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Navajo Indians

Legends – Navajo

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Navajo Code Talkers

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NAVAJO INDIANS Robert S. McPherson Utah History Encyclopedia

The Navajo Indians in Utah reside on a reservation of more than 1,155,000 acres in the southeastern corner of the state. According to the 1990 census, more than half of the population of San Juan County is comprised of Navajo people, the majority of whom live south of the San Juan River.

Navajo religion teaches that they traveled through three or four worlds beneath this one and emerged into this sphere in the La Plata mountains of southwestern Colorado or the Navajo Dam area of northwestern New Mexico. The gods created the four sacred mountains�Blanca Peak and Hesperus Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona�preparing them as supernatural boundaries within which all was safe and protected. In addition, the gods also established four rivers, one of which was the San Juan, to serve as defensive guardians. This river played an important role in some of the Navajo chantway myths and functioned as a clear line of demarcation between Navajo and Ute territories.

Navajo economy from the 1600s to the first third of the 1900s depended on two primary sources 1)  agriculture learned from the pueblo peoples and 2) livestock such as sheep, goats, and horses obtained initially from the Spaniards. Because the San Juan River was one of the few reliable sources of water in Navajo territory, during the summer months many Dine planted fields of corn, beans, and squash on its floodplains or tributaries and pastured their sheep in the mountains. Winter camps were usually at lower elevations where wood, water, and protection from cold winds were available. Hunting and gathering occurred in a variety of ecological zones according to the location of the foodstuffs being sought.

Spaniards and Mexicans occasionally pursued Navajos into the northern part of their territory, but it was not until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican War in 1848 that Anglo-Americans were prompted to take action against Navajo raiders. The Mormon colonies of southwestern Utah and the settlers of New Mexico and Arizona reacted against the Navajo by sending military expeditions to halt the threat. Kit Carson and Ute Indian Agent Alfred Pfeiffer encouraged the antagonism already felt by the Utes against their Navajo neighbors. Although the military launched a number of campaigns, it was the continuous pressure of Native American and New Mexican allies that finally caused the massive surrender of an estimated two-thirds of the Navajo population, 8,000 of whom went on the Long Walk before finally being incarcerated at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Those who did not surrender hid in the canyons and mountains to avoid detection. In Utah, men like Hashkeneinii and Kaayelii fled from the Utes and settled at Navajo Mountain and the Bears Ears, two regions where Navajos lived peacefully with the Paiutes. There the Navajos expanded their flocks and land holdings and awaited the release of their relatives from captivity.

In 1868 the Navajos returned from Fort Sumner and took up residence on a reservation one-fourth the size of the original territory they had used before the war. This situation did not last long, however, as the Dine expanded into their old habitat. Between 1868 and 1905 there were eight boundary changes that increased the reservation to the north, east, and west. The most significant changes for the Utah Navajo occurred in 1884 when President Chester Arthur added to the reservation the lands south of the San Juan River. Although this territory politically changed hands a number of times, the Navajo maintained control and added to their holdings around Aneth in 1905. The government made other extensions in this area in 1933 and again in 1958, the latter being in exchange for lands lost to the Glen Canyon Dam project. Thus, from the outset, the Navajos, unlike most Indian tribes, have expanded their reservation at the expense of the public domain.

From 1870 to the 1890s, Navajos were involved in the turbulent jockeying for lands on their northern borders. Non-Mormon expansion into the Montezuma Creek and Aneth area, Mormon settlements in the Tuba City, Moenkopi, and Bluff region, and the burgeoning cattle industry of San Juan County made competition for resources inevitable. The government opened the public domain for both Native American and Anglo use, but the Navajos and Utes utilized the land in ways that were unappreciated by white men.

In addition to being drawn to the northern border of the reservation for livestock grazing and agriculture, there were also unlicensed trading posts on the northern side of the river. These posts flourished by escaping government regulation, but by the 1890s many closed because of a national depression, its accompanying economic impact, and successive crop failures due to drought. By the early 1900s, the government had added Moenkopi and Aneth to the reservation while generally peaceful relations existed in the Bluff area.

From 1900 to the 1930s, changes in Navajo lifestyle increased at a quickening pace. The Shiprock Agency governed the Utah portion of the northern Navajo district and encouraged local self-government under the chapter system. Roads and bridges fed the isolated communities that often coalesced around trading posts, which, in turn, became a hub of economic and social activity. The peace was marred occasionally by such incidents as the Bai-a-lil-le affair in which agency control was challenged by a powerful community leader, and during the influenza epidemic of 1918 that ravaged large portions of San Juan County, particularly in the Navajo communities. But Navajo herds generally prospered and the population increased rapidly.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Navajo life changed rapidly. Livestock reduction under John Collier, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, set in motion a trauma comparable to that of the Long Walk of the 1860s. Because Navajo wealth was measured in sheep, many of the people found it difficult to accept soil erosion and overgrazing as sufficient justification to slaughter their herds. Government agents drove thousands of animals into side canyons and annihilated large portions of individual flocks, thus removing the economic base of many Navajo families. This, coupled with World War II, encouraged many Navajos during the 1940s and 1950s to seek wage labor off the reservation. Some served as migrant workers in seasonal harvesting, others went to cities for employment in factories, while others helped with railroad construction and operations. Males were usually the ones who left, while the women eked out a bare existence on the family holdings, working in economic cooperation with extended family members who were collectively known as an outfit.

During the 1960s and 1970s, opportunities started to return to the reservation. Oil royalty money from wells drilled in the Aneth/Montezuma Creek area was administered through the Utah Navajo Development Council, a private, non-profit organization designed to make available to Utah Navajos offerings in education, health, and economic development. This became particularly important since, according to the 1980 census, many Navajo families, which tend to be large, were crowded into homes with two or fewer bedrooms (81 percent), no bathroom or kitchen facilities (70 percent), no telephones (82 percent), and no water (47 percent). The gap between Anglo and Navajo residents of San Juan County needed to be closed.

Also aiding in achieving this goal were the two new high schools built during the 1970s and 1980s, one in Montezuma Creek, the other in Monument Valley. Not only did this help reduce or eliminate the antiquated boarding school system, but it also prevented students from being bused to the northern end of the county, a ride that in extreme instances required eight hours a day of round-trip travel.

The Navajo today accept change and in some instances encourage it. Many older people want the youth to obtain an education and job skills, but also desire that they stay near home and maintain strong family ties, a theme of importance in Navajo culture.

DINE’ (Navajo) By the end of the 1500s the Dine’, or the People, were spread throughout northern New Mexico, a part of southern Utah and part of northern Arizona. As European settlement moved closer to their lands, some Navajo reacted by raiding neighboring groups, stealing goods and livestock. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, settlers from New Mexico, Arizona, and the Mormon Colonies in southwestern Utah, sent the military to control the Navajo raiders. In 1864, an estimated one-half to two thirds of the Navajo population surrendered to government agents and made the infamous Long Walk–a forced march to their jail at Fort Sumner (the area was also referred to as Bosque Redondo) in eastern New Mexico.

In 1868, the Dine’ were finally allowed to return to their sacred lands. The Utah Dine’ continue to grow and develop. The population of Utah Dine’ is nearing 7,000 tribal members. (Source: Willow Stories: Utah Navajo Baskets, Utah Arts Council, 1996, and Navajo Nation, 1997.)

The Navajo are closely related to the Apache; the ancestors of both peoples emigrated from western Canada and settled in the Southwest sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. The Navajo lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers and carried out raids on the village-dwelling agricultural Pueblo Indians. They first came into conflict with the Spanish colonists in the 17th century and later with the Mexicans. From the Spanish they obtained horses, sheep, and goats, which became a vital part of their economy. They learned weaving and pottery making from the Pueblo Indians and silversmithing from the Mexicans.

In 1846 the Navajo nation made its first treaty with the U.S. government, but disagreements with American troops led to hostilities by 1849. The tribe engaged in sporadic warfare with the Americans until 1863. In that year U.S. forces under Kit Carson waged an extended campaign against the Navajo, who were led by Manuelito and other war chiefs. American troops destroyed Navajo homes and crops and confiscated their livestock, eventually capturing or forcing the surrender of some 12,000 Navajo people. Captives were sent on foot to a reservation at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. This forcible deportation is known in Navajo history as the “Long Walk.”

On the reservation, the tribe suffered severe hardships from disease and crop failures and faced hostility from Apache prisoners, also captured by U.S. troops. A new treaty was signed in 1868, and the surviving Navajo were allowed to go back to a reservation set aside in their former territory, where they were provided with sheep and cattle. In return, the tribe agreed to live in peace with the American settlers. In 1884 the reservation was extended to accommodate their increasing herds.

During the late 19th century the tribe prospered, the population doubled, and additional reservation lands were added. Since these were generally poor farming lands, few attempts were made by outsiders to encroach on the reservation. Greatly increased livestock holdings presented serious problems of soil erosion and overgrazing. Eventually a livestock-reduction plan was forced on the tribe by the U.S. government. During World War II (1939-1945) many Navajo left the reservation to serve in the armed forces or work in cities in war-related jobs. The Navajo Code Talkers became famous on the Pacific front, sending communications based on their native language that the Japanese were unable to decipher.


The Navajo tribe was divided into more than 50 clans, and descent was traced through the female line. Tribal members were required to marry outside their clan. The Navajo, who arrived in the region as a nomadic and predatory people, came to build permanent homes called hogans, cone-shaped houses constructed of logs and poles. The hogans were covered with earth and bark and later built with six or eight sides from stone and adobe. These dwellings had a smoke hole at the top and were entered through a short, covered passage that faced east to greet the rising sun. An extended family occupied each hogan.

Originally the Navajo diet was that of nomadic hunter-gatherers who pursued deer and smaller game, gathered wild plant foods, and carried out raids on farming peoples. As the Navajo evolved under the influence of first the Pueblo Indians and then the Spanish, they came also to be shepherds and farmers. Mutton and goat became staple foods, as did corn, beans, squash, and some fruits from orchards.

Traditional Navajo religion included a large body of mythology relating to nature, with gods who were believed to intervene in human affairs. The Navajo frequently invoked these gods, making offerings to them; in ceremonial dances the gods were represented by painted and masked men. Navajo belief-systems also included ghosts—supposed spirits of dead ancestors, sometimes malevolent—and witches, people who practiced magic for personal gain or to harm others.

Another Navajo ritual, typically a healing ritual, was that of sand painting, the trickling of sand colored with minerals onto neutral-colored sand. Under the guidance of a shaman, a sand painter would create a mosaic on the floor of a lodge at dawn. The painter would use the five Navajo sacred colors—white, black, blue, red, and yellow—to depict legendary beings and natural phenomena. At the end of the ceremony the work, a kind of temporary altar, would be destroyed. By tradition, no sand painting would be kept after sunset.

Navajo History


Although they continued their raiding activity, the Dineh, through contacts with the Pueblo Indians, gradually adopted new traits.  From the other Indians, they learned farming, weaving, and sand painting.  It is likely that they learned how to  make pottery and learned new basket weaving techniques from the Pueblo Indians too.

The Navajo acquired sheep and goats from the Spanish.  But they did not use up their food supply for food, as the Apache did.  Instead, they raised them to increase their herds, while they kept the milk, meat, and wool.  Livestock, especially sheep herding, soon became essential to the Dineh economy.  The Dineh first acquired horses about the same time they acquired sheep and goats.  This was in the mid to late 1600’s.  Horses gave them greater mobility on their raids.

The Dineh lived in shelters called hogans.  These were generally cone shaped, but later they were built with six or eight sides.  Logs and poles were used for the framework, which was covered by bark and earth.  In later years, they were covered with adobe or stone.  The doorways of the hogans always faced east.

The Navajos are currently the largest Indian tribe in the United States.  The women weave beautiful blankets, dress in long full skirts and loose blouses of bright colored velveteen and the men make silver jewelry.  The men often wear their hair long.

Prior to the Long Walk, the Navajos successfully resisted the Spanish and their Indian allies for almost three hundred years.  Their war with the United States  lasted for two decades.  In the end, they were not just defeated, they were a beaten people who were starved into submission.  Eight thousand Navajos were marched three hundred miles across New Mexico and imprisoned for four years.

During their imprisonment, those that survived lived on meager rations in the most intolerable of living conditions.  Rations often consisted of rancid bacon and weevil infested flour.  Finally, conditions at the Bosque Redondo reservation were investigated by the U.S. government.  The conditions were found to be appalling.  The Navajos were finally sent home to their homeland.

The Navajos are descendants of the Athapascan speaking people.  They were called many names by their neighboring tribes.  They called themselves Diné or Dineh.  The translation for the “Diné” is vague.  It means either “The People, men, or earth people.”

The Hopi called them the Tasavuh which meant “head pounders.”  The Navajos had a habit of killing their enemies by pounding them on the head with a stone axe.  The Spanish referred to them as the “Navajo.”  Finally, they became known by the name which the Spanish called them- the Navajo.

Navaho ( pron. Na’-va-ho, from Tewa Navahú, the name referring to a large area of cultivated lands; applied to a former Tewa pueblo, and, by extension, to the Navaho, known to the Spaniards of the 17th century as Apaches de Navajo, who intruded on the Tewa domain or who lived in the vicinity, to distinguish them front other “Apache” bands.—Hewett in Am. Anthrop., viii,193,1906. Fray Alonso Benavides, in his Memorial of 1630, gives the earliest translation of the tribal name, in the form Nauajó, ‘sementeras grandes’—’great seed-sowings’, or ‘great fields’. The Navaho themselves do not use this name, except when trying to speak English. All do not know it, and none of the older generation pronounce It correctly, as v is a sound unknown in their language. They call themselves Dǐné‘, which means simply ‘peaople’. This word, in various forms, is used as a tribal name by nearly every people of the Athapascan stock).      An important Athapascan tribe occupying a reservation of 9,503,763 acres in north east Arizona, north west New Mexico, and south east Utah. Here they are supposed to remain, but many isolated families live beyond the reservation boundaries in all directions. Their land has an average elevation of about 6,000 ft above sea level. The highest point in it is Pastora peak, in the Carrizo Mountains, 9,420 ft high. It is in arid region and not well adapted to agriculture, but it affords fair pasturage. For this reason the Navaho have devoted their attention less to agriculture than to stock raising. There were formerly few places on the reservation, away from the borders of  the Rio San Juan, where the soil could be irrigated, but there were many spots, apparently desert, where water gathered close to the surface and where by deep planting crops of corn, beans, squashes, and melons were raised. Within the last few years the Government has built storage reservoirs on the reservation and increased the facilities for irrigation.      The Navaho are classed us belonging to the widespread Athapascan linguistic family, and a vocabulary of their language shows that the majority of their words have counterparts in dialects of Alaska, British America, and California. The grammatical structure is like that of Athapascan tongues in general, but many words have been inherited from other sources. The grammar is intricate and the vocabulary copious, abounding especially in local names.           The ordinary Navaho dwelling, or hogán, is a very simple structure, although erected with much ceremony (see Mindeleff nt 17th Rep. B. A. 1898). It is usually conical in form, built of sticks set on end, covered with branches, grass, and earth, and often so low that a man of ordinary stature can not stand erect in it. One must stoop to enter the doorway, which is usually provided with a short passage or storm door. There is no chimney; a hole in the apex lets out the smoke. Some hogáns are rude polygonal structures of logs laid horizontally; others are partly of stone. In summer, “lean-to” sheds and small inclosures of branches are often used for habitations. Sweat houses are small, conical hogáns without the hole in the apex, for fires are not lighted in them; temperature is increased by means of stones heated in fires outside. Medicine lodges, when built in localities where trees of sufficient size grow, are conical structures like the ordinary hogáns, but much larger. When built in regions of low-sized trees, they have flat roofs. Of late, substantial stone structures with doors, windows, and chimneys are replacing the rude hogáns. One reason they built such houses was that custom and superstition constrained them to destroy or desert a house in which death had occurred. Such a place was called chindi-hogan, meaning ‘devil-house’. Those who now occupy good stone houses carry out the dying and let them expire outside, thus saving their dwellings, and indeed the saint, custom is sometimes practiced in connection with the hogán. No people have greater dread of ghosts and mortuary remains.      The most important art of the Navaho is that of weaving. They are especially celebrated for their blankets, which are in high demand among the white people on account of their beauty and utility; but they also weave belts, garters, and saddle girths—all with rude, simple looms. Their legends declare that in the early days they knew not the art of weaving by means of a loons. The use of the loom was probably taught to theta by the Pueblo women who were incorporated into the tribe. They dressed in skins and rude teats constructed by hand, of cedar bark and other vegetal fibers. The few basket makers among them are said to be Ute or Paiute girls or their descendants, and these do not do much work. What they make, though of excellent quality, is confined almost exclusively to two forms required for ceremonial purposes. The Navaho make very little pottery, and this of a very ordinary variety, being designed merely for cooking purposes; but formerly they made a fine red ware decorated in black with characteristic designs. They grind corn and other grains by hand on the metate. For ceremonial purposes they still bake food in the ground and in other aboriginal ways. For many years they have had among them silversmiths who fabricate handsome ornaments with very rude appliances, and who undoubtedly learned their art from the Mexicans, adapting it to their own environment. Of late years many of those who have been taught in training schools have learned civilized trades and civilized methods of cooking.          The meat revered of their many deities is a goddess named Estsánatlehi, or a ‘Woman Who Changes’, ‘Woman Who Rejuvenates Herself’, because she is said never to stay in one condition, but to grow old and become young again at will. She is probably Mother Nature, an apotheosis of the changing year.      By treaty of Canyon de Chelly, Ariz., Sept. 9, 1849, the Navaho acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States. By treaty of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, June 1, 1868, a reservation was set apart for them in Arizona and New Mexico, and they ceded to the United States their claim to other lands. Their reservation has been modified by subsequent Executive orders.


Navajo, or Dine -they call themselves, is the largest tribe of North American Indians.  Long ago, the ancestors lived in Northwestern Canada and Alaska.  Over 1,000 years ago they began to travel south and reached the southwestern United States.  They met farmers who are known as Pueblo Indians, and the Navajo began to settle near them and learn from them.  The Navajo learned how to plant corn, beans, squash, and melons.  The Navajo also began to learn a similar style of weaving, making clothing and art from the Pueblo Indians.

The Navajo Indians lived in homes called hogans.  They are made from wooden poles, tree bark, and mud.  The doorway opened to the east so they could welcome the sun.

After the Spanish settled in the 1600’s, the Navajo began to steal sheep and horses from them.  The Navajo started to use the animals in their daily life.  They used the sheep for its wool to make clothes, blankets, and rugs.  They also used the sheep for food.  They used the horses to travel longer distances and also used them to begin trading.  The Navajo began making items to trade in towns.  There were also trading posts built on reservations to sell their handmade crafts, such as pottery and blankets.

The Navajo reservation is currently the largest in the United States.  It has over 140,000 people with 16 million acres most of which are in Arizona.  They still weave from wool and use natural vegetable dyes for color.  Today, people live like the old days the best they can with the modern lifestyle, but others use modern technology to live.


Pottery, clothing, and making baskets are just a portion of the great arts and crafts of the Southwest Native Americans.  Their art used symbols and signs to represent their ideas, beliefs, dreams, and visions.  Pottery was made for everyday use, including cooking, storage, bathing, and religious ceremonies.  They were painted and carved with designs that told a story.

The very first Southwest Native Americans hunted mammoths until they became extinct.  Then people began to hunt buffalo, also known as bison, as well as collect wild plants for food.  They also learned to grow maize, or corn, that was their most common grain, which became domesticated in Mexico.

The people of the Southwest, along with the Southeast had full-time religious leaders with shrines or temple buildings.  Most Native Americans believe that in the universe there exists an Almighty, a spiritual force that is the source of all life.  The Almighty belief is not pictured as a man in the sky, but is believed to be formless and exist in the universe.  The sun is viewed as the power of the Almighty.  They are not worshipping the sun, but praying to the Almighty, and the sun is a sign and symbol for that.  Native Americans show less interest in an afterlife unlike the Christians.  They assume the souls of the dead go to another part of the universe where they have a new existence carrying on everyday activities like they were still alive.  They are just in a different world.

Navajos – 1) mainly farmers and ranchers – hunters 2) made irrigation ditches – raised goats and sheep 3) lived in one place 4) used horses hunting, carrying loads and travel 5) raised sheep for wool 6) made rugs, blankets and cloth of wool 7) dyed cloth with plants 8) lived in hogan 9) did not live in village.

(Summary from S.S. Text)

Centuries ago, the Navajo people were taught by the Holy People to live in harmony with Mother Earth and how to conduct their many activities of everyday life. The Dineh believe there are two classes of beings: the Earth People and the Holy People. The Earth People are ordinary mortals, while the Holy People are spiritual beings that cannot be seen. Holy People are believed to have the power to aid or harm Earth People.

When disorder evolves in a Navajo’s life, such as illness; herbs, medicinemen (diagnosticians), prayers, songs and ceremonies are used to help cure the ailment. Some tribal members prefer modern day hospitals on the Navajo Reservation; some seek the assistance of a traditional Navajo medicineman, some combine both methods. Navajos believe that a medicineman is a uniquely qualified individual bestowed with supernatural powers to diagnose a person’s problem and to heal or cure illnesses.

The Dineh believe they are sustained as a nation because of their enduring faith in the Great Spirit. And because of their strong spirituality, the Navajo people believe they will continue to survive as an Indian nation forever.

Food For generations, traditional Navajo dishes have been handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter without being written down. Besides being a basic necessity of life food welcomes visitors and expresses thanks.

Traditional Navajos usually cook by memory, measuring their ingredients with hands or fingers. If there is no modern stove, most food is cooked over an open fire.

Traditional cooks still use wild plants and vegetables such as spinach, onions, turnips, berries, cactus and cedar brush. For instance, cedar brush is used to add color, a flavor to a popular Navajo delight called blue corn meal pudding.

Traditional Dress Many Navajos continue to wear traditional clothing daily. Others wear their velvet, turquoise and silver only during ceremonial or social gatherings.

The Navajo woman’s traditional style of dress consists usually of foot or knee-high moccasins, a pleated velvet or cotton skirt, a matching long-sleeve blouse, concho and/or sash belt, jewelry and a shawl. Men also wear jewelry, moccasins and preferably a velveteen shirt.

Although many Navajo people wear contemporary clothing, they continue to carry on their cultural practices by wearing traditional outfits when the occasion requires it. It is believed that before an individual can receive help from the Great Spirit, one must first wear appropriate clothing in order to be recognized.

Language The Navajo people are very dynamic and creative people who strongly believe in the power of the mind to think and create; finding expression in the myriad symbolic creations of the Navajo language, art and ritual ceremonies.

The Navajo language embodies a high prevalence of humor in day to day conversation. Humor transforms difficult and frustrating circumstances into bearable and even pleasant situations.

The strong emphasis and value Navajos place on humor is evidenced in the First Laugh rite. The first time a Navajo child laughs out loud is a time for honor and celebration.

Aside from being the mother tongue of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo language also has played a highly significant role in helping the entire nation. During World War 11, the Navajo language was used as a code to confuse the enemy.

Navajo bravery and patriotism is unequaled. Navajos were inducted and trained in the U.S. Marine Corps to become “code talkers” on the frontline. Shrouded in secrecy at the time, these men are known today as the famed Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajo language, scrambled by the Code Talkers, proved to be the only code that could not be broken during World War 11. Although not all tribal members speak the language fluently, most Navajos have a deep respect for it.