The Navajos are an Indian tribe living in the southwestern part of the United States. Navajos call themselves Dineh, meaning “the people.” The Navajos came to the southwestern United States from the northwest Pacific coast and Canada, between the l3OO’s and the 1600’s. They are related to the Athabaskan tribes. They hunted deer, mountain sheep, antelope, and rabbit, and made their clothing from these animal skins. They started raiding Spanish settlers to get horses for hunting and fighting, and became known as great warriors by the Spanish and other surrounding Indian tribes. They grew corn, beans, and squash in fields that the Spanish called Nabaju, which means “great planted fields.” The word Nabaju became “Navajo,” pronounced “Navaho” in the Spanish way.
By 1750, the Navajos were living in the valleys and mountains around Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona. Livestock had become a major part of their life. They quit their lifestyle of hunting and became sheepherders. As the sheep consumed the grass, the Navajos were forced to move on to new land. They did not live as an organized tribe in villages, but instead, in scattered locations in Arizona and New Mexico, where they still live today. Navajo families lived in hogans, which were quick and easy to build as they moved. These were homes that were made with tree supporting poles that were covered with mush and brush. Later, the Navajos built more permanent hogans made of logs, and chinked them with mud in a circular shape.
Up until 1848, the land on which the Navajos lived had belonged to Mexico. The Navajos had to continually fight not only the Spanish, but also other Indian tribes in order to live on this land. In 1848, American white men decided to take over the Navajo land. The Navajos, who became known as fierce warriors, continued to fight for their land until the 1850’s and 1860’s, when the Americans built Fort Defiance in the heart of Navajo country, near what is now Window Rock, Arizona. The Americans then killed or captured thousands of Navajos, burning their hogans and crops, and killing their sheep. The Navajos were forced to surrender, and then made to walk almost 300 miles to FortSumner (known as Bosque Redondo to the Navajo) in eastern New Mexico. This trek became known as “The Long Walk.” During this walk and their years of confinement in FortSumner, the Navajos were treated cruelly and many died. In 1868, this brutal episode in Navajo history ended and the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland. They began to unite as a people and to form their own nation. The Navajos soon returned to their self-sufficient lives of farming, herding sheep and weaving. By the 1900’s their population had more than doubled. They became beautiful silversmiths. Trading their woven rugs and silver jewelry became a way of life.
The Navajos have many fascinating beliefs and colorful ceremonies. Their way of life is based on a belief that the physical and spiritual world blend together, and everything on earth is alive and sacred. The Yei, or Holy Ones, live in the four sacred mountains in each of the four directions, which form the boundaries of the Navajo land. The Holy Ones are attracted by their ritual songs, prayers, stories and paintings, and visit the Navajo people during their ceremonies and in their daily lives The Navajo people have two major kinds of ceremonies: the Blessing way, which is to keep them on the path of happiness and wisdom, and the Enemy way, which is to eliminate ghosts and discourage evil spirits. One of the most well known ceremonies is a healing ceremony called a “sing” in which a Navajo medicine man sings and creates a drawing called a sandpainting. Sandpaintings depict The Holy Ones, with detailed figures, and are made by trickling from the hand, fine grains from crushed pollen, cornmeal, charcoal from a burned tree, and other powdered minerals.
The Navajo nation is the largest reservation in North America, covering an area of about 27,000 square miles. This area includes a large part of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and a small part of southeastern Utah. Today, the capital of the Navajo nation is located at Window Rock, Arizona. The Navajos have a population of over 200,000 people, making their tribe the largest Native American tribe in the United States. The Navajo people maintain many of their ancestors’ beliefs and traditions. They strive to continue speaking their challenging Navajo language, although many Navajos also speak English. This loyalty and their warrior background made them the only people in the United States more than willing to go fight for our country in World War II using a code that no one could decipher.
The Navajo are people very geared toward family life and events that surround their lifestyle. Many games and traditions have emerged from their love of the land and their attachment to it. Long winter nights and the seclusion of the reservation has brought about most of the customs and activities used by the People to entertain and amuse themselves.
The Navaho life is particularly rich in ceremony and ritual, second only to some of the Pueblo groups.
Note is made of nine of their great nine-day ceremonies for the treatment of ills, mental and physical. There are also many less important ceremonies occupying four days, two days, and one day in their performance. In these ceremonies many dry-paintings, or “sand altars,” are made, depicting the characters and incidents of myths. Almost every act of their life—the building of the hogán, the planting of crops, etc.—is ceremonial in nature, each being attended with songs and prayers.
Originally, Navajo men wore breechcloths and the women wore skirts made of woven yucca fiber. Shirts were not necessary in Navajo culture, but both men and women wore deerskin ponchos or cloaks of rabbit fur in cool weather, and moccasins on their feet. After sheep were introduced and Navajo women could weave larger woolen items, men began to wear poncho-style wool shirts, women began to wear wool dresses with shoulder straps, and heavy wool blankets began to replace fur cloaks. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, long velveteen shirts and blouses came into fashion and Mexican-style full cotton skirts became popular with Navajo women. These styles are still popular today. Here is a site with sketches of 19th-century Apache and Navajo clothing styles, and some photos and links about Indian clothes in general.
The Navajos did not traditionally wear feather warbonnets. Navajo men usually wore cloth headbands tied around their foreheads instead. Both men and women wore their hair gathered into a figure-eight shaped bun called a tsiyeel, though some Navajo men did begin cutting their hair to shoulder-length in the Pueblo style during the early 1900’s. Except for certain religious ceremonies, the Navajos didn’t paint their faces or bodies. But they are famous for their beautiful silver and turquoise ornaments, particularly concha belts (made of interconnected silver medallions), brooches, and jewelry.
Today, many Navajo people still have moccasins or a velveteen blouse, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths… and they only wear traditional regalia on special occasions like a wedding or a dance.
For generations, traditional Navajo dishes have been handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter without being written down. Besides being a basic necessity of life food welcomes visitors and expresses thanks. Traditional Navajos usually cook by memory, measuring their ingredients with hands or fingers. If there is no modern stove, most food is cooked over an open fire. Traditional cooks still use wild plants and vegetables such as spinach, onions, turnips, berries, cactus and cedar brush. For instance, cedar brush is used to add color, a flavor to a popular Navajo delight called blue corn meal pudding.
The Medicine Man
The medicine man plays a dominant role in the Navajo culture. Opposing the false image portrayed on television and movie screens, the medicine man holds great respect and honor among the Navajo people. He is important because he has knowledge of the heritage and culture of the Navajo. In the headlong march for progress today, in the forward thrust into uncertainty, amid the continuous cry for self-determination, very few men are left who have a tie to the past—a tie to The People’s history, legends, and myths that are slowly fading away as the old die.
The medicine man is the holder of truth about the Navajo way of life. Through his mouth, principles of goodness and prosperity are taught to the people. Thus, he is a man of great significance, not just because he is a healer or has knowledge of herbal medicine, but because he preserves the traditions and beliefs of the Navajo. When a medicine man is called to perform a ‘sing’, or healing ceremony, he comes not only prepared to heal but to tell the story of the people and their beginning from the first world to their emergence into the fourth world. This is the time when he will answer questions about life and anything that has to do with man’s existence on earth. He will tell the young and remind the old that the harmony of one’s life and the universe and the order of all things is very important to the well-being of the individual.
The medicine man does not claim to be a god and does not wish to be worshipped as such. He is a man who has spent many hours learning ceremonial procedures, yet he never learns more than three of these in his lifetime. He must learn songs and prayers, none of the wording of which can be missed; he must learn many different types of herbs for his healing; he must, through many trips into different areas of the country, obtain the necessary items for his sacred medicine bag; he must purify himself by many hours of contemplation in the sweat hut; he must then have faith in the Great Spirit and in himself that he will be able to heal. Through his faith the ill one has in him, he is able to render the service of healing. The medicine man is well paid for his services. Some who are healed pay a large sum in cash plus as many as five sheep, and blankets. The ill one, along with help from relatives, must also provide food for the visitors and the family.
Before money was available, medicine men used to be paid with livestock, turquoise, and rugs.
Medicine Man of the Cheyenne
For the Navajos, each song is a prayer to the Holy People -or supernatural beings- who take care of them. Navajo songs are sung in ceremonies to cure the sick or to protect their families, homes, crops or herds. Every Navajo ceremony includes a “Blessingway Song”. It provides a blessing for a long and happy life. It is also used to bless a new hogan or a new marriage.
The Navajo creation story
The Navajo creation story involves three underworlds where important events happened to shape the Fourth World where we now live. The Navajo were given the name Ni’hookaa Diyan Diné by their creators. It means “Holy Earth People”. Navajos today simply call themselves “Diné”, meaning “The People”. The Tewa Indians were the first to call them Navahu, which means “the large area of cultivated land”.
Changing Woman lived alone. One day she received inspiration to go up on a hill and build a wickiup with four poles, where the first rays of the sun would strike in the morning. Is dzán naadleeshe’ went inside and lay there and as the sun came up, the sun shone between her legs. One of his rays went into her. This caused her first menstrual period. After that she became pregnant. She conceived a son and called him Nayé nazgháné; (Slayer of Monsters). Four days later she was impregnated by Water- Old Man and gave birth to Túbaadeschine (Born of the Water-Old Man). These were the first Apache people.
The Navajo Language
The Navajos have never stopped speaking their native Athabaskan language, unlike many other native peoples who are trying to revive their languages. The Navajo language is spoken only on the Navajo reservation in the southwestern United States, and until recently was an unwritten language. It is an extremely complex language with no alphabet or symbols. It is very reflective of the Navajo way of life and their world. To be able to speak Navajo, one must have extensive exposure and training.
Navajo is a tonal language, meaning the vowels rise and fall when pronounced, changing meaning with pitch. There are four separate tones of voice used: low, high, rising, and falling. Two separate words with different meanings may therefore have the same pronunciation but with different tones. Some Navajo words are also nasalized, meaning that the sound comes through the nose instead of the mouth. The following is a simplified guide to the pronunciation of vowels.
The Navajo language is very difficult for non-Navajos to understand because of the precise way in which one object relates to another. These relationships may seem unimportant to outsiders, but are exceptionally important to the Navajos. Their view of life, which is that everything they do and that happens to them is related to the world around them, is very apparent in the way they speak. For example, a Navajo would not say, “I am hungry,” but instead would say, “Hunger is hurting me.” It has been said that in Navajo, words paint a picture in your mind.
The Navajo language embodies a high prevalence of humor in day to day conversation. Humor transforms difficult and frustrating circumstances into bearable and even pleasant situations. The strong emphasis and value Navajos place on humor is evidenced in the First Laugh rite. The first time a Navajo child laughs out loud is a time for honor and celebration.
The Modern Period
The Navajo reservation has been enlarged several times since its original creation in 1868, and now encompasses the northeast corner of Arizona and the Four Corners region, including parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The Navajo reservation is by far the largest reservation in the U.S., with over 15 million acres of land, and a human population of over 148,000. The Dinè people have been remarkably successful at preserving their unique culture, despite an increasing shift toward Anglo-American lifestyles. It is estimated that approximately 80% of the population speaks the Navajo language.
Ethno-archaeologist Klara B. Kelley, in her book, Navajo Land Use, makes a compelling case that the Navajo economic base was transformed from self-sufficient to market-oriented production after the arrival of the railroad, and later, to a wage work and welfare economy in the industrial era. The resulting changes in population and settlement patterns have led to land-use at odds with its livestock carrying capacity.
Reservation grazing practices have led to soil erosion followed by impoverishment and severe range degradation, a condition apparent even to the most casual observer today.
By the early 1950s, camp life was diminishing, and more permanent Anglo-style ranches were being established. Hogans were increasingly replaced with modern style houses for dwelling purposes, although hogans have remained important for ceremonial purposes. Wage employment opportunities, public schools, hospitals, and public utilities brought Navajo people in larger and larger numbers to urban centers such as Shiprock, TubaCity, Gandado, and FortDefiance. A strong sense of tribal identity has kept Navajo culture and social cohesiveness intact, despite the many changes of the last century.