A Close Look at the Navajo Indigenous Group

The Navajos are a significant indigenous group that has walked through the North America thousands of years ago. The Navajo life is characterized by a devastating history of conflict. Despite this, they have remained to be a sovereign political entity, have struggled to survive amidst economic difficulty, have maintained their beliefs, traditions, customs, and language despite both internal and external threats. Therefore, they have to ensure that their culture lives on so future generations may learn from their story and history as a people.   

The Navajo indigenous group once settled in Canada and was part of the native group, Athabascans. They split up and started moving south some 1,000 years ago and lived (Santella, 2004) between San Juan and Little Colorado rivers in northeastern Arizona (Navajo 2009). Legend has it that spirits told them to live in an area surrounded by four mountains (Santella, 2004). The Navajos constantly raided the Pueblo and Spanish and Mexican settlements in New Mexico, with help from the Apaches (Navajo, 2009). Nevertheless, they suffered a great deal when the U.S. Army started to arrive in 1848. The Navajos tried to defend their land under the leadership of Manuelito but did not succeed. Finally in 1864, they were beaten by forces of Colonel Kit Carson. As a result, they were captured and forced to walk more than 300 miles from North Arizona to eastern Mexico, which was later referred to as the Long Walk. Here, many Navajos died and those who survived were held captive. After four years though, the government permitted them to return to their land that it had structured to be a reservation. Nevertheless, they were forced to adapt to the European lifestyle and give up their traditional way of life (Santella, 2004).    

Politics and Power
In the beginning, the Navajos did not have a structured political system. Yet they possessed diplomacy in dealing with other people, a strategic military, and an intertribal etiquette (Lyon, 2000). When the group became a tribal nation, it was known as a distinct political sovereign. As such, it shares the inherent political powers given to Indian tribes like the power to tax, determine membership, establish their own government, regulate domestic relations of members, prescribe rules of inheritance, regulate property within the jurisdiction of the tribe, and administer justice (as cited in Wilkins, 2003).

Hence, the Navajo Nation is a political force that has enjoyed both inherent and delegated political power and authority. As a political entity, the Navajo Nation underscored who belongs to its population in the Navajo Nation Code. Among these are individuals with Navajo blood listed on the official list that is maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, individuals with one-half Navajo blood who has not been listed as member initially, as well as children born to an enrolled tribe member, who possess at least one-fourth Navajo blood. Likewise, being a sovereign political body, the Navajos have also defined their territorial boundaries in their Code.

 Before European conquest, the Navajos occupied a huge land. After the said intrusion, they were left with less than one-fourth of their original homeland. With great efforts from tribal leaders and support from federal legislation, they gradually recover much of their settlements (Wilkins, 2003). Likewise, the Nation, as a political entity possesses a governing structure. They were led by the Navajo Nations chief executive officer or tribal chairman until 1989, when the Navajo Nations council amended the Tribal Code to separate executive and legislative powers and limit the power of the chairman. As a result, the positions of president and speaker of the council came into being. As chief executive, the president has full authority of the Nation and is given the power to represent it, implement laws, negotiate and execute contracts, and appoint supervisory executive personnel (Wilkins, 2007).

Subsistence Strategies
As a nomadic tribe in the beginning, the Navajos settled in earth-covered lodges in winter and in hogans in summer. Because of this, they sustained themselves through hunting of deer, elk, and antelope, farming of corn and beans, and gathering of wild vegetable products (Navajo, 2009). The early 17th century changed this subsistence living with the acquisition of the Churro sheep from the Spaniards that shifted their lifestyle from hunting and gathering to pastoralism. The sheep proved to be a significant element in traditional Navajo life. As men herded their flocks, women and children were in-charge of fiber arts, yarn weaving, and other activities that had to do with sheep. The sheep further sustained and stabilized the Navajo family until federal government actions disturbed their economic stability and their very lives in 1863 (Jamison, n.d.). Meanwhile in the 1930s, in the wake of the reservation process, the Navajos were left without any means of survival as their grasslands were overgrazed and eroded. Hence, they started irrigation projects that enabled them to go back to agriculture and farming. This means of livelihood only supported a small number of people nonetheless so many looked for income outside the confines of the reservation (Navajo, 2009).
Belief Systems

The Navajos possess a rich culture that consists of legends and ceremonies. In fact, the Navajos have their own creation story. Here, three underworlds existed where significant events transpired to create the fourth world, where human beings currently live in. Moreover, their creators gave them the name Nihookaa Diyan Din or simply Din, which means holy earth people or the people respectively (Navajo Arts, 2008). Furthermore, the creation story also provided the four important colors of black, white, yellow, and blue. The four mountains, namely, Sisnaajin or Blanca Peak in south-central Colorado, Tsoo dzil or Mount Taylor in west-central New Mexico, Dook o oosliid or San Francisco Peaks in north-central Arizona, and Dib Nitsaa or Hesperus Peak in southwestern Colorado (Fast, 2007), that the spirits instructed them to settle in were each given a color that represent its direction. Apart from this, the time of day was also given a color  black for night, white for dawn, blue for day, and yellow for dusk. These four colors mean so many things to the Navajos and are evident in their spiritual objects and arts such as painting and weaving. Hence, the colors symbolisms and meanings represent the richness of their culture and links the Navajos past, present, and future (Utah Indians, n.d.).

Moreover, the Navajos are rich in ceremonial activities that reveal their traditions, customs, and beliefs. One of these is their great nine-day ceremony for the treatment of mental and physical sickness others are performed for four days, two days, or one day. These ceremonies are underscored by songs and prayers and are often supplemented with characters and incidents of Navajo myths. It is notable how majority of the Navajo life is enhanced with these ceremonies. However, no ceremony is held for the dead as Navajos regard them as evil and are therefore feared. In fact, no family attends the burial and the hogan where one dies is abandoned or burned (Navajo Art, 2008). Because of the many rituals they hold, the Navajos have little time to interact with others. They have maintained their superiority among other people in their myths and legends and have placed meanings and illustrations to nature and animals (Lyon, 2000). Hence, it can be said that Navajos have distanced themselves and created a world or nation that is exclusively theirs.  

Marriage and Family
Unlike the traditional American family, the Navajo family is large that consists of approximately 7.7 members (as cited in McWhirter and Ryan, 1991). Nevertheless, it is a strong unit and an extended one that includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This extended family act as caretakers for children and the elderly. According to McWhirter and Ryan (1991), support is one value that the family strongly upholds. When a member is in need, the other members naturally come together and help. Likewise, Navajos provide not just for themselves and their children but also for their old parents and needy siblings. Moreover, if a Navajo is more fortunate than the rest of his or her family, he or she may also support nephews and nieces. Hence, this only suggests that Navajos find it difficult to accept help from outside their extended family. Another quality that Navajos strongly values is respect for the elderly and authority. This is taught early in the family and is displayed by a downward glance or lack of eye contact (McWhirter and Ryan, 1991) to older members of the family, older people, and tribal leaders. This value of respect is likewise evident in marriage. In a study by Skogrand et al. (2008) to 21 Navajo married couples, they found that family members play a crucial role in marriages as they are a source of knowledge, advice, and stories that inculcate values and provide guidance in dealing with marital issues.

In addition, the Navajo family also belongs to a clan system that establishes interpersonal links. Initially, grandmothers were tasked to memorize and teach the younger generation the familys genealogical history. Moreover, the clan also upholds its own set of rules. In some clans, teasing of a woman by a man is acceptable while in some, this may be discourteous. In clan relationships also, marriage is only permissible if clan members from both sides are not related to each other. Additionally, a married Navajo woman also brings her husband home to her family. Nevertheless, traditions have held that sometimes a son-in-law may not see his mother-in-law. Because of this, the couple builds their home wherein the door does not face the mother-in-laws house (McWhirter and Ryan, 1991).

Furthermore, the Navajos of younger generation gradually adapts to the mainstream culture, causing them to disregard some traditions. They find themselves caught in the middle of their parents and grandparents ways and the lifestyle they see outside their clan. As a result, older family members develop anguish and a gap between and among generations likewise grows (McWhirter and Ryan, 1991).       

If there is an element though that binds Navajos, both young and old, it is their language. In fact, the Navajo language is already taught as early as kindergarten. The language is difficult nonetheless for any stranger as its diphthongs and glottal stops are quite dissimilar from that of the English language. McWhirter and Ryan (1991) further held that it is very descriptive in that there are countless ways to say one word. Furthermore, only a few people can read or write in the language. This is due to the fact that Navajo was not written until the 19th century. As a result, the language is primarily oral in nature and reading is not culturally supported. Because of this, Navajos experience difficulty in school and even in employment as they cannot cope up with other students and applicants who possess better writing and speaking skills. Nonetheless, the Navajo language has been a representation of Navajo culture and Navajos themselves. Because of their sheepherding and farming background, they are exposed to what life is around them. Since they opt to live alone and not band with other members of the community, there are used to living alone as well as to the importance of silence and listening to their own thoughts. Consequently, they are observant of others and choose not to open their mouths for the sake of speaking alone. This practice is evident in the community government level when they allow each one to voice out their opinions without interruption as they know that their time to speak shall also come and that others shall listen to them as well (McWhirter and Ryan, 1991). Nonetheless, their language suffers the threat of losing words meanings as translations do not significantly give justice to what Navajo words truly mean.

There are a number of external and internal conflicts that Navajos had to endure. To affirm their superiority among other Indians in their area, they drove away the Havasupai farther west, destroyed the Oraibi village of the Hopis, raided the Pueblos, and joined an alliance against the Gila Apaches. However, the persistent conflicts with the federal government that started in 1868 had caused them to suffer immensely. While these external problems were apparent, internal concerns were also inevitable. For instance, threats of other religious beliefs began in the reservation as religious groups tried not only to help the Navajos in their plight but also to educate and convert them into their views. As modernization gradually made its way into the reservation, conflicts between traditional and modern ways surfaced particularly in the realms of medicine, family life, language, and culture.

The Navajos Today
Today, members of the Navajo indigenous group continue to live in the Navajo Reservation. To keep their culture alive, Bishop and Kalman (2004) said educators teach Navajo history, culture, and language to Navajos and non-Navajos alike at Din College and that various forms of media keep Navajos informed using the Navajo language. As a self-governing entity, the Navajo nation has its own government, court system, and the Navajo Peacemaker Court. Nevertheless, the Navajos need to continuously make an effort to preserve their rich history and culture by ensuring that their children and their childrens children grow up knowledgeable about their uniqueness that distinguishes them from the rest of the world.


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