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People of the Colorado Plateau
Paleoindian and Archaic Peoples
Archaeological Treasures
Prehistoric Farmers
Population Change
The Anasazi "collapse"
Pueblo Peoples
Western Apache
Navajo (Diné)
Southern Paiute
Spanish Exploration
Mormon Pioneers
Anglo Settlement

peoplebutton.gif (1940 bytes)Navajo (Diné)

The Navajos before 1696

Old Navajo Cornfield

Navajo cornfield south of Inscription House Ruin, ca. 1927. Photo NAU.PH.413.75  by Philip Johnston. Courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

Together with the various Apachean tribes of the Southwest, the Navajos are Athabaskan speakers who originally lived in western Canada. They were nomadic hunting and gathering people who lived in small, scattered bands. The date of their arrival onto the Colorado Plateau is uncertain, but there is little in the archaeological record to suggest that it was coincident with the Anasazi collapse in the late 13th century. There is a high likelihood that the Navajos reached the Four Corners area and settled down well before the abandonment of the region by the Pueblo Peoples.

The Navajos did not emerge as a distinct cultural or political entity – at least not as we think of them today – until the early eighteenth century. Before then, there were no Navajos as such, but numerous small bands of Athabaskan speakers scattered in and around the San Juan Basin, having only the generic identity of diné (people) to tie them loosely together. To the early Spaniards these "Apache de Nabajú" were distinguished from Athabaskans living elsewhere by their practice of agriculture.

The Navajos of the early Spanish period were quite distinct from the sheep herding, blanket-weaving Navajo peoples that Americans came to know in the nineteenth century. They raided and traded with the Spanish and Pueblo Indians, but their economy probably centered around hunting, farming, and the gathering of wild plants, although most sources refer only to farming. Corn is the only crop mentioned in Spanish documents, but beans and squash may also have been cultivated as they were by the Pueblo Indians. The Dinč'tah (homeland) of the Navajos abounded in deer, elk, mountain sheep, and smaller game such as rabbits and squirrels. They probably also went on communal hunts at some distance from their normal range – most likely antelope hunts on the Chaco Plateau.

After the de Vargas reconquest of New Mexico in 1692-96, thousands of Pueblo refugees joined their communities, especially along the upper San Juan River. By 1754 Utes and Comanches from the north attacked them and the Spaniards with such fury that the Navajos were forced to move to the canyonlands of northwest New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. They appear to have taken with them various Pueblo Indians, who further acquainted the Navajos with herding domestic animals, weaving, pottery-making, and even constructing stone masonry hogans. The Jemez Pueblos, in particular, introduced new skills and technology, concepts of religion, and ceremonial practices that together served to modify the Navajo view of the world.

The Herding Period

Navajo sheep corral

Sheep corral ca.1919. Photo NAU.PH.516.38 by Marie L. Olsen, courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

The shift to real dependence upon livestock did not come until early in the nineteenth century. By mid-century, Anglo observers counted sheep herds in the hundreds of thousands. The Navajos appear to have prospered during this period despite frequent warfare with Spanish-Americans. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Navajo population doubled and possibly even tripled, perhaps exceeding 10,000. Herding became the most important component of Navajo economy, but was still supplemented by intensive farming, hunting and gathering.

Settlement patterns changed with the shift toward herding. Instead of living in a single, relatively permanent camp near their fields, people began using separate summer and winter camps where forage and water were available for their stock. Greater dependence upon sheep and goats prompted increased raiding of Spanish-American herds, culminating in the Navajo War of 1863-64 and the subsequent four-year imprisonment of the Navajos at the Bosque Redondo. The link between raiding and herding was broken forever.

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Navajo weaver, c. 1930. Photo NAU.PH.246  courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

The Navajos returned to the Dinč'tah with the creation of a reservation in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona in 1868. As defined by the treaty, the Navajo reservation included only 3.5 million acres, a small fraction of their former homeland. If the Navajos were to rebuild their herds and reestablish their farms, they would need far more land than it provided. To solve the problem the Navajo leaders were told that their people would be allowed to use any off-reservation areas not occupied by white settlers. Since there were virtually no white settlers in the region in the 1860s, it meant that most Navajo families could return to their former homes.

The land that the Navajos returned to in the late summer of 1868 had been rendered desolate by war and neglect. The old cornfields were overgrown with weeds, the ditches were filled with sand, and what had been orchards were now fields of tree stumps. Most families had no livestock at all. But with the support of civilian and military officials, the Navajos made remarkable economic strides in the subsequent quarter century. By the late 1880s and very early 1890s, they had attained a level of prosperity which they had never known before, and which they have never known since. The Navajo tribe increased from 9,000 to 18,000 in the prosperous years between 1868 and 1892.

The Modern Period

The Navajo reservation has been enlarged several times since its original creation in 1868, and now encompasses the northeast corner of Arizona and the Four Corners region, including parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The Navajo reservation is by far the largest reservation in the U.S., with over 15 million acres of land, and a human population of over 148,000. The Dinč people have been remarkably successful at preserving their unique culture, despite an increasing shift toward Anglo-American lifestyles. It is estimated that approximately 80% of the population speaks the Navajo language.

Navajo hogan

Navajos at hogan in Monument Valley-1927. Photo NAU.PH.413.140  by Philip Johnston  courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

Ethno-archaeologist Klara B. Kelley, in her book, Navajo Land Use, makes a compelling case that the Navajo economic base was transformed from self-sufficient to market-oriented production after the arrival of the railroad, and later, to a wage work and welfare economy in the industrial era. The resulting changes in population and settlement patterns have led to land-use at odds with its livestock carrying capacity. Reservation grazing practices have led to soil erosion followed by impoverishment and severe range degradation, a condition apparent even to the most casual observer today.

By the early 1950s, camp life was diminishing, and more permanent Anglo-style ranches were being established. Hogans were increasingly replaced with modern style houses for dwelling purposes, although hogans have remained important for ceremonial purposes. Wage employment opportunities, public schools, hospitals, and public utilities brought Navajo people in larger and larger numbers to urban centers such as Shiprock, Tuba City, Gandado, and Fort Defiance. A strong sense of tribal identity has kept Navajo culture and social cohesiveness intact, despite the many changes of the last century.


Native Americans and the Environment. A comprehensive survey of twentieth century environmental issues facing Native Americans on the Colorado Plateau and throughout the Southwest, including discussions of agriculture, logging, mining, grazing, water rights, and tourism. Adapted from a published journal article by David Rich Lewis.


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