The Peoples of Utah, Navajos

The Peoples of Utah, ed. by Helen Z. Papanikolas, © 1976
“The Navajos,” pp. 13–27
by Clyde J. Benally

In beauty (happily) I walk.
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty below me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
It is finished (again) in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

–Night Chant

It is generally agreed that the Navajos, the largest Indian tribe in the United States, came into the Southwest sometime after A.D. 1300, even though the Dine’ (“the People”) themselves do not attest to this. The Dine’ mention their strong relationship to their Anasazi, the Ancient Ones, in their mythology and ceremonies. This relationship justifies to them permanent ties and absolute use-fights to the native land that is bounded by four sacred mountains: the Blanca Peaks in New Mexico on the east, Mount Taylor in New Mexico on the south, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona on the west, and the Hesperus Peaks in Colorado on the north. The Navajos live “in severely eroded plateau country . . . colorful, beautiful to look at, but hard to make a living from.”1

In this red earth country of monoliths, buttes, and bridges of rock made by erosion of time, the Dine’ had no concept of real ownership of land but instead one of communal property. Use-rights were established by anyone who used and needed the land. The Dine’ philosophy embodied Father Sky and Mother Earth as the parents of all and gave no individual absolute title to a piece of the sky or the earth. Also, they asked, who in his right mind would hold absolute ownership when his existence on this earth is but brief?

Father Sky is sacred as are his offerings: air, wind, thunder, lightning, and rain. Mother Earth is also sacred and all that she offers the Navajos is therefore sacred: mountains, vegetation, animals, and water. Many prayers for blessings are addressed to Mother Earth, Father Sky, the Four Winds, and White Dawn, to name a few.

Food and shelter are more than utilitarian objects for the Navajos who are always conscious that they are Mother Earth’s gifts. Their food is simple and easily prepared. Mutton is commonly eaten; other meats are small game like rabbits and prairie dogs and large game such as deer and antelope. Infrequently a horse is butchered and all of the animal is used: the meat and entrails are eaten fresh or dried for later needs and the hide is made into footwear, belts, and articles of clothing. Corn is used not only for food but for offerings to the gods and for the mundane yet useful repair of leaky baskets. A large portion of Navajo myth is centered around corn, telling how Changing Woman (Nature), who created the ancestors of the Dine’, gave instructions on how it should be raised. The dependability of corn for food is emphasized; cornmeal mush, cakes, and bread are some of the corn foods.

When wheat flour was stocked by trading posts, the Navajos conceived their well known fried bread, made from flour, baking powder, salt, and water (sugar and milk may be added), formed into flat rounds, and fried in lard or animal fat. Every cook has her own special recipe. For baking loaf bread, an outdoor earth oven is used.

The hogan, like corn, has deep religious importance. A similar structure, the Navajos believe, was used by the gods when they first laid down the ceremonies for the people. Every ceremony ends with a sacred hogan chant and everyone inside the hogan must be awake when it is sung.

There are two types of hogan, both built according to religious dictates that require four main support posts: one each in the east, west, south, and north for the different gods in these directions. The hogan always faces east and the space inside is organized around the centrally placed fireplace.

The conical type of hogan is the original kind and is made by leaning cedar logs together to form a smoke hole and doorway. The domed-roof, or round hogan, is larger and has support posts arranged in a circle with logs laid from post to post. The logs are intersticed one upon the other until a small smoke hole is left at the top of the dome. The support poles are usually in multiples of four. A typical domed hogan usually has eight supports, but there could be as many as twelve. The logs are covered with brush, bark, and dirt.

Chants for the purification and blessing of the hogan belong to a multitude of rituals that are the fabric of the complex Navajo religion. Religious rites and the conduct of daily life are centered in the Navajo ideal: to live in sacred harmony, in beauty, and in blessedness. A vast knowledge of Navajo myths, history, and folk tales is needed to understand the repetitive, seemingly meaningless chants–often called “sings” or “dances.”

Some rites are short, like the diagnostic ritual in which the hand trembler (diviner) observes a sick person to determine the nature of his illness and the appropriate healing ceremony. A significant short rite is the morning prayer to White Dawn to welcome a new day. Pollen from corn tassels is used and is richly symbolic of purity as well as of peace, happiness, and prosperity. Pollen-sprinkling along with specific chants consecrate and sanctify hogans, patients, prayer sticks, dry (sand) paintings, and cornmeal mush that is eaten ceremonially. Navajos call the haze in the air, pollen of morning sky and pollen of evening sky.2

The complex and lengthy rituals include, among many, the various three-day sings, five-day sings, and the nine-day sings. Some of these are often referred to as the Squaw Dance (Enemyway or Enemy chant), the Yei bi chai (Night chantway), and the Fire Dance (Mountain chantway).3

The roster of mythical figures in these sings appears to be endless; each has an important role in the history of the Dine’, and their names instantly relate the Navajos to certain periods of time in their past. A few of these names are Rock Crystal Talking God, Happiness Boy, White Shell Woman, White Corn Boy, Yellow Corn Girl, First Man, Big Snake, Pollen Boy, and Cornbeetle Girl. While the lengthy sings go on, the medicine man performs an extremely complicated ritual with his bundle of herbs, prayer sticks, pollen, emetics (at times), and sand and sandstone for the dry paintings. The following, taken from a Beautyway ceremony, sung to the medicine man’s ministrations, has only perplexity for the uninitiated:

Dusty Body [Rattler], youth chief, I have made
you an offering… Dusty Body maiden
chief an offering…
Pollen Body [Bull Snake], youth chief…
Pollen Body maiden chief… Arrowsnake,
youth chief…
Arrowsnake, maiden chief… 4

For the Navajos, however, every line of a song is important.

Under the two categories of ceremonies, Blessingway and Evilway, there are far too many ceremonies for any one medicine man (singer) to know all of them. Most medicine men specialize in one to six or seven ceremonies, and rarely will a medicine man specialize in more than eight. Everything has to be learned by memory. It takes years to learn the songs or chants, the myths and origins of each song, each ceremonial ritual, and the design and interpretation of sand paintings–if they are used. Learning is accomplished through apprenticeship to noted medicine men. After their education, medicine men have to be ceremonially ordained for each ceremony they perform.

During his training, each medicine man must acquire his own medicine bundle. This can be done by the ritualistic gathering of a bundle from an aging medicine man or by making up a new bundle. The type of ceremony that the medicine man knows will determine the kind and size of the medicine bundle. Collection of a new medicine bundle is time-consuming and includes herbs, pollens, feathers, sacred mountain dirt, stones, scrub oak branches, juniper bark, cattail flags, wild rice grass, rock sage, bear grass, plants with pods, and many other grasses and tree branches.

The medicine man, further, must be able to identify exactly every herb, plant, and other necessary object required in particular ceremonies. Like a medical doctor, he is on call at all times but goes to the patient’s hogan to perform the necessary ceremony. The Navajo people usually know which medicine man in their area specializes in each ceremony. The chants are followed by serving food to the spectators, and, with the medicine man’s fee, the expense can be large.

Navajo society is close-knit; families are organized around the mother, grandmother, and, sometimes, older sisters. A man usually lives with his wife in her mother’s community. (Marriages are exogamous, outside the parents’ clans.) The children inherit the mother’s clan, and the cousins of the clan are referred to as brothers and sisters. Because of these strong ties, a Navajo has deep obligations in helping and in participating in functions involving his kin. If a ceremony is to be performed, the patient’s kin are expected to assist in it. Males are obligated to their maternal clans and it is not unusual for a husband to leave his family to help his mother’s kin.

Present Navajo society has had a long evolution. The first contact with foreigners occurred in the sixteenth century. From the Spanish the Dine’ adopted practices that changed them from food hunters to sheep raisers. Besides acquiring sheep and horses from the Spanish, they discarded their buckskin clothing for the wool of the white men and learned silversmithing and the use of money (beso) as a medium of exchange. Intermarriage with the Spaniards produced the Nakai-di-nee clan.

From the time of this Spanish intrusion, the Dine’ had to adapt to an ever-changing environment. The Navajos believe that almost all cultural practices originated within the tribe, but that weaving, farming, livestock raising, and some legends were learned from the Spanish and other southwestern Indian tribes. The Navajos are known as the most innovative of tribes, taking from other cultures what could be useful, discarding what could not, and being self-supporting under the poorest economy. Their flocks of sheep that must graze on vegetation so sparse that hogans are miles from each other attest to the great adaptability of the Navajos. In 1871 Willy Amy, a trader, persuaded a few Navajos to sell their wool at Fort Defiance, Arizona. The animals were spindly and

gave no more than a pound or two of wool, hacked off with
a homemade knife shaped from a tin can. But when the
Navajos saw an economic advantage they took it. By 1886,
they had a million pounds of wool to trade, and by 1890,
two million.5

By crossing their Merino ewes with Rambouillet rams, the Navajos produced a hardy sheep with thick wool. Today sheep, the wealth of the Navajos, move through all of Navajoland, watched over by excellent male and female herders of all ages.

In both silversmithing–using bold, simple designs often with embedded turquoise–and in weaving, the Navajos became superb craftsmen.6 Weaving with cotton was learned from the agricultural Pueblo Indians. Later when the Spanish drove sheep north into Arizona and New Mexico in 1540, wool was used. Mastering wool dyeing by using native roots, berries, and bark, the Navajos are credited with creating the first native tapestries in the United States. The predilection for red of traders, like Don Lorenzo Hubbell, and tourists coming into the land of the Dine’ on Fred Harvey buses, together with new analine dyes in bright colors, threatened the craft for a while. Navajo weavers were given pictures to reproduce and in their experimentation with the analine dyes and their hurry to sell more of their work, a period of poor-quality rugs came off the looms. The market for Navajo rugs never waned, and weavers gave all their time to this source of income, always steady while drought and floods regularly ruined their crops. Blankets for their own use were no longer made; instead the softer wool blankets from Pendleton, Oregon, were bought at trading posts.

The Southwest Museum in Los Angeles displays many rugs in traditional designs that were original to the Navajos. The principal Utah Navajo weaving district is part of Monument Valley in the Four Corners area and is called Teec Nos Pos. The designs from this area are the most complex, “the least Indian and the most like oriental?”7 Outstanding weavers from this area are Alice Nelson, Hilda Begay, Emma Yabeney, Mrs. Saltwater, and Esther Williams.8

After the Spanish, who changed Navajo life with horses, sheep, and silver works, the next contacts with white men were the English-speaking Bilagd’a (“white man”). This major event in the lives of the Navajos began when Mexico gave the responsibilities for the Dine’ to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The preceding eight decades and the following two were the bloodiest in Navajo history, with wars against the Apaches, Utes, Spanish, Pueblos, and Comanches over slave raiding. Until the treaty, the Navajos governed themselves in clan units with the eldest or medicine man acting as head or chief. There was no head chief over all the Navajos, and trouble arose when a few chiefs signed treaties with white men who thought the clan leaders were representing the whole tribe. The treaty, for example, of November 22, 1846, signed by Narbona and other leaders was not accepted by Manuelito and other younger Navajos. Raiding continued, despite the treaty, until 1864 when large forces under Kit Carson conquered the Navajos. About eighty-five hundred Navajos were forced to take the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. For four terrible years they were confined in a concentration camp, their self-sufficiency and independence destroyed. The captive Dine’ began their homeward journey after the Treaty of 1868, and those who endured and survived regarded themselves with high esteem.

Navajos, living in the western part of the Navajo country, who had escaped from the United States militia into the rugged steep canyons of the San Juan and Colorado rivers of Arizona and Utah and were able to survive untouched, also thought of themselves as heroes because of their cunning and ability to elude capture.

The Treaty of 1868 ended the intense suffering of the Navajos and made them amenable to trading with whites. By 1877 six trading posts were established on the Navajo Reservation; by 1943, the peak in trading, ninety-five traders were licensed. The reservation trader was far different from the early itinerant trader who brought guns, liquor, and trinkets to Indian camps in return for furs. The reservation trader lived among confined Indians in his trading post with a reliable water supply nearby.9 Because the Navajos lived far off in inaccessible terrain, the trader was often the only white man they ever saw. This isolation insured the Navajos’ keeping their culture free from the white man’s influence; it also, until the 1930s, gave traders great authority that was often misused, resulting in exploitation of the Dine’ when selling their wool, rugs, and silver jewelry. Although 25 percent profit was the federally set limit, the isolation of the trading post gave dishonest traders the opportunity to buy and sell at their prices.

The trading post was the central meeting point for the widely scattered Navajos. For trading information, advice from the trader in business, personal, and government matters, medical help, the fearful burial of the dead, Indians rode hundreds of miles, first on horseback and later in pickup trucks. The trader continued in this role until the federal relief programs, begun in 1933, brought an increase in white personnel and diminished somewhat his status. A poignant novel of this period is Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, the story of a young Indian who was demoralized by his first contact with whites.

Navajo women wearing full orange, purple, and green sateen skirts and velveteen tops, their wealth in necklaces of silver, coral, and turquoise around their necks and silver bracelets on their arms, haggled with the trader over their rugs. Silver bracelets, bridles, squash necklaces, and buttons–often made of United States dimes and quarters–were pawned for supplies. The pawn could remain hanging in the trading post for years. Wool and rugs were sold to cut down the price on the pawn ticket. A sample pawn ticket on a silver bracelet:

Woman Who Doesn’t Smoke  $10
flour and coffee $1.45 2/19/30
sateen  1.80 3/15/30
rag pd.  2.00 4/ 3/30
velveteen  2.50 5/20/30
 3.25 [sic]
coffee, sugar  1.10 6/ 5/30
wool  4.35 6/10/30
plus $2 to trade out

Navajos near the Utah border traded at Oljato, Gouldings, Gap (for many years run by Joe Lee, son of John D. Lee who was held responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre), Hatch’s, Aneth, and trading posts in Bluff and Blanding.

It has been a long and slow progress from the trader representing the Indians to the present tribal government begun by United States agents. The policy of the government in education and in tribal affairs was to transform Navajos into white men.

The United States directed social and cultural change at every level of tribal society. Although Navajos were given livestock and farm implements, they also were forced, in many cases, to cut their conjos (long hair tied in a bun) before receiving wagons, and children, frightened by separation from their families and far from their hogans, had their hair cut as soon as they arrived at school. The proud tradition of wearing conjos was destroyed with severe loss of self-esteem.

At the beginning the tribal government was merely administrative in nature and carried out the programs of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Since then the Navajos have learned the intricacies of laws and bureaucracy and are now on the verge of total self-government. The various branches of the Navajo tribal government plan, control, and administer their own programs. The overriding theme is self-determination in conducting their own affairs. To accomplish these goals, there is a big push by the tribe toward education while keeping its Navajoness.

No longer working only with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajos today run for local school boards, county commissions, and state legislatures. The tribe communicates and works directly with the state and national governments. All in all, the Navajo, a great learner, has mastered the white man’s politics.

Since the Treaty of 1868, Navajoland has been expanded many times. Westward expansion was initiated by unilateral executive order of May 17, 1884, and took in northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah below the San Juan River. The order of March 10, 1905, added the Aneth area north of the San Juan. The Paiute Strip had been classified in various ways until it was added to the reservation along the Aneth Extension by act of March 1, 1933. The Land Exchange Act of September 2, 1958, added McCracken Mesa and other lands north of the Aneth Extension area. This exchange was for land that is presently covered by the water of Lake Powell.

The United States Indian policy is slowly changing, giving Indians a voice in the policies and programs that affect them. This makes education more meaningful and develops expertise in the handling of tribal affairs.

While the future looks bright, a tremendous amount of effort is needed to improve Navajo education and to introduce industrial development to create jobs on the reservation, even though more Navajos are moving into the cities for work.

In Navajoland today adults in both Indian and “American” dress and little girls wearing cotton dresses, boys in jeans still travel the dusty road to trading posts where cases of the ubiquitous soda pop bottles are stacked. Some of the Navajos attend Father Baxter Liebler’s Saint Christopher Episcopal Mission church or Catholic and Mormon services. For medical services they have, besides their medicine men, the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital near Goulding’s Trading Post. Their children ride hours on yellow school buses for their education and when of high school age attend boarding schools as far away as the Indian school in Brigham City, Utah, where they meet students from other tribes. Many never return to live on the reservation where mothers still admonish children not to kill spiders because they are friends. It was Mrs. Spider, they say, who taught Navajo women how to spin fine threads from leaf fibers, cotton, and wool into useful articles.11

Great-grandfathers still explain the beginning of time through folk tales and how the First People were led out of the pitch in the center of the earth to the outside by Coyote and Badger. Coyote (usually the epitome of irresponsibility) told them, “Our tunnel is straight and will lead you to the dry land of the new world, but if you follow the crooked tunnels of the blind mole you will always live in the earth.”12

The First People followed Coyote and Badger and emerged into Navajoland where on its red earth they lived close to nature and where they survive to this day in their hogans, looms nearby, and flocks of sheep spread out, grazing on the sparse life-nurturing plants.

1.  Leland C. Wyman, ed., Beautyway: A Navaho Ceremonial (New York, 1957), p. 5.

2.  Gladys A. Reichard, Navajo Religion: A Study of Symbolism (New York, 1963), 2d ed. in one vol., pp. 251–52.

3.  See Wyman, Beautyway, and Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (Tucson, 1970). A discussion of Enemyway is found in the latter.

4.  Wyman, Beautyway, p. 105.

5.  Ruth M. Underbill, The Navajos (Norman, OkIa., 1956), p. 181.

6.  See Elizabeth Conipton Hegemann, “Pioneer Silversmiths,” The Master-key 36–37 (1962): 44–59, 102?113; David L. Neumann, “Navajo Silversmithing,” El Palacio 77, no. 2 (1971): 13–32; and Arizona Highways, July 1974.

7.  See Carl Schaefer Dentzel, “Native American Tapestries of the Navajo,” Arizona Highways, July 1974.

8.  Ibid., p. 6.

9.  See Elizabeth Compton Hegemann, Navaho Trading Days (Albuquerque, 1963) and Frank McNitt, The Indian Traders (Norman, Okla., 1962).

10. Hegemann, Navaho Trading Days, p. 341.

11. Franc Johnson Newcomb, Navajo Folk Tales (Santa Fe, 1967), p. xiii.

12. Ibid., p. 53.