Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 2

April, 1941


By Dorothy Elder,
Secretary to the Regional Director.

Many people travel to foreign countries to visit unusual places, and to see people whose mode of living is different. Yet here in our own southwestern country is a race that is amazingly primitive, when we consider its contact with civilization. As a school teacher, I lived for a year among the Navajo Indians, people who live very much the same as did their ancestors. They are oblivious to progress, and they are steeped in an ancient religion. Approximately 54,000 Navajos live in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico on a reservation that covers some 22,500 square miles. The country is semi-arid, and it appears desolate. The mountainous regions are beautiful. Juniper, pinon, greasewood, and in higher elevations, the pines, keep much of the landscape green. Soil erosion and other factors have seriously damaged the grazing qualities of much ef the land, but the federal government is endeavoring to correct this condition.

The dome-shaped "hogans", or homes, of the Navajo Indians dot the hillsides. The hogan is a log structure, usually six or eight-sided, covered with a dirt roof which gives it a bee-hive appearance. There are no windows. The small door is draped with sheep skins. An opening is left in the roof for the escape of smoke. The one room is living quarters for the entire family. Occasionally one will find a more modernized home with a stove. However, most homes have open fires and scanty cooking utensils. Sheep skins on the dirt floor serve as beds.

The Navajo woman is picturesque. Her dress is copied from the 18th century Spanish. She wears many skirts of bright materials, gathered full about the waist. The only change in fashion seems to be the slight lengthening and shortening of the skirts. A velveteen blouse completes the costume. It is of a bright color and is trimmed with silver buttons or silver money. The hair is twisted into an intricate knot and tied with yards of string at the nape of the neck. Frequently moccasins cover the feet. In cold weather she wears a blanket of striped, bright colors. This blanket also can be used for carrying either supplies or the baby. The baby is usually strapped to a board cradle and carried on the mother's back. Tiny youngsters trot beside their mother clinging to one of her skirts.

The men are less colorful in appearance. Some have long hair combed similarly to the women's headdress. Many of the men with short hair wear bright bands about their foreheads. They wear overall trousers and bright shirts. They are fond of large cowboy hats and will frequently pay high prices for them.

Navajo family and hogan

To a stranger, a Navajo seems a stoic; unemotional and unfeeling. Among his own people and friends, he is happy, carefree, and fun-loving. Apparently, he never worries. Material possessions are few; except for jewelry, only useful things are desired. When there is a lack of food, that condition is accepted with surprising indifference. He is able to survive extreme hardships. The same is true of the women and children. Time is an element of which he has little conception. Seldom does he hurry. His trading methods distract the average white man, for it takes him forever to come to the point and consummate a trade. If a Navajo visits you, he might sit for many minutes without stating the purpose of his visit, for, in his opinion it would be impolite to discuss business matters immediately. Such a tempo of living is difficult for us to understand, but it has its merits of ease, tranquility, and peace of mind.

The Navajo life is a nomad existence. Unlike the Pueblo Indians, these people do not settle in groups. The family is the central interest. Since their hogans are temporary structures, easily built, it is not difficult for a family to move. The family's wealth is measured in terms of sheep, so these Indians will necessarily move to better grazing lands. They live in the sheltered valleys and canyons in the winter months, and, in the spring, often move to higher elevations where there is more grass. During the summer in the mountains, they seldom build a substantial hogan; instead, they make a crude shelter of branches, a sort of lean-to, or they just live under a juniper tree. The Navajo children are taught early in life to wrestle within the elements. Throughout their lives they remain undaunted by the severe cold and the intense heat. The smallest youngsters are sent out for the entire day to herd sheep.

Each family has a few horses, and all members of the family are excellent riders. Even the women are graceful figures astride Navajo ponies. The Navajos love their horses and treat them as friends. When a Navajo dies, his favorite horse, according to custom, should be killed and buried with him so that the Indian will have a horse to ride to the other world; but the government has made this practice illegal, and it is no longer observed.

Contrary to many other races, the woman is the head of the Navajo family. When a man marries, he comes to live with his wife's people. If the wife wants a divorce she places the husband's saddle and his other possessions outside the hogan. This is formal notice to him that he is no longer a member of the family. On the whole, however, the Navajo people are quite moral. Divorces are few. Usually a woman will consult with older members of her family, and the cause must be serious, before divorcing her husband.

The women weave the famous Navajo blankets. It is a fascinating sight to watch a woman, seated on a blanket beside her hogan, skillfully, and with swift, graceful fingers, weave into her blanket a beautiful pattern of color and design. Her loom usually is tied to a tree branch and stretched upright before her. As a portion of the blanket is finished, sho rolls it on a stick, thus keeping the working area before her. She has no "blue-print" pattern; the idea is carried in her mind. One will never see two Navajo blankets exactly alike. The men are equally skilled in the art of making silver jewelry. Although this work was copied from the Mexicans many years ago, the Navajos have become so skilled, it is now their own unique art.

The trading post is a central gathering place for the Navajos. They bring rugs, jewelry, and wool. They seldom want money, but they will trade for the supplies and clothing they need. The trader must have great patience and understanding of his Navajo friends, for it usually takes them hours to bargain; they are shrewd. The trader will often have to carry large credits for many months, or even years, when the Navajos cannot pay. Usually they will leave their jewelry with him as credit and, when crops are good, they will come back to the post to redeem the jewelry.

In spite of the efforts of some people, the Navajo clings to his ancient custom. Very infrequently do we find him becoming a Christian. When religion is adopted, it is usually as an addition to his own beliefs, rather than a renunciation. His religion is based on mythology, explaining the way in which the Navajos came to inhabit the earth. There are numerous fascinating stories about supernatural beings who protected the Navajos at the beginning of time, and who are credited with having performed miracles. Usually those beings are personified animals or the natural elements of the earth.

Since there is no written language, these toachings have been handed down by word of mouth. Every hogan faces east, for it is there that the gods gather at dawn, and it is a good omen for the sun to smile upon the Navajos as it rises. Occasionally I would see a Navajo emerge from a nearby hogan and, lifting his arms high above his head, sing a simple, plaintive prayer to the sun.

Navajos have a fear of the dead, and at that they grafteful for the white man's assistance. If a member of a family dies within a home, that place is immediately abandoned. "Tchindis", or deviles, are believed to be lurking there. A hole is knocked in the north wall so the dead spirit may depart. The devil cannot climb, so they are left safely within. Very often a temporary hogan is built in which to place the person who is ill so that the original home will not have to be abandoned, in the event of death.

A sing is a ceremonial intended for healing. It is somewhat complicated and usually lasts several days. There is a definite ritual to be followed under the leadership of the medicine man. Everything must be done exactly right so the wrath of the gods will not be incurred. During the sing, sweat baths, or purification ceremonies, are performed. This is done by placing hot stones in a circular hut large enough for one person to lie down. Water is poured over the heated stones to produce an effective steam bath. Toward the close of the ceremony, the sand paintings are drawn, a beautiful art and custom. Sand paintings are made by trickling colored sand about the floor of the hogan. The pictures are usually of some supernatural being. They must be made and destroyed between sunrise and sunset. The patient is placed in the center of the picture, and the sand is put over the body while the songs are sung and prayers said for the cure.

The medicine man is the outstanding member of the community. His services are expensive. The more the patient can pay, the more effective the treatment. One woman made a beautiful rug with figures of some of the gods designed upon it. She later feared her brain might be "filled with cobwebs"; that she might lose her mind, because she had drawn permanent pictures of the gods. The trader had given her $400 for the rug. It cost her exactly $400 to employ a medicine man to brush the cobwebs from her brain.

There are many beautiful dances which the Navajos hold at several seasons of the year as prayers for rain, good crops, and general prosperity. Visitors are always welcome at these dances. Don't use your camera, though, unless you have the Indians' permission, Friendliness, a pack of cigarettes, or a small gift, will often win a person's way into the more interesting aspects of Navajo life.

Navajo land is fascinating. It is viewing life almost as it was lived 100 years ago. It permits of knowing a people who have remained true to their beliefs and customs, and who have kept themselves individual. Visit Navajo land if you can. Get onto the back-trails. You will find an admirable and fascinating people, as well as scenic beauty.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005