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|Regions with significant populations|
| United States|
( Navajo Nation, Arizona,
New Mexico, Utah)
|Related ethnic groups|
|Regions with significant populations|
| United States|
( Navajo Nation, Arizona,
New Mexico, Utah)
|Related ethnic groups|
The Navajo (Navajo: Diné or Naabeehó) of the Southwestern United States are the largest federally recognized tribe of the United States of America with 300,048 enrolled tribal members. The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body, which manages the Navajo Indian reservation in the Four Corners area of the United States. The Navajo language is spoken throughout the region with most Navajo capable of speaking English as well.
Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajo were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. When the Spanish arrived, the Navajo began herding sheep and goats as a main source of trade and food with meat becoming an essential component of the Navajo diet. Sheep, also became a form of currency and status symbol among the Navajo based on the overall quantity of herds a family maintained.  In addition, the practice of spinning and weaving wool into blankets and clothing became common and eventually developed into a form of highly valued artistic expression.
The Navajo are speakers of a Na-Dené Southern Athabaskan languages known as Diné bizaad (lit. 'People speech'). The language comprises two geographic, mutually intelligible dialects. It is closely related to the Apache language as the Navajo and Apache are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside. It has been suggested that speakers of various other Athabaskan languages located in Canada can still comprehend the Navajo language despite the geographic and linguistic derivation of the languages.
Archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajo and Apache entered the Southwest around 1400 CE. The Navajo oral tradition is said to retain references of this migration.
Oral history also indicates a long relationship with Pueblo people and a willingness to adapt Puebloan ideas and linguistic variance into their culture, as well as long-established trading practices between the groups. Spanish records from the mid-16th century speak of the Pueblos exchanging maize and woven cotton goods for bison meat, hides and stone from Athabaskans traveling to the pueblos or living in the vicinity of them. In the 18th century, the Spanish reported the Navajo maintaining large herds of livestock and cultivating large crop areas.
The Spanish first used the term Apachu de Nabajo in the 1620s to refer to the people in the Chama Valley region east of the San Juan River and northwest of present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico. By the 1640s, the Spanish began using the term "Navajo" to refer to the Diné. During the 1670s the Spanish wrote that the Diné lived in a region known as Dinetah, about sixty miles (100 km) west of the Rio Chama valley region. In the 1780s, the Spanish sent military expeditions against the Navajo in the Mount Taylor and Chuska Mountain regions of New Mexico.
It is suggested that during the last 1,000 years, Navajos have been in an on-going process of territorial expansion, redefinition of tribal identity, and developing relationships with other indigenous groups based on trade and cultural exchange, likely resulting in endemic warfare, (raids) and commerce with the Pueblo, Apache, Ute, Comanche and Spanish peoples of the Southwest.
The Navajo came into official contact with the United States of America in 1846, when General Stephen W. Kearny invaded Santa Fe with 1,600 men during the Mexican American War. In 1846, following an invitation from a small party of American soldiers under the command of Captain John Reid who journeyed deep into Navajo country and contacted him, Narbona and other Navajos negotiated a treaty of peace with Colonel Alexander Doniphan on November 21, 1846, at Bear Springs, Ojo del Oso (later the site of Fort Wingate). The treaty was not honored by many young Navajo raiders who continued to steal livestock from New Mexican villages and herders. New Mexicans, on their part, together with Utes, continued to raid Navajo country stealing livestock and taking women and children for sale as slaves.
In 1849, the military governor of New Mexico, Colonel John Macrae Washington – accompanied by John S. Calhoun, an Indian agent – led a force of 400 soldiers into Navajo country, penetrating Canyon de Chelly, and signed a treaty with two Navajo leaders who presented themselves as "Head Chief" and "Second Chief." The treaty acknowledged the jurisdiction of the United States and allowed forts and trading posts to be built on Navajo land. The United States, on its part, promised "such donations [and] such other liberal and humane measures, as [it] may deem meet and proper." While en route to this treaty signing, Narbona, a prominent Navajo peace leader, was killed resulting in hostility between the treaty parties.
During the next ten years, the U.S. established forts on traditional Navajo territory. Military records cite this development as a precautionary measure to protect citizens and the Navajo from each other. However, Spanish/Mexican-Navajo pattern of raids and expeditions continued. New Mexican citizen and militia raids increased rapidly in 1860–61 and became known as Naahondzood, "the fearing time."
In 1861, Brigadier-General James H. Carleton, Commander of the Federal District of New Mexico, initiated a series of military actions against the Navajo. Colonel Kit Carson was ordered by Carleton to conduct an expedition into Navajo land and gain their surrender. Initially, only a few Navajo surrendered to Carson until he was joined by a large number of New Mexican militia volunteer citizens who aided in a scorched earth campaign against the Navajo. Carson and his forces swept through Navajo land, killing Navajos and destroying any crops, livestock or dwellings they came across. Facing starvation and death, the last group of Navajo surrendered at Canyon de Chelly and were taken to Fort Defiance for internment on July 20, 1863.
Beginning in the spring of 1864, around 9,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to embark on a trek of over 300 miles (480 km) to Fort Sumner, New Mexico for internment at Bosque Redondo. The internment at Bosque Redondo was a failure for many reasons as the government failed to provide an adequate supply of water, wood, provisions, and livestock for 4,000–5,000 people. Large scale crop failure and disease were also endemic during this time, as well as raids by other tribes and civilians. In addition, a small group of Mescalero Apaches, long enemies of the Navajo, had been relocated to the area resulting in conflicts. In 1868, a treaty was negotiated between Navajo leaders and the Federal government allowing the surviving Navajo to return to a reservation on a portion of their former homeland.
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The United States military continued to maintain forts on the Navajo reservation in the years following the Long Walk. A group of Navajo known as “Indian Scouts” were employed by the military as civilian police through 1895. During this period, Chief Manuelito founded the Navajo Tribal Police, which operated between 1872 and 1875 as an anti-raid task force working to maintain the peaceful terms of the 1868 Navajo treaty.
By treaty, the Navajo were allowed to leave the reservation for trade with permission from the military or local Indian Agent. Eventually, the arrangement lead to a gradual end in Navajo raids as the tribe was able to increase the size of livestock and crops. In addition, the tribe was able to increase the size of the Navajo reservation from 3.5 million acres (14,000 km²) to the 16 million acres (65,000 km²) as it stands today; however, economic conflicts with non-Navajo continued for many years as civilians and companies exploited resources assigned to the Navajo. The US government made leases for livestock grazing, took land for railroad development, and permitted mining on Navajo land without consultation with the tribe.
In 1883, Lt. Parker, accompanied by ten enlisted men and two scouts, went up the San Juan River to separate Navajos and citizens who had encroached on Navajo land. In the same year, Lt. Lockett, with the aid of 42 enlisted soldiers, was joined by Lt. Holomon at Navajo Springs. Evidently, citizens of the surname(s) Houck and/or Owens had murdered a Navajo chief's son and 100 armed Navajos were looking for them.
In 1887, citizens Palmer, Lockhart, and King fabricated a charge of horse stealing and randomly attacked a home on the reservation. Two Navajo men and all three whites died, but a woman and a child survived. Capt Kerr (with two Navajo scouts) examined the ground and then met with several hundred Navajo at Houcks Tank. Rancher Bennett, whose horse was allegedly stolen, pointed out to Kerr that his horses were stolen by the three whites to catch a horse thief. In the same year, Lt. Scott went to the San Juan River with two scouts and 21 enlisted men. The Navajo believed Lt. Scott was there to drive off the whites who had settled on the reservation and had fenced off the river from the Navajo. Scott found evidence of many non-Navajo ranches. Only three were active, and the owners wanted payment for their improvements before leaving. Scott ejected them.
In 1890, a local rancher refused to pay the Navajo a fine of livestock. The Navajos tried to collect it, and whites in southern Colorado and Utah claimed that 9,000 of the Navajo people were on a warpath. A small military detachment out of Fort Wingate restored white citizens to order.
In 1913, an Indian agent ordered a Navajo and his three wives to come in, and then arrested them for having a plural marriage. A small group of Navajo used force to free the women and retreated to Beautiful Mountain with 30 or 40 sympathizers. They refused to surrender to the agent, and local law enforcement and military refused the agent's request for an armed engagement. General Scott arrived, and with the help of Henry Chee Dodge, defused the situation.
In the 1930s, the United States government claimed the Navajo's livestock were overgrazing the land. It killed more than 80% of the livestock, in what is known as the Navajo Livestock Reduction, and started a permit system, requiring the Navajo to apply for grazing permits.
Some Americans were strongly sympathetic to the Navajo. In 1937, Mary Cabot Wheelright and Hastiin Klah, an esteemed and influential Navajo singer, or medicine man, founded The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. It is a repository for sound recordings, manuscripts, paintings, and sandpainting tapestries of the Navajo people. It also featured exhibits to express the beauty, dignity, and logic of Navajo religion. When Klah met Cabot in 1921, he had witnessed decades of efforts by the US government and missionaries to assimilate the Navajo people into mainstream society. Children were sent away to Indian boarding schools, where they were to learn English and practice Christianity. They were prohibited from using their own languages and religion. The museum was founded to preserve the religion and traditions of the Navajo people, which Klah was sure would soon be lost forever.
In the 1940s, during World War II, the United States denied the Navajo welfare relief because of the Navajos’ communal society. Eventually, in December 1947, the Navajos were provided relief in the post-war period to relieve the hunger that they had had to endure for many years. Navajo Code Talkers played an important role during World War II by communicating information which was unable to be understood by the enemy.
In the 1940s, large quantities of uranium were discovered in Navajo land. From then into the early twenty-first century, the US allowed mining without sufficient environmental protection for workers, waterways and land. The Navajo have claimed high rates of death and illness from lung disease and cancer resulting from environmental contamination. Since the 1970s, legislation has helped to regulate the industry and reduce the toll, but the government has not offered holistic and comprehensive compensation is yet forthcoming. 
The name “Navajo” comes from the late 18th century via the Spanish (Apaches de) Navajó "(Apaches of) Navajó", which was derived from the Tewa navahū "fields adjoining a ravine". The Navajo call themselves Diné.
Traditionally, like other Apacheans, the Navajo were semi-nomadic from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Their extended kinship groups had seasonal dwelling areas to accommodate livestock, agriculture and gathering practices. As part of their traditional economy, Navajo groups may have formed trading or raiding parties, traveling relatively long distances.
Historically, the structure of the Navajo society is largely a matrilineal system, in which women owned livestock and land. Once married, a Navajo man would move to live with his bride in her dwelling and among her mother's people and clan. Daughters (or, if necessary, other female relatives) were traditionally the ones who received the generational property inheritance. The children are "born to" and belong to the mother's clan, and are "born for" the father's clan. The mother's eldest brother has a strong role in her children's lives. As adults, males represent their mother's clan in tribal politics. The clan system is exogamous: people must date and marry partners outside their own clans, which for this purpose include the clans of their four grandparents.
A hogan, the traditional Navajo home, consists of an eight-sided house made of wood and covered in mud, with the door always facing east to welcome the sun each morning. The Navajo construct hogans out of poles and brush covered with earth. Navajos have several types of hogans for lodging and ceremonial use. Ceremonies, such as healing ceremonies or the kinaaldá, will take place inside a hogan. According to Kehoe, this style of housing is distinctive to the Navajo, and she writes, "even today, a solidly constructed, log walled Hogan is preferred by many Navajo families." Most Navajo members today live in apartments and houses in urban areas.
Those who practice the Navajo religion regard the hogan as sacred. The religious song "The Blessingway" (hozhooji) describes the first hogan as being built by Coyote with help from beavers to be a house for First Man, First Woman, and Talking God. The Beaver People gave Coyote logs and instructions on how to build the first hogan. Navajos made their hogans in the traditional fashion until the 1900s, when they started to make them in hexagonal and octagonal shapes. Today they are rarely used as dwellings, but are maintained primarily for ceremonial purposes.
The Navajo people traditionally hold the four sacred mountains as the boundaries of the homeland ([[Dinétah|Dinétah]]) they should never leave: Blanca Peak (Sisnaajiní — Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado; Mount Taylor (Tsoodził — Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico; the San Francisco Peaks (Dookʼoʼoosłííd — Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona; and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa — Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado.
Silversmithing is an important art form among Navajo. Atsidi Sani (ca. 1830–ca. 1918) is considered to be the first Navajo silversmith. He learned silversmithing from a Mexican man called Nakai Tsosi ("Thin Mexican") around 1878 and began teaching other Navajos how to work with silver. By 1880, Navajo silversmiths were creating handmade jewelry including bracelets, tobacco flasks, necklaces and bracers. Later, they added silver earrings, buckles, bolos, hair ornaments, pins and squash blossom necklaces for tribal use, and to sell to tourists as a way to supplement their income.
The Navajo's hallmark jewelry piece called the "squash blossom" necklace first appeared in the 1880s. The term "squash blossom" was apparently attached to the name of the Navajo necklace at an early date, although its bud-shaped beads are thought to derive from Spanish-Mexican pomegranate designs. The Navajo silversmiths also borrowed the "naja" (najahe in Navajo symbol to shape the silver pendant that hangs from the "squash blossom" necklace.
Navajo came to the southwest with their own weaving traditions; however, they learned to weave cotton on upright looms from Pueblo peoples. The first Spaniards to visit the region wrote about seeing Navajo blankets. By the 18th century the Navajo had begun to import Bayeta red yarn to supplement local black, grey, and white wool, as well as wool dyed with indigo. Using an upright loom, the Navajo made extremely fine utilitarian blankets that were collected by Ute and Plains Indians. These Chief's Blankets, so called because only chiefs or very wealthy individuals could afford them, were characterized by horizontal stripes and minimal patterning in red. First Phase Chief's Blankets have only horizontal stripes, Second Phase feature red rectangular designs, and Third Phase feature red diamonds and partial diamond patterns.
The completion of the railroads dramatically changed Navajo weaving. Cheap blankets were imported, so Navajo weavers shifted their focus to weaving rugs for an increasingly non-Native audience. Rail service also brought in Germantown wool from Philadelphia, commercially dyed wool which greatly expanded the weavers' color palettes.
Some early European-American settlers moved in and set up trading posts, often buying Navajo rugs by the pound and selling them back east by the bale. The traders encouraged the locals to weave blankets and rugs into distinct styles. These included "Two Gray Hills" (predominantly black and white, with traditional patterns); Teec Nos Pos (colorful, with very extensive patterns); "Ganado" (founded by Don Lorenzo Hubbell), red-dominated patterns with black and white; "Crystal" (founded by J. B. Moore); oriental and Persian styles (almost always with natural dyes); "Wide Ruins", "Chinlee", banded geometric patterns; "Klagetoh", diamond-type patterns; "Red Mesa" and bold diamond patterns. Many of these patterns exhibit a fourfold symmetry, which is thought to embody traditional ideas about harmony or hózhǫ́.
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Navajo spiritual practice is about restoring balance and harmony to a person's life to produce health. One exception to the concept of healing is the Beauty Way ceremony: the Kinaaldá, or a female puberty ceremony. Others include the Hooghan Blessing Ceremony and the "Baby's First Laugh Ceremony." Otherwise, ceremonies are used to heal illnesses, strengthen weakness, and give vitality to the patient. Ceremonies restore Hózhǫ́, or beauty, harmony, balance, and health.
When suffering from illness or injury, Navajos traditionally seek a certified, credible Hatałii (medicine man) for healing, before turning to Western medicine (e.g., hospitals). The medicine man will use several methods to diagnose the patient's ailments. This may include using special tools such as crystal rocks, and abilities such as hand-trembling and Hatał (chanting prayer). The medicine man chooses a specific healing chant for that type of ailment. Short prayers for protection may take only a few hours, and in some cases, the patient is expected to do a follow-up afterward. The medicine man may give advice, such as avoiding sexual relations, personal contact, animals, certain foods, and certain activities for a period of time.
The Navajo believe that certain ailments can be caused by violating taboos. Contact with lightning-struck objects, exposure to taboo animals such as snakes, and contact with the dead create the need for healing afterward. Protection ceremonies, especially the Blessing Way Ceremony, are used for Navajo who leave the boundaries of the four sacred mountains. It is used extensively for Navajo warriors or soldiers going to war. Upon return, the person receives an Enemy Way Ceremony, or Nidáá', to get rid of the evil elements in the body, and to restore balance in his or her life. This is important for Navajo warriors or soldiers returning from battle. Warriors or soldiers often suffer spiritual or psychological damage from participating in warfare, and the Enemy Way Ceremony helps restore harmony to the person, mentally and emotionally.
Some ceremonies cure people from curses. People may complain of witches and skin-walkers that do harm to their minds, bodies, and families. The ailments are not necessarily physical and may take other forms. The medicine man is often able to break the curses that witches and skin-walkers put on families. Mild cases do not take very long, but for extreme cases, special ceremonies are needed to drive away the evil spirits. The medicine man may find curse objects implanted inside the victim's body. These objects are used to cause the person pain and illness. Examples of such objects include bone fragments, rocks and pebbles, bits of string, snake teeth, owl feathers, and turquoise jewelry.
The medicine men learn fifty-eight to sixty sacred ceremonies. Most of them last four days or more; to be most effective, they require that relatives and friends attend and help out. Outsiders are discouraged from participating, as they may become a burden to others or violate a taboo. This could affect the turnout of the ceremony. The ceremony must be done in precisely the correct manner to heal the patient. This includes everyone who is involved.
The medicine man must be able to correctly perform a ceremony from beginning to end. If he does not, the ceremony will not work. A Hatałii learns as an apprentice to a master, and the study is extensive, arduous, and takes many years. The apprentice learns everything by watching his teacher, and memorizes the words to all the chants. If a medicine man cannot learn all sixty of the ceremonies, he may choose to specialize in a select few.
The origin of spiritual healing ceremonies is part of Navajo mythology. It is said the first Enemy Way ceremony was performed for Changing Woman's twin sons (Monster Slayer and Born-For-the-Water) after slaying the Giants (the Yé'ii) and restoring Hózhǫ́ to the world and people. The patient identifies with Monster Slayer through the chants, prayers, sandpaintings, herbal medicine and dance.
Another Navajo healing, the Night Chant ceremony, is administered as a cure for most types of head ailments, including mental disturbances. The ceremony, conducted over several days, involves purification, evocation of the gods, identification between the patient and the gods, and the transformation of the patient. Each day entails the performance of certain rites and the creation of detailed sand paintings. On the ninth evening a final all-night ceremony occurs, in which the dark male thunderbird god is evoked in a song that starts by describing his home:
- In Tsegihi [White House],
- In the house made of the dawn,
- In the house made of the evening light
The medicine man proceeds by asking the Holy People to be present, then identifying the patient with the power of the god, and describing the patient's transformation to renewed health with lines such as, "Happily I recover." The same dance is repeated throughout the night, about forty-eight times. The Night Chant ceremony takes about ten hours to perform, and ends at dawn.
In 2000 the documentary The Return of Navajo Boy was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It was written in response to an earlier film, The Navajo Boy which was somewhat exploitative of the Navajo People involved. The Return of Navajo Boy allowed the Navajo People to be more involved in the depicting of their own people.
In the final episode of the third season of the FX reality TV show 30 Days, the shows producer Morgan Spurlock spends thirty days living with a Navajo family on their reservation in New Mexico. The July 2008 show called Life on an Indian Reservation, depicts the dire conditions that many Native Americans experience living on reservations in the United States.
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