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

In August, 1881, Captain Bourke (1884) traveled through the southern Navaho country on his way to a Hopi Snake Dance. He painted an idyllic picture of the landscape, freshly watered by August showers; and his impressionistic style gives one a vivid and living, though not a detailed, account of many Navaho customs. The region he traversed was covered with "the enchanting enamel of wild-flowers, which in every hue--yellow, scarlet, white, purple, and blue--matted the ground with the effect of a Persian carpet."

CAMP DWELLERS He came across several Navaho camps, set in green valleys, or between mesas of sugar-loaf shape, each camp with no more than two to four hogans with food caches of cedar bark before them. Off to one side were as many corn patches, guarded by scarecrows. Herds of sheep and goats grazed a few miles away in fields glittering with the "interminable emerald of the juicy grass." He writes (p.87) "The baaing of sheep and the bleating of goats prepared us for encountering a wandering band of Navajoes, but a sharp bend in the trail brought us in upon...three or four 'hogans'; two old squaws, half a dozen children; and a score of snarling, yellow curs, made up the resident population. The squaws were weaving the loveliest of blankets upon crude looms of cottonwood branches; the children and puppies were quarrelling for the possession of the meat bones scattered over the cayote fur coverlid...; while a young girl moved with an air of importance about the ground-ovens, where sweet-smelling loaves of bread were baking."

The Navaho of today are still camp dwellers. They do not lead a village life like the Ancient People who once inhabited the many rooms of the great cliff dwellings like White House and Pueblo Bonito.

MATRILOCAL RESIDENCE If Bourke had inquired of his "cheerful and glad-hearted" Navaho guide, "Wrestler" he might have learned the relationship between the two women he saw in one camp busily weaving. They were probably sisters who had lived in the same locality since their birth. Their husbands were certainly of clans different from that of their wives and had grown up in their "mother's place," several miles away as the sons and daughters of a woman not only take her clan name, but they grow up in the same locality as she and her brothers and sisters, her mother and her mother's brothers and sisters, and the family of her mother's mother. It would not be surprising to find that the women of the older generations are still alive and living in hogans nearby or elsewhere in the immediate territory which is traditionally occupied by their family and clan. The men of these families, the brothers and maternal uncles, move to the region where their wives and mothers-in-law were reared. They still keep the name of their mother's clan, and always regard "mother's place" as home and themselves as the natural protectors of their sisters and their sisters' children.

MARRIAGE PREFERENCES Formerly marriage was outside the clans of both parents and even outside the grandfather's clan (Ethnologic Dictionary, p.427). Reichard (1928:65) states that now the preferential types of marriage are into the father's clan, or into the paternal or maternal grandfather's clan. Ethnologists differ on this point, indicating that the Navaho themselves are in a process of change. Hill, in a letter (October 1, 1937) to the National Park Service, states that his Navaho Indian informants have given him information agreeing with both statements and that both are probably equally correct, depending on the informant. Marriage between parallel and cross cousins, and between other close relatives, is forbidden. Until recently many of the Navaho were polygamous. A wealthy man frequently married sisters; or a woman and her niece; or a woman and her daughter or daughters by another marriage, thus negating the mother-in-law taboo, which he ordinarily would be required to observe had he married only the daughters.

If a man with brothers dies leaving a widow, the widow chooses one of the brothers for her second husband. If there are no brothers, the dead man's clan may still force its claim to the widow by having her marry an eligible clan member. A little ceremony is performed for the second marriage: The woman carries to the hogan of her elected man two baskets ornamented with a cross of wild grape and redbud, one basket filled with cornmeal mush, the other with "paper" bread. Four days later the man comes to her camp with his bows and arrows and spends the night. The next morning the couple bathe in yucca suds and comb each other's hair as the last rite of the ceremony. (Ethnologic Dictionary, p.432.)

For a first marriage, a young man's father brings ten horses or so to the home of the selected girl's family. If the gift is accepted, he makes plans for his son's marriage. As already noted, the horses do not constitute a purchase of the bride; rather they are a gift, traditionally required according to tribal etiquette. Divorce is easy; and the women are usually well treated, since they continue to live right at home near their parents, and keep their rights of ownership to the herds and other property which constitute their personal wealth.

A common type of arrangement is between two families with marriageable sons and daughters. The wedding gift received when the daughter of one family married the son of a second family is exchanged if the first family has a son, and the second a daughter. This arrangement promotes friendship between the two families, and is economically desirable because it does not scatter the wealth. It also strengthens the ties between two clans, since the two families intermarrying are naturally of different clans, and the initial friendship may be extended by further marriages between the two groups.

RELATIONSHIPS The taboo between the mother-in-law and son-in-law which has already been mentioned has not diminished much in modern times. The feeling between the two is one of great mutual respect. Men who are related by marriage are allowed to play all kinds of rough jokes on each other. Fathers-in-law, sons-in-law, and brothers-in-law are great jokers, and cross-cousins, too, tease each other; but brothers and sisters and parents and children respect each other and do not tease.

CLAN FUNCTIONS The primary function of the Navaho clans, as discussed above, is the regulation of marriage. Although descent is officially traced through the mother, Navaho recognize their relationship to members of their father's clan. They give them gifts and cherish this relationship.

Unlike the Pueblos, among whom religious rites must be performed by certain clans or not at all, the Navaho clans have practically no religious or political importance. A man is a leader of his clan because, temporarily perhaps, he has been successful in advising those who voluntarily requested his assistance, or in leading his people in war or peace making. Because of him and other individuals who have risen to importance and wealth in his clan, the clan may, for the time being, while these individuals are lucky or continue to be wise, share in the glory and get an enviable reputation. It becomes a clan into which members of other clans wish to marry, and grows accordingly in wealth and prestige. The democratic Navaho do not have social classes or distinctions between clans other than those which result from the "cream rising to the top." (Reichard, 1928:46).

CLAN GROUPS Some of the clans become so closely associated through the intermarriage of their members, or other local ties, that they regard themselves as constituting a group of related clans, but not related closely enough to develop marriage taboos. There are about a dozen of these groups scattered about the reservation. They are unnamed.

NUMBER OF CLANS AND NAMES The number of clans among the Navaho has been variously estimated as fifty-one by Matthews, fifty-eight by the Ethnologic Dictionary, and forty-nine by Reichard. The counting of clans is rendered difficult because many clans have duplicate names which may be translated differently by different people. Then, too, names of extinct clans have been forgotten or are known to only a few.

The names of the clans are based, for the most part, on localities figuring in their early history. Also a clan may be named after the alien tribe from which the clan ancestors came--thus, the Zuni, Apache, Ute, or Mexican clans. The specific clan name of a woman in her native tribe was sometimes adopted for the clan name of her Navaho descendants. Goodwin (1937:394) states that among the Western Apache a Navaho captive "retained his native clan identity if such clan were present in the Apache group." Goodwin found that (p.404) "None of the White Mountain Apache clans bear the same name as those of the Navajo, yet duplication is found between the Navajo and other Western Apache groups.... nine of the ten White Mountain clans claim to be directly descended from or related to certain Navajo clans."

CLAN LOCALIZATION The female members of a family are not the only ones to live in the same locality generation after generation. Their clan relatives are also territorially restricted to the pastures and sites of an area, in which the individual families of the clan hold adjoining lands, basing their claims on generations of occupation.

CLAN ORIGIN A local band was the basis of almost every clan. Though the origin legends are a mixture of fact and fancy, they indicate, in a general way, how the tribe grew. Bands of wandering Navaho met other hunting tribes using the same lands, and if their language was similar, relationships were soon established. Pueblo people, who had abandoned their communities because of famine or the attack of enemies, fled to the wilderness, and after a time intermarried with the Navaho.

In the version of the origin legend given by Matthews (1897:148-9), we have a charming mythological account of clan origins, which is summarized here as a matter of literary interest and not for any historical value it may have. The goddess, Esdzanadle, or Changing Woman, was lonely as she lived on the western ocean in her splendid house, so she made people from her epidermis. These people formed the original clans of the Navaho. At last the clans decided to leave her. She said, "It is a long and dangerous journey to where you are going. It is well that you should be cared for and protected on the way. I shall give you five of my pets--a bear, a great snake, a deer, a porcupine, and a puma--to watch over you. They will not desert you. Speak of no evil deeds in the presence of the bear or the snake, for they may do the evil they hear you speak of; but the deer and the porcupine are good--say whatever you please to say in their presence."

She also gave them five magic wands of turquoise, white shell, haliotis, black stone, and red stone. The people, as they wandered, grew thirsty, so a man of the clan with the turquoise wand struck it into the ground and made a water hole. A woman of another clan said the water was bitter, and she gave the clan the name of Bitter Water. Later, they met a band living near a spring, called Coyote Spring, and these people were named Coyote People after the water hole. They met some of the Apache, who begged to marry the Navaho girls. Later some Zuni, driven by famine, came to the San Juan, and joined a Navaho clan. (Later, the Zuni immigrants formed a separate clan.) The Navaho tribe became powerful enough to raid the Pueblos: One man raided Red House, a pueblo, from which he brought back a girl who founded the Red House Clan. In this fashion, so the Navaho relate in their legends, the fifty or so clans of the Navaho tribe of today were created.

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