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Life on the Reservation

  The Navajo have not abandoned their culture but once again adapted to insure their survival.

See also: The Navajo's Ancient Roots
photograph of Window Rock
Window Rock is home to the Navajo Nation government Photo by Caitlin O'Neil
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by Caitlin O'Neil

Today the Navajo are the largest Indian tribe in North America. Navajoland, or Diné Be Keyah, is located within the exterior boundaries of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Nearly 175,000 Navajo are spread across a reservation of 16.2 million acres, an area larger than West Virginia. (Another 100,000 more Navajo live off the reservation.) The vast acreage includes rangelands and forests, irrigated farmlands, lakes, fish and wildlife, as well as substantial reserves of coal, oil and natural gas.

With the median age on the reservation spanning 18 to 24 years, life on the reservation is changing. While most elders speak Navajo, most young people speak English. Across the Navajo Nation, the number of sheep and goats have declined, and with them the rural lifestyle that bound the Navajo to their land. While the Navajo's connection to their land remains strong, it has become more spiritual than actual as many young Navajo moved into towns seeking the wage labor that now fuels the reservation economy. In town, they find easier access to public schools, grocery stores, and social activities. Even the traditional eight-sided hogan, has given way to federally subsidized housing and mobile homes, though modern plywood and lumber hogans are still used for ceremonial and religious purposes. Despite these changes, the Navajo have not abandoned their culture but once again adapted to insure their survival.

Window Rock is home to the Navajo Nation government, composed of three branches: an 88 member popularly-elected Navajo Nation Council, an elected President and Vice President, and a judicial system of seven district courts, seven family courts and a supreme court. Most Navajo government offices as well as the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs are housed in historic sandstone buildings nestled in a small canyon with the famed Window Rock towering above. The Navajo Tribal Council meets in a unique hogan-shaped building with a high log ceiling. Encircling the eight interior walls is a mural depicting the history of the tribe. As the governing body of the Navajo Nation, the Council has the authority to pass laws which govern the Navajo Nation, its members, and those who and live within its territorial boundaries. In addition, Navajo court system has the unique peacemaker court, which gather criminals, victims, and his or her relatives to discuss the crime committed and then helped construct a deal to account for it.

photograph of Navajo trade fair
More articles of Indian origin are marketed from Gallup, New Mexico, than any other city in America. © Art Today
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Native Arts
Window Rock is also the home of tribal-owned Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, which sells Navajo rugs, jewelry, sand paintings, pottery and beadwork. The Navajo are perhaps best known for their weaving. While in the past trading post owners often dictated colors and patterns to cater to tourists' tastes, today weavers are exploring new colors and patterns, encouraged by the new owners who hope to reinvigorate this traditional art form. Trading posts, museums, weaver's associations, individual artists, and even Web sites now sell these handcrafted rugs and enable weavers to continue their work. Just outside the reservation, Gallup, New Mexico, the so-called "Indian Capital of the World," hosts pawn shops and trading posts that carry an extensive stock of Navajo jewelry and rugs, Hopi kachina dolls and Pueblo pottery. For nine days each September, Window Rock also hosts the Navajo Nation Fair, the largest in the country, bringing together 50,000 Navajos and neighboring tribes with an array of rugs and jewelry, powwows, and booths selling mutton stew and fry bread. Every month, the Crownpoint, New Mexico, rug auction, a locally run enterprise established in the late 1960s, draws locals and tourists alike to purchase rugs woven by weavers from across the Navajo Nation.

In Navajoland, there are only two sports that matter: basketball and rodeo. Local boys and girls' high school basketball teams have brought home multiple state championships, uniting the community around their team's quest for success. Fans even follow their favorite players to college, driving to Tempe and Flagstaff to watch them play for Arizona State and Northern Arizona University. When there isn't a game to watch, every weekend from spring to fall a rodeo is underway somewhere on the reservation. Part competition and part family reunion, the rodeo features competitions in steer wrestling, calf roping and bull riding for Navajo of all generations. Navajo rodeo began in the 1920s, when ranchers would circle their wagons forming an arena for rodeo-style horse races. Over the Fourth of July, Window Rock is the site of one of the biggest all-Indian rodeos in the country. The rodeo draws thousands of spectators and includes a carnival, parade and fireworks display.

In 1997, 56 percent of Navajo people lived below the poverty level and the per capita income was reported to be $5,599. Twenty-four percent of personal income made in the Navajo Nation is spent on the reservation, leaving vast potential for economic development. Mining remains a large source of income and employment across the reservation. The Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the public schools, the Indian Health Service, various Navajo tribal enterprises, the Basha's grocery store chain and other businesses employ many Navajo on the reservation. Individual entrepreneurs continue to push for development of private enterprise. But other businesses have proven harder to attract, as they are deterred by inadequately paved roads, lack of electricity, water, and telecommunication services, and limited police and fire protection. This lack of amenities extends to private homes, where 51 percent lack complete plumbing and 48 percent don't have complete kitchen facilities. For some, these facts are an unremarkable part of rural life on the reservation; for others they are signs of struggle to make ends meet. High levels of unemployment persist. While alcohol is not allowed on the reservation, it can be purchased in nearby towns and through local bootleggers who profit from prohibition, just as others did in the U.S. in the 1920s, and alcoholism remains a significant problem.

Reservation schools have continued their bid to incorporate and extend Navajo language and culture. The school system itself, however, remains fractured. A mix of contract, Bureau of Indian Affairs and public schools serves the reservation, leaving parents and students confused. In the future, the Nation hopes to create a unified school system, an idea that will require great coordination and significant funding. Despite these obstacles, Navajo students have begun to excel in high school and, thanks in part to the efforts of former Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah, go on to college in ever-greater numbers. In his role as special advisor for Indian affairs at Arizona State University, Zah worked to recruit and retain Navajo students, who have found similar success at other regional colleges. By contrast, the tribe's own college is floundering. Founded in 1968 as the country's first Indian community college, Dine College has recently suffered from insufficient funding and disagreements over the school's direction. Hopes are still high, however, for its eventual improvement and expansion.

One area of the reservation economy that continues to boom is tourism. The Navajo Nation has established a Navajoland Tourism department and publishes an official visitors guide and map featuring 63 scenic locations. Monument Valley, the image that springs to mind when many think of red-rock country and the backdrop for countless John Ford westerns, continues to attract a steady stream of visitors. Thanks to the traffic along highway 163, profitable motels, restaurants and service stations have sprouted up in Kayenta. Cañon de Chelly National Monument, Navajo National Monument, and the beauty of the plateau bring tourists from Germany and France as well as North America. While the Navajo profit from their history, they also try balance this benefit with the responsibility for its preservation.

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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