Short Navajo History of Culture

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Juanita, wife of a Navajo Warrior. Photograph from National Archive, taken in 1901

Speaking a language known as Diné bizaad, sometimes referred to as the “People’s language,” the Navajo people are a group of people who are believed to have migrated south from Northwest Canada and the Eastern part of Alaska. Most of the Navajo history is passed down from oral tradition. The historical data and evidence shows that they were migrated to the Southwest of America by 1400, and perhaps even as early as 800.

Primarily being hunters and gatherers, the Navajos were introduced to farming by the Pueblo Indians and Spanish peoples. From them, they learned farming techniques, but they continued their hunting as well, traits they brought from Alaska and Canadian forests. Today’s Navajo, Pueblo, and Spanish foods are very similar, consisting of corn, beans, squashes, sheep, etc.

Sheep were a large part of the Navajo culture. They were used for forward as well as creating cloth and wool to create clothing, blankets, and other similar items. Navajo used their sheep for weaving unlike the Pueblo Indians who used cotton.

Navajo utilized many designing characteristics for their blankets, in particular stripes. But, as time wore on, they developed new types of designs which ended up dominating their people. In the 1800’s, they were creating some particular vibrant patterns on their gorgeous blankets that the women were primarily creating compared to the Pueblo men who created their blankets. One modern art figure, Andy Warhol admired the artistry of the Navajo blankets. When talking about the Navajo women weavers, he claimed in 1972 that it was “yet another proof that women are the world’s major artists.”

Much of the Navajo history and culture fell to despair at the hands of the United State’s armies. In another sign of United State’s historical thirst for power and dominance over people they deemed lesser, they created an internment camp in New Mexico where they took all the Navajo tribes and placed them there for 5 years, between 1863 and 1868. The few surviving members of the Navajos ended up taking “the Long Walk” back to their homeland. From there, the blanket era was over with for the Navajos. They then began to design and weave rugs and blankets for the purposes of the American marketplace. While they were still spectacular in appearance, the Indian America culture began to fall.

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Treaty of 1869. Pictured are Navajo leaders in Washington D.C. to sign treaty that let them return to their homeland. Photo from National Archives

On the Long Walk back to their homeland, many Navajo people were sick. The Bosque Redondo, where they stayed had not given them enough water, food, and livestock to provide for the nearly 5,000 people there. Disease and crop failure were major problems at the time, and the Americans allowed the Navajo to return to a portion of their homeland on a reservation after a treaty was signed in 1868 between the government and Navajo leaders. On the Long Walk, Navajo people were not well protected, and their enemies would regularly take children and women from the tribe and use them as slave labor. Some Navajo people froze to death on this long journey home.

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Navajo Warriors at Fort Summer, New Mexico. (Bosque Redondo) Taken between 1864-1868. Photography from National Archives

Years later, Navajo people were forced to learn white society. Children were taken from their homes and sent to schools where they would learn European American lifestyle taught by American leaders. Against the will of Navajo Indian, Americans were able to take many of the unwilling children and force them to acclimate to a new English speaking lifestyle. Under hard times and heavy disciplined school, the children were treated pretty rough and forced to live under hard conditions. Upon leaving the school, many children would return back to their tribe and not be able to communicate with family members and other Navajo people, and it led to problems within communities.

The Navajo people are a historically somewhat nomadic tribe. They move when necessary for their livestock and farming practices. Women were owners of livestock and land, and they were often leaders of clans and households.

Some Navajos have lived in what is called a Hogan. It is a clay and dry mud shelter built for either a man, a woman, or both a man and a woman. Healing ceremonies often will take place inside a hogan structure.

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A hogan built by Navajo Indians

Other artistic creations of Navajo revolve around jewelry and trinkets. Silversmithing, started by Atsidi Sani (1830-1918), is done by creating jewelry like bracelets, necklaces, earrings, buckles, hair pins, and other ornaments out of silver and used for tribes. It is also a way to create income which can be sold in their tourism.