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The Navajo's Ancient Roots

  The Navajo were adaptable and willing to learn from others, selectively adopting whatever they found useful from all the people they encountered.

See also: Life on the Reservation
photograph of Cañon de Chelly
First occupied between AD 350 and 1300, Cañon de Chelly is still home to Navajo today. Photo by Edward Curtis.
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by Caitlin O'Neil

The Beginning
The traditional boundaries of Navajo country, or Dine Bikeyah "the Land of the People," are the four Sacred Mountains: the San Francisco Peaks to the west, Mount Blanca to the east, Mount Taylor to the south, and La Plata Mountain to the north. While the landscape was an obstacle to the earliest white visitors — the Spanish in the 1500s followed by the Mexicans and Americans — the Navajos (as well as the Hopis and Paiutes) revered it and adapted to the vagaries of its climate.

While the Navajo (or Dine) had been hunter-gatherers in the north where plants and game were plentiful, they gave up their nomadic way of life soon after arriving in the Southwest and began sheep herding. Families built hogans, single room, eight-sided houses made up of a skeleton of logs covered with a thick coat of mud, in scattered camps that allowed them to tend their flocks both summer and winter. While the Navajo traditionally did not live in villages, members of an extended family did live close by so they could work together to raise crops and livestock. Navajo society is matrilineal, structured around the nuclear family, the mother's extended family, and her clan. A loosely organized network of overlapping ties links people throughout the Navajo community and insures that cultural traditions are passed from one generation to the next. A Navajo saying describes someone who behaves inappropriately as acting as though he does not have any relatives.

photograph of flocks of sheep
Sheep herding was and is an integral part of Navajo life. Photo by Edward Curtis.
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The Navajo were adaptable and willing to learn from others, selectively adopting whatever they found useful from all the people they encountered—Spanish, Hopi, Americans, and others. While contact with the Pueblo led the Navajo to adopt horticulture and weaving, they acquired livestock from the Spanish and became some of the best herdsmen and riders in the Southwest. Horses helped increase their contact with non-Navajo but also strengthened connections within tribe itself, allowing members to travel greater distances for ceremonies and visits. By the turn of the 19th century, sheep and goats had furnished a dependable food supply and provided goods for trade with Europeans, causing the Navajo population to increase and prosper. But the Navajo didn't just learn from others; many joined them. Perhaps a third of the Navajo clans are Puebloan in origin. The Navajos expanding presence eventually lead to conflict with other Indian communities, Spaniards, and Mexicans.

Struggle and Loss
In the 1600s, however, Navajo young men, seeking livestock to establish a flock, began to launch raids on neighboring tribes and Spanish settlements along the upper Rio Grande. The Spanish retaliated with slave-raids and land grabs. In 1804, the Navajos declared war on the Spanish but suffered a bloody defeat at Cañon de Chelly, where the Spanish destroyed hogans, burned crops, seized livestock, and captured dozens of women and children. The final blow came in 1821, at a truce conference, when 24 Navajos were stabbed as they smoked for peace.

Shortly afterward, Mexico declared independence from Spain and took control of the southwestern territory that included the Navajo homeland. The Navajo continued their livestock raids, this time on the Mexicans, who in turn rode northward kidnapping Indian children as slaves. In 1848, when the US annexed the area after the Mexican War, the Navajo hoped that it would rid them of their Mexican foes and free their enslaved relatives. Under the auspices of the War Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents not only failed to free Navajo slaves, but allowed slave-raiding to continue. Although Congress transferred the BIA from the War Department to the newly created Department of the Interior in 1849, unscrupulous Indian agents continued to wreak havoc on the reservation, invading and destroying crops. Soon after American soldiers under the command of Colonel John Washington fatally shot prominent Navajo leader Narbona. Several treaties followed, but none of them held, as U.S. authorities misunderstood Navajo social organization, signing agreements with what they judged to be "chiefs" who were actually nuat'banii, local headmen respected for their wise counsel but without authoritative power.

In 1862, General James H. Carleton arrived, determined to clear the Indians off the land. Under his orders, Kit Carson and his soldiers began burning Navajo crops and homes. Ute, Pueblo, and Mexican volunteers took revenge for Navajo raiding, taking sheep and horses, and their women and children for slaves. The campaign's most bitter episode came in January 1864, when Carson and 300 soldiers swept through Canyon de Chelly, repeating the destruction of the Spanish years earlier.

The culmination of Carleton's plan was a 300-mile trek to an internment camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a journey that became known as The Long Walk. In fact, there was not one Long Walk but a series of forced marches. To evade capture, many Navajos hid out near and on Black Mesa and around Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge. Of the several thousand Navajo who did walk, more survived than died along the way, but it was a terrible journey for all. Used to moving freely across wide-open spaces, the Navajo spent two to four years captive. A quarter starved or died of illness. The grief-stricken leader Ganado Mucho told the government superintendent that the Navajos would live on a reservation if it could be in their own countrv. Realizing the government's removal policy had failed, the U.S. Congress agreed and negotiated the Treaty of 1868. The surviving Navajo returned to a portion of their homeland, which has continued to expand through both executive orders from the US government and land acquisition. (This expansion became far more contested when New Mexico and Arizona became states in 1912.)

The Navajo Nation

While BIA agents became a de facto tribal government on reservations elsewhere in the US, the Navajo's economic self-sufficiency meant that the U.S. government had little control over them. Indian agent William Parsons noted, "Their very independence and industry makes them less susceptible than other tribes to 'civilizing' influences." The size of the reservation also contributed to the Navajo's cultural autonomy. Trading posts supplied food and manufactured goods in return for Navajo livestock, wool, and other by-products of herding. The famous Hubbell Trading Post, opened in 1876 by Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, is still in business. Much loved by the tribe for his aid during the 1886 smallpox epidemic, his biggest contribution to the tribe was popularizing Navajo rugs and blankets. As Navajos became more integrated into the U.S. national economy, trading posts became increasingly important to Navajo life, acting as a venue to sell blankets and jewelry and serving as a link to the outside community.

Despite Navajo autonomy and disinterest in centralized government, the US government established Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative centers across the reservation. Under the government's policy of assimilation, Indian agents operated schools, distributed supplies, and administered land allotments and lease contracts. There was no Navajo tribal government until the 1920s, when oil was discovered on the reservation and the federal government needed an official body of Navajos to approve the oil leases. The basis of local government is the chapter, whose members elect representatives to the Navajo Tribal Council, the legislative branch of Navajo government. The concept of representative government was alien to the Navajo, who settled issues through one-on-one meetings. Furthermore, the Navajo traditionally thought in terms of responsibility to relatives and to their local group than to a tribe. But by the 1930s many Navajos saw in the tribal government a means through which to gain greater control over their lives and lands. Navajo law takes precedence in Navajo courts. Then federal law and state law respectively are applied.

By the Great Depression, the U.S. government implemented the Stock Reduction Program, which the Navajo vigorously opposed. To the Navajo, sheep were a measure of status as well as large part of their cultural identity. Nonetheless, the government slaughtered thousands of sheep. As stock reduction pushed people off the land, Navajo sought seasonal agricultural labor and railroad work off reservation. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which expanded BIA services to include forestry, range management, and agricultural extension service, construction, and land acquisition.

Self Determination
Despite the Navajo's often contentious relationship with the U.S. government, World War II drew many Navajo into military service. More than 3,000 Navajos had served in the United States military, most famously as code talkers, who used the Navajo language to send unbreakable messages. Through service in the war, Navajos often had their first long-term exposure to American culture and many relocated to towns and cities. Many, however, returned to the reservation to live in traditional family groups focused on sheep herding. Children often helped out and less than half of the school-age population attended school. In 1950 Congress passed the Navajo Hopi Long-Range Rehabilitation Act to expand schooling, improve roads and boost economic development. Public education continued to grow throughout the decade as Public Laws 815 and 874 that followed the model of federal responsibility for children living on military bases provided money to construct and operate public schools.

By the end of the decade nearly 90 percent of Navajo children were in school, many sent to distant federal boarding schools or relocated to urban areas, part of an aggressive U.S. government campaign to assimilate Indian children. Navajo dissatisfaction with BIA boarding schools, schools run by local board and partially funded through contracts with the BIA where Native history, culture and language were given more emphasis. By the 1960s and 1970s, many public schools departed from their old goal of completely integrating Navajo students into the mainstream culture.

The power of the BIA waned in other areas as well. In 1954 responsibility for Indian health care moved from the Bureau to the Public Health Service. Navajo leader Annie Wauneka played a pivotal role in this transition. Acquisition of legal counsel encouraged Navajo efforts to assert their rights, while a legal services program, named Dinebeeina Nahiilna be Agitahe ("attorneys who contribute to the economic revitalization of the people"), soon known universally as DNA, assisted individual Navajos. The DNA initially was part of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity (ONEO), funded through Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. ONEO also supported Head Start for preschool children and a variety of other programs that promoted community development. ONEO's first director, Peter MacDonald, and DNA's eventual leader, Peterson Zah, emerged as the dominant figures in Navajo political life from the 1960s to the present. In 1969 the Navajo Tribal Council formally declared the Navajo reservation to be "the Navajo Nation."

In the 1950s royalties from oil helped fuel the movement toward self-determination. Uranium mining provided employment for many Navajos and brought additional revenues into the tribal treasury. When the mines began to play out, employment declined and eventually the terrible health costs of this industry were revealed. The electrical power needs of the Southwest and southern California negotitated new long term leases to strip mine coal from Navajo lands. Coal mining became a major source of new income. The tribal government worked to persuade companies to come onto the reservation and not only pay for whatever resources they used by also train and employ Navajos. The tribe contracted with Utah Mining and Manufacturing to strip mine south of the San Juan River, leased lands on the Black Mesa to The Peabody Coal Company, and, with the Arizona Public Service Company, constructed the Four Corners Power Plant. At the time most tribal council members did not know how much environmental damage strip mining and coal-fired plans would eventually cause. As coal deposits were exhausted, only a vast, barren, pit remained. Burning the coal at the power plants also generated severe air pollution. Aside from a concern for damage to the tourist industry, the Navajos feared that their land would be forever destroyed. In recent years, the Navajo Nation has taken legal action against these companies for non-payment of income as well as the destruction of the natural environment. Today, some Navajos are even seeking to shut The Peabody Coal Company down as its processes have depleted ground water on the reservation.

During this time, the Navajos' long-term land dispute with the Hopis escalated. Since the 1882 government order creating the Hopi reservation, which is surrounded by the larger Navajo reservation, its boundaries have been in dispute. Navajo interest in coal mining, and Hopi opposition, further complicated the disagreements. (Both tribes now share income from the mines.) In 1974 the US Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act, which divided nearly 2 million acres between the tribes, created joint-use lands, and relocated approximately 11,000 Navajos and 100 Hopis. This legislation, however, did not resolve the dispute, which continues even today. While some Navajo moved into new government housing, others refuse to leave their homes.

Thanks to increased income from the land's natural resources and a desire for self-determination, the Navajo Nation government continued to expand its programs across the reservation. The Navajo felt the federal government wasn't doing enough and feared that its decreasing involvement would cause responsibility to fall to state governments, a potential bureaucratic nightmare for a reservation spanning three states. The tribe has continued its struggle to balance the traditional ways of the tribe with the realities of mainstream life in America.

Significant research for this article came from Dine: A History of the Navajos by Peter Iverson. For information on this and other resources used, please visit Resources.

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