Published on June 16, 2012 by Amy
The Navajo are the largest tribe in the United States. They account for almost fifteen percent of the Native American population in the 1990 census and number in excess of 250,000 members. They occupy a vast area of the southwest spreading across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The lands of the Navajo encompass an area larger than the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey combined!
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The name Navajo is not so much a name as a place. The Pueblo Indians referred to the area of the southwest from which the Navajo came. The Spanish referred to them as the Apaches de Navajo which eventually was shortened to simply Navajo. The Navajo refer to themselves as Dine (Den-ah), which means “the people”. Their vast land is called Dinetah.
Flying over this vast region is the flag of the Navajo Nation. The flag, adopted on May 21, 1968 by the Tribal Council in Window Rock, AZ, was designed by Jay R. DeGroat, a Navajo from Mariano Lake, NM, now living in Crownpoint,New Mexico and won out over 140 other suggested designs. The Flag incorporates elements from the tribal seal which was designed by John Claw Jr. of Many Farms, AZ and adopted on January 18, 1952. The great seal bears a ring of 48 arrow heads representing the then 48 states of the United States and reflects the Navajo nation protected by the United States. Within this ring of arrowheads are three concentric circles that are not completed at the top. These circles represent the rainbow, open to the east, and symbolize the Navajo Nation itself. It is a reminder that the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation is never closed. The rings are turquoise outermost, then yellow and lastly red. Within these rings are two corn plants, the sustainer of life for the Navajo, their tips yellow showing pollen, a substance used frequently in Navajo ceremonies. Within the corn are four differently colored mountains and a horse, cow and sheep representing livestock, a main source of wealth for the Navajo. The four sacred mountains are shown in turquoise, white, black and yellow.
The four colors of the mountains are a recurring theme in the stories and legends of the Navajo. One of the primary occurrences of the four colors is in the Navajo story of creation.
In that legend the world began as a black island floating in the mist. Above it were four clouds, black, white, blue and yellow.
The first cloud, the black one, represented the female being within whose being were contained all the forms of life. The white cloud contained the male substance. When the black and white clouds met, all the forms of life – plant and animal, came into being. This included the very first man .As a result of the two clouds meeting, they were transformed from clouds into worlds. The newly created creatures climbed into the second world, the blue cloud and found it already inhabited by the birds, especially bluebirds, blue jays, blue herons and blue hawks. The birds disliked this invasion of their land and escaped into the third world, that of the yellow cloud. The yellow world was home to a great flood, a recurring legend in all Native American folklore, and all forms of life climbed into the fourth world, the white cloud, to escape the deluge. The white world was barren, so man planted seeds to grow reeds and allow life to move on to the fifth world were he resides to this day.
The flag is a pale buff color bearing a map of the Navajo Nation in two colors. The original boundaries of the 1868 reservation are shown in dark brown, while the much larger current borders are shown in a copper color. Surrounding the map are the four sacred mountains and over the top of all this is the rainbow motif mentioned in the great seal. For a close up of the seal.
Centered on the map is a white disc bearing the corn stalks and domestic animals from the seal. In addition to these there are representations of other aspects of the Navajo’s economy; a traditional hogan, oil drilling equipment, forestry, mining and recreational fishing and hunting. All save the green and yellow corn stalks appear in black outline.
The placement of the sacred mountains of the flag is a compromise between modern geography and Navajo legend. Where the white man views North as the upward direction, the Navajo consider East to be “up”. Here is where the sacred white mountain resides. On the flag, the reservation is reflected in modern geographic terms with North equating with “up”. However, the white mountain still resides in the east, though now shown on the fly end of the flag.
The overall image of the flag recalls one of the arts associated with the Navajo – sand painting. Many of the flag’s details, and the sand colored background, are frequently found in these temporary art works that initially served as altars in various healing ceremonies. The Navajo create these intricate works by carefully trickling powdered minerals such as ocher, ground sandstone, gypsum and charcoal into patterns on clean sand. When the ceremony was over the painting was destroyed, participants taking some of the powders home with them for their magical powers. Today the art of sand painting is a source of revenue for many Navajo artists who now make their works permanent and sell them to tourists and collectors.
In early 1995, the flag of the Navajo nation became the first Native American tribal flag to fly into space when it was carried aboard the space shuttle Discovery by astronaut Bernard Harris. Dr. Harris is an African-American physician who lived on the Navajo reservation when he was a child. Dr. Harris had asked the Navajo for some token to take into space with him and President Albert Hale of the Navajo nation decided upon the flag. Before it could be flown, however, the flag was blessed by the medicine men of the the Navajo by sprinkling corn pollen upon it.
The shaman also had to be assured that the Discovery’s flight path conformed to Navajo religious beliefs in that the spacecraft had to fly in a clockwise direction. After its February flight the flag was flown over the Navajo National Capitol in Window Rock, AZ.