by lyle e davis
Tenacious...adaptable...enduring...spiritual......words that characterize the largest and most influential Indian tribe in North America ... The Navajo Nation.
Most of us have heard of the Apache, the Comanche, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw Indian tribes . . . and we’ve read a lot of the colorful history about their nations. Yet many of us know little or nothing about an Indian Nation that is fairly close to us geographically, that of the Navajo Nation.
Theirs is a fascinating story, full of intrigue, adventure, legend, pain and suffering, and inspiration.
Aside from being the mother tongue of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo language also has played a highly significant role in helping the entire nation. During World War II, the Navajo language was used as a code to confuse the enemy. Navajo bravery and patriotism is unequaled. Navajos were inducted and trained in the U.S. Marine Corps to become "code talkers" on the front-line. Shrouded in secrecy at the time, these men are known today as the famed Navajo Code Talkers, proved to be the only code that could not be broken during World War II.
Most of what many of us know is (a) they make beautiful turquoise jewelry, (b) they weave beautiful tapestry and rugs, (c) they live in hogans (houses). But there is so much more to the story of the Navajo. We propose to tell a bit of the Navajo story.
Of relatively recent vintage (1864) and one of the lesser known historical military campaigns is that of Kit Carson’s campaign to rid the sacred grounds of Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de ‘Shay”) of the Navajo.
Carson's Navajo Campaign
Raiding by Indians had been rather constant up through 1862, and New Mexicans were becoming more outspoken in their demand that something be done. Brigadier General James H. Carleton believed that the Navajo conflict was the reason for New Mexico's "depressing backwardness." He naturally turned to Kit Carson to help him fulfill his plans of upgrading New Mexico and his own career: Carson was nationally known and had helped boost the careers of a series of military commanders who had employed him.
The immediate prelude to Carleton's Navajo campaign was to force the Mescalero Apache to Bosque Redondo. Carleton ordered Carson to kill all the men of that tribe, and say that he (Carson) had been sent to "punish them for their treachery and crimes."
Carson was appalled by this brutal attitude and refused to obey it. He accepted the surrender of more than a hundred Mescalero warriors who sought refuge with him. Nonetheless, he completed his campaign in a month.
When Carson first learned that Carleton intended for him to pursue the Navajo he sent Carleton a letter of resignation dated February 3, 1863. Carleton refused to accept this and used the force of his personality to maintain Carson's cooperation.
Carson had enjoyed a good reputation with many Indian Nations; he spoke many of their tongues fluently. They trusted him.
July 25, 1863: Carson was ordered to relocate the Navajo from their land to Bosque Redondo, a reservation in southeastern New Mexico. When the Navajo resisted, Carson ordered livestock seized and land burned. In the spring of 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to march or ride in wagons 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Navajos call this "The Long Walk." In 1868, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo established the current reservation in the traditional Navajo homeland. When the Navajo made the “long walk” back home, they formed a single group that measured ten miles long.
Although Carson, being extremely ill and near death, had ridden home before the march began, he was held responsible by the Navajo for breaking his word that those who surrendered would not be harmed. As many as 300 died along the way, and many more during the next four years of imprisonment.
Canyon De Chelley lies in the heart of the land of the Navajo between the Four Sacred Mountains. This is a very sacred and beautiful place. The Navajo believe it to be a place where all the life giving sources are abundant, a place of great peace where important lessons can be learned. There are ancient ruins in the canyon.
The people who lived in them formed a basis of who and what the Navajo are today. It is one of the most important places for a Navajo to visit. On the top of Canyon De Chelly, the Navajo believe, is one of the places the Holy Ones first set their foot. The Navajo see this is as a very holy place. It is here, they say, within the canyon, that the Holy Ones taught them how to live.
The Navajo Nation
The Navajo Nation (Diné in Navajo language) is a Native American homeland covering about 26,000 square miles, 17 million acres, occupying all of northeastern Arizona, the southeast portion of Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction within the United States. The Nation encompasses all things important to the Navajo people: the land, kinship, language, religion and the right to govern themselves. Members of the Nation are often known as Navajo (or Navaho) but traditionally call themselves Diné (sometimes spelled in English as Dineh) which means Navajo people.
The 2000 census reported 298,215 Navajo people living throughout the United States, of which 173,987 were living within the Navajo Nation boundaries. 131,166 lived in Arizona and 17,512 of these lived in Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix. Another group lives on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation along the Colorado River in California and Arizona. About 60 percent of Navajos are 24 years old or younger. Today, the Navajo Nation Council has grown into the largest and most sophisticated American Indian government in the U.S.
The Nation's boundaries are the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation at the Four Corners Monument and stretches across the Colorado Plateau into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The seat of government is located at the census-designated city of Window Rock in Apache County, Arizona. The Diné's traditional boundaries are the four sacred mountains, which actually include an area much larger than the present-day reservation.
Their strong spiritual belief in the land requires that Mother Earth be treated with the deepest respect. The arid-looking surface of Navajoland belies what lies underneath a world of hidden treasures...tons of oil, gas, coal and uranium...waiting to be tapped. In 1987 alone, some $43 million was poured into the Navajo Nation's coffers from mineral royalty payments. Coal alone contributed $28 million to the tribal treasury. Minerals excavated from Navajoland not only benefit the Navajo Nation, but also provide various forms of energy to millions of people throughout the United States.
Some of the more than 8,000 Navajo who surrendered to Kit Carson during his 1864 campaign of destruction through their homeland. Carson forced his prisoners to take the "Long Walk" across New Mexico to a barren reservation set aside for them along the Pecos River at Bosque Redondo.
The Navajo Beliefs
As is evident, the Navajo see a sacred relationship to the land. With healing ceremonies to bring them back to harmony with each other, they sing of a beauty and harmony which is apparent to all visitors to Navajo Country.
Navajo legend says the Holy People put four sacred mountains in four different directions. Mt. Blanca in the east, Mt. Taylor in the south, San Francisco Peaks in the west, and Mt. Hesperus in the north, thus creating the boundaries of Navajoland. They believe there are two classes of beings: the Earth People and the Holy People. The Earth People are ordinary mortals, while the Holy People are spiritual beings that cannot be seen. Holy People are believed to aid or harm Earth People. When disorder happens in a Navajo's life, such as illness, herbs, medicinemen (diagnosticians), prayers, songs and ceremonies are used to help cure the ailment. Some tribal members prefer modern day hospitals on the Navajo Reservation; some seek the assistance of a traditional Navajo medicineman, some combine both methods.
Navajos believe that a medicineman is a uniquely qualified individual bestowed with supernatural powers to diagnose a person's problem and to heal or cure illnesses. The Dineh believe they are sustained as a nation because of their enduring faith in the Great Spirit. And because of their strong spirituality, the Navajo people believe they will continue to survive as an Indian nation forever.
For a Navajo, to be a well balanced person, he/she must have equal development in the four values of life. When a Navajo has been well taught in all areas of life, that person is a harmonious person and well educated. Just as corn needs four things: sunlight, water, air, and soil to grow; so a Navajo needs the four values: values of Life, values of Work, values of Social/Human Relations, and values of Respect/Reverence to grow.
The Navajo and Apache tribal groups of the American Southwest speak dialects of the language family referred to as Athapaskan. Linguistic similarities indicate the Navajo and Apache were once a single ethnic group, with substantial numbers not present in the American Southwest until the early 1500s.
While they have had warriors, they are not a particularly warlike people. The Navajo people are very dynamic and creative people who strongly believe in the power of the mind to think and create; finding expression in the myriad symbolic creations of the Navajo language, art and ritual ceremonies.
A Navajo house is called a "hogan" and is made of logs, brush, and earth. Summer houses are also utilized and made of brush with a windbreak.
The art of Navajo weaving reflects a wondrous spiritual quality that transcends all time. Weaving a rug is a slow, painstaking process that begins with shearing the wool. The wool is then spun by hand, often as many as 16 to 20 times. In some cases, the wool threads are left in their natural state. In others, the yarn is dyed with natural vegetal dyes such as those from grapes, oak, juniper, choke cherry, prickly pear cactus, larkspur, Navajo tea, and wild plum roots.
The patterns of the rugs are learned in childhood, and passed on from generation to generation. There are no written directions. Designs are memorized by the artists. That's why certain artists specialize in certain designs. These are the patterns that their mothers or grandmothers taught them long ago.
Sandpaintings are another unique and symbolic art form originating, the Navajo believe, with the Holy People who lived in the underworld. Sandpaintings were, and still are, primarily ceremonial.
Navajo people believe the universe to be delicately balanced. Only man can upset it, causing disaster and/or illness. Each illness or disaster has a particular part that is related to a portion of Navajo history. Balance is restored in the universe by healing the offender with chants, herbs, prayers, songs, and sandpaintings.
The Healer (Medicine Man) or Singer goes to the offenders hogan. Restoration begins with chanting accompanied by rattles and recounting adventures of Navajo heroes.
The sand painting is begun on a bed of clean white sand on the dirt floor, Mother Earth.
Sand paintings are created with an opening facing east - the same direction as the door to the hogan, to make it difficult for evil to enter. Each design and figure must be produced carefully and in a knowledgeable way, using only the five sacred colors of sands.
Some symbolic designs provide additional power or strength; i.e., buffalo horns added to increase the dosage. When the sandpainting is completed, the patient is seated in its center. The Medicine Man then touches a particular place on the painting and relays the medicine by touching the patient, restoring harmony and health.
The sand painting is then erased and swept into a blanket. Before sunset, it is carried outside and blown into the wind, returning it to Mother Earth so that trapped evil forces will not escape. Sandpaintings which are done at night ceremonies are similarly destroyed before sunrise. There are more than a thousand ceremonial sandpaintings; less than half are produced today.
The majority of Navajo ceremonies are for curing mental and physical problems and for restoring universal harmony, once disturbed. Most Navajo ceremonies are conducted, at least primarily, for the purpose of healing disease; and while designated medicine ceremonies, they are, in fact, ritualistic prayers.
The Navajo culture is kept alive through ceremony. There are many ceremonies for different things. The ceremony teaches about history and responsibilities as a human being inside the universe and the Navajo's place in it. They teach about this world, and how one can also help with this world. It also teaches patience.
Through ceremony the language is kept alive. The ceremony is also the place to talk with the Holy Ones and the Creator. They help to bless the sick in body and mind. Ceremonies are also used to celebrate joyous occasions and they are also used to help solve problems within Navajo society and within the family.