The Journey of Navajo Oshley: An Autobiography and Life History

The Journey of Navajo Oshley: An Autobiography and Life History

The Journey of Navajo Oshley: An Autobiography and Life History

The Journey of Navajo Oshley: An Autobiography and Life History


Ak'é Nydzin, or Navajo Oshley, was born sometime between 1879 and 1893. His oral memoir is set on the northern frontier of Navajo land, principally the San Juan River basin in southeastern Utah, and tells the story of his early life near Dennehetso and his travels, before there were roads or many towns, from Monument Valley north along Comb Ridge to Blue Mountain. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anglos and Navajos expanded their use and settlement of lands north of the San Juan. Grazing lands and the Anglo wage economy drew many Navajos across the river. Oshley, a sheepherder, was among the first to settle there. He cared for the herds of his extended family, while also taking supplemental jobs with the growing livestock industry in the area.

His narrative is woven with vivid and detailed portraits of Navajo culture: clan relationships, marriages and children, domestic life, the importance of livestock, complex relations with the natural world, ceremonies, trading, and hand trembling.


Barre Toelken

THE FORCE OF THIS BOOK LIES IN ITS INSIDER’S PORTRAYAL of everyday Navajo life in one of the West’s most culturally dynamic areas: the socalled “Four Corners,” where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. While that distinctive spot—the only place in the United States where four states intersect—is clearly visible on today’s maps, the fascinating cultural forces that shaped the surrounding area’s human identities are not so well recognized. Not only did the Anasazi culture leave a material legacy of abandoned cities and cliff dwellings, pottery, irrigation systems, and petroglyphs, but more recent arrivals over the past five to seven hundred years—Navajos from the far north, Utes and Southern Paiutes from the west, Spaniards and later Mexicans from the southeast—added their active presence to the ancient tenure of the Pueblo peoples.

In this vast desert area, people once traveled by foot or horseback, and virtually every large stone, hillock, arroyo, and water seep had a name used for direction, comfort, protection, and survival. For the Navajo, the fading of a minutely articulated landscape probably started with the advent of cars, pickup trucks, and a more formal road system. Many of the old names and places have become obsolete, having been replaced by the names of gas stations, trading posts, schools, missions, and mines. To be sure, some old names are still there, many of them because they represent water sources: Oljato (Moon Water), Chilchinbeto (Sumac Springs), Mexican Water, Sweetwater. Navajo Oshley lived intimately in the older, intensely familiar Navajo world in which places like Teec Nos Pos (Cottonwoods in a Circle, or Whirling Cottonwoods) were common, not quaint puzzlements on a tourist’s map. He lived during a period many would consider the zenith of that cultural era, between the trauma of Navajo internment at Fort Sumner in the 1860s and the bureaucratization of the Navajo tribe in the 1950s. Make no mistake: the Navajo tribe did not vanish conveniently during that time, as many Americans supposed it would; rather, the people grew from an estimated twenty thousand to . . .

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