Who Are the Navajo? Part One

The name of the Navajo is among those best known by non-Native Americans, along with others including the Apache, Cherokee, Comanche, and Sioux. Navajo jewelry is among the most popular Native American jewelry, and the use of turquoise in Native American bracelets and other items by the Navajo is well-known. But just who are the Navajo as a People?

Navajo Native American, 1906.
Photo by Carl Moon.

The Navajo Nation

The Navajo is the United States’ largest federally-recognized Native American tribe, and its population exceeds three hundred thousand. The Navajo Reservation is the size of West Virginia and is spread throughout Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. It represents some of the world’s most scenic and famous vistas and landscapes. The Navajo have always lived in and relied upon the economy of the desert.

The Navajo refer to themselves as the Diné which means “people” in the Navajo language. The Navajo Reservation is called Diné Bikeyah, and it is a combination of arid desert, alpine forest, mountains, plateaus, and mesas.

Origins of the Navajo

Anthropologists believe that Ice-Age Paleo-Indian hunters resided in the area of Monument Valley between eight and fourteen thousand years ago. These people were followed by Anasazi hunter-gatherers.

The Navajo originated in Western Canada just over a thousand years ago and were part of the Athabaskan First Nations. They travelled south along the Pacific coast, and those who settled in southern Arizona and New Mexico became the Apache tribes, and as such the Navajo are closely related to the Apache. They learned much from the Pueblo Indians such as the Hopi, including weaving, cultivating food in the desert, and more.

In 1864, Navajo were deported by the white American government from their traditional lands and forced to walk at gunpoint into an internment camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Referred to as the Long Walk, they were held in captivity for four years before being released to return to their lands.

Oil was discovered on Navajo land in the 1920s, and the Navajo Nation became wealthy and established a tribal government in 1923. It is today the US’s most sophisticated form of Native American government.

Navajo Hogans

Unlike the stereotypical Native American, the Navajo traditionally did not live in teepees; they instead built hogans, which were octagonal log structures with mud or clay roofs. These were a place for storage and winter shelter (summer hogans were open along an entire wall); most of Navajo life was lived in the outdoors. According to Navajo superstition, a hogan would be burnt to the ground if a death had occurred inside.

Navajo Superstitions

Traditionally, Navajo people are very superstitious. Some of these superstitions that relate to misfortune or harm include:

  • Don’t whistle at night or evil spirits will whistle back.
  • Don’t point at a rainbow.
  • Never stare at the Moon.
  • Don’t look at fast-moving rivers or slow-moving clouds.
  • Never throw rocks into the wind.

Additionally, the Navajo believe in skinwalkers (sorcerers, witches, or shape-shifters who have the ability to transform themselves into animals, generally in order to cause harm).

Did You Know?

  • Navajo are credited with creating the first mother-in-law joke.
  • Sheep are a crucial part of Navajo culture since their introduction to the Navajo by the Spanish in the seventeenth century.
  • Navajo Code Talkers are national heroes in the USA. They were 400 Navajo Marines who, during World War II, contributed to the wartime code that was unable to be broken by the Japanese. Their job was to transmit tactical information via radio and telegraph, using the Diné During WWII, fewer than thirty non-Navajo people could understand Diné, let alone decipher it. This method of communication was much faster than using Morse code and it ultimately enabled the US Marines to take Iwo Jima.

Next time we’ll look in-depth at the way of life of the Navajo and how it is represented in their unique Native American jewelry.

Leave a Reply