by D. L. Birchfield


The Navajo Nation covers a territory larger than the combined states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It is the largest reservation-based Indian nation within the United States, both in land area and population. More than 200,000 Navajos live on the 24,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation. The Navajos' name for themselves is Diné, meaning "the people." The Spanish and Mexicans called them "Apaches de Navajo": "Navajo" is a modified Tewa word meaning "planted fields" and "Apache" is the Spanish version of the Zuñi word for "enemies." In 1969 the Navajo Tribal Council officially designated the nation the "Navajo Nation."


In the early nineteenth century, Navajos lived in what is now New Mexico in an area that was under Spanish colonial rule. Navajos lived too far from the colonists, who were concentrated in the upper Rio Grande Valley, to be subjected to the disruption of their lives that the Pueblos suffered at the hands of the Spanish. At times the Navajos were allied with the Spanish against other Indians, principally the Utes; other times the Spanish joined forces with the Utes and fought the Navajos. For the Navajos, the most important by-product of Spanish colonization in New Mexico was the introduction of horses and sheep; the smooth, long-staple, non-oily wool of the Spanish churro sheep would prove ideal for weaving. When the United States claimed that it had acquired an interest in Navajo land by virtue of having won a war with Mexico in 1848, the Navajos were not particularly impressed. But when the U.S. Army arrived in force at the conclusion of the American Civil War, matters took a grim turn for the Navajo. In the army's scorched-earth campaign, led by Colonel Kit Carson, the Navajo homeland was devastated. Half of the Navajos, demoralized and starving, surrendered to the army and were marched 370 miles to the Bosque Redondo concentration camp on the Pecos River, where many of them died—2,000 of them in one year alone from smallpox. After four years of imprisonment they were allowed to return to their homeland in 1868, now reduced to one-tenth its original size by treaty that same year. They began rebuilding their lives and their herds, virtually unnoticed in an area that most Americans considered worthless desert wasteland.


Modern Navajos remain in their ancestral homelands in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. In both the 1980 and 1990 census, Arizona and New Mexico ranked third and fourth, respectively, for the largest number of Native American residents within each state. The contemporary government of the Navajos is the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona. The Navajo Nation comprises approximately 16 million acres, mostly in northeastern Arizona, but including portions of northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. It is a land of vast spaces and only a few all-weather roads. Eighty-eight percent of the reservation is without telephone service and many areas do not have electricity.

The local unit of Navajo government is called the Chapter. There are more than one hundred Chapter Houses throughout the nation, which serve as local administrative centers for geographical regions. Before the 1990 tribal elections, the tribal council system of government was reorganized into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In 1990 Navajos elected a tribal president for the first time, rather than a tribal chairman. The tribal budget exceeds $100 million annually, with much of the revenue coming from mineral leases.

The Navajo reservation, as created by treaty in 1868, encompassed only about ten percent of the ancestral Navajo homeland. The land base soon tripled in size, largely by the addition of large blocks of land by executive orders of presidents of the United States during the late nineteenth century, when Americans still considered most of the desert Southwest to be undesirable land. Dozens of small increments were also added by various methods until the middle of the twentieth century.

Navajos of the mid-1990s were still adjusting the boundaries of their nation, especially by trading land in an attempt to create contiguous blocks in an area called the Checkerboard, which lies along the eastern boundary of the Navajo Nation. More than 30,000 Navajos live in this 7,000 square-mile area of northwestern New Mexico. They are interspersed with Anglo and New Mexican stock raisers and involved in a nightmare of legal tangles regarding title to the land, where there are 14 different kinds of land ownership. The problems originated in the nineteenth century, when railroad companies were granted rights of way consisting of alternating sections of land. They were complicated by partial allotments of 160-acre parcels of land to some individual Navajos, the reacquisition of some parcels by the federal government as public domain land, and other factors. Crownpoint is the home of the Eastern Navajo Agency, the Navajo administrative headquarters for the Checkerboard. As recently as 1991 the Navajos were still attempting to consolidate the Checkerboard, exchanging 20,000 acres in order to achieve 80,000 acres of consolidation.

There are three isolated portions of the nation in New Mexico—satellite reservations known as the Ramah Navajo, the Cañoncito Navajo, and the Alamo Navajo. Canoncito was first settled around 1818. Ramah and Alamo had their origins in the late 1860s when some Navajos settled in these areas on their way back toward the Navajo homeland from imprisonment at the U.S. Army concentration camp at Bosque Redondo; approximately half the Navajos had been incarcerated there. Ramah is rural and is a bastion of traditional Navajo life. More than 1,500 Navajos live at Ramah, which is between the pueblos of Zuñi and Acoma, near the El Malpais National Monument. More than 1,700 Navajos live at Canoncito, which is to the east of Mt. Taylor near the pueblos of Laguna and Isleta, and more than 2,000 live at Alamo, which is south of the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna.


Navajos and Apaches, as members of the Athapaskan language family, are generally believed to have been among the last peoples to have crossed the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska thousands of years ago during the last Ice Age. The Athapaskan language family is one of the most widely dispersed language families in North America, and most of

Members of the Navajo tribe sit together in this 1939 photograph.
Members of the Navajo tribe sit together in this 1939 photograph.
its members still reside in the far north in Alaska and Canada.


It is not known, and will probably never be known, exactly when the Navajos and Apaches (Southwestern Athapaskans) began migrating from the far north to the Southwest or what route they took. Linguists who study changes in language and then estimate how long related languages have been separated have offered the year 1000 A.D. as an approximate date for the beginning of the migration. It is clear, however, that the Southwestern Athapaskan did not arrive in the Southwest until at least the end of the fourteenth century. Until that time what is now known as the Navajo homeland was inhabited by one of the most remarkable civilizations of ancient people in North America, the Ancestral Puebloans. Ancestral Puebloan ruins are among the most spectacular ruins in North America—especially their elaborate cliff dwellings, such as the ones at Mesa Verde National Park, and such communities as Chaco Canyon, where multistory stone masonry apartment buildings and large underground kivas can still be seen today.

Scholars originally thought that the arrival of the Southern Athapaskan in the Southwest was a factor in the collapse of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization. It is now known that the Ancestral Puebloans expanded to a point where they had stretched the delicate balance of existence in their fragile, arid environment to where it could not withstand the severe, prolonged droughts that occurred at the end of the fourteenth century. In all likelihood, the Ancestral Puebloans had moved close to the more dependable sources of water along the watershed of the upper Rio Grande River and had reestablished themselves as the Pueblo peoples by the time the Navajos entered the Southwest. The Navajos then claimed this empty land as their own. They first settled in what they call Dinetah, which means "homeland of the Diné," in the far northwestern corner of what is now New Mexico. After they acquired sheep and horses from the Spanish—which revolutionized their lives—and acquired cultural and material attributes from the Pueblos—which further enhanced their ability to adjust to the environment of the Southwest—the Navajos then spread out into all of Diné Bikeyah, "the Navajo country."

Acculturation and Assimilation

Because they have remained relatively isolated from the centers of European population, because they have been able to hold onto a large part of their ancestral homeland, and because of the great distances and poor roads within the region, Navajos have been more successful than most Native Americans in retaining their culture, language, and customs. Until early in the twentieth century Navajos were also able to carry out their traditional way of life and support themselves with their livestock, remaining relatively unnoticed by the dominant culture. Boarding schools, the proliferation of automobiles and roads, and federal land management policies—especially regarding traditional Navajo grazing practices—have all made the reservation a different place than what it was in the late nineteenth century. As late as 1950 paved roads ended at the fringes of the reservation at Shiprock, Cameron, and Window Rock. Even wagons were not widely used until the early 1930s. By 1974, however, almost two-thirds of all Navajo households owned an automobile. Navajos are finding ways to use some changes to support traditional culture, such as the adult education program at Navajo Community College, which assists in teaching the skills that new Navajo medicine men must acquire in order to serve their communities. Bilingual education programs and broadcast and publishing programs in the Navajo language are also using the tools of change to preserve and strengthen traditional cultural values and language.


Navajo traditional life has remained strong. In 1941 an anthropologist interviewed an entire community of several hundred Navajos and could not find even one adult over the age of 35 who had not received traditional medical care from a "singer," a Navajo medicine man called a Hataali. Today, when a new health care facility is built on the reservation it includes a room for the traditional practice of medicine by members of the Navajo Medicine Man's Association. Virtually all of the 3,600 Navajos who served in World War II underwent the cleansing of the Enemyway ceremony upon their return from the war. There are 24 chantway ceremonies performed by singers. Some last up to nine days and require the assistance of dozens of helpers, especially dancers. Twelve hundred different sandpainting designs are available to the medicine men for the chantways.

Large numbers of Navajos also tend to identify themselves as Christians, with most of them mixing elements of both traditional belief and Christianity. In a 1976 survey, between 25 and 50 percent called themselves Christians, the percentage varying widely by region and gender. Twenty-five thousand Navajos belong to the Native American Church, and thousands more attend its peyote ceremonies but do not belong to the church. In the late 1960s the tribal council approved the religious use of peyote, ending 27 years of persecution. The Native American Church had originally gained a stronghold on the Ute Mountain Reservation, which adjoins the Navajo Nation on the northeast. In 1936 the church began to spread to the south into the Navajo Nation, and it grew strong among the Navajos in the 1940s.


The premier annual events open to visitors are the Navajo Fairs. One of the largest is the Northern Navajo Fair, ordinarily held on the first weekend in October, at Shiprock, New Mexico. The dance competition powwow draws dancers from throughout the continent. Another large Navajo Fair is held annually at Window Rock, usually during the first week in July. Other Navajo fairs are also held at other times during the year. All-Indian Rodeos are also popular, as are competition powwows.


Except for powwow competition dances and singing, most Navajo traditional dances and songs are a part of healing ceremonies, at which visitors are allowed only with the permission of the family. Photography and video or tape recording of the ceremonies are not permitted without the express authorization of the healers. Charlotte Heth of the Department of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, noted in a chapter of Native America: Portrait of the Peoples, that "Apache and Navajo song style are similar: tense, nasal voices; rhythmic pulsation; clear articulation of words in alternating sections with vocables. Both Apache Crown Dancers and Navajo Yeibichei (Night Chant) dancers wear masks and sing partially in falsetto or in voices imitating the supernaturals."


The suicide rate among Navajos is 30 percent higher than the national average. Another severe problem is alcoholism. Both of these problems are exacerbated by poverty: more than half of all Navajos live below the poverty line.

Four full-service Indian hospitals are located in northwestern New Mexico. The one at Gallup is the largest in the region. The others are at Crownpoint, Shiprock, and Zuñi. In northern Arizona, full-service Indian hospitals are located at Fort Defiance, Winslow, Tuba City, and Keams Canyon. Indian Health Centers (facilities staffed by health professionals, open at least 40 hours per week, and catering to the general public) are located at Ft. Wingate and Tohatchi in northwestern New Mexico and at Greasewood, Toyei, Dilkon, Shonto, Kayenta, Many Farms, Teec Nos Pos, and Chinle in Arizona. Indian Health Stations (facilities staffed by health professionals and catering to the general public, but open only limited hours, often only one day per week) are located at Toadlena, Naschitti, Navajo, Pinedale, Pueblo Pintado, Ojo Encino, Torreon, Rincon, and Bacca in northwestern New Mexico and at Gray Mountain, Pinon, Dinnebito Dam, Red Lake, Page, Coppermine, Kaibito, Dinnehotso, Rock Point, Rough Rock, and Lukachukai in Arizona. Indian School Health Centers (facilities meeting the same criteria as Indian Health Centers, but catering primarily to school populations) are located at Crownpoint, Sanostee, and Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico and at Leupp, Tuba City, Holbrook, and Chinle in Arizona. Additionally, non-Indian hospitals are located in Flagstaff, Winslow, and Holbrook in Arizona, in Gallup, Rehoboth, Grants, and Farmington in New Mexico, in Durango and Cortez in Colorado, and in Goulding, Utah. In keeping with the recent trend throughout the United States, Navajos are now administering many of their own health care facilities, taking over their operation from the Public Health Service. The Navajo Tribal Health Authority also plans to develop an American Indian medical school at Shiprock, New Mexico.

Traditional Navajo healers are called Hataali, or "singers". Traditional Navajo medical practice treats the whole person, not just the illness, and is not conducted in isolation but in a ceremony that includes the patient's relatives. The ceremony can last from three to nine days depending upon the illness being treated and the ceremony to be performed. Illness to the Navajos means that there is disharmony in the universe. Proper order is restored with sand paintings in a cleansing and healing ceremony. There are approximately 1,200 designs that can be used; most can be created within the size of the average hogan floor, about six feet by six feet, though some are as large as 12 feet in diameter and some as small as one foot in diameter. The Hataali may have several helpers in the creation of the intricate patterns. Dancers also assist them. In some ceremonies, such as the nine-day Yei-Bei-Chei, 15 or 16 teams of 11 members each dance throughout the night while the singer and his helpers chant prayers. When the painting is ready the patient sits in the middle of it. The singer then transforms the orderliness of the painting, symbolic of its cleanliness, goodness, and harmony, into the patient and puts the illness from the patient into the painting. The sand painting is then discarded. Many years of apprenticeship are required to learn the designs of the sand paintings and the songs that accompany them, skills that have been passed down through many generations. Most Hataali are able to perform only a few of the many ceremonies practiced by the Navajos, because each ceremony takes so long to learn. Sand painting is now also done for commercial purposes at public displays, but the paintings are not the same ones used in the healing rituals.


The Athapaskan language family has four branches: Northern Athapaskan; Southwestern Athapaskan; Pacific Coast Athapaskan; and Eyak, a southeast Alaska isolate. The Athapaskan language family is one of three families within the Na-Dene language phylum. (The other two, the Tlingit family and the Haida family, are language isolates in the far north, Tlingit in southeast Alaska, and Haida in British Columbia.) Na-Dene is one of the most widely distributed language phyla in North America. The Southwestern Athapaskan language, sometimes called Apachean, has seven dialects: Navajo, Western Apache, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa-Apache. In 1987 approximately 125,000 Navajos on the reservation still spoke Navajo fluently.

Family and Community Dynamics

No tribe in North America has been more vigorously studied by anthropologists than the Navajos. When a man marries, he moves into the household of the wife's extended family. The Navajos joke that a Navajo family consists of a grandmother, her married daughters and their husbands, her daughters' children, and an anthropologist. A Navajo is "born to" the mother's clan and "born for" the father's clan. The importance of clans, the membership of which is dispersed throughout the nation for each clan, has gradually diminished in favor of the increasingly important role of the Chapter House, the significance of which is based on the geographical proximity of its members. Traditional prohibitions against marrying within one's own clan are beginning to break down. The girl's puberty ceremony, her kinaalda, is a major event in Navajo family life. Navajos maintain strong ties with relatives, even when they leave the reservation. It is not uncommon for Navajos working in urban centers to send money home to relatives. On the reservation, an extended family may have only one wage-earning worker. Other family members busy themselves with traditional endeavors, from stock tending to weaving.

From the late 1860s until the 1960s, the local trading post was the preeminent financial and commercial institution for most Navajos, serving as a local bank (where silver and turquoise could be pawned), a post office, and a store. One of the most famous, Hubbell's Trading Post, is now a national monument. Traders served the community as interpreters, business managers, funeral directors, grave diggers, and gossip columnists. The automobile and big discount stores in the urban centers at the fringes of the nation have greatly diminished the role of the trading posts.


Navajo jewelry, especially work done in silver and turquoise, is internationally famous. Navajo silversmithing dates from 1853, when a Mexican silversmith arrived at Fort Defiance in what is now Arizona. The Navajo 'Atsidi Sani learned the craft from him and taught it to others. By 1867 several Navajos were working with silver, and by 1880 they had begun to combine turquoise with their designs. At the turn of the century the Fred Harvey Company asked Navajo silversmiths to make lighter pieces for the tourist trade and guaranteed them a sales outlet. Today silversmithing is a widespread craft practiced by many Navajos.

Weaving is also an important economic activity throughout the nation. Navajo weaving has undergone many changes in designs. Navajos are continually creating new ones, and various locations within the nation have become famous for particular types of rugs and patterns. Weaving underwent a revival in the 1920s, when Chinle weavers introduced the multicolored Wide Ruins, Crystal, and Pine Springs patterns. The rug weavers auction at Crownpoint is known worldwide. The Navajo Nation owns the Navajo Nation Arts and Crafts Enterprise at Window Rock, where customers can be assured of purchasing authentic Indian crafts made by Indian people.


An 1868 treaty provided for schools for Navajo children. The number of schools increased greatly after compulsory school attendance was mandated in 1887. In 1907 a Navajo headman in Utah was imprisoned without trial for a year and a half for speaking out against forced removal of local children to the Shiprock Boarding School. Others were strongly in favor of schools, especially after 19 influential Navajo headmen were exposed to the outside world at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Until 1896 Navajo schools were operated by missionaries, who were frequently more interested in attempting to eradicate the Navajo religion, culture, and language than in educating their charges. The establishment of boarding schools far from Navajo homes, subjected Navajo children to the trauma of being removed from their families and their cultures for extended periods of time. Instruction was conducted only in English. With the secularization of the federally maintained Navajo public school system in 1896 civil servants replaced the missionaries, but lack of understanding and appreciation of Navajo culture—and instruction only in English—continued to be the norm. Some religious-affiliated schools continue to the present day, but they display a greater appreciation for Navajo culture and traditions than their nineteenth-century predecessors. By 1958, 93 percent of Navajo children were in school.

In the 1960s Navajos began to exercise much stronger management of their children's education with the establishment of community-controlled contract schools. The Rough Rock Demonstration School was the first of these schools. It introduced bilingual education for young children, the adult training of Navajo medicine men, and other innovative programs based on the perceived needs of the local community. It should be pointed out that the bilingual education introduced was, and is, to teach Navajo language, not to transition into English. This is not an additional tool of assimilation, but rather a reinforcement of traditional language and culture.

In 1969 the Navajo established Navajo Community College, the first college operated by Indians. At first located at Many Farms High School, it moved to Tsaile, Arizona, with the opening of its new campus in 1974; there is a branch campus in Shiprock, New Mexico. In 1972 the College of Ganado, a junior college in Ganado, Arizona, was incorporated as a successor to the Ganado Mission School. Following the lead of the Navajos, there are now a total of 29 Indian institutions of higher education

The Coalition of Navajo Liberation is a strong voice for Navajo affairs. Over 350 Navajo protestors marched on Window Rock, Arkansas to present grievances to tribal officials in 1976.
The Coalition of Navajo Liberation is a strong voice for Navajo affairs. Over 350 Navajo protestors marched on Window Rock, Arkansas to present grievances to tribal officials in 1976.
in the United States, all members of an American Indian higher education consortium. Navajo Community College Press is a leading native-owned academic press. A number of state supported baccalaureate institutions are located near the Navajo Nation. These include branch campuses of the University of New Mexico at Gallup and Farmington, Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, and Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. In 1987 more than 4,000 Navajos were attending college.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Nearly every Navajo extended family has members who engage in silversmithing and weaving as a matter of occasional economic enterprise. Farming and stock raising are still important in the economic life of the nation. But the largest employers of Navajo people are the federal and tribal governments. The Navajos have their own parks and recreation department, fish and wildlife department, police department, educational programs, and health service, as well as many other jobs in tribal government and administration. Many federal agencies have offices either on or near the reservation. Other Navajos are employed at the tribally operated electronics plant at Fort Defiance, Arizona, and at the Navajo Forest Products Industry, an $11 million sawmill also run by the tribe. It is located at Navajo, New Mexico, the only industrial town on the reservation, which was created and planned to serve the needs of its industry.

Until the early twentieth century Navajos were able to continue deriving their livelihood from their traditional practices of stockraising. Since the 1920s fewer and fewer Navajos have been able to maintain themselves in this manner. Chronic high rates of unemployment and dependency on governmental assistance have gradually replaced the traditional way of life. In 1941 Navajos had earned only $150,000 from industry, but World War II was a boom time for the economy, giving the Navajos a taste for money and what it could buy. More than half the Navajos 19 and older had wartime jobs; in 1943 they earned $5 million. After the war in the late 1940s the annual family income averaged $400.

By 1973 a study released by the Navajo Office of Program Development found that only 20,000 people were employed on the reservation, of which 71 percent were Navajos. Nine communities were found to account for 84 percent of the jobs held by Navajo people: Shiprock, 3,616; Chinle, 2,284; Window Rock, 2,100; Ft. Defiance, 1,925; Tuba City, 1,762; Crownpoint, 1,149; Navajo, 697; Kayenta, 571; and Ganado, 311. Public service jobs—health, education, and government—were found to account for nearly three-fourths of all employment on the reservation. In 1975 the Navajo unemployment rate was 67 percent. Median Navajo annual household income declined during the 1970s, standing at $2,520 in 1979. In 1991 the unemployment rate was 36 percent and remained at about that level in 1999.

Since the late 1960s, developing projects have been diversifying employment within the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP) is projected to irrigate 110,000 acres of cropland from water impounded in the upper San Juan River basin, using open canals, pipelines, lift stations, and overhead sprinkler systems. The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI), a tribal enterprise, manages the program. It includes agribusiness plant sites, grazing lands and a feedlot for cattle production, and an experimental research station. Instituted by act of Congress in 1962, the first 10,000 acres were brought into irrigation in 1976, producing crops of barley and cabbage. By 1981 the total irrigated acreage had increased to 40,000 acres, and crop diversification had added alfalfa, pinto beans, corn, and milo. In 1982 a cattle feedlot operation began to make use of grain and forage crop production. NAPI showed its first profit in 1986. By 1991 more than half of the projected acreage had been brought under irrigation. A coal-gasification plant near Burnham and Navajo-Exxon uranium leases, along with the irrigation project, are making northwestern New Mexico and the eastern portion of the Navajo reservation the focus of new economic activity. Uranium mining, however, has produced health risks, including alarmingly high rates of cancer. In 1979 a broken tailings dam belonging to United Nuclear Corporation at Church Rock, New Mexico, discharged 100 million gallons of radioactive water into the Puerco River—the largest release of radioactivity in United States history.

Because of their legal status, Navajo business-people must deal with state and federal agencies as well as Navajo officials and must pay both state and Navajo taxes. In addition, complicated paperwork requirements for obtaining business licenses and land leases for businesses hamper start-up. IINA (which means "life" in Navajo), an initiative started by Navajo Duane "Chili" Yazzi, is currently underway, and is aimed at reducing red tape by delegating control to local tribal chapters. Another objective is to use part of the nation's assets, some $1.2 billion, as venture capital for Navajo entrepreneurs.

The Navajo people's biggest economic ventures have been coal leases. By 1970 the Navajo Nation had the largest coal mine in the world. The 1964 and 1966 Black Mesa coal leases to Peabody Coal Company have become a source of controversy within the nation, as more and more Navajos decry the scouring of their land, the displacement of families for the sake of mining activity, and the threat to sacred places posed by mining operations.

Little has been done to develop tourism, despite its potential as a source of income. Only four motels exist on the reservation, in contrast with neighboring Gallup, New Mexico, which has more than 35. The Navajo Nation maintains four campgrounds: Monument Valley, Four Corners, Tsaile South Shore south of Lukachukai, and Little Colorado River. Other economic ventures under way include shopping centers and motels. Hunting and fishing provide economic activity and jobs in the portion of the reservation lying in northwestern New Mexico, where 16 lakes offer fishing for trout, channel catfish, bass, northern pike, and bluegill. Hunting permits may be obtained for deer, turkey, bear, and small game.

Politics and Government

The basic unit of local government in the Navajo Nation is the Chapter, each with its own Chapter House. The Chapter system was created in 1922 as a means of addressing agricultural problems at a local level. Before the 1920s, the nation had no centrally organized tribal government. Like many other Indian nations, the tribe was forced to create a central authority by the United States. For the Navajos, the seminal event was the discovery of oil on the reservation in 1921, after which the United States desired some centralized governmental authority for the Navajos for the purpose of executing oil leases, largely for the benefit of non-Navajos. At first the Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed three Navajos to execute mineral leases. In 1923 this arrangement gave way to a plan for each of several Navajo agencies to provide representatives for the Navajo government. After World War II the Navajo Tribal Council became recognized as the Navajo government.


Navajos have served with distinction in the armed forces of the United States in every war in the twentieth century, including World War I, even though they—and other reservation Indians—did not become citizens of the United States until citizenship was extended to them by an act of Congress in 1924. Their most heralded service, however, came during World War II in the U.S. Marine Corps, when they employed the Navajo language for military communication in the field as the Marines stormed Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. They have become known to posterity as the Navajo Code Talkers.

Philip Johnson, born to missionaries and raised on the Navajo reservation, is credited with a leading role in the formation of the Navajo Code Talkers. As a child he learned fluent Navajo, as well as Navajo culture and traditions. At the age of nine he served as interpreter for a Navajo delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., to present Navajo grievances to President Theodore Roosevelt. After serving in World War I, Johnson was a civil engineer in California. When war broke out with Japan in 1941, Johnson learned that the military hoped to develop a code using American Indians as signal-men. He met with Marine Corps and Army Signal Corps officers and arranged a demonstration of Navajo as a code language. The demonstration took place on February 28, 1942, at Camp Elliott with the cooperation of four Navajos from Los Angeles and one who was in the Navy in San Diego.

Within a year the Marine Corps authorized the program, which at first was classified as top secret. Johnson, though over age, was allowed to enlist in the Corps and was assigned to help supervise the establishment of the program at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. In May 1942 the Marine Corps, with the approval of the Navajo Tribal Council, began recruiting Navajo men at Window Rock, Arizona, for the program. The first group to receive training consisted of 29 Navajos who underwent basic boot camp training at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot. They were then sent for four weeks to the Field Signal Battalion Training Center at Camp Pendleton, where they received 176 hours of instruction in basic communications procedures and equipment. They were later deployed to Guadalcanal, where their use of the Navajo language for radio communication in the field proved so effective that recruitment for the program was expanded. Eventually, approximately 400 Navajo Code Talkers saw duty in the Pacific in the Marine Corps. By the end of the war they had been assigned to all six Marine divisions in the Pacific and had taken part in every assault—from Guadalcanal in 1943 to Okinawa in 1945. Today the surviving Navajo Code Talkers maintain an active veterans' organization. In 1969, at the Fourth Marine Division Association reunion in Chicago, they were presented with a medallion specially minted in commemoration of their services.


Much friction has resulted between the Navajos and the United States over the management of Navajo livestock grazing. The original Navajo Reservation in 1868 encompassed only a small portion of the ancestral Navajo rangelands. The size of the reservation tripled between 1868 and the mid-1930s by 14 additions of blocks of land from 1878 to 1934. This would give the appearance of a rapidly expanding amount of rangeland available to the Navajos. In fact, just the opposite was true.

When the Navajos returned to their homeland from the Bosque Redondo in 1869, the government issued them 1,000 goats and 14,000 sheep to begin replacing the herds that the U.S. Army and New Mexico militia had either slaughtered or confiscated. In 1870 the Navajos were issued an additional 10,000 sheep. With practically no Anglo encroachment on their ancestral rangeland, reservation boundaries had little meaning. The Navajos spread out over their old estate and their herds began increasing. The Bureau of Indian Affairs forbade the selling of breeding stock, eager to see the Navajos regain self-sufficiency. The Navajo population increased steadily, from an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in 1868 to nearly 40,000 by 1930, and their herds increased accordingly, though there were large fluctuations in the numbers year by year due to occasional drought and disease. At the same time the appropriation of the ancestral rangelands outside the reservation boundaries by Anglo cattle operations and other interests had accelerated, forcing

"O n the wind-beaten plains once lived my ancestors. / In the days of peaceful moods, / they wandered and hunted.... / Now, from the wind-beaten plains, only their dust rises."

From the poem "Ancestors" by Grey Cohoe, on the rising consciousness of the American Indian.

the Navajos onto an ever smaller amount of range. By the 1920s a serious soil erosion problem on the reservation was being blamed on overgrazing. The Navajos tried to alleviate the problem by seeking more land and renewed access to the ancestral rangelands from which they had gradually been forced off. The United States believed that a solution to the problem was to force Navajo livestock reductions by killing the animals it deemed to be unnecessary. Thus began a 20-year conflict between the Navajos and the United States, in which the U.S. government, in attempting to implement its policies, found itself disrupting traditional Navajo economic, social, and political life to a far greater extent than at any time in the past.

The tool of the government in this matter was the creation of land management districts, first established in 1936 and adjusted to their preset boundaries in 1955. In attempting to change Navajo livestock practices, the U.S. government subverted and altered Navajo culture in the process. Today the federal land management districts on the reservation are still important factors in Navajo livestock practices. The grazing committees of the Navajo Chapter Houses must work closely with the districts to set the herd size for each range. The extreme turmoil that the stock reduction crisis caused in traditional Navajo life—and the tactics used by the U.S. government to subvert traditional Navajo culture and government during the height of the crisis in the 1930s and 1940s—are the subject of an extensive, detailed study by Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos.

Indians in Arizona and New Mexico were not allowed to vote in state and national elections until 1948. In 1957 Utah finally allowed Indians living on reservations to vote—the last remaining state to do so. It required a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to force Apache County, Arizona, where the population was 70 percent Navajo, to allow Navajos to serve on its board of supervisors. As of 1984 no Native American had ever been elected to public office in Utah. In that year the U.S. Department of Justice ordered San Juan County, Utah, where the population was 50 percent Navajo, to redistrict. The next year a Navajo was elected county commissioner.

The most divisive issue among the Navajos in recent years, and the cause of the greatest strain in relations with the United States, has been the so-called "Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute," in which thousands of Navajos have been forced to relocate from lands that were jointly held by the two tribes since 1882. Many prominent Navajos and some prominent Hopis believe that the relocation of the Navajos and the division of the 1882 Joint Use Area has been undertaken by the U.S. government for the benefit of the American extraction industry, so that valuable mineral deposits within the area can be strip-mined.

Individual and Group Contributions


Among the first Navajos to earn a Ph.D., Ned Hatathli (1923-1972) was the first president of the Navajo Community College—the first college owned and operated by the Navajo people. Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910– ) is a public health educator responsible for largely eliminating tuberculosis among the Navajo Indians. Wauneka was later elected to the Navajo Tribal Council and was the first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Peterson Zah (1937– ) is an educator and leader who has devoted his life to serving the Navajo people and retaining Navajo culture, especially among young people. In 1990 Zah was elected the first president of the Navajo people; he was later awarded the Humanitarian Award from the City of Albuquerque and an honorary doctorate from Santa Fe College.


Harrison Begay (1917– ) is one of the most famous of all Navajo painters. Noted for their sinuous delicacy of line, meticulous detail, restrained palette, and elegance of composition, his watercolors and silkscreen prints have won 13 major awards. Carl Nelson Gorman (1907– ) is a prominent Navajo artist whose oil paintings and silk screening have won acclaim for their divergence from traditional Indian art forms. His contributions to Navajo and Native American art and culture inspired the dedication of the Carl Gorman Museum at Tecumseh Center at the University of California at Davis. Rudolpf Carl Gorman (1931– ) is one of the most prominent contemporary Native American artists of the twentieth century. His art combines the traditional with the nontraditional in style and form.


Navajo author Vee Browne has achieved national recognition with her retellings of Navajo creation stories. Her books have included Monster Slayer and Monster Birds, a children's biography of Osage international ballet star Maria Tallchief, and a volume in a new series of Native American animal stories from Scholastic books. Her honors include the prestigious Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in 1990. A guidance counselor by training, Browne is active in helping emerging Native American writers hone their skills and find outlets for their work, serving as a mentor in the Wordcraft Circle of Native American Mentor and Apprentice Writers. She has also served on the 1994-1996 National Advisory Caucus for Wordcraft Circle.

Elizabeth Woody (1959– ), born on the Navajo Nation but raised mostly in the Pacific Northwest, has been influenced by the Pacific Northwest tribes as well as her Navajo heritage. She returned to the Southwest to study poetry and art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her first volume of poetry, Hand Into Stone, published in 1988, won the American Book Award. Her other books include Luminaries of the Humble and Seven Hands, Seven Hearts. Woody's poetry has been anthologized in Returning the Gift and Durable Breath; her short fiction, "Home Cooking," has been anthologized in Talking Leaves; her nonfiction, "Warm Springs," has been anthologized in Native America. Woody now teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her illustrations can be found in Sherman Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins, and her art has been the subject of a five-week exhibit at the Tula Foundation Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.

Actress/writer Geraldine Keams has appeared in several films, including The Outlaw Josey Wales , and has been published in Sun Tracks and The Remembered Earth. Jean Natoni has published her work in The Remembered Earth, as have Aaron Yava, a Navajo/Hopi, and Genevieve Yazzie. Yava's drawing have appeared in Border Towns of the Navajo Nation, Man to Send Rain Clouds, and A Good Journey. Yazzie's work is also featured in New America, and she worked on the Navajo-English dictionary project.

Rex Jim, a highly regarded medicine man, is the first author to have published a volume of poetry in Navajo, with no translation, with a major university press ( Ahi'Ni'Nikisheegiizh, Princeton University Press). Jim's fiction and nonfiction have also been published by Rock Point Community School in the Navajo Nation and include such works as "Naakaiiahgoo Tazhdiya" and "Living from Livestock."

Laura Tohe's volume of poetry, Making Friends with Water, was published by Nosila Press, and her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as Nebraska Humanities, Blue Mesa Review, and Platte Valley Review. Tohe received her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Nebraska and teaches at the University of Arizona. Tohe's latest project is a children's play for the Omaha Emmy Gifford Children's theater. Like Vee Browne, Tohe is a mentor in the Wordcraft Circle program and is also a member of its 1994-1996 National Advisory Caucus.

Lucy Tapahonso (1953– ) is the author of four books of poetry, including Saanii Dahataa. She is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Della Frank lives and works on the Navajo Nation. Her poetry has appeared in such publications as Blue Mesa Review and Studies in American Indian Literature and has been anthologized in Neon Powwow and Returning the Gift. She is co-author of Duststorms: Poems From Two Navajo Women. Rachael Arviso (Navajo and Zuñi) lives and works on the Navajo Reservation; her short fiction has been anthologized in Neon Powwow. Esther G. Belini's poetry also appeared in Neon Powwow; she received her B.A. degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Other Navajos whose work has been anthologized in Neon Powwow include Dan L. Crank, Nancy Maryboy, Irvin Morris, Patroclus Eugene Savino, Brent Toadlena, Gertrude Walters, and Floyd D. Yazzie. Aaron Carr (Navajo and Laguna Pueblo) has published poetry and short stories in The Remembered Earth anthology, in Sun Tracks, and in Planet Quarterly. Bernadette Chato's work has appeared in New America and The Remembered Earth. Grey Cohoe's work has appeared in several anthologies, including Whispering Wind, The Remembered Earth, and The American Indian Speaks. Larry Emerson's column "Red Dawn" appeared in a number of Indian newspapers, and his work has been anthologized in New America and The Remembered Earth. Nia Francisco, who has taught at the Navajo Community College, has been published in Southwest: A Contemporary Anthology, College English, The Remembered Earth, Cafe Solo, New America, and Southwest Women's Poetry Exchange.


Nuclear physicist and educator Fred Begay (1932– ) has served as a member of the technical staff at the Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1971. His research is directed primarily toward the use of laser, electron, and ion beams to demonstrate the application of thermonuclear fusion; this technique will provide future economical and environmentally safe and clean power sources.



Bear Track.

Address: 1202 West Thomas Road, Phoenix, Arizona 85013.

Diné Baa-Hani'.

Address: Box 527, Ft. Defiance, Arizona 86504.

Dinehligai News.

Address: P.O. Box 1835, Tuba City, Arizona 86045.

DNA in Action.

Address: DNA Legal Services, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Four Directions.

Address: 1812 Las Lomas N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131.

Indian Arizona.

Address: 4560 North 19th Avenue, Suite 200, Phoenix, Arizona 85015-4113.

Kachina Messenger.

Address: P.O. Box 1210, Gallup, New Mexico 87301.


Covers history, art, culture, events, and people relevant to the Navajo Indians.

Contact: Michael Benson, Editor.

Address: Box 1245, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (602) 729-2233.

Navajo Assistance.

Address: P.O. Box 96, Gallup, New Mexico 87301.

Navajo-Hopi Observer.

Weekly newspaper in English. Founded in 1981.

Contact: Jay Lape, Publisher; Tanya Lee, Editor.

Address: 2608 North Stevens Boulevard, Flagstaff, Arizona 86004.

Telephone: (520) 526-3115.


Online: .

Navajo Nation Enquiry.

Address: P.O. Box 490, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Navajo Times.

Weekly newspaper that contains articles of interest to the American Indian community and the Navajo people.

Contact: Tom Arviso Jr., Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 310, Window Rock, Arizona 86515-0310.

Telephone: (602) 871-6641.

Fax: (602) 871-6409.


Address: P.O. Box 12, Pine Hill, New Mexico 87321.


Address: Northern Arizona University, Campus Box 5630, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011.


The following radio stations are owned by the Navajo Broadcasting Company: KDJI-AM (1270); KZUA-FM (92.1); KTNN-AM (660); KNMI-FM (88.9); KPCL-FM (95.7); KABR-AM (1500); and KTDB-FM (89.7).


KOBF-TV (Channel 12).

Broadcasts "Voice of the Navajo" on Sunday mornings.

Address: 825 W. Broadway, Box 1620, Farmington, New Mexico 87401.

Telephone: (505) 326-1141.

Fax: (505) 327-5196.


Organizations and Associations

Arizona Commission for Indian Affairs.

Contact: Eleanor Descheeny-Joe, Executive Director

Address: 1400 West Washington, Suite 300, Phoenix, Arizona 85007.

Telephone: (602) 542-3123.

Fax: (602) 542-3223.

Diné CARE Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.

Environmental activism group.

Address: 10A Town Plaza, Suite 138, Durango, Colorado 81301.

Telephone: (970) 259-0199.

Navajo Code Talkers Association.

Contact: Dr. Samuel Billison, President.

Address: 1182, Window Rock, Arizona 86515-1182.

Telephone: (520) 871-5468.

Navajo Nation.

Address: P.O. Box 308, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (602) 871-6352.

Fax: (602) 871-4025.

Online: .

Navajo Tourism Office.

Address: P.O. Box 663, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (602) 871-6436.

Fax: (602) 871-7381.

Navajo Way, Inc.

United Way for the Navajo Nation.

Address: P.O. Box 309, Window Rock, Arizona 86515.

Telephone: (520) 871-6661.

Fax: (520) 871-6663.

New Mexico Commission on Indian Affairs.

Address: 330 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.

New Mexico Indian Advisory Commission.

Address: Box 1667, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87107.

Tseyi Heritage Culture Center.

Contact: Jim Claw Sr., President.

Address: P.O. Box 1952, Chinle, Navajo Nation, Arizona 86503.

Telephone: (520) 674-5664.

Fax: (520) 674-5944.

Online: .

Museums and Research Centers

Albuquerque Museum and Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico; American Research Museum, Ethnology Museum, Fine Arts Museum, Hall of the Modern Indian, Institute of American Indian Arts, and Navajo Ceremonial Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Art Center in Roswell, New Mexico; Black Water Draw Museum in Portales, New Mexico; Coronado Monument in Bernalillo, New Mexico; Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado, Arizona; Heard Museum of Anthropology in Phoenix, Arizona; Milicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico; Navajo National Monument in Tonalea, Arizona; Navajo Tribal Museum in Window Rock, Arizona; Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff; and the State Museum of Arizona in Tempe.

Sources for Additional Study

Bailey, Garrick, and Roberta Glenn Bailey. A History of the Navajos: The Reservation Years. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press,1986.

Benedek, Emily. The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Correll, J. Lee. Through White Men's Eyes: A Contribution to Navajo History (A Chronological Record of the Navajo People from Earliest Times to the Treaty of June 1, 1968) , six volumes. Window Rock, Arizona: Navajo Heritage Center, 1979.

Forbes, Jack D. Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969; with new introduction, 1994.

Goodman, James M. The Navajo Atlas: Environments, Resources, People, and History of the Dine Bikeyah, drawings and cartographic assistance by Mary E. Goodman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Iverson, Peter. The Navajos: A Critical Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Navajo History , Vol. 1, edited by Ethelou Yazzie. Many Farms, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press for the Navajo Curriculum Center, Rough Rock Demonstration School, 1971.

Navajo: Walking in Beauty. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.

Simonelli, Jeanne M. Crossing Between Worlds: The Navajos of Canyon De Chelly. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1997.

Thompson, Gerald. The Army and the Navajo. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Trimble, Stephen. The People: Indians of the American Southwest. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sar Press, 1993.

Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, photographs by Kenji Kawano, foreword by Carl Gorman, introduction by Benis M. Frank. Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Publishing, 1990.

White, Richard. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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