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

THE NAVAHO RESERVATION From the Chama River region, where the Spanish first encountered them in the early seventeenth century, the Navaho spread during the next two centuries over the Chaco area, then westward over the mountains into the great Canyons de Chelly and del Muerto. They were ranging far beyond this region in 1863 when they became prisoners of war at Fort Sumner.

The treaty of 1868, which ended their captivity, specified the boundaries of the reservation as follows: the northern edge 37 degrees of north latitude (the present Arizona-Utah, Colorado-New Mexico boundaries); on the south by an east-west line passing through the site of old Fort Defiance; on the east by a meridian passing through Bear Spring; west by meridian of longitude 109 degrees 30 minutes (just west of Canyons de Chelly and del Muerto)--an area which constituted somewhat over three million acres. Just as in the case of a census of the population, the acreage occupied by the Navaho, on or off the reservation, has never been definitely known; figures represent merely the estimated or approximate average.

Ten years after the treaty, the increase in the number of Navaho and of their flocks resulted in a grant of additional land. Since then the population has increased five times that of 1868, and the reservation has been increased to about fifteen million acres. The odd-numbered sections of this acreage belong to the Santa Fe Railroad or to private interests. Off the reservation, the Navaho occupy about 2,304,000 acres in addition to the lands they use which belong to the Hopi reserve.

Formerly the constant plea of the Navaho for just "one more little piece of land" could be answered by extending the reservation; these pleas can no longer be answered so easily. Now the Navaho have been cooperating with governmental agencies to alleviate the sorry conditions and to improve the present reservation. During the last few years thousands of worthless horses, and excess rams and goats have been slaughtered; the number of sheep has also been reduced. The purpose is to improve the quality of the livestock kept on the reservation and to keep the number within the limits of the carrying capacity of the ranges. Windmills, dams, artesian wells, and other means of developing a water supply have been established where practical. It is hoped that eventually sufficient water can be developed to enable the Navaho to become more dependent on agriculture.

THE LAND QUESTION One fifth of the total area is useless because of its rugged character, and the rest of the land is of unequal quality. The water shortage, the inequality in the value of the land, the necessity for summer and winter pastures, the need for more land for the enormous flocks, and conflicts with white stockmen, have kept the tribe in constant agitation for the protection of their lands, additional allotments, and the development of water resources.

Erosion is one of the most troublesome aspects of the land question--natural forces of heat, cold, drought, and floods are constantly at work, decreasing the quality of the land and washing away the soil. These natural forces have been aggravated by overgrazing and mismanaged grazing. Formerly there were a few large herds which could be transferred to other pastures, leaving the land to regain its natural coverage; now there are numerous small herds and fewer opportunities for moving to new ranges.

The land question on the reservation is not one which affects the Navaho Indians alone. The reservation "occupies a crucial position in the Southwest region, containing within it the potentiality of considerable damage to the watersheds of the San Juan, Little Colorado, and Colorado Rivers in general and Boulder Dam in particular" (Survey of Conditions, 1937:Part 34:17931). Engineers have reported that within a few years Boulder Dam will be filled with sediment from the Navaho country unless soil erosion is checked in the entire area drained by the Colorado River (ibid., 17986). One report (ibid., 17614) states: "On old Geological Survey maps (of the Navaho country) are found records of lakes now completely dry, due to siltation or drainage through gully cutting. Streams once perennial and known to have contained beaver now are alternately dry and rushing with silt-detritus-laden torrents. Untold quantities of rain water that formerly soaked into the earth, part of it to enter into the underground water supplies, now--loaded with millions of tons of silt--rush to the Colorado River, with the result that artesian-water supplies are tending to fail and moisture necessary for growing of range grasses has been reduced. Thus the desert area has been increased, for in effect the utility of rainfall has become less, since less of it goes into the soil to become available for plant growth and underground water supplies.

"The water not only left the land, never to return, but also left destruction in its path. Alluvial valley bottoms once covered with dense strands of grass now became completely denuded. Greatly increased, and frequently torrential, flows of water now concentrated as gushing streams of great cutting power in the centers of these alluvial valleys and cut out great washes. From these washes long fingering gullies worked out toward the edge of the alluvial fill, with the result that in certain instances almost the entire valley fill has been removed to bedrock. As a part of this erosive process, not only were the grasslands devastated but also large areas formerly cultivable by floodwater irrigation were either destroyed or made in accessible to such water through its concentration in gully bottoms and rapid runoff and loss from such areas."

For further information on this subject, consult "Survey of Conditions of the Indians in the U. S.," Pt. 18 (especially p. 9121 ff., the report of Forester W. H. Zeh), Part 22 (Indian Grazing), and Part 34; Weber, 1914 (also included in Survey of Conditions, Pt. 34); FM Annual, 1922.

GEOGRAPHY The following notes are based largely on Gregory's "Geology of the Navaho country," 1917, the standard source on the subject. It has maps and fine photographs of the landscape.

"The Navaho country is part of the Colorado Plateau province, a region of folded and faulted sedimentary rocks, traversed by innumerable canyons. Parts of the area are so intricately dissected by interlaced gorges that the original surface of the plateau appears to have been destroyed and is now represented by a bewildering array of scattered mesas, buttes, isolated ridges, and towering spires, among which dwindling streams follow their tortuous paths" (p. 11). In elevation the country varies from 4,500 to 8,000 and 10,000 feet; about half is more than 6,000 feet above the sea. Navaho Mountain, the highest point, rises to 10,416 feet.

Cross-bedded sandstone predominates, but there are some limestone and conglomerate. Although the soil is fertile, it is so porous that water immediately sinks into the ground, and in some places planting of corn ten or twelve inches deep taps this water. Erosion has been, and still is, of great significance in shaping the landscape into its characteristic elements of mesa, butte, canyon, and wash. Rainbow Bridge is a famous example of the work of erosion. In Monument Valley, east of Rainbow Plateau, fantastic forms eroded from sandstone are in brilliant contrast to the dark spires of volcanic necks. The Chinle formation, named after the valley where it is prominent, supplies much of the beautiful coloring characteristic of the western part of the reservation, especially the Painted Desert.

MOUNTAINS A chain of mountains, the Lukachukai-Tunitcha-Chuska range, rises above the arid desert plateau and cuts across the Arizona and New Mexico boundary in a northwest to southeast direction. Beyond the Lukachukai Mountains to the north, is a cluster known as Carrizo Mountains, where prospectors continue to search in vain for gold. No minerals of any value have been reported from the reservation, but some oil and deposits of bituminous coal have been discovered. Funds from the sale or lease of oil lands go into the tribal fund for reservation improvement, and coal is mined for use in the hospitals and schools. The Navaho did not mine in aboriginal times.

The mountain range separates the eastern and western sections of the reservation, which differ in culture, physique of the natives, and geography. The eastern has been much influenced by contact with white people from earliest times, while Navaho on the west side of the mountains still cling to the old customs. The district from Keam's Canyon to the Little Colorado River, particularly, has kept the old culture though influenced by Hopi customs. It is said that there are Indians around Black Mountain, northwest of Keam's Canyon, who have never seen a white man (Reichard, 1928:2).

The east side of the mountain range falls sharply to a barren desert where wood and water are scarce. Streams are rare on the east slope; and Chaco Wash, the principal drainage channel, is dry most of the year, though in some places the underflow can be reached by digging.

The western side of the range is well watered by streams which rise near the top of the mountains, and the landscape over which they flow changes gradually to a tableland or mesa. The streams drain into ravines and flat-bottomed canyons, such as de Chelly and del Muerto, which are almost perpendicular to the mountains and Chinle Valley receives some of the water. Because of the streams the western region is more thickly populated than the eastern. There are numerous small farms in the canyon region which raise fine crops of peaches, alfalfa, maize, and vegetables.

The Lukachukai-Tunitcha-Chuska range becomes a beautiful flowery parkland with abundant grass and water in the summertime, and then the Navaho drive their flocks to the mountains in search of fresh pastures.

The forested area of the reservation consists of about three million acres of pinyon-juniper growth and three hundred thousand acres of saw timber, such as yellow pine, spruce, and fir. Besides these major varieties, there are about two hundred thousand acres of other growth such as aspen, alder, cottonwood, box elder, and scrub oak.

CLIMATE "The keynote of the climate of the Navaho country is variability, marked by sudden changes in temperature and wide fluctuations in rainfall. An intensely hot summer day may be followed by a chilly night; sunlight is synonymous with heat, shade with cold. The high temperature of the forenoon may be lowered by a cold rain or by a hailstorm, only to become reestablished within an hour. When storms come the country is flooded; at other times the task of finding water for man and beast taxes the skill of the most experienced explorer" (Gregory, 1917:13-14). "Within the reservation topography is of primary importance in determining the climate. At stations in the Little Colorado and San Juan Valleys the weather is warmer and drier than at higher altitudes near the center of the area.... The floor of a canyon may have a climate quite unlike that of the canyon rim, and the cliff dwellers long ago learned that one canyon wall may afford favorable sites for settlement that are not to be found on the opposite wall" (ibid., p. 13).

There is much seepage of water from the rocks, and springs abound in the cliffs. In such places, on the sunny side of the wall, away from the prevailing southwest wind and not far from the water and fuel supply, the Navaho build their hogans.

RAINFALL The averages of the annual mean rainfall and temperature, as recorded at the meteorological stations, vary considerably at different altitudes and from year to year. The annual mean precipitation is about 8.29 inches. Thirty-seven per cent of the rain comes in July, August, and September. The storms are short and violent, with thunder and lightning which cause forest fires and do much damage to the flocks and to the soil. The winters are severe: snow may fall even in the Painted Desert. The reservation streams are dry most of the year, but during the rainy seasons floods may raise them as high as from five to ten inches within a short time. Most of the drainage is into the turbulent San Juan River, called by the Navaho the "Water of Old Age" because its foaming whiteness suggests the hair of an old person.

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