Navajo: A Language and People - dummies

By Dorothy Lippert, Stephen J. Spignesi

The Navajo Nation is the second-largest tribal group in the United States. Their name for themselves is Ni’hookaa Diyan Diné, which translates as “Lords of the Earth” or “Holy Earth People.” They also use the shorter form of Diné, which means “the people.” Navajo comes from a Tewa Pueblo word meaning “an area of cultivated land” or “strangers from a cultivated land.” Their language is Navajo, which is one of the Athabascan languages. The Navajo lived mainly in the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah all meet.

As with many other tribes, Navajo families are clan-oriented, and the Navajo Nation encompasses dozens of clans. A child belongs to his or her mother’s clan, and tradition states that a person should marry outside his or her clan.

War and peace

With the invasion of the Spanish into the Southwest, the Navajos often conflicted with the conquistadors. Spanish settlers and the Navajo would go through periods of calm and conflict. The worst encounter was a punitive expedition by the Spanish in 1805 that tracked down some Navajos in the Canyon de Chelly. The Navajos fled into one of the ancient cliff dwellings, expecting it to protect them. However, Spanish firearms could still reach them. Over a hundred men, women, and children were killed.

Many of the Navajos in this era lived in small communities. Although they were a people with a common heritage, they had no tribal government that covered the entire tribe. Efforts by the Spanish, the Mexican, and later the American government to deal with a central government were unsuccessful. Peace accords reached with one group would be unknown to another.

The Long Walk

In 1863, American forces, under famed scout Kit Carson, entered Navajo territory. They were there to punish the Navajo for their continuing raids. With the Navajo’s ability to hide themselves in their canyons, the expedition’s most effective tool became fire. Carson’s people burned the crops and the homes of the Navajos whenever they could find them. This had a drastic effect in this arid region.

During this campaign, the army had captured about 6,000 Navajos. Along with about 2,000 other Indians under their control, they would eventually be marched 300 miles from eastern Arizona to a “resettlement” camp in New Mexico. The army called the camp Bosque Redondo. The Navajos called their forced march “The Long Walk.”

Many of the Navajos were in bad shape because of Carson’s “burnt earth” policy, and hundreds of Navajos died during the march. Life in Bosque Redondo was hard. The land was poor, and the conditions were unforgiving. The surviving Navajos were allowed to return to their homelands in 1868.

The Navajo today

The Navajo were originally hunters and farmers but also fought with tribes in the area and conducted raids upon them. The Navajo took up sheep and goat herding after those animals had been introduced by the Spanish. Today, many Navajo people continue to be ranchers.

Navajo craftspeople are especially known for their skills in weaving and working with silver. Navajo blankets, rugs, and silverworks are some of the most prized crafts in the world.

A genuine Navajo rug will often have one intentional minor flaw in its construction. By the old traditions, only the Great Spirit is perfect. Humanity should not try to be perfect.

The Navajo number 270,000 according to the 2000 census. They have the largest reservation in the United States, covering 27,000 square miles — larger than 10 of the 50 states.