Navajo Indians

Navajo (indigenous people of North America)

Navajo or Navaho (both: nä´vəhō), Native North Americans whose language belongs to the Athabascan branch of the Nadene linguistic stock (see Native American languages). A migration from the North to the Southwest area is thought to have occurred in the past because of an affiliation with N Athabascan speakers; the Navajo settled among the Pueblo and also assimilated with the Shoshone and the Yuma both physically and culturally while remaining a distinct social group.

Way of Life

The Navajo were formerly a nomadic tribe. In winter they lived in earth-covered lodges and in summer in brush shelters called hogans. They farmed (corn and beans), hunted (deer, elk, and antelope), and gathered wild vegetable products. After sheep were introduced (early 17th cent.) by the Spanish, sheep raising superseded hunting and farming. Thus the Navajo became a pastoral people. They have adopted many arts from their neighbors—from the Mexicans metalworking, from the Pueblo weaving. They live in extended kinship groups, and traditional inheritance is through the mother's line; women have an important position in the society. The traditional Navajo religion is elaborate and complex, with many deities, songs, chants, and prayers and numerous ceremonies, such as the enemy way ceremony (commonly called the squaw dance) and the night chant. The vast belief system includes a creation story that states that Esdzanadkhi (a form of Mother Earth) created humanity. The Navajo have also subscribed to the peyote cult.

In the 1930s the overgrazed and eroded grasslands of the Navajo Reservation caused the federal government to reduce the tribe's sheep, cattle, and horses by as much as 50%. The government, having left the Navajo without a means of support, began a program of irrigation projects, thus enabling them to turn to agriculture for a livelihood. Farming, however, can support only a fraction of the people, and as a result many have had to obtain their income off the reservation. The discovery of coal, oil, gas, and other minerals has helped to increase the tribal income.


The Navajo are a composite group with over 50 separate clans. In the 17th cent. they occupied the region between the San Juan and Little Colorado rivers in NE Arizona, but they ranged far outside that territory. The Navajo were a predatory tribe who (often in alliance with their relatives, the Apache) constantly raided the Pueblo and later the Spanish and Mexican settlements of New Mexico.

When the Americans occupied (c.1846) New Mexico, the Navajo pillaged them. Punitive expeditions against the Navajo were only temporarily successful until Kit Carson, by destroying the Navajo's sheep, subdued them in 1863–64. A majority of them were imprisoned for four years at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. In 1868 they were released from prison and given a reservation of 3.5 million acres (1,41,000 hectares) in NE Arizona, NW New Mexico, and SE Utah and a new supply of sheep. The Navajo then numbered some 9,000.

Since that date they have been steadily increasing in number. By 1990 the country's 225,000 Navajo constituted the second largest Native American group in the United States. Their reservation has grown to 16 million acres (6,475,000 hectares), today sustaining such enterprises as lumbering, mining, and farming. Navajo-owned enterprises are growing, including the largest Native American newspaper in the United States and Diné College, the first Native American–operated college (est. 1968 as Navajo Community College). The Navajo reservation surrounds the Hopi reservation in Arizona. This has resulted in numerous land disputes, and in the 1960s and 70s, Navajo expansion on lands set aside for joint use provoked court action and a partition of the disputed land. A 1992 federal court decision assigned most of the remaining disputed land to the Navajo. Some Navajo were permitted to remain on Hopi land under 75-year leases.


See R. M. Underhill, The Navahos (1956); C. Kluckholn and D. Leighton, The Navaho (rev. ed. 1962); L. R. Bailey, The Long Walk: A History of the Navaho Wars, 1846–1868 (1964); L. Gilpin, The Enduring Navaho (1968); J. U. Terrell, The Navajos (1970); J. Downs, The Navajo (1972); F. McNitt, Navajo Wars (1972).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Navajo Indians: Selected full-text books and articles

The Archaeology of Navajo Origins By Ronald H. Towner University of Utah Press, 1996
This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans By Wendell H. Oswalt Oxford University Press, 2006 (8th edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 11 "The Navajo: Transformations among a Desert People"
Anthropology of Space: Explorations into the Natural Philosophy and Semantics of the Navajo By Rik Pinxten; Ingrid Van Dooren; Frank Harvey University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983
The Navajo Code Talkers By Jevec, Adam; Potter, Lee Ann Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 5, September 2001
Elle Meets the President: Weaving Navajo Culture and Commerce in the Southwestern Tourist Industry By Moore, Laura Jane Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 2001
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