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Navajo Land and People


Navajo Land and People

navajo peopleA storied culture that began more than 500 years ago, the Navajo people got their name from the phrase Teva Navahu; which means “highly-cultivated lands.” This designation seems rather apt, especially given that we now know that they are widely considered the largest of all Native American Indian tribes in the world.

More hunters and gatherers than raiding warriors, the Navajo culture really began to flourish in the four corners area of the Colorado Plateau. It was here that they were first contacted by the Spanish, who drove them off their lands and further into New Mexico and Arizona.

By the middle of the 1800s, many of the Navajo were captured during the Scorched Earth Campaign and forced to walk more than 350 miles east to Fort Sumner; those who lived were hardened by the journey and years of war.

navajo peopleLater that same century the Navajo, the only indigenous people allowed to return to their home land, were released to return to their reservation.  They found solace in their surroundings, raising their sheep and creating gorgeous textiles that gave them a prosperous edge in the changing financial times.

In 1906, John and Louisa Wetherill, ranchers and traders by nature, started at trading post which gave the Navajo people an outlet to trade their goods with those heading west to seek their fortune. And over the next 20 years, those trading posts expanded giving them even more opportunity to share their beautiful wares and textiles with people all over the country.

In the last decade, the rich history of the Navajo has steadily (and thankfully) been passed down from generation to generation. Families remain strong and close; the heritage can still be found in the language, the people, and their craftsmanship; and old traditions and pride still permeate the very fiber of their unique society.

And whether it be the exclusive textiles created with each generation, the world-changing code talkers of World War II, or the beautiful culture that impacted the very essence of society, the Navajo have long been a driving force behind what it means to be a Native American.   



Navajo Indians: Matriarchal Society

Navajo society The Navajos are matriarchal and descent is traced through the mother.  While the basic unit of social cooperation is the biological family, the term “family” is considerably broader in it’s application to Navajo society than it is in the white American world.  A biological family, historically, lived in a cluster of hogans and nearby, usually within shouting distance, lived the “extended family.”  An extended family would consist of an older woman, her husband and unmarried children, and her married daughters together with their husbands and unmarried children.

An extended family might also consist of unmarried, widowed or other relatives of the older woman of the household.  Historically an extended family lived together in a designated vicinity and changed the place of residence as a group as the weather or foliage for the livestock dictated.  Within the extended family labor is pooled to a great extent in herding and other productive activities.  A man living with his wife’s family may also participate in the work activities of his own extended family. 

He often visits the homes of his mother and sisters and lends a helping hand in harvesting and other group activities.  A man will sometimes pasture his livestock with that of his mother or sister rather than with the property of his wife and children.

Until recently there was no conception of joint property ownership between husband and wife.  As a result Navajo women have always enjoyed a favored and somewhat more “liberated” position in their society than have their white counterparts.  A woman controls the hogan, built on land that was set aside for her by her family; she owns the children, which belong to her clan, her sheep, the product of her sheep and other livestock, her jewelry and all blankets she might weave and the income from the sale of any of her property.  A husband owns what he has inherited from his own family and all goods which he has bought out of his own earnings which, nowadays, often includes a pick-up truck.  Either partner may sell or trade what he owns, though one usually consults with the other about any major transactions.    …………. Raymond Friday Locke 


THE NAVAJO INDIAN HOGAN: Shelter and Center of their World

navajo hogon Beautiful Rainbow of the Navajo.  At the center of the Navajo world is their shelter, the “HOGAN”.  Navajos do not refer to their mode of living as a way of life…   It is THE way of life …         

The ancient hogan, known as the “forked stick hogan” was a conical hut constructed of three forked poles covered with logs, brush and mud.  Called the ” mail” hogan by the Navajos, examples of this swelling can still occasionally be found in the western part of the reservation.  More common today is the “female” hogan, a circular or 6 sided dwelling constructed of logs or stone, (below) with a doorway facing east and a smoke hole in the center of the roof.

The dome-shaped roof is formed of cribbed logs covered with dirt. (top photo) The fire  is placed on the hard-packed floor beneath the smoke hole and a flap or hinged door covers the doorway.  Traditionally the hogan lacked windows and was ventilated by the smoke hole in the roof and the east-facing doorway.  Nowadays not only do the hogans have windows but they may also contain stoves, chimneys, beds and even a refrigerator and a T.V.

Navajo HogonToday white prototype houses and even mobile homes are common on the reservation, but families that live in such dwellings also construct a hogan nearby.  Many of the People have retained their native religion and Navajo ceremonies can be conducted only in a hogan.

Most Navajo families own 2,3, or several hogans and more than one permanent establishment if they own sheep.  A family that owns several hundred sheep and other livestock might have as many as 5 or 6 separate clusters of buildings scattered over a large ara as the animals must be moved from place to place at various seasons of the year.  Too,variations in the weather and the water supply may require that a family live in one place during the summer and another during the winter.  Usually however, each family has one location which is its main residence at which there are more or less permanent corrals, storage dugouts, several hogans and temporary shades or bush hogans for summer use.

Navajo HogonThe Navajo hogan is more than just a place to eat and sleep and the concept of it as a “home” bears little resemblance to a white person’s attitude toward his dwelling place.  The hogan is a gift of the gods and as such it occupies a place in the sacred world.  The first hogans were built by the Holy People of turquoise, white shell, jet, and abalone shell.  The round hogan is symbolic of the sun and its door faces east so that the first thing that a Navajo family sees in the morning is the rising sun…. Father Sun, one of the most revered of the Navajo deities.  The construction of a new hogan is almost always a community affair.  Once completed, the new hogan is consecrated with a Blessing Way rite whereby the Holy People are asked to “let this place be happy.”

Navajo HogonAlso nearby, but out of sight, will be at least one sweat hogan.  The sweat hogan is small scale replica of the old-style forked stick hogan but without the smoke hole.  It is constructed of three sticks with forked ends which are fasten together in a tripod.  Two straight sticks are leaned against the apes from the east to make the sides of the door.  It is heated by placing hot rocks within, the door being closed with several blankets.  The sweat hogan provides excellent bathing and purifying facilities for the Navajos in their land of scarce water.  As in virtually everything a Navajo does, there are prescribed rituals that must be followed in taking a sweat bath.  Four verses of the Sweat Bath Song must be sung before a Navajo can leave the sweat hogan, which the Navajo call the Son of the She Dark, to plunge into cold water or dry himself in the sand.  The bather then re-enters the sweat hogan and sings four more verses of the song.  He repeats the ritual until the entire song has been sung. 

navajo hoganTraditional structured hogans are also considered pioneers of energy efficient homes. Using packed mud against the entire wood structure, the home was kept cool by natural air ventilation and water sprinkled on the dirt ground inside. During the winter, the fireplace kept the inside warm for a long period of time and well into the night.    …………. Raymond Friday Locke 


Athapascan Ancestors

navajo land and peopleFirst there was a beautiful and rugged land. And then came the people to the land and they called themselves Dineh. But they, the descendants of those Athapascan-speaking people would come to be known by many names. Dineh (or Dine), their name for themselves, cannot be translated exactly into English as there are no articles in the Navajo Language. The translation, “The People,” is formally permissible and accepted by most linguists and anthropologists, but Dinehcan also be translated as “men,” or “people” or even “earth people.”

According to Navajo tradition their ancestors, after many generations of wandering through inhospitable lands, came together and settled in a new land in this, the fifth world of their mythology.  This land was called Dinehtah- the land of The People.

Today over 130,000 Navajos live on their reservation which encompasses about 24,000 square miles of rugged, semi arid land in the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  The Reservation, which is about the size of the state of West Virginia.

Navajo Song:

“This is your home, my grandchild!” 
“My grandchild! I have returned with you to your home,
“Upon the pollen figure I have returned to sit with you, my grandchild!”  
He says to me as he sits down beside me;

“Your homes are yours again – Your fire is yous again – Your food is yours again – Your mountains are yours again, my Grandchild,”
He waves to me as he sits down beside me.    Navajo Song

…………. Raymond Friday Locke  


“Dine – The People”


~With beauty before me, it is woven
~With beauty behind me, it is woven
~With beauty above me, it is woven
~With beauty below me, it is woven
~And in beauty, it is finished.
Navajo weavers’ song………..