The Navajo Nation

Navajo Seal

The Navajo call themselves Dineh, which means “The People” in the Navajo language. Closely related to the Apache, the Navajo are an Athapascan-speaking people who migrated southwest from west-central Canada around the 15th century.

By the time Spanish explorers came across the Navajo in the 16th century, trade had long been established between the Pueblo peoples and the Navajo, exchanging maize and woven cotton goods for buffalo meat, hides, and material for stone tools.

Because they hunted buffalo, lived in tents, and used dogs to pull travois loaded with their possessions, the Spanish referred to them as “dog nomads.”

When Coronado first observed the Athapascan-speaking people, they were wintering near the pueblos in established camps. Coronado reported the modern Western Apache area as uninhabited and other Spaniards first mention Apache living west of the Rio Grande in the 1580s.

In April 1541, Francisco Coronado wrote of them:

“After seventeen days of travel, I came upon a rancheria of the Indians who follow these cattle [buffalo]. These natives are called Querechos. They do not cultivate the land, but eat raw meat and drink the blood of the cattle they kill. They dress in the skins of the cattle, with which all the people in this land clothe themselves, and they have very well-constructed tents, made with tanned and greased cowhides, in which they live and which they take along as they follow the cattle. They have dogs which they load to carry their tents, poles, and belongings.”

Navajo at Dawn

Navajo at Dawn, 1915

It is most likely that the Apache group of the Athapaskans moved to their current southwestern homelands in the late 16th and early 17th  centuries, the Navajo did not expand their range until the 17th century, occupying areas the Pueblo peoples had abandoned during prior centuries.

The Spanish first specifically mention the “Apachu de Nabajo” (Navajo) in the 1620s, referring to people in the Chama region east of the San Juan River. By the 1640s, the term was applied to Athapaskan peoples from the Chama on the east to the San Juan on the west.

As the Navajo peoples moved into the Southwest, they learned farming techniques from the Puebloan peoples. Soon, they settled down from a hunting-gathering society to an agricultural, ranching, and ceremonial people.

From the Puebloans, they also learned rituals, songs, prayers, and stories. Later, when the Navajo acquired sheep and horses from the Spaniards through trading or raiding, they created entire ceremonies of their own that included songs and prayers about sheep and horses. Sheep also provided wool, which allowed the People to become great weavers of blankets and rugs.

In the late 18th century, the Navajo moved west to the present-day Four Corners area, where they made Canyon de Chelly their stronghold. The move was caused by hostile pressures from the Spaniards from the south, the Comanche from the east, and the Ute from the north.

Navajo weaving, 1915, photo by William J. Carpenter

Navajo weaving, 1915, photo by William J. Carpenter

Whenever possible the People retreated rather than fought, and they made no exception in this case. During this time the Navajo became prosperous materially, artistically, and ceremonially—a development that led Nathaniel Patton to write in the Missouri Intelligencer in 1824 that the Navajo were superior to the Plains Indians because they fashioned clothes, designed jewelry, raised livestock, and cultivated land.

In 1846, American troops moved into the Southwest during the Mexican War. From this time through 1863, several treaties were signed and broken with the Navajo.

As more and more Americans settled in the territory of New Mexico, they met increasingly fierce resistance from the Mescalero Apache and Navajo people who fought to maintain control of their traditional lands and their way of life.

In an effort to subjugate them, the U.S. Army made war on the Mescalero Apache and Navajo Indian tribes, destroying their fields, orchards, houses, and livestock. Before the Indians were even defeated, Congress authorized the establishment of Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo on October 31, 1862, a space forty miles square. It was to be the first Indian reservation west of Oklahoma Indian Territory. The plan was to turn the Apache and Navajo into farmers on the Bosque Redondo with irrigation from the Pecos River. They were also to be “civilized” by going to school and practicing Christianity.

The Apache and Navajo, who had survived the army attacks, were then starved into submission and forced to march to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation, near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In the case of the Navajo, 8,500 men, women and children were marched almost 300 miles from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, a desolate tract on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. Traveling in harsh winter conditions for almost two months, about 200 Navajo died of cold and starvation. More died after they arrived at the barren reservation. The forced march, led by Kit Carson became known by the Navajo as the “Long Walk.”

Navajo Prisoners taking the "Long Walk"

Navajo Prisoners taking the “Long Walk”

Most of the Mescalero Apache eluded their military guards and abandoned the reservation on November 3, 1865; but, for the Navajo, another three years passed before the United States Government recognized that their plan for Americanizing the People had failed. The Navajo were finally acknowledged sovereignty in the historic Treaty of 1868.

The Navajo returned to their land along the Arizona-New Mexico border hungry and in rags. Though their territory had been reduced to an area much smaller than what they had occupied before the exodus to Bosque Redondo, they were one of the few tribes that were allowed to return to their native lands. The U.S. government issued them rations and sheep and within a few years, the Navajo had multiplied the numbers of their livestock.

When the railroad arrived in 1880, along with it came traders and the Navajo exchanged maize, wool, mutton, hides, livestock, and crafts for food and manufactured goods. In 1922, a business council was created to negotiate leases for natural resources found on the reservation—among them oil, natural gas, timber, uranium, and coal. This council eventually became the Navajo Nation Council, which now runs the Navajo government.

Navajo - The Vanishing Race, by Edward S. Curtis

Navajo – The Vanishing Race, by Edward S. Curtis

Today, the Navajo Nation Reservation, which includes 27,000 square miles of land, is the largest in the United States. With more than 250,000 members, the majority still live on Navajo land which stretches across the Colorado Plateau into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The seat of government is located in the town of Window Rock, Arizona.

The Navajo Nation has built a modern economy on traditional endeavors such as sheep herding, fiber production, weaving, jewelry making, and art trading. Newer industries that employ members include coal and uranium mining, though the uranium market slowed near the end of the 20th century. The Navajo Nation’s extensive mineral resources are among the most valuable held by Native American nations within the United States. The Navajo government employs hundreds in civil service and administrative jobs. Other Navajo members work at retail stores and other businesses within the Nation’s reservation or in nearby towns.

For more information, visit Navajo Nation Government

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2021.

See our Navajo Photo Gallery HERE

Also See:

Navajo Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo

Apache – Fiercest Warriors in the Southwest

Native American (main page)

Fort Sumner

Kit Carson