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NAVAHO (pronounced Nab-vat-ho, from Tweak Navaho, the name referring to a
large area of cultivated lands, applied to a former Tweak pueblo, and, by extension,
to the Navaho, known to the Spaniards of the 17th century as Apaches de Navajo,
who intruded on the Tweak domain or who lived in the vicinity, to distinguish
them from other “Apache” bands. Fray Alonso Benavides, in his Memorial of 1630,
gives the earliest translation of the tribal name, in the form Navajo, “semesters
grandees”—“great seed sowings,” or “great fields.” The Navaho themselves do not
use this name, except when trying to speak English. All do not know it, and none
as is a sound unknown in their language. They call themselves “Dīńe,” which
means simply “people.” This word, in various forms, is used as a tribal name by
nearly every people of the Athabasca stock).
It may be that under the loosely applied name Apache, there is a record of the
Navaho by Onate as early as 1598, but the first to mention them by name was
Zarate-Salmeron, about 1629. They had Christian missionaries among them in the
middle of the 18th century, but their teachings did not prevail against paganism.
There is no doubt that the Navaho have increased in number since they first
became known to the United States, and are still increasing. In 1867, while they
were prisoners and could be counted accurately, 7,300 of them were held in
captivity at one time; but, owing to escapes and additional surrenders, the number
varied. All were not captured by Carson. Perhaps the most accurate census was
taken in 1869, when the Government called them to receive a gift of 30,000 sheep
and 2,000 goats. The Indians were put in a large corral and counted as they went in;
only a few herders were absent. The result showed that there were less than 9,000,
making due allowance for absentees. According to the census of 1890, which was
taken on a faulty system, the tribe numbered 17,204. The census of 1900 places the
population at more than 20,000, and in 1906 they were roughly estimated by the
Indian Office to number 28,500.
According to the best recorded version of their origin legend, the first or nuclear
clan of the Navaho was created by the gods in Arizona or Utah about five hundred
years ago. People had lived on the earth before this, but most of them had been
destroyed by giants or demons. When, the myth says, the gods created the first pair
of this clan, it is equivalent to saying that they knew not whence they came and had
no antecedent tradition of themselves. It is thus with many other Navaho clans. The
story gives the impression that these Indians wandered into New Mexico and
Arizona in small groups, probably in single families. In the course of time other
groups joined them until, in the 17th century, they felt strong enough to go to war.
The Navaho are classed as belonging to the widespread Athabasca linguistic family,
and a vocabulary of their language shows that the majority of their words have
counterparts in dialects of Alaska, British America, and California. The
grammatical structure is like that of Athabasca tongues in general, but many words
have been inherited from other sources. The appearance of the Navaho strengthens
the traditional evidence of their very composite origin. .
The ordinary Navaho dwelling, or Hogan, is a very simple structure, although
erected with much ceremony. It is usually conical in form, built of sticks set on end,
covered with branches, grass and earth, and often so low that a man of ordinary
stature cannot stand erect in it. There is no chimney; a hole in the apex lets out the
smoke. Some Hogan’s are rude, polygonal structures of logs laid horizontally;
others are partly of stone. In summer, “lean-to” sheds and small in closures of
branches are often used for habitations. Sweat houses are small, conical Hogan’s
without the hole in the apex, for fires are not lighted in them; the temperature is
increased by means of stones heated in fires outside. Medicine lodges, when built
in localities where trees of sufficient size grow, are conical structures like the
ordinary Hogan’s, but much larger. When built in regions of low-sized trees, they
have flat roofs. Of late, substantial stone structures, with doors, windows, and
chimneys are replacing the rude Hogan’s. One reason they built such houses is that
custom and superstition constrained them to destroy or desert a house in which
death had occurred. Such a place was called chind ihogan, meaning “devil-house.”
Those who now occupy good, stone houses, carry out the dying and let them expire
outside, thus saving their dwellings, and indeed the same custom is sometimes
practiced in connection with the hogan. No people have greater dread of ghosts and
The most important art of the Navaho is that of weaving. They are especially
celebrated for their blankets, which are in high demand among the white people on
account of their beauty and utility; but they also weave belts, garters, and saddle
girths—all with rude, simple looms. Their legends declare that in the early days
they knew not the art of weaving by means of a loom.
The use of the loom was probably taught to them by the Pueblo women who were
incorporated into the tribe. They dressed in skins and rude mats constructed by
hand, of cedar bark and other vegetal fibers. The few basket makers among them
are said to be Ute or Paiute girls, or their descendants, and these do not do much
work. What they make, though of excellent quality, is confined almost exclusively
to two forms required for ceremonial purposes. The Navaho make very little
pottery, and this of a very ordinary variety, being designed merely for cooking
purposes; but formerly they made a fine red ware decorated in black with
characteristic designs. They grind corn and other grains by hand on the met ate.
For ceremonial purposes they still bake food in the ground and in other aboriginal
ways. For many years they have had among them silversmiths who fabricate
handsome ornaments with very rude appliances, and who undoubtedly learned
their art from the Mexicans, adapting it to their own environment. Of late years
many of those who have been taught in training schools have learned civilized
trades, and civilized methods of cooking.
By treaty of Canyon de Chill, Arizona, September 9th, 1849, the Navaho
acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States. By treaty of Fort Sumner, New
Mexico, June 1st, 1868, a reservation was set apart for them in Arizona and New
Mexico, and they ceded to the United States their claim to other lands. Their
reservation has been modified by subsequent Executive orders. In reference to the
religion of the Navahos, I quote from “A Little History of the Navajos,” by Oscar
H. Lapps, 1909:
“Navajo mythology is replete with legends handed down from father to son telling
the origin of every good and evil thing known to his simple life. While he does not
contemplate a First Great Cause or its attendant effect, yet his legends contain the
story of the creation of his present world—the sun, moon, stars, sky, rivers,
mountains, cliffs and canyons. He has a legend of a flood which destroyed all the
wicked people. There is also the Wind god, Rain god, War god, etc., to whom he
attributes omnipotent powers.
“While the Navajo has produced no literature and has no great epics or lyrics, still
he has created elaborate dramas. All of his dreams are founded on myths. Many of
these myths are very long so that perhaps few Navajos know thoroughly more than
two or three of the great myths. Like the myths of most all other people, they may
be either explanatory, such as attempts to explain the mysteries of existence and
universal life; aesthetic, those designed to elicit emotion and give pleasure; or the
romantic myth, which displays the character of some favorite hero. In Navajo
mythology may be found all of these classes of myths.”
I insert a few of these myths and legends, taken from recognized authorities:
method of planting is observed here for the first time. Thus they had the circle, the
square, the border, and additional forms. Hunting, too, is accompanied by various
ceremonial observances. Venereal excess is punished instantly in mysterious ways,
though it is always removed by the power of some ceremony. Respect for these is
also drastically inculcated by making an example of a stray coyote.
“The women neglect their duties, while the men are thrifty. Their passions wax
strong, and they become guilty of many immoralities. In seeking suicide, many
drown themselves without having the hope of resuscitation by ceremony. From
want and starvation they are finally driven to plead for mercy, after a period of
about nine seasons of separation.
“The reunion is the occasion for a ceremony of purification, including sweat baths.
The routine of labor is again harmoniously followed out as before the separation,
the women assisting their husbands in planting and harvesting. Incest is pointed out
as the cause of mental derangement. Witchcraft is deftly punished by First Man,
and checked in this manner. Diseases of various kinds, such as blood-spitting, etc.,
are cured by the rites. Dreams are invariably considered as portending evil.
Presently, too, it occurred that the Holy Girl, a virgin, who has been impregnated
by some unknown stranger, gave birth to a shapeless mass, a gourd, from which
sprang two male children.