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Summary Article: Navajo Nation
from Pop Culture Places: An Encyclopedia of Places in American Popular Culture

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States. Covering some 25,000 miles (16 million acres), the Navajo Nation is located in the Southwest region of the nation, occupying parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Its capital is in Window Rock, Arizona. The population of the Navajo Nation is more than 250,000 (Navajo Nation Government).

The Navajo people and the land on which they live are famous throughout the world. The Navajo are also known for their unique language, a language that played a significant role in America's victory in World War II (1941–1945). Tourism plays a large role in the lives of the Navajo today, not least because their land is around or near stunning landscapes such as Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Painted Desert, Window Rock, and Petrified Forest. Silver and turquoise jewelry, along with handwoven blankets, are eagerly sought by tourists and aficionados of the Navajo culture.

The Navajo Nation was not always a place of serene beauty and tranquility. Despite centuries of struggle, conflict, oppression, and acculturation, its people have emerged into the 21st century with an enduring sense of unity, culture, identity, and place.

Historical Places: Origins and the Land

Anthropologists theorize that the Navajo migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge to the western region of Canada, then down to the American Southwest some 800 or 1,000 years ago. The Navajo originally called themselves the Diné, meaning “The People”; the traditional lands on which they lived they called the “Dinétah.” Both terms are still used today among the Navajo. The historical boundaries of their territory included the land that is located between four mountains they deem sacred to this day: the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, Hesperus Mountain and Blanca Peak in Colorado, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico. Scattered throughout the region were other Native American tribes, such as the Pueblo Indians, the Hopi, the Paiute, the Pai, and the Zuni. The Navajo themselves did not live in large communities but rather spread out across the region in small groups. The tribes with which they shared land, as well as other influences, helped develop the distinctive Navajo culture.

Pre-European Contact

Before migrating to the southwest, the Navajo were primarily hunter-gatherers. However, the community underwent many changes in their new homeland. The Navajo adapted to the desert region, cultivating plants for medicine, food, and dyes. They built their homes, called hogans, made from wood, clay, or poles. The door of the hogan faced east so as to greet the morning sun. From neighboring tribes, such as the Pueblo Indians, the Navajo learned how to grow crops, such as squash, corn, and beans. The Pueblo Indians shared their artistic traditions, such as weaving blankets and painting pottery. Whereas the women tended to weave blankets and paint pottery, the Navajo men made jewelry.

Culturally, the Navajo brought with them and developed distinct myths, beliefs, and other folkways. As with Native American communities in general, their beliefs were centered around a supernatural world, wherein spirits were believed to inhabit living things, such as animals and nature, such as trees, the wind, and the mountains. The spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of the people was supported by the designated medicine men. Short or lengthy ceremonies, some of which lasted for days, were observed for many purposes, such as healing or rites of passage. Their social environment was regulated by taboos such as the one that prohibited sons-in-law from looking at or talking to their mothers-in-law. The community played a prominent role; individual ownership was not a concept that was embraced. Sharing as well as respecting and honoring the Earth was a way of life.

Spanish Era

For many years after their first contact with the Spanish, whose arrival in the region was heralded by Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540, the Navajo were left undisturbed. During the early part of the subsequent century, when contact and interaction increased between the two cultures, the Spanish introduced the Navajo to horses and livestock, such as sheep and goats. Such animals would greatly impact the Navajo way of life. The Navajo learned to herd; they used the horses for travel, hunting, as well as for raiding other communities—both Native American and Spanish.

The relationship between the Spanish and the Navajo deteriorated over the ensuing decades. The Navajo raids against the Spanish in search of supplies and livestock intensified. In some cases, the Navajo raided settlements after family members had been abducted by the Spanish. The Spanish enslaved some Navajo and executed military action against others, mostly in response to raids. The Spanish military destroyed crops and killed many Navajo. The relentless attacks on their lives through the early 19th century caused the Navajo to disperse throughout the region and into areas that provided more opportunities for defense and that put more distance between them and the Spanish.

Mexican Era

Tensions did not abate, and the violence did not cease when Mexico took over control of the Southwest in 1821. Mexicans launched slave raids and attempted to convert the Navajo to Catholicism. Military troops attempted to quell the Navajo. The Navajo, however, resisted this new group of Europeans. They raided their settlements, as well. Fighting was initiated by both groups. Amid the hostility, the Santa Fe Trail was established, paving the way for first-time encounters between the Navajo and the Americans. Mexican rule ended in 1846.

The Long Walk

Fighting, fleeing, and tensions continued after the Americans won the war against the Mexicans in the Mexican American War (1846–1848). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave America the present-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and California. Mexico received $15 million dollars in return. In the aftermath of the acquisition, America fared no better in their attempts to hold back Navajo raids.

In response to the raids, the U.S. Military built forts. In 1860, the Navajo attacked one such fort, Fort Defiance, which was situated on their land. The Navajo experienced a period of relative peace when the American government redirected the troops from the Southwest to the battlefields of the Civil War (1861–1865). But when the troops returned, even before the war had ended, they came with the intention of forcibly relocating the Navajo to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. Colonel Kit Carson headed this campaign.

Carson's campaign against the Navajo occurred between the years of 1863 and 1864. His troops ruined their crops, slaughtered their livestock, and contaminated their water. Though several thousand Navajo escaped to hidden locations, another 8,000–9,000 were captured (or surrendered) and forced on the notorious “Long Walk.” The Long Walk was a 300- to 450-mile forced walk to a reservation at Bosque Redondo. The reservation was dry and barren, but the Navajo were not allowed to leave.

After four years of this brutal existence, the Navajo experienced a world-changing turn of events. In 1867, the Indian Service of the Department of Interior was placed in charge of the situation. Under the new organization, the Navajo were allowed to leave Bosque Redondo. The Treaty of 1868 was also established. This treaty gave birth to the Navajo Indian Reservation, the roots of the modern-day Navajo Nation.

Navajo Indian Reservation, 1868–1950s

The Navajo reservation was located near their former homeland but included a much smaller in area. Indeed, the land was much too small for the Navajo and their livestock. Relations with white neighbors were tense and at times exploded into violence. The first several decades were fraught with difficulties and uncomfortable new realities.

On the reservation, the Navajo way of life was severely restricted. Schools, originally managed by the churches and government, were harsh, abusive, and hostile to the children's indigenous culture. The children were not allowed to speak their ancestral language, dress in their traditional clothing, or practice their religion. Harsh labor was often required of them. Some children fled the schools; those who remained were exposed to abuse. The reservation itself undermined the former powers and position of the chiefs who lead the community.

Between the late 19th century and the 1930s, the boundaries of the reservation moved and expanded. Between 1900 and 1930, trading posts were a fixture on the reservation. In 1921, the discovery of oil prompted the federal government to establish the Navajo Tribal Council to manage mineral leases. In the 1930s, the government, believing that the population of livestock had surpassed the carrying capacity of the rangeland on the reservation, initiated a livestock reduction program. This and legislation such as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which promoted self-government and tribal business on reservations across the nation, were received with mixed emotions. Some perceived these events as progressive; others saw them as just another ploy to undermine traditional ways.

But change and assimilation continued on the reservation. Though the Navajo had been granted citizen status in 1924, they did not achieve suffrage until the 1940s. Still, nearly 4,000 Navajo joined the armed forces during World War II (1941–1945); another 10,000 worked in jobs that supported the war. In 1942 and 1943, 400 Navajo Marines were trained to be Code Talkers. The Navajo language belonged to the Athabaskan language family. The Code Talkers utilized codes made from their language to send secret messages over military telephones and radio communications. The Code Talkers are credited with contributing to victories such as that achieved at Iwo Jima.

In the aftermath of the war, the Navajo reservation underwent renovation. New schools, roads, and hospitals were constructed. The Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act of 1950 (the Hopi Reservation is located within the Navajo Reservation) accelerated the process of renovation with a budget of $88 million to be utilized over a 10-year period to fund various new developments on the reservation. In 1958, the Navajo Tribal Council established the Monument Valley Tribal Park. The Park preserved a large swathe of natural environment and generated funds through tourism for individuals selling jewelry and blankets and the Nation as a whole. Tourism in the 1950s, as well as the Western films that were produced in the Park, brought attention and recognition to the Navajo. In 1964, the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department was created to manage several preserved areas.

Navajo Nation, 1960 to Present

As the years passed, though many Navajo still produced traditional art, shepherded, farmed, and spoke their native language, an increasing number of individuals did not speak the Navajo language and rarely engaged in the traditions of their parents and grandparents. Some individuals moved off the reservation in search of employment and a life in the mainstream world.

The increasing assimilation of the Navajo belied the growing sense of empowerment occurring on the reservation. The formal manifestation of this was evident when the name of the reservation was changed to the Navajo Nation in 1969. The Navajo have also referred to their land as Navajo Land and Navajo Country. While some Native Americans accept the term “reservation,” others, like the Navajo Nation, reject the term because of its derogatory connotations; the word carries associations with a tattered and economically depressed environment riddled by social crisis. Indeed, many reservations are overwhelmed by such issues as alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicides. The term “Nation,” however, is strongly associated with self-determination and empowerment, terms that reflected what the Nation was becoming.

In the 21st century, the Navajo Nation, while exerting a great deal of self-determination, continues to balance the traditions of their heritage with the trappings of modernity. Traditional or modernized hogans are sometimes built alongside conventional homes. Traditionally, residents live scattered on the reservation in a mix of hogans, modern homes, and mobile homes. Some choose to live without electricity and with traditional dirt floors.

Navajo-affiliated institutions are one way in which the Navajo exert self-determination. The Nation offers several different types of schools, such as state-operated public schools, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Public Schools, the Association of Navajo-Controlled Schools, and the Navajo Preparatory School. The Navajo Preparatory School and Diné College are examples of institutions that actively promote Navajo cultural heritage and pride. Both mainstream hospitals and traditional Navajo medicine men, as well as traditional religious practices and Christianity, play prominent roles in daily Navajo life.

Other examples of self-determination are agencies such as the Navajo Nation Police, the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Navajo Rangers who enforce the law. The Navajo Nation Council (formally the Navajo Tribal Council), which governs the Nation, has a formidable reputation. However, like U.S. states, the Navajo Nation Council is still subject to the federal government. The Nation also strives to better the economic situation of the Nation and its people.

Images in Popular Culture

The Navajo have appeared intermittently in popular media forms such as comic books, television, and film. In comic books, a few super heroes were depicted as Navajo. American Eagle and Black Crow, created by Marvel, are two examples. Black Condor was featured in DC Comics. Though these characters were not as prominent as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, they nevertheless filled a void for a culture not traditionally represented in the media. These characters also helped present positive and empowering images of the Navajo and gave their youth archetypes with which they could identify. In television, the Navajo Nation is visited during the six-part BBC television series Stephen Fry in America, which was released in 2008. The short-lived reality show, Navajo Cops, which appeared in 2011 and 2012, enjoyed some popularity and exposed audiences to life, culture, and drama in the Navajo Nation. The show was broadcast on the National Geographic Channel.

Film, more than any other medium, has delved into the issues that have concerned the Navajo Nation, past and present. Director John Ford utilized Monument Valley, which is located near the nation, as the setting for numerous Westerns during the first half of the 20th century. The Academy-Award-winning documentary Broken Rainbow (1985) covers the subject of the forced relocation of the Navajo from their ancestral lands. Documentaries include The Return of Navajo Boy (2000), Mile Post 398 (2007), and Miss Navajo (2007). The Return of Navajo Boy exposes the real-life struggle to remove uranium-contaminated soil from a family's home in the Navajo Nation. Mile Post 398 is notable because it was written, produced, and directed entirely by the Navajo. The independent film tackles the effect of alcoholism on a family living on a reservation. Miss Navajo (2007) follows the real-life pursuit of a young Navajo woman seeking to win the title “Miss Navajo.” In 2002, in the fictional television film Skinwalkers, traditions and modernity blend as Navajo Tribal Police struggle to find a mysterious killer. This film was adapted from the 1986 novel by Tony Hillerman. Hillerman, who was born in Oklahoma, was not Navajo, but is celebrated for novels featuring the Navajo tribal police. The mainstream film Windtalkers (2002) dramatized the contributions of the Navajo Code Talkers.

For Visitors

The Navajo Parks and Recreation Department manages several sites. These sites, which are open to the public, include such areas as the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, Antelope Canyon, and Four Corners Monument. Visitors may explore the Navajo Nation Museum and purchase genuine Native American–woven blankets, jewelry, and other crafts on the Navajo Nation. Two major annul events that occur in the Navajo Nation are the Navajo Nation Fair and the Navajo Nation Fourth of July Celebration.

See also California; Hopi Reservation; Monument Valley

Further Reading
  • Iverson, Peter. 2002. Diné: A History of the Navajos. University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque.
  • Kristofic, Jim. 2011. Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life. University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque.
  • McCarty, Teresa, L. 2002. A Place to Be Navajo. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Mahwah New Jersey.
  • McPherson, Robert S. 2001. Navajo Land, Navajo Culture. University of Oklahoma Press Norman.
  • Navajo Nation Government.
  • Zah, Peterson; Iverson, Peter. 2012. We Will Secure Our Future: Empowering the Navajo Nation. University of Arizona Press Tucson.
  • Copyright 2014 by Gladys L. Knight

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