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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter I:

Forty-five thousand Navaho* Indians and their flocks of sheep and goats and herds of horses, totalling in 1937 about 1,000,000 head, range over a reservation of fifteen million acres in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico and over the border in to southern Utah. They also wander far beyond the reservation. One can expect to see Navaho anywhere between the Rio Grande River in the east, the Colorado River in the west, the San Juan River in the north, and the Little Colorado River in the south. Unlike other tribes which have decreased in numbers or disappeared entirely, the Navaho have doubled their population in the last thirty years. They are now the largest Indian tribe in the United States, and their reservation is the most extensive. It is estimated that the Navaho are ninety-eight per cent pure blood. The slight mixture with white people is found only in the districts near the towns and railroads.

*The anglicized form, "Navaho," is used in this paper, except in quotations which retain the Spanish form "Navajo." The Indian Bureau estimates the population for 1937 as 50,000.

Geologists describe the reservation as part of the great Colorado Plateau, where erosion and other natural forces, acting upon the sandstone, limestone, and conglomerate, have carved deep gorges and isolated badland forms, above which the mountains rise. The rugged and colorful landscape with its deserts, canyons, mountains, and mesas is one of startling beauty. Erosion has created fantastic forms in the rocks resembling ships, cathedral spires, and other impressive objects, and produced natural bridges like the famous Rainbow Bridge. The reservation has "a painted landscape with patches and bands of yellow, ash-gray, drab, lavender, rose, pink, slate, maroon, sienna, lilac, cream, and various shades of red and brown (Gregory, 1917:42). The myriad colors have given this region the name, 'The Painted Desert'." It is a country of contrasts in landscape, vegetation, altitude, rainfall, and temperature.

The Navaho are believed to have been in this region since the thirteenth or fourteenth century A. D. Everywhere around them they have impressive reminders of the past in the archaeology and geology of their present homeland. Dinosaurs have left their tracks in canyons; in the desert is petrified wood; and in the cliffs are the ruins of an ancient people who lived under the protective shade of massive canyon walls of red sandstone. The Navaho have no memory of these people who came before them, although some of the Navaho clans attempt, in their myths, to trace their descent from the cliff dwellers. They regard the cliff dwellings as the home of some of their gods, and avoid the ruins, preferring to build their hogans of brush and mud on the flat canyon floors near their gardens and peach orchards.

Economically, the value of the Navaho country is variable. Reverend Anselm Weber, of the Franciscan Mission at St. Michael's Arizona, who had a thorough knowledge of Navaho land problems, summed up the situation in passing, in terms of popular folklore (quoted in "Survey of Conditions of the Indians in the U. S., Pt. 34:17557), "... we are living in a country, as the cowboy put it, where there are more rivers and less water, more cows and less milk, where a person can look farther and see less than anywhere in God's creation; or, as Mr. Charles S. Lummis puts it, where a horned toad may scratch a living if it remains single, but is doomed to starvation if led into matrimony." It has become a commonplace to state that only the industrious Navaho could scrape a living from such a country and become proudly self-supporting. The tribe is at present going through a crisis of economic adjustment because erosion, aggravated by the great flocks which exceed the carrying capacity of the pasture land, has become more than a local Navaho problem and has required the intervention of the Government to prevent further damage. Torrential rains strip off the top soil, which is carried down the San Juan and Colorado Rivers, coming to rest in Boulder Dam. Engineers assert that the dam will be filled up with silt in a few years if erosion is not checked. The Navaho, in cooperation with the soil conservationists, have been reducing their herds end developing irrigation in order to arrive at a better balance between herding and farming.

ROUND OF LIFE Unlike the ancient cliff dwellers and the modern Pueblo tribes who live in large communities, the Navaho are camp dwellers. They are not true nomads, however, for each family does not roam aimlessly over the entire reservation, but herds its sheep and goats within a limited locality. Formerly this area might have a radius of thirty or forty miles. Now, when there are many small herds and a large population, the radius is more likely to be about ten or fifteen miles. Before automobiles were used, the average Navaho rarely knew much about the region beyond his pastures. Now, as a result of the economic crisis and the reorganization of the local government, the Navaho have acquired more knowledge of their fellow tribesmen who live elsewhere on the fifteen million acres.

On his range, the Navaho Indian has a series of hogans and corrals built at various sheltered places conveniently near water, grass, and fuel. Usually the flocks are kept in corrals at night and driven out to graze in the morning. The mountains are open to all for pastures, so when the lowlands are parched and barren in summer, those who live near the high mountains delegate certain members of the family to take all or part of the stock to the green highlands watered by mountain streams. In the winter the family goes to the foothills and mesas where it can find fuel. In the spring it returns to the desert to take advantage of the fresh vegetation and water renewed by the spring rains. The garden is planted with maize, pumpkins, and beans in April and May. Lambing generally takes place in early spring, the season varying in different parts of the reservation as breeding is not yet controlled in all areas. Shearing begins when the weather is sufficiently warm so that the animals will not suffer.

The Navaho rise at dawn because then the Talking Gods are believed to wander over the earth, blessing the people who are awake. Before beginning the day's chores, the family chants a blessing and makes an offering of corn pollen to the gods. The Navaho who keep to the customs of earlier times say grace before their meals. The children and some of the women herd the sheep, while the men care for their horses or work in the gardens. The women also share in the gardening work, and in their spare moments weave the blankets which have made the name "Navaho" known over the world. The men in their leisure moments train their ponies for races. In the evening the father may play and talk to his children, telling them stories or making them toys. If the father is a good story teller, men gather from miles around to hear his stories (Wetherill).

Personal property is owned by individuals without discriminations based on age or sex. A person may possess "hard goods" in the form of jewelry, saddles, and cash; or "soft goods" like blankets, sheepskins, and clothing; or herds of sheep and horses; or intangible property like knowledge of secret magic names, ceremonies, and lore of many kinds. This latter type of property is highly regarded, for anyone with magical knowledge, it is believed, can control natural forces to bring good fortune and ward off evil. A man who has some knowledge of magic, and knows songs with magic power, exerts a great influence among the people. One Navaho said sadly and apologetically to Dr. W. W. Hill, "I have always been a poor man. I do not know a single song." Women have a high and respected position, own their own property, and sometimes are wealthier than the men. Women usually own most of the sheep.

During the long winters, "when the snakes are asleep and the thunder silent," the Navaho hold their great religious ceremonies, or "chants" as they are popularly called. The purpose of a chant is to cure disease in an individual, and also to invoke the blessings of the gods on the people in general. Some of the chants have ceremonies lasting from five to nine days. These ceremonies are charged with much religious and poetical feeling. The impersonation of spirits and gods in elaborate costumes and the making of beautiful sandpaintings are two notable features. The family of a sick person spends hundreds of dollars to pay the medicine man who takes charge of the chant, and to secure the proper religious paraphernalia. People come from all over the reservation, and even from other tribes, to share in the religious and social life which goes on. Many spend the winter travelling from one "dance" to another.

Everyone wears all the finest jewelry of silver, turquoise, coral, and shell he owns and can get out of pawn from the trader. The women wear colorful velvet blouses and voluminous calico skirts, a style copied from the costumes worn by the officers' wives at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where the Navaho were once kept in captivity. The men, if they do not dress in American overalls and shirts, wear velvet tunics and trousers of bright calico, a Spanish-American style. A light weight Pendleton blanket, preferred to the native heavy blankets, is thrown over the shoulders.

A stranger is certain of finding hospitality. The Navaho have the trait, shared with all human beings except the most sophisticated, of liking to find that a stranger is related by marriage or blood. And since there are all of fifty clans in the tribe, many of which have names similar to clans in neighboring tribes, some kind of relationship is usually traceable between the interested host and guest. The generosity and hospitality of the Navaho is such that they will deny themselves necessities in order to share the little they have with their less fortunate relatives and friends.

In earlier times the Navaho married outside both their father's and mother's clans. An individual belongs to the clan of his mother, and traces descent through her. When a man marries, he goes to live with his wife's people, but is careful to avoid showing disrespect to his mother-in-law by speaking to, or even seeing, her. Tradition sternly requires, even to this day, that this custom be observed. A family group consists of maternal grandparents, parents, unmarried children, and daughters with their husbands and children.

As might be expected of a tribe with such a large population and extensive territory, there is considerable variety in the practices, beliefs, and physical characteristics in various districts. Cultural factors such as contacts with white people or with neighboring tribes, and natural factors such as geography and rainfall have been important in creating local variations. Just as differences in design, yarn, size, and color in hundreds of Navaho blankets do not prevent one from seeing that as a group they are peculiarly Navaho, so it is with the culture as a whole.

The income of the Navaho is derived from the sale of agricultural and livestock products, crafts, and, in some areas, from lumber and pinyon nuts. In recent years, the income per capita has been increased by wages obtained on reservation work projects financed by the United States Government. In 1936 this amounted to $40 per capita. The average income of the Navaho is not definitely known. Various estimates have been made. The most recent estimate, by the Soil Conservation Service, of the per capita income, including the commercial income and the non-commercial (the cash value of produce raised and consumed at home), is about $85. For a consumption group (the economic unit used by the Service), which averages 7 plus, the total income, together with the wages, is estimated at $900.

TRADING POSTS The meat, wool, hides, jewelry, and pinyon nuts are purchased by traders who are licensed by the American Government to conduct trading posts on the reservation. One cannot discuss Navaho life since 1868 without taking into account the influence of traders. An intensive study of the history and functions of the trading post system among the Navaho was made by B. Youngblood of the United States Department of Agriculture (Survey of Conditions, Pt. 34:18036-115). The information presented here is drawn largely from this report.

The trading post system is described as one of the best remaining examples of frontier commerce. "The trader extends unsecured credit on open accounts in anticipation of the Indians' wool and lamb crops, and he also extends minor credits secured by pawn, including silver bracelets, rings, and belts, beads, guns, saddle blankets, rugs or other articles of value." He advances provisions and craft supplies to makers of jewelry and blankets. He supplies merchandise on credit to encourage the Indian ceremonies. He acts as a middleman between White and Indian cultures, purchasing the goods of the Indians and selling them products of White manufacture. "Most traders counsel the Indians on business and personal affairs. With few exceptions, they, at one time or another, have advised the Indians relative to sheep breeding and wool, lamb, and rug improvement from the viewpoint of the commercial markets." They work in cooperation with the wholesalers who supply them with goods and purchase the trader's Indian produce, and they work with the Government. "The traders are also called upon frequently for aid and advice concerning Indian family and community affairs, such as marital difficulties, illness, deaths, and inheritances."

Names, famous in Navaho history, occur in the roster of traders: Joseph Lee, S. E. Aldrich, C. N. Cotton, J. Lorenzo Hubbell, J. B. Moore, T. V. Keam, J. Wetherill, and others. Of the 50 trading posts studied by Youngblood, 35 were conducted by individuals, 15 by corporations and partnerships. Most of the traders were of old Anglo-American stock, with a few of Spanish and Indian descent.

The Navaho apply to trading the same genius they displayed in diplomatic relations with the early Spanish and Americans. Trading is a social and business event. Nothing can make a Navaho hurry in his debate between canned peaches and tomatoes, or stem his oratory when he wishes the trader to throw in a sack of candy as a friendship gift. If there is a cash balance after his charge account has been settled, he prefers to get silver for each item he has sold. Then he pays it out again, coin by coin, for each new purchase. The Navaho women are particularly shrewd bargainers. Books written by or about traders and their experiences in the Navaho country are listed in the bibliography.

ADMINISTRATION The Navaho were never organized under one chief, nor did they have hereditary chiefs. A capable and intelligent person might take charge during a crisis, but he had no influence other than that exerted by his personality or wealth. A wealthy man had many followers and slaves whom he commanded. A man who organized and carried out a war party was a War Chief only for the duration of the raid.

The early Spanish and American officials found it impossible to deal with such a truly democratic people, so they nominated some of the natural leaders as "chiefs" to act as negotiators between the Navaho and the Whites. They gave each "chief" a silver medal and a cane as symbols of his position. The Navaho tribe has produced men of outstanding character and leadership. Narbona and Manuelito, who lived during the trying years of the nineteenth century, when Navaho and Whites were at odds, were two of the great Navaho whose memories are now respected by Indians and Whites alike.

In 1923 a tribal council of twelve members and twelve alternates was organized to work in cooperation with the Indian Bureau and the Indian Agents of the six administrative districts of the reservation. Since 1935 a new system of local administration has been developing. The United States Indian Bureau now has a central agency or "Navaho capital" to carry out the administrative work. In addition the reservation has been divided into eighteen districts to carry out the land management program. Each district has a supervisor who is directly responsible to the General Superintendent at Window Rock, Arizona, the central agency.

Between July 1, 1933, and July 1, 1936, the United States Government has spent over ten million dollars on physical improvements within the reservation and over one million on improvements in the areas just outside the reservation which the Navaho also occupy. The development of educational facilities for both children and adults has always aroused disputes. Opinion is divided over boarding versus day schools, and whether the education for young people should prepare them for possible absorption into the general population of the United States, or for life on the reservation. The present administration has improved the educational facilities by establishing about fifty day schools for children, constructing and furnishing the buildings so that they can be used by adults as community centers. Despite this improvement there are an estimated 6,000 Navaho children still without schools. The educational policy at the present time is to educate the children nearer their homes and parents, and along lines which fit them for a better life right in their own country. (Survey of Conditions, 34:17580-17601.)

CULTURE PERIODS Before the Spanish introduced sheep, horses, and cattle into America, in the sixteenth century, the Navaho were a small and insignificant tribe which lived by raising a little maize, hunting wild animals, raiding the Pueblos and gathering roots and seeds. Quickly appreciating the value of the domesticated animals left by the Spanish among the Pueblos, the Navaho acquired some by theft. Instead of eating the stolen animals or killing them upon the death of the owner, as the Apache did, the Navaho carefully tended their flocks, thus taking the first step toward becoming a pastoral people. The change in their lives was revolutionary. The flocks increased through natural growth and further theft until the Navaho became a wealthy tribe. The raids on their neighbors brought them not only possessions, and captives who would work in the fields and care for the flocks, but also arts and a complex religion. During this time their weaving, perhaps learned from the Pueblos, developed, and Navaho blankets were soon prized throughout the Southwest by both Indians and Whites. The scanty yucca-fiber clothing of the aboriginal Navaho was replaced by buckskin, by woolen garments woven by the women, and by cotton cloth secured by trade with the Pueblos and Mexicans.

The Spanish governors, and later the American, were helpless to stop the raids of the "American Bedouins," or the "Pirates of the Desert," or the "Shepherd Kings," to use some of the more polite epithets applied to the Navaho. Each officer returned to report that he had made a "lasting peace" with the Navaho; that he had found them a handsome, intelligent, hospitable, and high-spirited people with broad fields and large herds; that they possessed fine blankets and silver ornaments; that they were better dressed than any other tribe; and treated their women with unusual respect. In 1863 Christopher Carson, the great Indian fighter, succeeded in conquering the Navaho by ignoring their brilliant oratory and refusing to make treaties. Instead he destroyed the fields ready for harvest, and killed off flocks and warriors. The survivors were sent east into captivity at Bosque Redondo, the site of Fort Sumner, on the Pecos River. In 1868 the subdued Navaho were sent home to take up again a pastoral life and the care of their farms. Their progressive and adaptable nature soon re-asserted itself, and by hard and honest work they have recouped their losses.

The history of the Navaho during their life in the Southwest is then of four general, periods: 1. The aboriginal or pre-Spanish period. 2. The pre-captivity, or the early historical period, which began with the arrival of the Spanish in the last years of the sixteenth century. Actually it was not until 1630 that Navaho and Spanish met, but the Navaho had apparently come into indirect contact with the white civilization before this time through the Pueblo Indians, on whom the Spanish concentrated their attention. The year 1846 marks the transfer from Spanish to American intervention in Navaho affairs; it was in this year that the first American treaty with the warlike Navaho was made. The entire early historical period marks the change of the Navaho to a semi-pastoral life and their growth into an import ant and populous tribe. This period ends in 1863 with most of the tribe in captivity as a punishment for more than a century and a half of profitable raiding. 3. The captivity, or transition period, extends from 1863 to 1868 when about three-fourths of the tribe was exposed to American culture at Bosque Redondo under control of the American army. 4. The modern period begins with their return from captivity in 1863, and continues into the present.

If one excepts the prevalent theory that the Navaho were newcomers into the Southwest, having been there only about 200 years before the Spanish, these four periods total only 500 years.

Summary of Periods

1. Aboriginal or pre-Spanish

2. Early historical or pre-captivity
     1630-1846 Spanish
     1846-1863 American

3. Captivity

4. Modern

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