Who Are the Navajo? Part Two

The Navajo continue to live a lifestyle that is predominantly traditional. Many live in the area their ancestors settled in the past, despite the arid and barren landscape. A large number of Navajo have also settled in Los Angeles, Kansas City, MO, and along the irrigated lands on the lower Colorado River. Many speak native Navajo language, practice Navajo religion, and continue the tradition of the past century and longer of volunteering for the US armed forces at a higher rate than for most US citizens. This may be an expression of the Navajo ethic of community and service to others.

Navajo Men by Shiprock, New Mexico. Early 1900s.

Photo by William M. Pennington.

Navajo Lifestyle

Prior to contact with the Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajo were hunter-gatherers; following this contact, they learned agricultural techniques for growing corn, squash and beans, and later began trading clothing, blankets, and cattle. Men were traditionally hunters and warriors, whereas women were farmers and cared for their children.

Language

Navajo language is Athabaskan, which is the most widely spoken Native American language in the United States. Athabaskan exists in three distinct groups: Northern, Southern, and Pacific Coast. Navajo is a Pacific Coast Athabaskan (as are the five distinct Apache languages). Navajo is renowned for being incredibly difficult to learn, and most contemporary Navajo speak English.

Religion

The Navajo have an intricate spiritual and religious life, and the Navajo religion is widely practised to this day. Physical and spiritual worlds are relative and blended. Sun, winds, and watercourses are worshipped. Death is rarely mentioned. Many rites and ceremonies have their basis in the tradition of the emergence of the first people from worlds deep within the earth as well as rites to discourage evil, eliminate ghosts, and to welcome wisdom and joy. The majority of Navajo rites were traditionally performed with the aim of curing illness and diseases of the body and mind; there were also simple prayer ceremonies involving song, dance, and dry painting.

Navajo Politics

Traditional Navajo society is based on matrilineal kinship. Like other Apachean Peoples, the Navajo have adopted a pan-tribal organization with legal systems that maintain tribal sovereignty, but with limited centralized political organization.

Influences on the Navajo

The Navajo have a fascinating way of life which has been influenced by the Pueblo Indians with whom they had contact, particularly in the eighteenth century. For example, the Hopi tribal members left their mesas during the 1700s due to Spanish suppression, famine and drought, and lived with the Navajo in northeast Arizona in Canyon de Chelly.

It was through the Hopi influence that the Navajo adopted weaving (especially rugs and Native American blankets), painted pottery, and dry-sand painting, which is an element of Navajo ceremonialism.

The Navajo are renowned for their silver Native American jewelry, which dates from the mid-1800s. It is most likely an art and skill they originally gleaned from Mexican silversmiths.

Next time we will conclude our focus on the Navajo with an in-depth look at Navajo Art and Craft and how their way of life is expressed in Navajo Native American Jewelry

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