Published on March 8, 2013 by Casey
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.
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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.
New Mexico Territory
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.
The Long Walk
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.
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.