Navajo - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The society and economy of the Navajo have been continually evolving in Response to new opportunities and challenges since their first arrival in the Southwest, so that it is difficult to speak of any traditional economy. During most of the reservation period, from 1868 to about 1960, the people depended on a combination of farming, animal husbandry, and the sale of various products to traders. The cultivation of maize was considered by the Navajo to be the most basic and essential of all their economic pursuits, although it made only a relatively small contribution to the Navajo diet. The raising of sheep and goats provided substantial quantities of meat and milk, as well as hides, wool, and lambs that were exchanged for manufactured goods at any of the numerous trading posts scattered throughout the Navajo country. Additional income was derived from the sale or exchange of various craft products, Especially rugs, and of piñon nuts. Beginning in the early 1900s, a few Navajo were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in off-reservation towns and ranches, but wage work did not become a significant feature of the Navajo economy until after World War II. By the 1980s, wage work was contributing about 75 percent of all Navajo income, although the more traditional farming and livestock economies were still being maintained throughout the reservation as well. Tourism, mineral production, and lumbering are the main sources of cash income on the Navajo Reservation.

Industrial Arts. The oldest of surviving Navajo crafts is probably that of pottery making. Only a few women still make pottery, but they continue to produce vessels of a very ancient and distinctive type, unlike the decorated wares of their Pueblo neighbors. The art of weaving was learned early from the Pueblos, but the weaving of wool into heavy and durable rugs in elaborate multicolored patterns is a development of the reservation period and was very much stimulated by the Indian traders. For a time in the late nineteenth century the sale of rugs became the main source of cash income for the Navajo. While the economic importance of weaving has very much declined in the twentieth century, most older Navajo women and many younger ones still do some weaving. Apart from woven goods, the most celebrated of Navajo craft Products were items of silver and turquoise jewelry, combining Mexican and aboriginal Southwestern traditions. Although many Navajo still possess substantial quantities of jewelry, the silversmith's art itself has nearly died out. Other craft products that are still made in small quantities are baskets and brightly colored cotton sashes, both of which play a part in Navajo ceremonies.

Trade. In the prehistoric and early historic periods there was a substantial institutionalized trade between the Navajo and many of the Pueblo villages, and this persists on a small scale today. Since the later nineteenth century, however, most Navajo trade has been funneled through the trading post, which in most respects resembles the old country general store. Here clothing, housewares, bedding, hardware, and most of the other material needs of the Navajo are supplied in exchange for livestock products or, more recently, are sold for cash. Traditionally, most Navajo families lived on credit for much of the year, paying off their accounts with wool in the spring and with lambs in the fall.

Division of Labor. In the traditional Navajo economy there was a rigid though not total division between male and female tasks. Farming and the care of horses were male activities; weaving and most household tasks were female activities. More recently, however, both sexes have collaborated in lambing, shearing, and herding activities, and both men and women are now heavily involved in wage work. Although males played the dominant roles in Navajo ritual activities, there has always been an important place for females as well.

Land Tenure. Families traditionally have exclusive use rights to agricultural land as long as they actually farm it; if it lies uncultivated for more than two years another family may take possession. All range land, however, is treated as Common and collective property of the whole community and is unfenced.


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