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

As yet there is little to be said definitely about the origin of the Navaho, and of the number of years they had been in the Southwest when the Spanish first saw them in the early part of the seventeenth century. A study of the language, culture, and physical type uncovers such composite and heterogeneous characteristics as to lead most investigators inevitably to the conclusions that the Navaho and their close linguistic relatives, the Apache, are not native to the Southwest, but entered it about two hundred years before the Spanish. During this period they intermarried with the Pueblo people and adopted features of their religion and material culture. Where they came from originally and the history of their migration may never be known definitely. Evidence points to the north as the homeland, for in a vast area in northwestern America there are tribes which speak languages similar to that of the Navaho and Apache groups.

The following sections will summarize the scanty data, and the reconstructions of the history and origin of the Navaho, which have been based on them. As one sometimes encounters references to the direct Asiatic origin and affinities of the Navaho, it may be well to go into the matter in some detail to get an anthropological perspective of the situation.

RACE Like all other Indians of North and South America, the Navaho belonged to the race of Homo sapiens known as Americanoid, which has many similarities in physical appearance with the Mongoloid race. The Mongoloids inhabit a wide region in the eastern hemisphere ranging from the fringes of central Europe across north and central Asia to the islands of the Pacific. The Americanoids and the Mongoloids both have black straight hair on the head, very little hair on the face and body, dark eyes, and high cheekbones. The skin varies from yellow to brown. How is one to interpret these and other striking physical resemblances? Wissler (1922:349) answers the question: "That the New World native is a direct descendant of the Asiatic Mongolian is not to be inferred, for the differentiation is evidently remote; what is implied, is that somewhere in the distant past the Asiatic wing of the generalized type diverged into strains, one of which we now know as Mongolian, and another as American."

The representatives of this American strain began to leave the Asiatic mainland at least as early as 15,000 years ago in families or bands. Most of them, apparently, crossed over by way of Bering Strait and then slowly spread over the continent. Inbreeding took place in these small groups, and the different physical types of the American Indian gradually evolved.

In the Southwest the problem of race is complex. Goddard (1931:18) writes, "... the inhabitants of the Southwest are of two, perhaps three, physical types which have either migrated into the region from different places and at different times, or which, after long residence in the Southwest, have resulted from the breaking up of a previously uniform type." The Navaho are very much mixed, although the mixture is not recent, according to Hrdlicka (1900:340). What they looked like when they entered the Southwest is unknown. Now they are very closely related to the Pueblos in blood and possibly to the Yuma-Mohave peoples (Hrdlicka, 1908:134). The Apache groups, who are linguistic cousins of the Navaho, represent a distinctly different physical type from them and most of their other neighbors (Hrdlicka, 1908:8).

Because of their mixed type it is well-nigh impossible to define the physical characteristics of a typical Navaho. Observers from Spanish to modern times are in harmony only in agreeing that the Navaho are good looking, with well formed features and bodies, and pleasant, merry, and intelligent expressions. Matthews (1910) noted among them a variation between the gentle, nondescript type of face usually seen among the Pueblos, and the haughty, sculptured features characteristic of the Plains. On the other hand, Hrdlicka, who visited different parts of the reservation between 1898 and 1905, wrote in his paper, "Medical and Physiological Observations among the Indians of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico" (1908:9): "Notwithstanding their mixed Indian origin, the Navaho possess a characteristic physiognomy, a great degree of uniformity in physical features, and practically the same habits throughout their extensive territory." As the title reveals, he observed the Indians of a wide region, a procedure which would make the Navaho stand out as a distinct type in comparison with other Southwestern tribes despite the local variability in practices and appearances of different Navaho groups. In giving the measurements of height and skin color of the Navaho in his paper on Navaho physique (1900), Hrdlicka remarked on their wide variability. Thus, height varies from 162.4 to 183.0 centimeters for men, and 148.4 to 166.3 centimeters for women. Skin color ranges all the way from light tan to dark sepia.

Usually the features are well shaped with a moderately projecting jaw and straight nose. The teeth are prominent. As among most Indians, the hands, feet, and legs are smaller than in Whites. Though the hair is black, exposure to the sun and too frequent washing with yucca-root suds bleaches it to a rusty brown and red. Both men and women wear their hair long and without bangs, except when influenced by Whites. The men commonly knot their hair up and wear a brightly colored bandana around the head. The Navaho are somewhat hairier than most American Indians, perhaps because of mixture with the Mexicans; many men cultivate straggly moustaches. A decided peculiarity is the very broad head, flattened at the occiput. This flattening, regarded as beautiful by the Navaho, is neither congenital nor intentional. It results from laying the baby on a flat cradle with only bark for a pillow. (See photographs, Matthews, 1897.)

POPULATION Whereas other tribes have not survived the shock of contact with white culture, the Navaho have thrived, seemingly turning every disadvantage of harsh climate, poor soil, and indifferent treatment to fortune and strength. The old, who often appear more aged than their years because of their many wrinkles, are hardy and work vigorously almost to the day of death. Everyone is industrious and children learn to herd sheep and to weave when they are scarcely beyond the toddling state. Reichard, in "Spider Woman," tells the story of a child genius, Atlnaba, who at five was weaving fine blankets.

To date it has been impossible to take an accurate census of the Navaho, so the figures must be taken as only approximate. Added to the rough terrain and the scattering of the Navaho far outside the reservation into Hopi and Zuni territories, the census taker must struggle with names and addresses. A Navaho will have at least a summer and winter residence, perhaps with several lean-tos between them. He is reluctant to give his name when directly questioned; if pressed, he may give a "a school name," provided he has one, or a name by which he is known to white people. His friends usually call him by a name that is personally descriptive, while his immediate family, if the old customs have been followed, also know another name, suggestive of war, which is revealed only on certain great occasions. Formerly, too, the Navaho custom of polygamy complicated the census taker's task.

The Indian Bureau (Survey of Conditions, Pt. 34:17534) states that the Navaho population is increasing at the rate of 1.08 per cent a year. Hrdlicka (1908:37) observed a slightly higher proportion of males than females, which he thought might be due to a higher rate of birth of male children. The absence of vital statistics makes this impossible to check. At the present time the health of the people is most affected by tuberculosis, trachoma, and malnutrition of children, due to smoky, crowded hogans; dirt; poor diet; and too much dependence on native medicine men for the treatment of disease. The isolation in which the Navaho dwell protects them somewhat from the ravages of epidemics, although the influenza epidemic of 1918 took a heavy toll; and Matthews (1897) also mentions disastrous epidemics which occurred during his time.

In 1867, when the Navaho were in captivity at Bosque Redondo, the American officers counted 7,300. Many more had escaped the drag-net to find refuge as far west as among the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon region. There were thought to be more than 12,000 Navaho in all. Stragglers came into Bosque Redondo during the winter to increase the total in captivity until, in 1869, the officers counted close to 9,000 as receiving supplies on their return to the old reservation. In the succeeding years the population steadily increased. In 1900 the estimate was 21,826; by 1934 the figure was set at 42,989--almost double the number. The estimate for 1937 is customarily given as 50,000.

LANGUAGE The problem of Navaho language is as knotty as that of the physical type. No American language can be traced back ultimately to any Asiatic form as was the physical type, because no old language links between the two hemispheres have been established as yet. Identical simple words do occur occasionally in some of the languages of Asia and North America, but these are far too few to establish a genetic relationship. The similarities are due perhaps to chance only.

The first man to enter North America certainly had a language when he arrived, over 10,000 years ago or more. Even the most primitive species of man, Sinanthropus, who lived thousands of years before Homo sapiens evolved, had speech centers developed in his brain, indicating that some kind of system of articulate communication existed among human beings.

Dr. H. Hoijer, a specialist in linguistics at the University of Chicago, and an authority on the Southern Athapascan speech family to which the Navaho language belongs, writes in a letter to the National Park Service: "It seems quite clear from the evidence of the modern American Indian languages that the earliest immigrants to America were already divided into several distinct linguistic stocks. The present day languages are so divergent, in many cases, as to make it improbable that these divergences were developed in the relatively short time the Indians have been in America. It is quite possible, however, that there were fewer language groups among the original migrants than among the American Indians of today and that the majority of the sub-groupings of modern Indian language stocks were developed in America."

He goes on to say, "The Navaho language, together with the languages of the several Apache tribes of the Southwest and the Plains, forms a homogeneous linguistic stock or family called Athapaskan. A linguistic stock may be defined as a group of languages which, because of numerous and systematic similarities in vocabulary and grammatical structure, are assumed to be descendants of a single earlier language. The Southern Athapaskan stock, as a whole, shows considerable similarity to two other large groups of American Indian languages: the Pacific Coast Athapaskan stock (which includes such languages as Hupa and Mattole) and the Northern Athapaskan stock (in western Canada and Alaska). The similarities between these three groups have led linguists to construct the larger Athapaskan stock. Navaho is, therefore, in origin, related to languages spoken on the Pacific Coast, in western Canada, and in the interior of Alaska."

Thirty years ago the theory that the homeland of the parent language of the Southern Athapascan stock lay in the northern area of North America had little concrete evidence to support it. Goddard's counter-theory (1906) was equally plausible at the time. It is presented here as a matter of historical information and to illustrate the advancement in our concrete knowledge of Athapascan linguistics since 1906.

Goddard maintained that the Athapascans might once have occupied a continuous area over northern and western America, and than been pushed back or absorbed by intrusive immigrants of other language stocks. This is exactly the opposite of the established theory that the Athapascans were the intrusive tribes.

In 1915 Sapir published a preliminary report with evidence to support his belief that the hypothetical parent language of the Athapascan which he called Na-Dene, grew in the Northwest, and that the different dialects and languages of the Athapascan tongue were offshoots of it. Boas (1920) continued to maintain, however, that we still had not advanced far beyond the theoretical stage in determining the character of original American languages, especially of the Athapascan.

Hoijer writes that "the controversy ... is no longer significant, There can now be no doubt that the original homeland of the Athapaskan speaking peoples was in the North and that the Pacific Coast peoples and the Southern Athapaskan speaking peoples are migrants from the North at a relatively recent date. This is shown clearly by the fact that both the Pacific Coast stock and the southern Athapaskan stock are homogeneous groups; whereas the Northern stock is, in reality, divisible into at least four distinct sub-stocks. Dr. Fang-Kuei-Li's work on the northern languages has proved this point (see the International Journal of American Linguistics, Volume VI, No. 1 and Volume VII, Nos. 3 and 4)."

Hoijer adds: "The theory of northern origin means that centuries ago the ancestors of the present Athapaskan speaking peoples lived somewhere in northwestern Canada or Alaska. Gradually this group may have expanded in numbers and, perhaps by the necessity of the food quest or by pressure of other immigrants from the Asiatic mainland, they moved southward. At some period in their history, not more than a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago, two groups broke off from the main group and wandered still farther south. One of these presumably followed the Pacific coastline into California and Oregon, and the other skirted the eastern edge of the Rockies and ended up in the Southwest. The first of these groups became the modern Pacific Coast stock and the second the Southern Athapaskan family."

Though the culture and the physique of the Navaho have been changed through Pueblo contact, Goddard (1906:351) pointed out that there is "very slight, if any, evidence of admixture of language, certainly none with non-Athapascan tongues." Amsden (p. 125) was informed by Sapir, who is at present making an intensive study of the Navaho language, that "the Navaho speech is Athapascan of surprising purity, considering the obvious vicissitudes of tribal development." For the most part, the Navaho have coined new descriptive terms for unfamiliar objects on the basis of their former vocabulary instead of twisting American, Spanish, or other alien words to Athapascan pronunciation. See also the "Ethnologic Dictionary" by the Franciscan Fathers, and Father Haile's "Navaho Grammar."

The older theory, held by Matthews and Hodge, was that the language showed much mixture, especially of Pueblo. Hodge (1890) assumed this largely on the basis of a myth in the origin legend. The myth relates that the Navaho clans, which increased through the adoption of alien bands, met with one such foreign group, thought by Hodge to be Tanoan (Pueblo). The chiefs decided to choose which of the two groups had the plainest and most expressive words. The winning language was to be standardized as the tribal speech. The myth relates that the foreign tongue was chosen, and its vocabulary imposed on the Navaho.

The difficulties in accepting this myth as history are many. First, of course, is the recent linguistic study which shows the language to be relatively free of foreign influence. Second, changes in a language are usually unconscious and not deliberate. The grammarians organize their societies to protect or to sanctify the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of the common man only after the forms have been standardized by common usage. Goddard (1906:351) considers the talceas pure myth invented by the Navaho to explain archaic words in their ceremonial vocabulary, whose original meaning they had forgotten.

As Hoijer stated above, the Navaho language, together with the language of the several Apache tribes who live in the Southwest and in the Plains, constitutes a homogeneous linguistic family called Southern Athapascan. This must not be taken to mean, however, that the languages spoken by the Navaho and by the many groups forming the Eastern and Western divisions of the Apache are mutually intelligible. This is not the case. The point is emphasized in view of Hodge's clever but somewhat misleading summary of the situation in which he quoted ("Land of Sunshine," 1900: footnote, p.438), the Navaho maintaining that the Apache speak bad Navaho, while the Apache declared that the Navaho language was merely poor Apache. Apache and Navaho coming in contact with each other might recognize occasional words which are similar in their languages, but that is about all. As a matter of fact, except for the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache, the members of the Apache group could not understand the members of another (information from Hoijer).


EARLY NAVAHO CULTURE What kind of culture the Navaho had before coming into the Southwest and just after their arrival, we can only guess in our present state of knowledge. They must have had at least those simple weapons and household tools which the ancestors of the Indians brought with them from Asia. The northern Athapascans of today, who proudly call themselves Dene (meaning "the people"), exactly as the Navaho always refer to themselves, never got far beyond the primitive life of the ancients. Swanton (1910:110) suggests that if there ever was a mode of life which all the now widely scattered Athapascans once had in common before their dispersal from the north, it was probably something like that of these northern Denes, who lived poorly by hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild vegetables and seeds.

RELATION TO SOUTHWESTERN CULTURES The basic structure of the Navaho culture is similar to that of the Apache groups of the Southwest. This culture has been affected by contact with the Pueblo tribes. In his "Preliminary Report on the Ethnography of the Southwest" (1935), Dr. Ralph Beals has a convenient summary of the cultural groupings in the Southwest which brings out, incidentally, the position of the Navaho in relation to the other tribes.

Dr. Beals states (1935:4): "The modern tribes of the Southwest present striking differences in culture. It is, in fact, almost impossible to speak longer of a Southwestern culture area....

"The first and most obvious group is the Pueblos, those Indians who live in large communities... (characterized by) massive and permanent architecture and who subsist almost entirely from agriculture. This group, although homogeneous in culture in contrast to the other Southwestern tribes, displays certain internal differences and speaks a diversity of languages.

"Next in the cultural scale are the rancheria tribes, characterized by more or less scattered villages of unpretentious architecture, lacking stone or adobe constructions, and with less dependence upon agriculture than is the case with the Pueblos. This group probably includes the Opata of northeastern Sonora (about whom little is known; they possibly belong with the Pueblo group), the Pima and Maricopa on the Gila River in south central Arizona, the Papago, extending south of the Gila River into Sonora, and the Cocopa, Yuma, Mohave, Walapai, and Havasupai in ascending order from the mouth of the Colorado River to Cataract Canyon. The last two rather shade into the next cultural group.

"The third group may be termed marginal agriculturists, from the fact they had no fixed habitations and practised agriculture in only the most sporadic and desultory fashion. They include the western Apache of Arizona and southeastern New Mexico, the Yavapai of western Arizona, the Navaho, and the Paiute groups of southern Utah.

"The final group is the least clearly defined. For convenience the tribes of this group may be called namads. The really coherent feature of this grouping is the close Plains affiliations of the members. All are predominantly hunting peoples without fixed habitations and depending originally, to some extent, upon the buffalo for subsistence. Probably some of them practised agriculture in a rudimentary fashion, but in the main they more resemble typical Plains Indians than they do any of the Southwestern groups. They include Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Comanche, Southern Ute, and Eastern Apache...."

Formerly it was believed that the Navaho had learned all their higher arts of life from the Pueblo tribes after their arrival in the Southwest. There is a growing tendency among anthropologists today toward the opinion that the Navaho may have acquired, or become familiar with, some of these arts during their assumed stay in the Plains before entering the Southwest. Thus far, there is very little concrete evidence to favor this opinion, but research along these lines has been stimulated, and we may some day have more facts to support the logic of this theory.

Pottery is one of the arts the Navaho almost certainly learned in the Plains rather than from Pueblo teachers. The Navaho are not good potters like the Hopi and Zuni. Their efforts, according to Kidder (Reichard, 1936:169), are more like potsherds from archeological sites in western Nebraska than like any southwestern pottery. The Navaho are also like the Plains in their methods of hunting, their type of sod houses, free use of gestures, and their former abundant use of wild seeds. Also there is something very reminiscent of Plains attitudes in the bold courage and versatility of the Navaho, which is in decided contrast to the conservatism of the Pueblos. Nevertheless, the influence of the Plains tribes cannot compare with the stimuli given to Navaho culture by contact with the people of the Pueblos, who were far superior to the newcomers in religion and material culture.

The possibility that the Navaho are descendants of the prehistoric peoples of the Southwest does not have the support of archaeology. In the Navaho reservation there are great ruins, such as Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon on the eastern side of the Lukachukai mountain range, and the ruins in Canyons de Chelly (a corruption of an Indian name, popularly pronounced "shay") and del Muerto on the western side of the mountains. There is no evidence that the Navaho drove out the inhabitants of these great cliff dwellings and caused their abandonment. The ingenious tree ring calculations by Douglass (1929) have shown that Pueblo Bonito was occupied as late as 1167 AD, while the western ruins at Canyon de Chelly were inhabited in the thirteenth century. Archaeological discoveries do not give any indication that the Navaho knew these cliff-dwellings when they were inhabited, though a few of the Navaho believe that their ancestors were cliff dwellers. The Navaho apparently came after the dwellings been abandoned.

It is a disputed point whether the Navaho and Apache came into the Southwest at the same time, forming a single group, which later broke up and became differentiated; or whether, as Hodge (1895) assumes, the two had separated before coming into the Southwest, and the Apache were already in southern Arizona when the Navaho straggled into the San Juan River area. When the Spanish came, they classed both tribes under the name of Apache. They distinguished the various bands according to location--thus, the "Apaches de Xi1a" (Gila River), and the "Apaches de Nabajo." A third theory is that of Bandelier (1890:175), who believes that the Navaho are the main body of the two, while the Apache are "ramifications, degenerated and vagrant, of the Navajos." As mentioned earlier, the two tribes are distinct in physical type now despite the similarity of dialects. Although both tribes are camp dwellers, the Navaho culture is more complex.

It is obvious that the origin and prehistory of the Navaho tribe is an open question, with abundant theorizing on scant data. Future archaeological and comparative cultural studies among the Navaho, Plains, Pueblo, and Canadian tribes will furnish us with better information on this early period. Unfortunately, we must still depend largely on the accounts of Navaho life as portrayed in their origin legend, or in the archaic customs preserved in ceremonies, to form a picture of their mode of life in pre-Spanish times.

THE ORIGIN LEGEND OF THE NAVAHO The Navaho themselves have no record, other than their myths, of their ancient life before they entered the Southwest. The long legend (Matthews 1897), which serves them as the semi-mythological history of their tribe, begins with the origin of their gods in the twelve divisions of the underworld, and the emergence of the ancestors of the Navaho and Pueblo tribes into the upper world at a place in the San Juan Mountains, in the northern part of Navaho territory. The land of the Navaho was bounded by four sacred mountains, one at each of the cardinal points. The mountains considered sacred depend somewhat on the area inhabited by the Navaho who tells the story. Generally the mountains are Pelado Peak in the east, Mt. Taylor in the south, San Francisco Mountain in the west, and San Juan Mountain in the north. These boundaries are still recognized, though some of the Navaho have moved beyond them.

"First Man" shaped the world into its present appearance, while "Changing Woman," the benevolent and eternally young goddess of the Navaho, taught the people how to live and made the clans from her own body. These clans became the nucleus of Navaho social life. The original number was increased by the formation of new clans from descendants of captives and slaves, as well as from small, vagrant bands of Pueblo, Apache, Ute, and Mexican people.

The myth also tells us that the original clans lived very simply along the San Juan River. The men hunted rabbits, rats, prairie dogs, and other small game with throwing sticks or a wooden bow. The arrows were reeds tipped with wood. Deer were captured by driving them over a precipice, or by using steep-sided box canyons as corrals.

For vegetable food, the people depended on wild fruits and berries, and on the harvest of maize from their little farms in the valleys. Food for winter was stored in niches in the cliff walls or in pits. The hut was semi-underground and covered with brush and mud. Woven cedar bark served as door curtains. People slept about the fire under the smoke hole, and protected themselves from draughts with blankets of cedar bark, yucca fibre, or a number of skins sewed together. The clothing was primitive. Men tied the forlegs of two large skins together and tossed them over a shoulder, while the women wore two webs of cedar bark, which served as a front and back apron. They wore moccasins of yucca fibre or cedar bark only for long trips. A headdress was fashioned of weasel and rat skins with the tails hanging behind; or it was decorated with artificial horns of wood or with the horns of a female mountain sheep shaved thin.

No one would think of accepting a tribal tradition like the Origin Legend as the true history of the Navaho; myth and fact are almost inextricably interwoven in it. Also there are many different versions of it; and each narrator varies it to give his own clan a noble history. However, a tradition like this may contain nuggets which inspire the scientist to investigate new research leads. Such was the case when Boas (1897) read the Origin Legend and noticed that certain of the folktales in it about boy heroes and mischievous Coyote were similar to stories in northwestern America. His comparisons led him to the conclusions that the Navaho tales were "undoubtedly derived from the same sources from which the northern tales sprung. Most of them are so complex and curious that, taken in connection with the known northern affiliations of the Navaho, they must be considered as a definite proof of either a survival of ancient myths or as proving a later connection."

Hodge (1895) in his well-known paper, "The Early Navaho and Apache," attempted to determine how much true history; there was in that later section of the Origin Legend which tells of the addition of alien groups to the original Navaho clans in the Southwest. His method was to correlate parts of the tradition, which concerned historic times, with Spanish record of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hodge's paper is important because he brought together in 1895 practically the sum total of our still fragmentary knowledge of Navaho events. With the data he attempted to reconstruct a connected account of Navaho history in the Southwest. Some of his broad conclusions are still accepted--for instance, that the Navaho are recent comers into this southern region, arriving about 600 or 700 years ago; that at first they were a small weak group which grew by assimilating bands from other Indian tribes. Early in the seventeenth century, they were strong enough to become a menace to the Pueblos and their neighbors. The arrival of the Spaniards gave an impetus to their development because of the sheep, cattle, and horses introduced for the first time into the New World by Coronado in 1540 and Onate in 1598. The Navaho stole herds from the Pueblos and began their career as shepherds.

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