Navajo Tribe: Facts, History & Culture

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

The essay will provide a historical framework for the modern Navajo culture, including their pre-Columbian traditions and the changes they have made to survive their eventual conquest by the United States.

What is a Navajo?

When you think about Native Americans it's hard not to imagine an old Western, with the 'barbarians' living on the hunt while the 'civilized' army or assorted heroes fight them off. But tribes like the Navajo completely break that stereotype. They were already farmers before they came in contact with the Europeans, and they happily adapted to new situations as they happened.

In their native language, Navajo means 'cultivated lands'. The Navajo also call themselves Dine, or 'the people'. They speak a language of the Athabaskan family, which is based in Canada and Alaska. We think that when the Athabaskans migrated across the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age, they migrated to that Northern region. It was only around 1400 when a few tribes continued south to Arizona and New Mexico. These tribes eventually became the Navajo and the Apache.

Pre-Columbian History

The Navajo kept no written records, so we have no idea about their political history or any of the significant cultural events in their past apart from the little that was remembered in their oral history. That sort of remembrance is dependent on stability -- in times of peace, elders can more easily pass along their memories to the young. However, the Navajo didn't have much stability after their contact with Europeans.

We do know the Navajo were hunters and gatherers. They followed the game animals and ate the plants they could find. Like all tribes on the plains, the buffalo was central to their culture, providing the raw elements for most of their tools in its bones and skin. In the U.S. we like to think of cattle as central to our life, with our use of its meat for food and its skin for leather. But the Navajo let very little of the buffalo go to waste. Even sinews and bones were used for something like sewing or to create hammers.

We also know that the Navajo are matrilinear, with inheritance passing to the women. The Navajo did conduct raids among themselves and with other tribes, but they did it for the same reason we allow boys to play contact sports like football; to allow the young to be active and aggressive in a controlled way.

European Influences

Spanish colonization changed many things for the Navajo, but the tribes adapted well. When put in contact with the Pueblo Indians, they learned how to farm corn, beans, and squash, among other crops. When the Spanish settled near them, they took to herding sheep and goats and using them to trade for Spanish tools and crafts they wanted. The Navajo also learned silversmithing from the Spanish.

Conflict

Despite their willingness to adapt, the Navajo were victimized by the Europeans and the U.S. That attitude about Native Americans being barbarians is as old as our first contact with them. In the 1780s, the Spanish began making raids into Navajo territories. In 1846, the U.S. made official contact with the Navajo and worked out a treaty with them.

The Navajo were forced into the treaty, and U.S. settlers liked the Navajo land better than their own, so neither side followed the treaty. Over the next 17 years, the situation just got worse. Finally, in 1863 Kit Carson burned and destroyed everything Navajo until they all surrendered to him. The entire tribe was forced into The Long Walk, a trek of 300 miles to Fort Sumner, during which many of the Navajo died.

The Long Walk
Navajo Long Walk

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