With a land area of over 24,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is about the same size as West Virginia. Home to more than a dozen national monuments and tribal parks, the Navajo reservation extends into Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
Scholars believe the Navajo have thrived because of their ability to selectively incorporate ideas from other cultures (Puebloans, Paiutes, Spanish, Anglos) while maintaining their original culture and distinctive indentity.
The Navajo (Dine′) are part of the Athabascan speaking peoples believed to have originated in Asia and crossed into North America via the Bering Strait during the previous Ice Age. Over thousands of years, the Athabascans traveled southward beginning in about 1000 A.D.
The Navajo religion teaches that they traveled through three or four worlds beneath this one, emerging into this world in southwestern Colorado or northwestern New Mexico. The gods created the four sacred mountains–Blanca Peak and Hesperus Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, and the San Frnacisco Peaks in Arizona. The mountains serve as supernatural boundaries, within which all was safe and protected.
Scholars still debate when the Navajo entered the Southwest. Most anthropologists agree the Navajo were spread through northern New Mexico, southern Utah and northern Arizona by the end of the 1500’s.
By 1525 A.D., the Navajo had developed a rich culture in the area near present day Farmington, New Mexico. The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century introduced sheep, goats and horses to the Navajo. The Navajo flourished and migrated via extended family units into northern Arizona and southeastern Utah. Around 1700, and possibly as early as 1620, the Navajo moved into the San Juan River area of Utah in search of pasture land for their sheep and goat herds. Because the San Juan River was one of the few sources of water in Navajo territory, many Navajo planted fields of corn, beans, and squash on its floodplains.
A conflict arose between the Spanish and Pueblo peoples known as the Pueblo Revolt. During this time, Pueblo Indians had experienced enough of Spanish oppression and fought the Spanish, ejecting them from Pueblo land. When the Spanish returned around 1680, the Pueblo Indians sought refuge among the Navajo. The Navajo welcomed the Pueblo Indians and adopted some of their cultural values.
In the late 18th century, the Spanish, intent on conquering the Southwest, were in conflict with the Navajos. The Spanish formed alliances with the Comanches and Utes to weaken the Navajos.
By the time the U.S. acquired the southwest in 1848, the Navajo were among the richest Native Americans with large herds, some of which had been acquired during raids. Due to increasing tensions with white settlers in the area, in 1863, the U.S. Army, under the command of Christopher “Kit” Carson, destroyed the Navajo’s strength using a scorched earth policy. Carson forced the surrender of the Navajo and forcibly marched his captives 300 miles to Fort Sumner in central New Mexico, a journey known as The Long Walk. Hundreds died during the trek. Thousands more died during captivity as conditions at Fort Sumner imprisonment were overcrowded, undersupplied and unsanitary.
In 1868, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman visited Fort Sumner and was moved by an appeal from a Navajo leader to allow the Navajo to return to their homeland. An 1868 treaty established the Navajo Reservation which encompassed much of their original homeland. An 1884 executive order, added the reservation land in southeastern Utah.
The arrival of the railroad in the early 1880’s provided the Navajo the opportunity to work for wages, and rail transport was a means to deliver Navajo arts and crafts to American markets. Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1924.
The U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 changed Navajo life dramatically. More people began working for wages, and many joined various branches of the military. Best known are the “Code Talkers”, a group who developed a code based on the Navajo language that proved impossible to break during WWII.
The Navajo accept change and encourage their youth to obtain an education and job skills. Many also desire to stay close to home and maintain strong family ties, an important theme in Navajo culture.
1. McPherson R. Navajo Indians. www.utahhistorytogo.gov 2. Arthur R., Diamond J. Understanding Tribal Fates. Science 2011;334:911-912.