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Knowledge about Native Americans


Navajo Nation PosterNavajo Nation Poster.

The Navajo (Dine (Dineh) tribe of North America are of Athabascan stock, living on reservations in northeastern Arizona and contiguous parts of New Mexico and Utah. They are closely related to the Apache and originally emigrated from areas north of their present habitat. The Navajo were largely a nomadic people and continually migrated around the southwest depending on the seasons and availability of food. It is thought that they settled in the southwest during the 16th century as pressures from surrounding tribes and Spanish conquistadors increased. By the 17th century the Navajo had become a pastoral people, with an economy based largely on herding and hunting.

Navajo History

The Navajo came in to conflict with the Spanish colonists and the Mexicans during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although their contact with the Spanish was limited, it was important; the Spanish introduced horses, sheep, goats, and silversmithing which became a vital part of the Navajo economy. In 1846 the Navajo made their first treaty with the US government, but disagreements with the American troops led to hostilities by 1849. The tribe engaged in chronic warfare with the Americans until 1863. In that next year US forces under Kit Carson waged an extended campaign against the Navajo, eventually capturing some 8000. These Indians were sent on foot to a reservation at Ft Sumner in New Mexico. This forcible deportation is known in Navajo history as the "Long Walk". On the reservation, the tribe suffered severe hardships from disease and crop failures, and they were attacked by other Indians. A new treaty with the US government was signed in 1868, and the surviving Navajo were allowed to go back to a reservation set aside in their former territory and were provided with sheep and cattle. In return, the tribe agreed to live in peace with the American settlers. In 1884 the reservation was extended to accommodate their increasing herds. During the late 19th century the tribe prospered, the population doubled, and additional land was added. Since this was generally poor farming land, few attempts were made by outsiders to encroach on the reservation. Greatly increased livestock holdings presented serious problems of soil erosion and overgrazing. Eventually a livestock reduction plan was forced on the tribe by the US government. During World War Two many Navajo left the reservation to serve in the armed forces or work in cities in war-related jobs.

Navajo Customs and Religion

Navajo Sand PainterSand Painting.

The Navajo tribe is divided into more than 50 clans, and decent is traced through the female line. The Navajo must marry outside their clan. An extended family unit is still the norm, with a whole range of responsibilities among relatives. Although modern housing is available on the reservation, many Navajo still build and live in traditional hogans. These are conical houses of logs covered with earth, which have a smoke hole at the top and are entered through a short, covered passage. Traditional Navajo religion includes the worship of a number of gods who are believed to intervene occasionally in human affairs. These gods are frequently invoked; offerings are made to them, and ceremonial dances are performed in which they are represented by painted and masked men. Songs, chants, prayers, and sand paintings also form a part of the complicated religious rituals, and a large body of mythology exists.

Contemporary Navajo Life

Navajo Supreme Court justicesNavajo Supreme Court justices.

The Navajo economy is based on sustenance provided by herds of sheep and goats, some cattle and horses, and employment in various jobs. The Navajo also make pottery and baskets and are well know for their silver jewelry and fine, durable blanket and rugs. By the mid 20th century, oil production and the discovery of rich mineral deposits on reservation lands had greatly enhanced their economy. At present the Navajo are the largest Indian tribe in the US with approximately 160,000 members. Their population is growing at an extraordinary rate, and this growth is likely to put great pressure on the traditional Navajo economy. Their reservation lands total more than 6 million acres the largest in the US. The Navajo also have the greatest tribal income in the US. It is estimated at about $700 million from oil and gas leases as well as income from mineral and forest resources.

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