Native American History - Navajo Nation

Navajo Photos - Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Portraits of Navajo Tribe members of Native Americans

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The History of the Navajo Nation

Navajo Rug Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Native American History - Navajo Nation

The Navajo People call themselves, Diné (or Dineh), which simply means, "the people".

Related to the Athabaskan tribes, the dineh may have originated from the northwest Pacific coast and Canada to arrive in the four corners region of the southwestern United States. Some believe this occurred around the 1300s. If this is true, they would have encountered earlier tribes of indigenous peoples that had been living there before, such as the Zuni, Hopi, Anasazi and Pueblo Indians.

The Navajo elders have a creation story of the Dineh living in different colored worlds until arriving in the present world. According to Navajo beliefs, the people have passed through three different worlds before entering this, the Glittering World.

By the mid 18th century, the Navajos were established in the area known today as the four corners region which includes Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The Navajo Nation reservation is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. today. Although it no longer includes parts of Colorado, the reservation consists of 27,635 square miles. The Arizona portion alone is 11.6 million acres.

Navajos occupied the land belonging to Mexico up until 1848. They had previously fought the Spaniards and other local tribes for their land and sustenance. During the next ten years, the new American immigrants began to move westward and, as they were want to do, began driving out the dineh from their homelands.

The Navajo were very fierce warriors and they continued to fight for their land until the U.S. soldiers built Fort Defiance right in the middle of Navajo country near Window Rock, Arizona. They then proceeded to kill and capture thousands of the native dwellers while destroying their homes, crops and livestock.

The Navajos fearing extermination, surrendered and were forced to go on the "Long Walk" for 300 miles to be confined in Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. This walk was very similar to The Trail of Tears for the Muskegon tribes of the East.

In 1868, the Navajos were released to return to their original settlements and unite once again to form the Navajo Nation. The dineh recovered from the immigrant invasion and returned to their lives of peaceful farming, sheep herding and artistry. The Navajo are outstanding silver smiths, weavers and trading post owners. They became world famous for their jewelry, rugs and sand paintings.

During World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers could handle military messages faster and more efficiently than anyone else. Their language was also an unbreakable communication. It is said that the battle of Iwo Jima was won because of the Navajo code talkers.

Navajo Code Talkers. This video brought me to tears!

Native American Culture - Navajo


The Navajos believe that the physical and spiritual world blend together. Everything, including Mother Earth is alive and has a natural right to exist. They call their gods Yeis, which we interpret as Holy Ones. According to the Navajo, the Yeis live in the four sacred mountains in each of the four directions of north, south, east and west.

The Holy Ones love the daily lives of the dineh and visit them during their singing. The medicine men sing prayers and draw sand paintings to send the evil ones away. This ceremony is known as the Enemy way. The Enemy Way drives out evil spirits, ghosts and bad winds.

Happy occasions also involve singing, prayers, stories and paintings. The Blessing Way is a major ceremony that encourages the dineh to live peacefully, happily and to seek knowledge.

There is a Healing Way which is called a sing. A Navajo medicine man will sing a specific ritual song for whatever the ailment may be and while singing will draw elaborate and detailed sand paintings which depict the Holy Ones. They will use sand, crushed pollen, cornmeal, charcoal and powdered minerals to make the painting of the Yeis. The sand painting attracts the evil spirit or spirits causing the ailment and when the sing is completed, the painting will be destroyed along with the ailments.

Navajo Sand Painting - personal collection - L.A Cargill

Sand paintings are beautiful, but are meant to be temporary. Some Navajos have tried making sand paintings and preserving them. These are not the same type of paintings that the medicine men use. They are similar, of course. The sand paintings you see for sale are quite valuable as well as beautiful. The art of sand painting is sacred to the dineh.

Who are the Navajo people?

Navajo Photos and Portraits - Wikimedia Commons

Family and Daily Life.

The dineh are devoted to family, love of the land and spiritual ceremonies. Their hogans (houses) are built to reflect all of the relationships between the universe and all living creatures.

The roof of a hogan resembles Father Sky. The floor is meant to be bare, but today's newly built homes are made to resemble Mother Earth and may only have an opening to the ground or a basement. Walls are designed to reflect the hogan's surroundings whether it be mountains, high plains or desert. Decorative elements include white shell, abalone, turquoise, obsidian and silver. Preferred colors are the colors of nature, especially the blue of night, green of grasslands and reds or yellows of the sky.

The Navajo and most southwestern tribes have daily ceremonies that include prayers to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The "cross" that Native Americans use represent these four natural elements and do not relate to the Christian cross at all, although a lot of people think it does.

Hogans are blessed by medicine men. One will do a sing and a blessing to drive out all evil spirits, ghosts or illnesses. A promise is made to shelter all who need it. Strangers are not turned away from a Navajo home. The hogan is marked on the inside above the walls in the four directions to remind the family that the hogan has been blessed and is in the good graces of the Great Spirit.

The people - Navajo Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Native American Ceremonies - Navajo

Navajo ceremonies are religious in nature and are intended for the tribe or even a single family. They are not public events. Occasionally, they do have public events and rodeos are definitely public, but most ceremonies are private and some have never been seen by outsiders. Do not ask.

Also, while on the Navajo Nation lands, you must get a permit before taking photos or videos, especially if they are for commercial use. If you do get permission from an individual to take a photo, they do appreciate a tip and it is customary to give them one.

Native American Food - Navajo Recipes

The Navajo have been shepherds for a very long time. Their main diet is mutton, so it is no surprise that mutton stew is the classic dish.

Corn stew, dumpling stew, squash dishes, fry-bread, Navajo tacos and Navajo burgers are also quite popular. One will also find many Mexican dishes and meals eaten with chilies. New Mexico is popularly known for the Green Hatch brand of chilies which have a distinctive and delicious flavor due to the ingredients in the soil.

Navajo Mutton Stew Recipe

By Karen Larson's Grandmother:

  • 1 1/2 pounds of mutton or lamb chops, cut into chunks
  • 4 - 5 medium potatoes, peeled and chunked
  • 4- 5 wild onions (or 1 medium white onion), chunked
  • 4 - 5 carrots, cut to bite sized pieces
  • a cup of celery cut to bite sized pieces
  • 3 1/2 cups water or meat stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
  • dumplings or wide egg noodles

Cook all ingredients, except dumplings, in a stew pot (or slow cooker) until done (about 2 or 3 hours). Add the dumplings or egg noodles and cook for another 30 minutes or so.

Navajo fry bread is acceptable to use as dumpling dough.

Fry Bread Recipe:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 T Baking Powder
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1/2 c. shortening or lard
  • 1 c. warm water

Mix the dry ingredients. Gradually add in the shortening and water just until dough sticks together. Knead dough into fist sized balls and cover for 10 minutes to rest. Pat the balls out into circles about the size of a pancake. Fry in hot oil until brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and top with just about anything!

Navajo Language

The Navajo language is extremely difficult for non-native speakers. Also, like many Asian languages, the way one thing relates to another thing has a lot of influence in their speech. The way a native speaker forms sentences is very different from the way English speakers understand sentence structure.

Navajo words paint a picture in your mind.

Navajos don't just state facts. Sentences tell small anecdotes. Instead of saying My head hurts, a Native Navajo speaker will say, My head is hurting me. Their grammar structure is similar to Spanish, yet many phrases and sentences will have a much deeper or more expressive meaning to the listener.

Common Words and Phrases in Navajo

The Navajo Nations and the Four Corners Reservations

  • Chinle, AZ Reservation - Navajo Indian Reservation, Chinle, AZ, USA Where the water flows out of the Canyon de Chelly.
  • Fort Defiance, Arizona - Navajo Reservation, Fort Defiance, AZ 86505, USA The first U.S. fort in Arizona built to expel the Dineh.
  • Navajo National Monument - Navajo National Monument, Arizona 86045, USA Navajo or Anasazi cliff dwellings.
  • Canyon de Chelly - Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Tsaile, AZ 86556, USA Probably prettier than the Grand Canyon in my opinion.
  • Grand Staircase Escalante - Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 190 E Center St, Kanab, UT 84741, USA Some of the most awesome photos ever come from here!
  • Chaco canyon - Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Nageezi, NM 87037, USA Amazing place for fossil hunting!
  • Navajo Code Talkers Museum, Tuba City, AZ - Tuba City, AZ, USA

If you have comments, suggestions, or information to share about the Navajo, please contact me. Thank you!

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