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Navajo Tribe

The Navajo tribe is one of the largest and most adaptive of all Native American tribes.

Traditional Navajo tribe dress is still observed in some clans. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Traditional Navajo tribe dress is still observed in some clans.

Navajo Tribe

The Navajo Tribe is also known as the Dine. In the Navajo language, Dine means The People. The boundaries of the Navajo Tribe homeland are delineated by four sacred mountain regions: Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, La Plata Mountains, and the San Francisco Peaks. The Navajo Nation is America's largest Indian Reservation, consisting of 27,000 square miles extending into the states of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Landmark sites within the Navajo homeland include the Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valleys, and Shiprock Peak.

Within the Navajo Nation are 110 Navajo communities and more than 50 Navajo clans, such as the Salt Clan. In 1923, the Navajo Tribe established a tribal government primarily to negotiate land lease contracts with American oil companies. The Navajo Nation Council currently consists of 88 delegates.

In the early 1920s, the once poverty-stricken Navajo tribe became one of the wealthiest Native American tribes after discovering gas and oil on their land.

The Beginnings of the Navajo Nation

Historians believe that the ancestors of the Navajo Tribe originated in Western Canada and emigrated to the Southwest (then Mexican territory under Spanish rule) between the 13th and 16th centuries. Although they engaged in armed conflicts with Spanish settlers, the Mexican army, and other tribes within their territory, the Navajos benefited from these other cultures. They learned weaving and pottery making from their Pueblo neighbors, horse and sheep herding from Spanish settlers, and silversmithing from the Mexicans.

The Beginnings of the Navajo Wars

In 1804, Navajos began launching livestock raids on neighboring tribes and Spanish settlers. Spanish troops were sent in. They defeated the Navajo in a series of bloody battles, culminating in the battle of Canyon de Chelly where villages and crops were burned to the ground. In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, thus gaining control over Navajo lands. This political development, however, didn't halt Navajo livestock raids against the Mexicans. The Mexican army retaliated by conducting bloody raids against the Navajo, kidnapping Navajo children and making them slaves.

America's Manifest Destiny and the Navajos

The Navajo tribes conflicts with the U.S. military began with President James K. Polks Manifest Destiny policy; its primary objective was the seizure of land from Mexico to open the West for American settlement. The so-called Mexican War lasted from 1846 to 1848, establishing the New Mexico Territory under the forces of General Stephen Watts Kearny. Although the Navajos had made their first peace treaty with the U.S. government in 1846, the majority of the battles of the Mexican War were with the Navajos and other tribes than with Mexican troops. In 1849, the U.S. military, under the command of Colonel John Washington, shot and killed Narbona, a prominent Navajo leader. This event triggered more bloody skirmishes with the U.S. military that lasted until 1863.

Kit Carson's War against the Navajo Tribe

Long lauded as an American folk hero, Christopher Houston Kit Carson helped launch the New Mexico volunteer army during the Civil War. Although these were Union troops, their primary military actions were against the Navajos. During this campaign, Carson and his troops (under the command of General James H. Carleton) were aided by tribes that were hostile to the Navajos. Like the earlier bloody war with the Spanish army, the U.S. military burned Navajo villages and crops, and wound up fighting the last battle at the Canyon de Chelly.

After a three month winter siege at Canyon de Chelly, 8,000 Navajos surrendered to Carson. They were forced to walk 300 miles to the reservation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico (also known as Bosque Redondo). At least 200 Navajos perished on this brutal 18 day walk known as The Long Walk of the Navajo. This relocation of a Native American tribe was only second in brutality to the Cherokee's Trail of Tears.

At the Fort Sumner/Bosque Redondo reservation, the Navajos suffered disease and starvation. In 1868, the Navajo tribe signed a treaty with the U.S. government that allowed them to return to their former territory in peace with American settlers.

The Navajo Tribe in the 20th Century

In 1931, the Canyon de Chelly became a national monument under the auspices of the U.S. National Park Service. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. government implemented The Stock Reduction Program on Navajo land, slaughtering thousands of Navajo sheep with the intent of reducing soil erosion and overgrazing. In the process, Navajos were evacuated from their land.

During World War II, the U.S. military used the Navajo language to send unbreakable coded messages to the troops, recruiting Navajo speakers as Code Talkers. In 1992, the Code Talkers were finally honored at a Pentagon dedication ceremony. In 1974, land disputes arose between the Hopi and Navajo tribes over coal mining lease rights. This caused the passage of The Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act where two million miles of disputed land were divided between the tribes. In the process, 11,000 Navajo and 100 Hopis were displaced.

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