Published on August 25, 2014 by Amy
The Navajo culture is rich, complex and an integral component of the fabric of American history. While ancient Mayan, Egyptian and Inca pyramids might be revered around the world, the Navajos left Americans and the world remarkable treasures in the forms of pictographs. While the ancient Navajo who drew the pictographs are no longer here, their pictographs survive. Pictographs are invaluable vessels that preserve authentic Navajo ideology and history. Pictographs are their own stories, on their own terms.
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According to Indiana University, the Navajo, or the Diné, are the largest tribe of American Indians. The Navajo reservation, which was created in 1868, spans over 15 million acres of land and has 148,000 inhabitants. Unlike other American Indian tribes, the Navajos have a strong sense of their Indian identity. For instance, Carleton College claims that 80 percent of the Navajo population speaks the indigenous language. Furthermore, despite origins in 15th century Canada and Alaska, Navajo language, arts and traditional roles thrive. Cultural and physical artifacts such as Navajo pictographs play a vital role in preserving this rich culture and sense of identity.
Annette McGivney of “Backpacker” explains how prehistoric Navajo art is classified as either petroglyphs or pictographs. Petroglyphs are commonly found throughout the Southwest, while pictographs are concentrated in the Canyonlands area of eastern Utah. Petroglyphs are made by physically chipping into the rock. The result is a light image compared to the unadulterated surrounding rock that remained intact for hundreds to thousands of years. Pictographs are “rock paintings” that are painted with minerals, such as hematite and charcoal, mixed with “water, animal and plant oils, and sometimes human urine.”
Navajo pictographs are found across the Navajo territory. According to Annette McGivney, Navajo pictograph sites they can be found in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, Rio Puerco/San Juan Resource Area in New Mexico and Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico. Linking back to Navajo religion, the pictographs are located in sacred locations to the Navajos. Navajo pictographs “often feature supernatural beings that are prominent in Navajo mythology. Images include masked dancers and mythic heroes, shields, eagles, birds, and celestial objects. Recurring themes include warfare, rain, corn and fertility.” Yet, McGivney’s article also brings up an equally compelling angle to interpreting Navajo pictographs. McGivney’s conversations with archaeologists like Polly Shaafsma highlight “that there’s no way to know exactly what rock-art creators intended” and to scholarly try to dissect, isolate and classify the pictographs is “insensitive.” However, broad generalizations are appropriate.
While the meaning of all of the pictographs are hard to decipher, clearly some do tell the story of the Navajo nation. For instance, McGivney explains that Navajo pictographs were the first to reflect the arrival of Europeans through the use of equestrians. Other pictographs like the ones in Canyon de Chelly reflect the Navajo Long Walk where Navajos were forcibly removed from their homeland.