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

IMPORTANCE OF FARMING Even though the first historical reference to the Navaho--that of Benavides in 1630--mentions the tribe's fine fields, from which the tribal name "Navaho" is supposedly derived, farming appears to have become the stepchild of Navaho culture in historical times. When the Navaho took up a pastoral and predatory career, the men devoted their time to war and running off the sheep of outlying tribes. They no longer worked their fields themselves, but left them to the care of slaves whom they had taken on raids. The fields remained well cared for and productive, however, as we know from the admiring reports from travelers and military officials. Davis, who visited Agent Dodge at Fort Defiance in 1855, remarked on the fields of corn, wheat, beans, pumpkins, melons, and peaches which the Navaho raised. He was told that 5,000 acres were under cultivation, and that 60,000 bushels of corn were raised each season.

It is surprising that regardless of the great size of the herds and the rather casual gardening, the Navaho still describe themselves as farmers and consider themselves quite a sedentary folk (Hill MS). Actually, the demands of the herds and not the fields have come to determine the course of Navaho daily and seasonal life, a life spent, as Father Haile says (1922:36), "between points," between pastures, corrals, and hogans. Livestock, and not farm acreage, forms the criterion of Navaho wealth except in the western canyons. There the people have been exclusively agricultural, except for a couple of goats and a few sheep to a family, since the days when the Hopi lived in the region. The poor folks in Navaho domestic economy, the people without herds, are the ones to whom farms are still of primary importance.

Economic factors exert their influence on the proportion between the farming and herding carried on by those who customarily specialize in livestock. When heavy losses of sheep occur because of a long, hard winter, or when wool and mutton are low in price, the Navaho plant larger corn patches and depend less on food from the trader's shelves. The western part of the reservation, always slower in coming under White influence and more conservative than the eastern part, was still in 1910 entirely dependent on gardens and wild plants for vegetables and flour. A good balance was maintained between farming and herding (Wetherill).

GEOGRAPHICAL AND TRADITIONAL INFLUENCES The geographical handicaps of the country--the deserts, rocks, erosion, frost, and short growing seasons--did not determine the secondary place of farming among the Navaho. The Pueblos faced the same handicaps, in addition to having to keep uninvited Navaho from harvesting the crops. The Navaho became shepherds, while the Pueblos, from whom the Navaho got their first stock, did not shift their devotion from their farms and crowded communities. The ancestral pattern of life was too firmly rooted among the Pueblos. They were, and have remained, characteristically conservative in their adherence to traditional customs and in their resistance to change. The Navaho, although newcomers with a simple culture, "a parvenu people like their ultimate conquerors, the Americans" (Amsden, 1934:125), were very alert to new ideas.

It would be a worth-while study to unearth from old Spanish manuscripts the historical details of Navaho cultural development during the 1700's, the mystery century of their historical period, when weaving and herding were getting under way. We might learn, too, why the Apaches, who have the finest grazing lands in the Southwest--even better than the Navaho lands at their best--did not become shepherds or intensive farmers. They were sheep runners, but they either ate the meat or killed the sheep over the grave of the dead owner. The Apache are still so devoted to their simple hunting existence and their small corn patches (Benavides taught the Gila Apaches to farm) that they have stubbornly resisted the efforts of the Government to teach them the care of the livestock which the Indian Bureau has placed for them on the grazing lands.

GOVERNMENTAL INFLUENCE The dream of Government officials from early times appears to have been to see the Navaho as keepers of tidy little farms, each family with a small herd of sheep, a few good horses, and one or two goats. Sherman, in the Bosque Redondo days, wanted to move the tribe to a middle western reservation to realize this dream. The cunning Navaho, with wits sharpened by homesickness for their deserts and their shepherd life, exaggerated, as previously indicated, the amount and character of beautiful corn which could be raised on their land. When they were sent home, the treaty provided that each head of a family was to have a title to 160 acres of land to be homesteaded, seeds, and farm tools of the kind which he had learned to use at the Fort. One hundred dollars for farm supplies was granted for the first year and $25 for each of the next two years. Each Navaho was also given two sheep. The sheep increased mightily, but no land allotments were made under the treaty. The plan was impractical because of geographical and social conditions. One hundred and sixty acres is of no value in a country with land of uneven quality, as not every plot will have water or suitable forage. Furthermore, very few Navaho, even today, understand our principles of land ownership.

The years to come may see a marked increase in Navaho farm acreage, with more fields of the kind described by Benavides, Christopher Carson, and Davis, as the result of attempts to solve the extremely serious land problem facing the tribe, and which has already required drastic measures by the Government to prevent further destruction of the soil. One facet of the complex situation is that whereas the population is large and is increasing, it is quite unlikely that the boundaries of the reservation will be extended beyond the present ranges. Another aspect, not completely appreciated by the Navaho, and one which explains some of their reluctance to depend more on farms and less on herds, is the extent to which the soil destruction by erosion has already gone, necessitating the reduction of stock to the carrying capacity of the ranges, and the prohibition of overgrazing.

One solution, as the Indian Bureau and the soil conservation experts see it, is to develop farming--dry, flood, and irrigated types--and store water in the San Juan for irrigation purposes. At the present time the Navaho have an estimated 42,232 acres of farming land, of which 9,547 are irrigated; 27,962 flood-irrigated; and 4,723 acres are in dry farms. The income is estimated as follows: from the irrigated land, assuming that all of it is in alfalfa, the income is about $403,620; from the flood and dry farms, assuming that they are all planted in corn, the income is $345,366 (Survey of Conditions, Pt. 34:17613).

The Navaho apparently do not dislike farming. Their interest in it has become desultory, however, since they shifted the emphasis from gardens to sheep. To them sheep raising, for all its hazards, appears a more stable means of livelihood because of their traditional dependence on it and their consideration of it as the criterion of wealth. They will doubtless come through this present crisis of adjustment (precipitated by land problems and the depression) with the remarkable adaptability which has characterized them in the past.

OWNERSHIP OF FARMS Ethnographers differ on the details of land ownership; these differences perhaps reflect the diversity of Navaho land customs. Stephen (1893:349) says that a man prepared a garden for his bride and she owned it.* The Ethnologic Dictionary states (p.265) that the man owned the farm and could dispose of it before his death. Usually a man leaves his property to his sister's son, while his wife leaves her goods to her children. Reichard (1928: 91-92) maintains that there is no ownership of land any more than ownership of water or houses; use and need give one a claim on both. In recent years land allotments with legal titles have been made in a few districts.

*That is, he prepared a separate cornfield for his bride if she did not already possess one. -- Editor

The principles of land ownership among the Navaho are quite different from the American. Clan members live near each other and trace descent through the mother. And since the custom prevails of having the husband move to the home of his wife and her people, one finds the female relatives of the same clan living together. A family group usually holds a certain part of the area by hereditary claims, and an outsider wishing to use idle land politely asks the former residents regarding his right to farm or graze it. People without herds, who depend entirely on their farms, may have farms adjoining those of their own relatives and use the irrigation ditches and other facilities in common (Ethnologic Dictionary).

PLANTING The porous sandstone and clay soil is fertile and gives fine crops when there is water. Good yields are obtained in the better watered regions along the San Juan River, Red Rock and Chinle Valleys, and in Canyons del Muerto and De Chelly, where irrigation is possible. During the rainy season, the farms are flooded. The land is banked up around the field to keep the water in and to keep the soil from being washed away. The fields are usually cleared in March, flooded in April, and the planting done in May (Hill MS). Because of the short growing season of 100 days and the constant danger of frost, the corn is harvested green late in August and ripened in the sun. The other crops are harvested in September and October, and the whole family is busy then harvesting and storing food for winter. A man frequently has two farms: one in the valley where he raises squash, melons, and corn; and another in the mountains where he raises wheat, oats, potatoes, and beans.

Most of the farming is dry farming. The water sinks quickly in to the porous soil, and by digging to a depth of a foot, the seeds can be planted deep enough to draw on underground moisture. In ancient days, custom dictated the shape of the rows planted and the division of the farm into parts. The Ethnologic Dictionary describes (p.263) a "circle farm" on which the farmer planted maize in the form of a helix with the rows going sunwise. Another farm was divided into blocks of twelve running north and south and planted sunwise. One type of farm was called the "silvery or speckled shore" farm because of the pretty appearance of the vegetables in the garden.

The songs and rituals needed for a successful planting and harvest are known to all, and are carefully observed as part of the routine of farming. "Mother Maize" is highly revered and the prayers and songs dedicated to her are very beautiful. The Seed Blessing Ceremony, the Rain Ceremony, and the Corn or Farm Ceremony are three of the most important rites for the farmer. Dr. W. W. Hill has a good collection of the chants, and his descriptions of the planting and related ceremonies will be of interest both to anthropologists and laymen.

The tools in olden times were simple--a pointed greasewood stick, sometimes with a foot rest above the point, and various kinds of simple wooden hoes, one type being made of the shoulder blade of a deer or elk. The family works together in caring for the gardens, the men doing the heavy digging while the women plant the seeds, pull the weeds, and keep the children busy frightening off birds and animals. The men also look after the irrigating. If the old hogan has been discarded because of death in the family, the farm near it also is likely to be abandoned and a new house and farm must then be made. Frequently the storms wash away a garden so that the family has to look for a new site. When a new farm is being made, the gardeners call in a party of friends to assist them.

CROPS The planting techniques and religious observances connected with agriculture among the Navaho are so much like those of the Pueblos that it is assumed that the Pueblos taught them to farm. Corn, beans, and squash, aboriginal food plants of America, were planted by the Navaho and Pueblo. The Navaho acquired wheat, alfalfa, oats, and such things from the white people. It is interesting that the first planting of wheat among the Navaho followed the same technique used for corn. The Indians did not sow broadcast like the Europeans; they planted the corn and other seeds in hills. Letherman saw Navaho throw ten to fifteen grains of wheat into a single hill exactly as they did with grains of corn, but now they broadcast wheat like Europeans. They reap it with a knife or sickle, and throw it into a corral, where the preliminary threshing is done by the trampling of horses. The peach, which was brought into America by the Spanish, was raised only in Canyons de Chelly and del Muerto when Letherman visited the Navaho. The tomato was first domesticated by the Indians of Mexico in prehistoric times, but the Navaho did not taste this fruit until it was introduced by white people. Today among the Navaho canned tomatoes are a popular thirst quencher.

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