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Navajo Tribe

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Navajo Tribe

One of the distinct indigenous peoples of the southwestern region of the present-day United States, the Navajo hold a unique place in the history of the Americas. Like the Apache, they fought valiantly to maintain their independence and territory. However, in more recent history, the Navajo assimilated into U.S. society, especially through exceptional military service in the U.S. military through both World Wars. Who are the Navajo? Where are they from? And what aspects make up their culture and beliefs?

Navajo Tribe Location and Map

The ancestral territory of the Navajo occupied what is now New Mexico, northern Arizona, and parts of southern Utah and Colorado. The core of their lands is situated on the lower part of the Colorado plateau between the San Juan and Little Colorado Rivers.

Navajo, Map & facts, StudySmarter

The map shows, in red, the current boundary of the Navajo Reservation, which encompasses much of the historical territory of the Navajo Tribe. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Navajo Tribe Culture

The name "Navajo" is not the indigenous name of these indigenous peoples. The name Navajo is the Pueblo name for the Navajo peoples' region. The Spanish then took that name and called them the "Apache de Navajo," and from there on, the people of this southwestern region were known as the Navajo.

In their language, the Navajo call themselves the "Dineh" or "Dine," meaning "the people."

Navajo Tribe Diet and Shelter

The environment the Navajo people live in is arid and rugged. Early in their occupation of their territory, they were nomadic hunters and gatherers, much like their Apache relatives. Like their Apache relatives, the Navajo supplemented their hunting and gathering with raids into Pueblo lands for food, horses, property, women, and enslaved people. This reputation, much like the Apache, made the Navajo a feared people of the Southwest by other indigenous peoples, the Spanish, and the American settlers. However, unlike their Apache ancestors, the Navajo reduced their propensity for raids and pillaging over time. They continued the practice and adopted much of the traditional customs of the Pueblo and Hopi peoples in the region.

The Navajo learned settled agriculture, weaving, basketry, and pottery from other indigenous peoples- something the Apache did not adopt. The Navajo adopted herding sheep and goats from the Spanish and maintained these herds for a consistent supply of food, which quickly became essential to the Navajo diet. However, the Navajo became more sedentary with the increase in agriculture and sheepherding. The introduction of the horse in the 1600s allowed them a semi-nomadic lifestyle and extended their raids' range.

The Hogan Shelter

Navajo, facts & location, StudySmarter

This photograph, taken in 1905, shows a Navajo Hogan. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Navajo lived in a unique shelter called a Hogan. These structures were cone-shaped or built with six to eight sides with a framework made of logs. The frame is covered in bark and earth, and later with influences from the Pueblo, stone, or adobe. The doorways faced east to maintain efficient heat control. The sun warmed the Hogan in the morning while blocking direct sunlight in the afternoons.

Navajo Tribe Religion

Like many indigenous peoples of North America, the Navajo believe in supernatural spirits that inhabit the Earth and can influence the lives and events of their tribe. For the Navajo, these spirits manifest in human shape, animals, or an amalgamation of both. For example, the Coyote is a trickster spirit who plays jokes on people and meddles with people's plans to ruin them, and he is projected as an intelligent being.

The Navajo believe in ghost spirits of ancestors called "chinde," who were also malevolent and can cause sickness and accidents. The Navajo also believe in witches who can manipulate ghosts and spirits to harm others for revenge or personal gain.

To the Navajo, religion and medicine are interwoven. Navajo rituals, ceremonies, and chants form a very complex system for curing, blessing, and purification to maintain harmony in their world. As chinde could cause ailments, chanting, singing, and rituals are used to cleanse and purify the afflicted Navajo.

Navajo Tribe Arts and Craftsmanship

Art and religion go hand in hand. The Navajo use art to relate to spiritual beings and connect to the supernatural world. One unique art form is oral chants. Like most indigenous peoples, the Navajo did not use a written language to record their histories. Instead, they recite their myths in songs or poetry, sometimes accompanied by music. The Navajo are known for the length and detail of their chants. Some chants can have dozens of episodes and hundreds of verses.

The Navajo are skilled in fine jewelry making. They adopted the skill of silversmithing from the Spanish in the 1800s, also passing the craft to the Pueblo. The Navajo are famous for their intricate silverwork in necklaces, bracelets, and belt buckles.

Sandpaintings

In addition to singing and oral musical traditions, the Navajo developed an art form known as sandpainting. They may have adopted this practice from the Pueblo, but the Navajo used it throughout their religious festivities. They would create intricate and colorful dry paintings by delicately pouring powders of minerals such as ocher, ground sandstone, gypsum, and charcoal into patterns on clean sand. At the end of the rituals, the Navajo destroy the paintings, taking some of the powder for spiritual purposes.

Navajo, facts, history & religion, StudySmarter

This photograph shows Navajo men working on sandpainting. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Navajo Tribe History

The Navajo, much like their Apache relatives, came to the Southwest later than most other indigenous peoples, having broken off from other Athapascans in present-day southern Canada around the 1400s. Their migratory group then broke off with the Apache, and over time, they developed their current lifestyle and culture.

Navajo Tribe Interactions with the Spanish

The Spanish first contacts with the Navajo began in the 1600s, sending Catholic missionaries into the region by the mid-1700s but with little success at converting the Navajo. In the late 1700s, the Navajo began a series of raids that would continue into the 1800s against the Spanish and the Mexicans in response to the Europeans and Mexicans venturing north and kidnapping indigenous children and capturing enslaved people.

The Navajo Tribe and the United States

The Americans would begin their occupation of New Mexico in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. Still, they would not formally control the area until the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. During this time, the United States created the foundation for its policies against the Navajo. In 1848, the U.S. Army began to protect Americans and Mexican Americans from the raids of the Navajo, establishing a de facto state of war with the tribe.

In 1862, the U.S. Army successfully drove the Confederate troops out of New Mexico. Once U.S. Army defeated the Confederates in the territory, the commander of the U.S. forces turned to rid the region of the Navajo and Apache, placing Colonel Christopher Carson in charge of the operation.

Instead of attempting to defeat the Navajo in battle on their land, Carson began a scorched-earth campaign through the territory. In 1863, Carson's men destroyed Navajo fields, orchards, villages, and livestock. By early 1864, Carson cornered the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly, blocked the area with troops, and began to push out pockets of violent Navajo resistance. By March, 6,000 starving Navajo surrendered. By the end of the year, another 2,000. And by 1866, the final 4,000 Navajo surrendered to U.S. control; in total, the Navajo were the largest indigenous group to submit to the U.S. throughout all of the Indian Wars.

The Long Walk and Reservation Life

At the end of 1866, the U.S. Army began its plan to relocate the Navajo and other Apache tribes to reservation lands in the eastern parts of New Mexico. Over a 300-mile forced march, 200 Navajo perished; the Navajo call this event "the Long Walk."

Navajo, facts, history & location, StudySmarter

This photograph taken in 1864 shows Navajo refugees under guard during the "Long Walk." Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

In the Bosque Redondo Reservation in the east, the Navajo suffered from outbreaks of starvation, disease, infertile soil, and conflicts with the Apache. Between 1866 and 1868, 2,000 Navajo died at Bosque Redondo. In 1868, Navajo chiefs negotiated with the U.S. government to allow them to go back to their ancestral homelands, and the U.S. granted the Navajo 3.5 million acres of reservation land encompassing their original territory.

Navajo Code Talkers

A unique aspect of Navajo history with the United States is the propensity for Navajo warriors to join the U.S. Military. Many Navajo have served in the military, beginning in World War I. The Navajo "code talkers" of World War II were recruited to communicate in the Navajo language in open radio transmissions between American units in the Pacific theater. The Navajo language at the time was unwritten and was so foreign to the Japanese that they were never able to translate the code.

Bill Toledo, Frank G. Willetto, and Keith Little, Navajo Code Talkers, were among the Iwo Jima veterans honored on Feb. 19th, 2010, at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va. On Feb. 19th, 1945, the United States launched its first assault against the Japanese at Iwo Jima, resulting in some of the fiercest fightings of World War II. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

It is said that without the Navajo code talkers, the U.S. Marines would not have been able to take the island of Iwo Jima. During the first 48 hours of that famous battle, while the marines established a beachhead under direct and heavy fire from the Japanese, the "code talkers sent and received more than 800 messages without error." 1

Navajo Tribe Today

Modern Navajo earn a living from raising sheep, goats, and cattle, herding their animals in areas designated on the Navajo Reservation. Many Navajo still speak their native language and practice the Navajo religion. With the introduction of modern irrigation systems, some Navajo have expanded their agricultural practices into regions of previously infertile soil. In addition, the Navajo benefit from oil, gas, coal, and uranium leases on their lands.

Navajo - Key takeaways

  • The ancestral territory of the Navajo occupied what is now New Mexico, northern Arizona, and parts of southern Utah and Colorado. The core of their lands is situated on the lower part of the Colorado plateau between the San Juan and Little Colorado Rivers.
  • The name "Navajo" is not the indigenous name of these indigenous peoples. In their language, the Navajo call themselves the "Dineh" or "Dine," meaning "the people.
  • Like many indigenous peoples of North America, the Navajo believe in supernatural spirits that inhabit the Earth; art and religion are interwoven: the Navajo use art to relate to spiritual beings and connect to the supernatural world.
  • At the end of 1866, the U.S. Army began its plan to relocate the Navajo and other Apache tribes to reservation lands in the eastern parts of New Mexico. Over a 300-mile forced march, 200 Navajo perished; the Navajo call this event the "Long Walk."
  • Modern Navajo earn a living from raising sheep, goats, and cattle, herding their animals in areas designated on the Navajo Reservation.

1. Waldman, C. (2006). Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes (Facts on File Library of American History) (3rd ed.). Checkmark Books.

Frequently Asked Questions about Navajo Tribe

The ancestral territory of the Navajo occupied what is now New Mexico, northern Arizona, and parts of southern Utah and Colorado. The core of their lands is situated on the lower part of the Colorado plateau between the San Juan and Little Colorado Rivers.  

The Navajo are an Athapascan-speaking people, much like the Apache.

Modern Navajo earn a living from raising sheep, goats, and cattle, herding their animals in areas designated on the Navajo Reservation. Many Navajo still speak their native language and practice the Navajo religion. With the introduction of modern irrigation systems, some Navajo have expanded their agricultural practices into regions of previously infertile soil. In addition, the Navajo benefit from oil, gas, coal, and uranium leases on their lands.  

Like many indigenous peoples of North America, the Navajo believe in supernatural spirits that inhabit the Earth and can influence the lives and events of their tribe. For the Navajo, many of these spirits manifest in the forms of people, animals, or an amalgamation of a human and animal. 

Southern areas of Present-day Canada. The Navajo started to migrate south in the 1400s. 

Final Navajo Tribe Quiz

Question

What other indigenous people of the American southwest are closely related to the Navajo? 

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Answer

The Apache

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Question

What Pueblo tribe is encompassed by the Navajo territory? 

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Answer

The Hopi

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Question

What was the main form of how the Navajo provided for their tribes? 

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Answer

 nomadic hunters and gatherers

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Question

What destructive activity did the Navajo participate in to supplement their hunting and gathering? 

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Answer

Raiding other indigenous tribes, Spanish settlements, and American settlements. 

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Question

Unlike the Apache, the Navajo adopted which of the following practices from other indigenous tribes? 

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Answer

agriculture

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Question

What is a traditional Navajo shelter called? 

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Answer

Hogan 

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Question

Which of the following is the Navajo name for the ghost spirits that can cause sickness or misfortune? 

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Answer

chinde

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Question

Which of the following arts and crafts are the Navajo not known for? 

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Answer

glass bead-work 

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Question

Which European explorers had the first contact with the Navajo? 

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Answer

The Spanish 

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Question

What major event in U.S. History led to direct conflict between the Navajo and the U.S. Army? 

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Answer

The American Civil War 

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Question

What do the Navajo call the forced march to reservation lands that took place in 1866? 

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Answer

The Long Walk 

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