The Navajo (also Navaho) people of the southwestern United States call themselves the Diné (pronounced dɪnɛ), which roughly means "the people." The Diné of the Southwestern United States are currently the largest native American tribe in North America. They speak the Navajo language, and many are members of the Navajo Nation, an independent government structure which manages the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area of the United States. They are the most populous of Native Americans in the United States. The traditional Navajo language is still largely spoken throughout the region, although most Navajo also speak English fluently as well.

The Navajo resemble Apache in many ways, although contact with Pueblo Indians influenced their lifestyle both in terms of agriculture and art. The famous Navajo pottery, rugs, and jewelry are products of such contacts. Although the Navajo were not as persistent or extensive raiders as the Apache, they were troublesome enough for Kit Carson to subdue them. This included destruction of crops and livestock, and the forced relocation (the Long Walk) to a reservation in New Mexico which caused the death of thousands and left a legacy of resentment and distrust.

Despite this mistreatment, Navajo served the United States in the valuable role as code talkers during twentieth century wars. Today, Navajo govern themselves in the Navajo Homeland in Arizona, where their economy includes both traditional endeavors and recent innovations, including a community college which offers Diné Studies that apply Navajo principles to learning and study of their culture. Contemporary Navajo have found many ways to overcome their painful history and find their place in the emerging society that appreciates all cultures.


The name Navajo comes from the late eighteenth century via the Spanish phrase (Apaches de) Navajó "(Apaches of) Navajó," which was derived from the Tewa word navahū "fields adjoining a ravine." The Navajo call themselves Diné, which is translated to mean "the people" (most Native American groups call themselves by names that mean "the people"). Nonetheless, most Navajo now acquiesce to being called "Navajo."


Present-day primary locations of Southern Athabaskan peoples

The Navajo speak dialects of the language family referred to as Athabaskan. Athabaskan speakers can also be found living in Alaska through west-central Canada and in a few areas on the Pacific coast. Linguistic and cultural similarities indicate the Navajo and the other Southern Athabaskan speakers (known today as Apaches) were once a single ethnic group (linguistically called "Apachean"). The Spanish noted the presence of a significant population in the 1500s. Navajo oral traditions are said to retain references of this migration. For example, the Great Canadian Parks website suggests that the Navajo may be descendants the lost Naha tribe, a Slavey tribe1 from the Nahanni region west of Great Slave Lake.2

Spanish explorer Coronado observed Plains people ("dog nomads") wintering near the Pueblos in established camps, who may have included Navajo. Whenever the Navajo actually arrived, they occupied areas the Pueblos peoples had abandoned during prior centuries.

Navajo winter hogan, Utah circa 1880

Navajo oral history seems to indicate a long relationship with Pueblo people, and a willingness to adapt ideas into their own culture. Trade between the long-established Pueblo peoples and the Athabaskans was important to both groups. The Spanish records say by the mid 1500s, the Pueblos exchanged maize and woven cotton goods for bison meat, hides, and material for stone tools from Athabaskans who either traveled to them or lived around them. In the 1700s the Spanish report that the Navajo had large numbers of livestock and large areas of crops. The Navajo probably adapted many Pueblo ideas, as well as practices of early Spanish settlers, including the Churro sheep 3 into their own very different culture.

Navajos seem to have a history in the last 1000 years of expanding their range, refining their self identity, and their significance to others. In short this is probably due to a cultural combination of Endemic warfare (raids) and commerce with the Pueblo, Apache, Ute, Comanche, and Spanish people, set in the changing natural environment of the Southwest. Navajo conflicts with European invaders spanned over a 300 year period. From a Navajo perspective, Europeans were considered another tribe. Traditionally, different towns, villages, or pueblos were probably viewed as separate tribes or bands by Navajo groups.

Navajo cornfield, circa 1880

The Spanish started to establish a military force along the Rio Grande in the 1600s to the East of Dinetah (the Navajo homeland). Spanish records indicate that Apachean groups (that might include Navajo) allied themselves with the Pueblos over the next 80 years, successfully pushing the Spaniards out of this area following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Raiding and trading were part of traditional Apachean and Navajo culture, and these activities increased following the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards, which increased the efficiency and frequency of raiding expeditions. The Spanish established a series of forts that protected new Spanish settlements and also separated the Pueblos from the Apacheans. The Spaniards and later Mexicans recorded what are called "punitive expeditions" among the Navajo that also took livestock and human captives. The Navajo, in turn, raided settlements far away in a similar manner. This pattern continued, with the Athapaskan groups apparently growing to be more formidable foes through the 1840s until the American Military arrived in the area.

In 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny invaded Santa Fe with 1,600 men during the Mexican War. The Navajo did not recognize the change of government as legitimate. In September, Kearny sent two detachments to raid and subdue the Navajo. Kearny later took 300 men on an expedition to California from Santa Fe. As they traveled past Navajo homelands, his force lost livestock. He ordered another expedition against the Navajo and this resulted in the first treaty with the United States government in November at Canyon de Chelly.

Manuelito, Navajo chief

In the next ten years, the U.S. established forts in traditional Navajo territory. Military records state this was to protect citizens and Navajo from each other. However the old Spanish/Mexican-Navajo pattern of raids and expeditions against one another continued. New Mexican (citizen and militia) raids increased rapidly in 1860-1861 earning it the Navajo name Naahondzood, "the fearing time."

In 1861 Brigadier-General James H. Carleton, the new commander of the Federal District of New Mexico, initiated a series of military actions against the Navajo. Colonel Kit Carson was ordered by Gen. J. H. Carleton to conduct an expedition into Navajoland and receive their surrender on July 20, 1863. A few Navajo surrendered. Carson was joined by a large group of New Mexican militia volunteer citizens and these forces moved through Navajo land, killing Navajos and making sure that any Navajo crops, livestock, or dwellings were destroyed. Facing starvation, Navajos groups started to surrender in what is known as The Long Walk.

Manuelito (1818-1893) was one of the principle war chiefs of the Navajo people. He was a prominent Navajo leader who rallied Navajos against the US. Military and for several years led a group of warriors in resisting federal efforts to be removed (called the Long Walk) to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. After going to the Bosque Redondo, he was one of the leaders who signed the treaty in 1868 enabling the Navajo to return to their four sacred mountains and to steadily increase the size of their reservation after that.

Navajo prisoners of Kit Carson in 1864 forced on what Navajo call "the Long Walk"

Starting in the spring of 1864, around 9,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced on The Long Walk of over 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Actually, there were perhaps 53 separate groups that made the walk, over the course of many months, that comprised the walk. This was the largest Reservation attempted by the U.S. government. It was a failure for a combination of reasons: it was designed (water, wood, supplies, livestock) for only 4,000-5,000 people; it had one kind of crop failure after another; other tribes and civilians were able to raid the Navajo; and a small group of Mescalero Apaches had been moved there. In 1868 a treaty was negotiated that allowed the surviving Navajos to return to a reservation that was a portion of their former range.

By treaty, the Navajo people were allowed to leave the reservation with permission to trade. Raiding by the Navajo essentially stopped, because they were able to increase the size of their livestock and crops, and not have to risk losing them to others. However, while the initial reservation increased from 3.5 million acres (14,000 km²) to the 16 million acres (65,000 km²) of today, economic conflicts with the non-Navajo continued. Civilians and companies raided resources that had been assigned to the Navajo. Livestock grazing leases, land for railroads, mining permits are a few examples of actions taken by agencies of the U.S. government who could and did do such things on a regular basis over the next 100 years. The livestock business was so successful that eventually the United states government decided to kill off most of the livestock in what is known as the Navajo Livestock Reduction.

Code talkers

Did you know?Navajo code talkers played a significant role in the Pacific Theater of World War IIPage one of Navajo recommendation letter, 1942.Page two of Navajo recommendation letter, 1942.

Code talkers were Native American Marines serving in the United States Armed Forces who primarily transmitted secret tactical messages. The Code Talkers transmitted these messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. Their service was very valuable since codes can be broken, but languages must be studied for a long time before being understood.

Code talking was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. Adolf Hitler knew about the successful use of code talkers during World War I and sent anthropologists to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II. Knowing of Nazi German anthropologists' attempts to learn the languages, a large-scale code talker program was not implemented in the European Theater although a group of Comanche code talkers took part in the Invasion of Normandy in 1944, and continued to serve in the 4th Infantry Division during further European operations.

Philip Johnston proposed the use of the Navajo language to the United States Marine Corps for use in the Pacific Theater. Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajos, and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Because Navajo has a complex grammar, it is not nearly mutually intelligible enough with even its closest relatives within the Na-Dene family to provide meaningful information, and was an unwritten language, Johnston saw Navajo as answering the military requirement for an undecipherable code. The idea was accepted, and the Navajo code was formally developed and centered on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet that uses agreed-upon English words to represent letters. For each English letter in the phonetic alphabet system the code talkers were asked to generate several nouns and sometimes verbs in Navajo using the principle of letter and word substitution. As it was determined that phonetically spelling out all military terms letter by letter into words-while in combat-would be time too consuming, some terms, concepts, tactics, and instruments of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive nomenclatures in Navajo (the word for "potato" being used to refer to a hand grenade, or "tortoise" to a tank, for example).

A codebook was developed, for classroom purposes only, to teach the many relevant words and concepts to new initiates and was never to be taken into the field. The code talker was required to memorize all the English/Navajo and Navajo/English word associations in the codebook. To an ordinary Navajo speaker, the entire code-talking "conversation" would have been quite incomprehensible, because the nouns and verbs were not used in the contextual sequence for conveying meaning within Navajo sentence structure. What the uninitiated would hear were truncated and disjointed strings of individual unrelated nouns and verbs. The code talkers memorized all these variations and practiced their rapid use under stressful conditions.

The Navajo code talkers were commended for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."4

The Navajo code talkers were also deployed in the Korean War; the use of code talkers ended shortly into the Vietnam War.5


Navajo hoganNavajo woman & child

Historically, the structure of the Navajo society is largely a matrilocal system in which only women were allowed to own livestock and land. Once married, a Navajo man would move into his bride's dwelling and clan since daughters (or, if necessary, other female relatives) were traditionally the ones who received the generational inheritance (this is mirror-opposite to a patrilocal tradition). Any children are said to belong to the mother's clan and be "born for" the father's clan. The clan system is exogamous, meaning it was, and mostly still is, considered a form of incest to marry or date anyone from any of a person's four grandparents' clans.

A hogan is the traditional Navajo home. For those who practice the Navajo religion the hogan is considered sacred. Hogans are constructed to symbolize their land: the four posts represent the sacred mountains, the floor is mother earth, and the dome-like roof is father sky. The religious song "The Blessingway" describes the first hogan as being built by Coyote (a mythological character common to many Native American cultures, based on the coyote animal) with help from beavers to be a house for First Man and First Woman. Talking God gave Coyote logs and instructions on how to build the first hogan, now known as a "forked stick" or "male" hogan (ách í ádeez áhí). The door always faces east to welcome the rising sun for good wealth and fortune. The "female" hogan, built later, has a rounded form and is used as the family dwelling place. Usually a group of four or five family hogans would be constructed close together, often housing members of the extended family.

Before use a hogan must be blessed with ritual songs and prayers, and the sprinkling of cornmeal. Hogans are not permanent structures. The Navajo historically were semi-nomadic and used them for storage and shelter during the winter. In the summer they constructed simpler summer shelters that were little more than wind-breaks with a roof, one side being completely open.

Navajos made their hogans in the traditional fashion until the 1900s, when they started to make them in hexagonal and octagonal shapes. Today they are rarely used as actual dwellings, but are maintained primarily for ceremonial purposes.

Arts and craftsmanship

Navajo blankets in the Hubbel Trading Post National Historic Site, Ganado, ArizonaNavajo art

Turquoise has been used in jewelry by the Navajo for hundreds of years but Navajo artists did not use inlay techniques to insert turquoise into silver designs until the late nineteenth century… Silversmithing is said to have been introduced to the Navajo while in captivity at Fort Sumner in Eastern New Mexico in 1864. At that time Atsidi Saani learned silversmithing and began teaching others the craft as well. By the 1880s Navajo silversmiths were creating handmade jewelry including bracelets, tobacco flasks, necklaces, bow guards, and their craft eventually evolved into earrings, buckles, bolos, hair ornaments, and pins.

Navajo weaver with sheep

Navajo came to the southwest with their own weaving traditions; however, they learned to weave cotton on upright looms from Pueblo peoples. These looms had no moving parts. Support poles were traditionally constructed of wood; steel pipe is more common today. The artisan sits on the floor during weaving and wraps the finished portion of fabric underneath the loom as it grows. The average weaver takes anywhere from two months to many years to finish a single rug, depending on the size. The first Spaniards to visit the region wrote about seeing Navajo blankets.

By the eighteenth century the Navajo had begun to import Bayeta red yarn to supplement local black, grey, and white wool, as well as wool dyed with indigo. Using an upright loom the Navajos made extremely fine utilitarian blankets that were collected by Ute and Plains Indians. These Chief's Blankets, so called because only chiefs or very wealthy individuals could afford them, were characterized by horizontal stripes and minimal patterning in red. First Phase Chief's Blankets have only horizontal stripes, Second Phase feature red rectangular designs, and Third Phase feature red diamonds and partial diamond patterns.

Railroad service reached Navajo lands in the early 1880s and resulted in considerable expansion of the market for Navajo woven goods. Some early European settlers moved in and set up trading posts, often buying Navajo Rugs by the pound and selling them back east by the bale. Several European-American merchants influenced Navajo weaving, encouraging the locals to weave blankets and rugs into distinct styles.

Today Navajo weaving is a fine art, and weavers opt to work with natural or commercial dyes and traditional, pictorial, or a wide range of geometric designs.

Weaving plays a role in the creation myth of Navajo cosmology, which articulates social relationships and continues to play a role in Navajo culture. According to one aspect of this tradition, a spiritual being called "Spider Woman" instructed the women of the Navajo how to build the first loom from exotic materials including sky, earth, sunrays, rock crystal, and sheet lightning. Then "Spider Woman" taught the Navajo how to weave on it.6


The Navajo people traditionally hold the four sacred mountains as the boundaries of Dinetah, the homeland they should never leave: Blanca Peak (Tsisnaasjini'-Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado; Mount Taylor (Tsoodzil-Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico; the San Francisco Peaks (Doko'oosliid-Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona; and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa-Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado. Their mythology tells how they arrived in this homeland.

Creation story

The Navajo creation story, Diné Bahane', centers on the area known as the Dinetah, the traditional homeland of the Navajo people. The story has many variations but the basic outline is as follows.

Holy Supreme Wind being created the mists of lights arose through the darkness to animate and bring purpose to the myriad Holy People, supernatural and sacred in the different three lower worlds. All these things were spiritually created in the time before the earth existed and the physical aspect of man did not exist yet, but the spiritual did.

The First World was small and centered on an island floating in a the middle of four seas. The inhabitants of the first world were Diyin Dine'é (Holy People), Coyote, mist beings, and various insect people. The supernatural beings First Woman and First Man came into existence here and met for the first time after seeing each other's fire. The various beings started fighting with one another and were instructed by the Holy People to depart. The left by flying out an opening in the east.

They journeyed to the second world which was inhabited by various blue-gray furred mammals and various birds, including blue swallows. and lived for a time in peace, but eventually they offended Swallow Chief and were instructed to depart. First Man created a wand of jet and other materials to allow the people to walk upon it up into the next world through an opening in the south.

In the third world there were two rivers that formed a cross and the Sacred Mountains but there was still no sun. More animal people lived here too. This time it was not discord among the people that drove them away but a Great Flood caused by Tééhoołtsódii when Coyote stole her child. They were forced to journey to the fourth world through a hollow reed planted on the top of the mountain which grew until it reached the canopy of the sky. The people then climbed up the hollow tube into this world which was covered in water and had monsters living here.

The Sacred Mountains were re-formed from soil taken from the original mountains in the Second World. First Man, First Woman, and the Holy People created the sun, moon, seasons, and stars. It was here that true death came into existence via Coyote tossing a stone into a lake and declaring that if it sank then the dead would go back to the previous world.

First Man and First Woman built a hogan to live and blessed it with cornmeal ground by First Woman, saying, "May my home be sacred and beautiful, and may the days be beautiful and plenty." This was the first hogan-raising ceremony.

The first human born in the fourth world was Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé who, in turn, gave birth to the Hero Twins called Naayéé' Neizghání and Tóbájíshchíní. The twins had many adventures in which they helped to rid the world of various monsters. The Diyin Dine'é gave them ceremonies which are still practiced today.

Healing and spiritual practices

Navajo spiritual practice is about restoring health, balance, and harmony to a person's life. Ceremonies restore Hozhò, or beauty, harmony, balance, and health. Examples include the Hooghan Blessing Ceremony, the "Baby's First Laugh Ceremony," and the Beauty Way ceremony: the Kinaaldá, or a female puberty ceremony.

The most important of the Navajo spiritual ceremonies is the Blessingway Hózhóojí ceremony. It is performed in the sacred Hogan, and the chant recounts the Navajo creation story. The ceremony is to ensure good luck, good health, harmony, and success. The song at the conclusion of the ceremony includes four holy words that are repeated Sa'ah naaghéi, Bik'eh hózhoó which correct any errors in the ceremony, assure the pleasure of the Holy People (diyin diné), and remind everyone of the ideals of the Navajo culture.7

Other ceremonies are used to heal illnesses, strengthen weakness, and give vitality to the patient. When suffering from illness or injury, Navajos will traditionally seek out a certified, credible Hatałii (medicine man) for healing, before turning to Western medicine. The medicine man will use several methods to diagnose the patient's ailments. This may include using special tools such as crystal rocks, and abilities such as hand-trembling and Hatał (chanting prayer). The medicine man will then select a specific healing chant for that type of ailment. Short blessings for good luck and protection may only take a few hours, and in all cases, the patient is expected to do a follow-up afterwards. This may include the avoidance of sexual relations, personal contact, animals, certain foods, and certain activities. This is done to respect the ceremony.

The origin of spiritual healing ceremonies dates back to Navajo mythology. It is said the first Enemy Way ceremony was performed for Changing Woman's twin sons (Monster Slayer and Born-For-the-Water) after slaying the Giants (the Yé'ii) and restoring Hozhó to the world and people. The patient identifies with Monster Slayer through the chants, prayers, sandpaintings, herbal medicine, and dance.

There are said to be approximately 58 to 60 sacred ceremonies. Most of them last four days or more; to be most effective, they require that relatives and friends attend and participate. Outsiders are often discouraged from participating, in case they become a burden on everyone, or violate a taboo, which could affect the outcome of the ceremony. The ceremony must be done in precisely the correct manner to heal the patient, and this includes everyone that is involved.

Training a Hatałii to perform ceremonies is extensive, arduous, and takes many years. The apprentice learns everything by watching his teacher, and memorizes the words to all the chants. Many times, a medicine man cannot learn all 60 of the ceremonies, so he will opt to specialize in a select few.

Another Navajo healing, the Night Chant ceremony, is administered as a cure for most types of head ailments, including mental disturbances. The ceremony, conducted over several days, involves purification, evocation of the gods, identification between the patient and the gods, and the transformation of the patient. Each day entails the performance of certain rites and the creation of detailed sand paintings. On the ninth evening a final all-night ceremony occurs, in which the dark male thunderbird god is evoked in a song that starts by describing his home:

In Tsegihi White House,
In the house made of the dawn,
In the house made of the evening light8

The medicine man then proceeds by asking the Holy People to be present, identifying the patient with the power of the god, and describing the patient's transformation to renewed health with lines such as "Happily I recover."9 The same dance is repeated throughout the night, about 48 times. Altogether the Night Chant ceremony takes about ten hours to perform, and ends at dawn.


A "skin-walker" is a person with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal he or she desires. Similar creatures can be found in numerous cultures' lores all over the world.

The 'ánt'įįhnii are human beings who have gained supernatural power by breaking a cultural taboo. Specifically, a person is said to gain the power to become a Yea-Naa-gloo-shee upon initiation into the Witchery Way. Both men and women can become 'ánt'įįhnii and therefore possibly skinwalkers, but men are far more numerous. It is generally thought that only childless women can become witches.

Although it is most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the Yea-Naa-gloo-shee is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need. A skin-walker is usually described as naked, except for a coyote skin, or wolf skin. Some Navajos describe them as a mutated version of the animal in question. The skin may just be a mask, like those which are the only garment worn in the witches' sing. Because animal skins are used primarily by skin-walkers, the pelt of animals such as bears, coyotes, wolves, and cougars are strictly tabooed. Sheepskin and buckskin are probably two of the few hides used by Navajos, the latter is used only for ceremonial purposes.

It is said that if a Navajo was to know the person behind the skinwalker they had to pronounce the full name. About three days later that person would either get sick or die for the wrong that they have committed.10

According to Navajo legend, skin-walkers can have the power to read human thoughts. They also possess the ability to make any human or animal noise they choose. A skinwalker may use the voice of a relative or the cry of an infant to lure victims out of the safety of their homes.

Navajo music

Traditional Navajo music is always vocal, with most instruments, which include drums, drumsticks, rattles, rasp, flute, whistle, and bullroarer, being used to accompany singing of specific types of song. Only Hataałii, or Singers otherwise known as 'Medicine People', are qualified to sing the 30 ceremonials and countless prayer rituals which restore hozhó or harmonious condition, good health, serenity, and balance. These songs are the most sacred holy songs, the "complex and comprehensive" spiritual literature of the Navajo, while all other songs, including personal, patriotic, daily work, recreation, jokes, and less sacred ceremonial songs, may be considered popular music. The "popular" side is characterized by public performance while the holy songs are preserved of their sacredness by reserving it only for ceremonies.

The longest ceremonies may last up to nine days and nights while performing rituals that restore the balance between good and evil, or positive and negative forces. The hataałii, aided by sandpaintings or masked yeibicheii, as well as numerous other sacred tools used for healing, chant the sacred songs to call upon the Navajo gods and natural forces to restore the person to harmony and balance within the context of the world forces. In ceremonies involving sandpaintings, the person to be supernaturally assisted, the patient, becomes the protagonist, identifying with the gods of the Diné Creation Stories, and at one point becomes part of the Story Cycle by sitting on a sandpainting with iconography pertaining to the specific story and deities.

The lyrics, which may last over an hour and are usually sung in groups, contain narrative epics including the beginning of the world, phenomenology, morality, and other lessons. Longer songs are divided into two or four balanced parts and feature an alternation of chantlike verses and buoyant melodically active choruses concluded by a refrain in the style and including lyrics of the chorus. Lyrics, songs, groups, and topics include cyclic: Changing Woman, an immortal figure in the Navajo traditions, is born in the spring, grows to adolescence in the summer, becomes an adult in the autumn, and then an old lady in the winter, repeating the life cycles over and over. Her sons, the Hero Twins, Monster Slayer and Born-for-the-Water, are also sung about, for they rid the world of giants and evil monsters. Stories such as these are spoken of during these sacred ceremonies.

Children's songs

Navajo children's songs are usually about animals, such as pets and livestock. Some songs are about family members, and about chores, games, and other activities as wel