with the non-Navajo continued. Civilians and companies raided resources that had been assigned to the Navajo. Livestock grazing leases, land for railroads, mining permits are a few examples of actions taken by agencies of the U.S. government who could and did do such things on a regular basis.

Regional newspapers have many accounts of Navajo and non-Navajo conflicts in this period. These conflicts were often embellished, for political purposes, by regional politicians. In some of these accounts, every Navajo was just about to leave the reservation and pillage the country side or worse. While it is probably true that some Navajo strayed, it is equally true that some white citizens clearly strayed from the laws of the land themselves. In their reports, the U.S. Military never seemed to be that alarmed about a Navajo uprising, and they clearly did not want the Navajo stirred up by their neighbors.

In 1883, Lt. Parker went up to the San Juan River to separate Navajos and citizens who encroached on Navajo land with 10 enlisted men and two scouts. In the same year, Lt. Lockett with the aid of 42 enlisted soldiers were joined by Lt. Holomon at Navajo Springs. Evidently citizens of the surname(s) Houck and/or Owens had murdered a Navajo chief's son and 100 armed Navajos were consequently looking for them.

In 1887, citizens Palmer, Lockhart, and King fabricate a charge of horse stealing and attack a random home on the reservation. Two Navajo men and all three whites died, but a woman and a child survived. Capt Kerr (with two Navajo scouts) examined the ground and then met with several hundred Navajo at Houcks Tank. Rancher Bennett, whose horse was allegedly stolen, pointed out to Kerr that his horses were stolen by the three whites to catch a horse thief. In the same year, Lt. Scott went to the San Juan River with two scouts and 21 enlisted men. The Navajo believed Lt. Scott was there to drive off the whites who have settled on the reservation and have fenced off the river from the Navajo. Scott tells them to wait, and he finds evidence of many non-Navajo ranches. However, only three are active, and the owners refuse to leave, wanting payment for their improvements. Scott ejected them.

In 1890, a local rancher refused to pay the Navajo a fine of livestock. The Navajos tried to collect it, and whites in southern Colorado and Utah claim that 9,000 of the Navajo people are on a warpath. A small military detachment out of Fort Wingate restores white citizens to order.

In 1913, an Indian agent orders a Navajo and his three wives to come in, and then arrests them for having a plural marriage. A small group of Navajo use force to free the women and retreat to Beautiful Mountain with 30 or 40 sympathizers. They refuse to surrender to the agent, and local law enforcement and military refuse the agent's request for an armed engagement. General Scott arrives, and with the help of Chee Dodge, defuses the situation.

In the 1930s, the United States government took action against the Navajo that was as culturally and economically devastating as the Long Walk. The United States government claimed Navajo's livestock was overgrazing the land. In another experiment, it decided to immediately kill over 80% of their livestock in what is known as the Navajo Livestock Reduction and start a permit system.

There were people who were sympathetic to the plight of the Navajo. In 1937 Mary Cabot Wheelright and Hastiin Klah, an esteemed and influential Navajo singer, or medicine man, founded The Wheelright Museum of the American Indian as a repository for sound recordings, manuscripts, paintings, and sandpainting tapestries of the Navajo people and a place to sense the beauty, dignity, and profound logic of Navajo religion. When he met Cabot in 1921 Klah had witnessed decades of relentless efforts by the United States government and by missionaries to assimilate the Navajo people into mainstream society. Children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their language and forced to adopt Christianity. The museum was founded to preserve the religion and traditions of the Navajo people which Klah was sure would soon be lost forever.

In the 1940s during World War II, the United States denied the Navajos relief because of the Navajo's communal society. Eventually in December 1947, the Navajos were provided relief in the post war period to relieve the hunger that they had to endure for many years.


Navajo Flag

The name "Navajo" comes from the late 18th century via the Spanish (Apaches de) Navajó "(Apaches of) Navajó" which was derived from the Tewa navahu "fields adjoining a ravine." The Navajo call themselves Diné, which means "the people." Nonetheless, most Navajo now acquiesce to being called "Navajo."

Traditionally, like other Apacheans, the Navajo were semi-nomadic from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Their extended kinship groups would have seasonal dwelling areas to accommodate livestock, agriculture and gathering practices. As part of their traditional economy, Navajo groups may have formed trading or raiding parties, traveling relatively long distances.

Historically, the structure of the Navajo society is largely a matrilocal system in which only women were allowed to own livestock and land. Once married, a Navajo man would move into his bride's dwelling and clan since daughters (or, if necessary, other female relatives) were traditionally the ones who received the generational inheritance. Any children are said to belong to the mother's clan and be "born for" the father's clan. The clan system is exogamous, meaning it was, and mostly still is, considered a form of incest to marry or date anyone from any of a person's four grandparents clans.

A hogan is the traditional Navajo home. These eight-sided houses are made of wood and covered in mud, with the door always facing east to welcome the sun each morning.

For those who practice the Navajo religion the hogan is considered sacred. The doorway of the hogan was opened to the east so they could welcome the sun. The religious song "The Blessingway" describes the first hogan as being built by Coyote with help from beavers to be a house for First Man, First Woman, and Talking God. The Beaver People gave Coyote logs and instructions on how to build the first hogan. Navajos made their hogans in the traditional fashion until the 1900s, when they started to make them in hexagonal and octagonal shapes. Today they are rarely used as actual dwellings, but are maintained primarily for ceremonial purposes.

The Navajo people traditionally hold the four sacred mountains as the boundaries of the homeland they should never leave: Blanca Peak (Tsisnaasjini' - Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado, Mount Taylor (Tsoodzil - Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks (Doko'oosliid - Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona, and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa - Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado.

Arts and Crafts

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Silver Work

19th Century Navajo jewelry with the popular concho and dragonfly designs.Silversmithing is said to have been introduced to the Navajo while they were in captivity at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico in 1864. At that time Atsidi Sani learned silversmithing and began teaching others the craft as well. By 1880 Navajo silversmiths were creating handmade jewelry including bracelets, tobacco flasks, necklaces, bow guards. Later smiths also made earrings, buckles, bolos, hair ornaments and pins. Turquoise has been used with jewelry by the Navajo for hundreds of years, but they did not use turquoise inlay, in silver, until the past century.


Though some people say the Navajo learned the art of weaving from the Pueblo people, the origins of Navajo weaving may never be known. The first Spaniards to visit the region wrote about seeing Navajo blankets. By the 18th century the Navajo had begun to import yarn with their favorite color, Bayeta red. Using an upright loom the Navajos made almost exclusively utilitarian blankets. Little patterning and few colors on almost all blankets, except for the much sought after Chief's Blanket, which evolved from the 1st Phase, few wide bands, to the 2nd phase, wide bands with squares on the corners, to the 3rd Phase, which made more and more use of patterns and colors. Around the same time the Navajo people, who had long started traded for commercial wool, often from the uniforms of soldiers, rewove these into intricate multicolored blankets called Germantown.

Some early American settlers moved in and set up trading posts, often buying Navajo Rugs by the pound and selling them back east by the bale. Still these traders encouraged the locals to weave blankets and rugs into distinct styles. They included "Two Gray Hills" (predominantly black and white, with traditional patterns), "Teec Nos Pos" (colorful, with very extensive patterns), "Ganado" (founded by Don Lorenzo Hubbell), red dominated patterns with black and white, "Crystal" (founded by J. B. Moore), oriental and Persian styles (almost always with natural dyes), "Wide Ruins," "Chinlee," banded geometric patterns, "Klagetoh," diamond type patterns, "Red Mesa" and bold diamond patterns. Many of these patterns exhibit a fourfold symmetry, which is thought by Gary Witherspoon to embody traditional ideas about harmony or hózhó.

Navajo spiritual practice is about restoring health, balance, and harmony to a person's life. One exception to the concept of healing is the Beauty Way ceremony: the Kinaaldá, or a female puberty ceremony. Others include the Hooghan Blessing Ceremony and the "Baby's First Laugh Ceremony."" Otherwise, ceremonies are used to heal illnesses, strengthen weakness, and give vitality to the patient. Ceremonies restore Hozhó, or beauty, harmony, balance, and health.

When suffering from illness or injury, Navajos will traditionally seek out a certified, credible Hatalii (medicine man) for healing, before turning to Western medicine (e.g., hospitals). The medicine man will use several methods to diagnose the patient's ailments. This may include using special tools such as crystal rocks, and abilities such as hand-trembling and Hatal (chanting prayer). The medicine man will then select a specific healing chant for that type of ailment. Short prayers for protection may only take a few hours, and in some cases, the patient is expected to do a follow-up afterwards. This may include the avoidance of sexual relations, personal contact, animals, certain foods, and certain activities; it is not unlike a doctor's advice.

Possible causes of ailments could be the result of violating taboos. Contact with lightning-struck objects, exposure to taboo animals such as snakes, and contact with the dead are some of reasons for healing. Protection ceremonies, especially the Blessing Way Ceremony, are used for Navajos that leave the boundaries of the four sacred mountains, and is used extensively for Navajo warriors or soldiers going to war. Upon re-entry, there is an Enemy Way Ceremony, or Nidáá', performed on the person, to get rid of the evil things in his/her body, and to restore balance in his/her life. This is also important for Navajo warriors/soldiers returning from battle. Warriors or soldiers often suffer spiritual or psychological damage from participating in warfare, and the Enemy Way Ceremony helps restore harmony to the person, mentally and emotionally.

There are also ceremonies used for curing people from curses. Many people often complain of witches and skin-walkers that do harm to their minds, bodies, and even families. Ailments aren't necessarily physical. It can take any form it wishes. The medicine man is often able to break the curses that witches and skin-walkers put on families. Mild cases do not take very long, but for extreme cases, special ceremonies are needed to drive away the evil spirits. In these cases, the medicine man may find curse objects implanted inside the victim's body. These objects are used to cause the person pain and illness. Examples of such objects include bone fragments, rocks and pebbles, bits of string, snake teeth, owl feathers, and even turquoise jewelry.

There are said to be approximately fifty-eight to sixty sacred ceremonies. Most of them last four days or more; to be most effective, they require that relatives and friends attend and help out. Outsiders are often discouraged from participating in case they become a burden to others or violate a taboo. This could affect the turnout of the ceremony. The ceremony must be done in precisely the correct manner to heal the patient. This includes everyone that is involved.

Medicine men must be able to correctly perform a ceremony from beginning to end. If he does not, the ceremony will not work. Training a Hatalii to perform ceremonies is extensive, arduous, and takes many years, and is not unlike priesthood, with the governing body or hierarchy omitted. The apprentice learns everything by watching his teacher, and memorizes the words to all the chants. Many times, a medicine man cannot learn all sixty of the ceremonies, so he will opt to specialize in a select few.

The origin of spiritual healing ceremonies dates back to Navajo mythology. It is said the first Enemy Way ceremony was performed for Changing Woman's twin sons (Monster Slayer and Born-For-the-Water) after slaying the Giants (the Yé'ii) and restoring Hozhó to the world and people. The patient identifies with Monster Slayer through the chants, prayers, sandpaintings, herbal medicine and dance.

Another Navajo healing, the Night Chant ceremony, is administered as a cure for most types of head ailments, including mental disturbances. The ceremony, conducted over several days, involves purification, evocation of the gods, identification between the patient and the gods, and the transformation of the patient. Each day entails the performance of certain rites and the creation of detailed sand paintings. On the ninth evening a final all-night ceremony occurs, in which the dark male thunderbird god is evoked in a song that starts by describing his home:

In Tsegihi [White House],
In the house made of the dawn,
In the house made of the evening light

The medicine man proceeds by asking the Holy People to be present, then identifying the patient with the power of the god and describing the patient's transformation to renewed health with lines such as "Happily I recover.". The same dance is repeated throughout the night, about forty eight times. Altogether the Night Chant ceremony takes about ten hours to perform, and ends at dawn....

For More Information:

Navajo information for Children
Gallery of the Open Frontier