Historical context of the navajo

Artwork by Maynard Dixon

By Jill Runkle

The Navajo Nation is the current name for the second largest indigenous government and territory in the United States (The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica). Navajo actually refers to the Tewa-puebloan word for “place of large planted fields”, which was later adopted and used by the Spanish (Crow Canyon…). Within their own language, the “Navajo” referred to themselves as Diné or “the people”. Dinétah refers to the traditional homeland of the Navajo which is located among the four sacred mountains of Dookʼoʼoosłííd (San Francisco Peaks), Dibé Ntsaa (Hesperus Mountain), Sisnaajiní (Blanca Peak), and Tsoodził (Mount Taylor), (Iverson, Peter).

Diné beliefs speak of the Holy People who placed the four sacred mountains according to the four directions. The Holy People also handed down important cultural traditions and practices to the Earth People (humans). Central to these lessons is the worship and protection of the Earth, particularly the  Dinetah. The Dinetah and Dine culture has survived through colonial violence, broken treaties and forced displacement. The infamous 1864 “Long Walk” forced over 9,000 Navajo to detainment in New Mexico. The survivors were allowed to return to the Dinetah four years later (Bornstein, George).

The current reservation territory includes most of northwest New Mexico, southwest Arizona, southeast Utah, and northeast Arizona. It is believed that the Diné /Navajo adapted a more sedentary lifestyle after encountering the Pueblos people. They utilized crop-farming techniques such as the “Three Sisters”, referring to corn, beans, and squash. Pueblo-influence is also evident in their intricate weave-work and pottery. Animals such as deer and rabbit were also a staple part of their diet. The traditional houses, known as hogans, were dome-shaped clay structures. 

Following the arrival of the Spanish, the Navajo integrated livestock farming for sheep and goats. These livestock became a primary form of currency as well as a symbol of social status. In regards to government, traditional leadership was based on matrilineal kinship groups or clans. Social status was derived from the mother’s side of the family. Each clan had “hozhoji’ Naat’aah, or peace chiefs. They were leaders, chosen by community consensus, because of their wisdom, spirituality, exemplary conduct, speaking ability, and skill in planning for community survival and prosperity. They mediated disputes by encouraging people to fully talk out their problems, in order to reach agreed settlements and restore harmony in the community. Unlike European law, traditional Navajo law was not based on power but based on relationships, respect, and mutual need,” (Yazzie, Robert).

The Navajo Nation maintains forms of clan leadership through local “chapters” where residents can vote on economic and political matters. There are a total of 88 Council delegates to represent the 110 Navajo Nation chapters. The larger government structure is defined by the Title II Amendment of 1989 which transformed the Navajo Nation into a three-part governmental system (judicial, legislative, executive). The delegates write and pass additions to the Navajo Nation Code, or the Navajo Nation’s laws (Navajo Nation Government). 

Despite practicing relatively high sovereignty, proposed laws must be approved by the United States Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Secreterial review is one way in which the federal government practices their plenary power over the Navajo Nation. In contrast, state governments encompassed by the Navajo Nation do not hold political influence. Certain areas of the reservation require extra federal involvement, in particular the BIA Indian Allotment Lands. Other areas are classified as Public, Tribal Trust, Tribal Fee, Private, and State. (Navajo Courts)

The development of a more centralized government was highly influenced by economic development. In the early 1900s, the Navajo Nation began to lease areas of land to outside oil companies. Oil remains a source of revenue, both through leasing and individual Navajo projects. Mining in the form of uranium and coal were once popular within the reservation borders. Uranium-mining was banned in 2005 due to environmental and health impacts. Coal mining has dramatically decreased yet remains active. The overall trend is towards renewable energy production such as wind power. Besides natural resources, the Navajo economy also includes local businesses, sheep-herding and traditional crafts (Bureau of Indian Affairs).

Iverson, Peter: Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Navajo.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 June 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Navajo-people.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center 2014 Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region

Yazzie, Robert. “History of the Courts of the Navajo Nation.” HISTORY OF THE COURTS OF THE NAVAJO NATIONwww.navajocourts.org/history.htm.

Bornstein, George. “The Fearing Time: Telling the tales of Indian slavery in American history”, Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 2017 p. 29 (review of Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 9780547640983).

“Tribal and Local Government.” Fast Facts, Local & Tribal Government, navajobusiness.com/fastFacts/Government.htm.

Navajo Nation Government. Historywww.navajo-nsn.gov/history.htm.

Bureau of Indian Affairs 1955–1956: Kiersch, George A. (1956) Mineral Resources, Navajo-Hopi Indian Reservations, Arizona-Utah: Geology, Evaluation, and Uses, volumes 1–3, United States. Bureau of Indian Affairs, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona.

Navajo Courts. “Title 7 Navajo Nation Code”Navajocourts.org. Retrieved 13 October 2017.


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