Cultural History - Navajo

Anthropologists and archaeologists have studied the Navajo Indians for over 100 years. The following information shares their understanding of the history of the Navajo and is not the same as the oral history of the Navajo people themselves.

1000 C.E.

The Navajos appeared in the northwestern corner of New Mexico. They were different from the Ute, Paiute and Pueblo peoples in the area both physically and in the artifacts they left behind. They had apparently migrated into the area from the far north. Their language is similar to the Athabascans of northwestern Canada.

1600 C.E.

The Navajos existed as hunters and gatherers for centuries. Their most unique trait has been their willingness to adapt to new conditions and adopt anything from their neighbors which could be used to their advantage. They probably learned to grow corn and weave cotton from the Pueblos. When the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century, they acquired cattle, sheep and horses and became more nomadic herdsman than farmers. By the 1800�s they had learned silversmithing from the Mexicans who moved into the area.


The Navajos conflicted with the American, Mexican and Spanish settlers for the same lands and resources. Slave raids against the Navajos by Utes, Mexican, and American settlers led the Navajos to lead reprisal raids of their own. The U.S. government did not understand tribal government. There were no �chiefs� - just local matrilineal clans. A �treaty� signed by one local �chief� had no relevance for his neighbors.


Kit Carson led the U.S. Army and its Ute allies against the tribe. The problem was so great that it received a high priority during the middle of the Civil War. Carson destroyed crops, herds and homes in order to force surrender. Nearly 9,000 people (about half the tribe) were taken captive and forced on the �Long Walk�, 300 miles to imprisonment at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Approximately 2,000 people died there over the next four years. Several thousand Navajos avoided capture, and many of them went into hiding in the Paiute lands along the San Juan River, around Navajo Mountain in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, and as far west as the Grand Canyon.


In Captivity, the Navajo tribe agreed to a treaty and a reservation was set up in Eastern Arizona and Western New Mexico. The Navajo people walked back home.


Traders entered the Navajo lands in force, buying wool and mohair and selling American goods. They developed a complex economy of loans, pawning, and bartering. Silversmithing became a major craft. The Navajos used silver coins and later bulk silver supplied by the traders. There were no silver mines on Navajo lands. Weaving for the tourist trade was encouraged, especially by the Santa Fe Railroad who desired the weavings as sales items for their hotel gift shops.

Early 1900s

Most tribal members remained distanced from the surrounding world, living in isolated, small family groups. To satisfy government census and reporting, many Navajos took Anglo names or used descriptive terms: Yazzie (small), Nez (long), Tsosie (slender), or Tso (large).


A major government effort was undertaken to eliminate Indian cultures and integrate them into mainstream United States: Christian missions were encouraged but were not very successful. Children were forced to attend boarding schools far from their reservation homes and were required to learn and speak only English. This resulted, for the most part, in a generation of Navajos uncomfortable in either Navajo or Anglo cultures. An ill-conceived government effort to reduce livestock permits on the reservation began a slow transition which forced Navajos from their traditional lifestyles and into the wage economy.

1941 to World War II

Many Navajos joined the armed forces. Navajos in the Pacific became �Code Talkers�. Their battlefield communications in the Navajo (for example: �gini� � chicken hawk � meant �dive bomber�) were a mystery to the Japanese and the code was never broken. This project was classified for years following the war and only recently was this vital contribution to the war effort made known to the public.

1960 to the Present

The wage economy developed with Navajos frequently working off the reservation for part of the year and then returning home. There was much construction: highways, dams, mines, homes, schools, hospitals. Local schools allowed children to remain at home with their families. TV and radio reached the most isolated hogans. In general, the Navajo people became more �Anglosized�, but also showed renewed interest in cultural traditions, language, and religion. Their ability to adapt parts of other cultures to their own continues to serve them well.

While many Navajos live in modern homes, built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in small communities patterned after Western U.S. suburbs, many more choose to live in �outfits� �isolated clusters of hogans, houses, and mobile homes: usually the extended family of a matriarch and her daughters.

Religious ceremonies mark stages of a person's life (first laugh, puberty, marriage) and are also used to restore harmony when one is physically or emotionally ill. Illness may be treated with modern and/or traditional medicine, but most believe the cure is not complete until ceremonies to restore balance or harmony with the world, the gods, and society are performed.


    McCoy, Ron - People of the Plateau, Museum of Northern Arizona, 1993

Further Readings

    Locke, Raymond Friday - The Book of the Navajo, 6th Ed., Mankind Pub, 2001

Content of this page was provided by the National Park Service.