Navajo Indians

Navajo women weaving

Robert S. McPherson
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

The Navajo Indians in Utah reside on a reservation of more than 1,155,000 acres in the southeastern corner of the state. According to the 1990 census, more than half of the population of San Juan County is comprised of Navajo people, the majority of whom live south of the San Juan River.

Scholars still debate when the Navajo entered the Southwest. Some argue that by the fourteenth century, the Dine, or the People, were migrating into the Four Corners region as the Anasazi departed. Navajo lore is replete with stories of interaction between the two native groups. Most anthropologists agree that by the end of the 1500s the Dine were spread throughout northern New Mexico, a portion of southern Utah, and part of northern Arizona. They also concur that the Navajos migrated from northern Canada with other Apachean peoples, who are linguistically related to Athapaskan speakers. Studies suggest the separation between northern groups and those migrating south occurred around A.D. 1000, and that the division between Apaches and Navajos happened about three to four hundred years ago. However, these are only rough estimates and often vary widely.

Navajo beliefs reject these ideas, saying that there is no evidence in their oral tradition of this movement. Instead, their religion teaches that they traveled through three or four worlds beneath this one and emerged into this sphere in the La Plata mountains of southwestern Colorado or the Navajo Dam area of northwestern New Mexico. The gods created the four sacred mountains–Blanca Peak and Hesperus Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona–preparing them as supernatural boundaries within which all was safe and protected. In addition, the gods also established four rivers, one of which was the San Juan, to serve as defensive guardians. This river played an important role in some of the Navajo chantway myths and functioned as a clear line of demarcation between Navajo and Ute territories.

Navajo dwelling hogan, Monument Valley

Navajo economy from the 1600s to the first third of the 1900s depended on two primary sources–agriculture learned from the pueblo peoples and livestock such as sheep, goats, and horses obtained initially from the Spaniards. Because the San Juan River was one of the few reliable sources of water in Navajo territory, during the summer months many Dine planted fields of corn, beans, and squash on its floodplains or tributaries and pastured their sheep in the mountains. Winter camps were usually at lower elevations where wood, water, and protection from cold winds were available. Hunting and gathering occurred in a variety of ecological zones according to the location of the foodstuffs being sought.

Navajo life (Monument Valley) 1941

Spaniards and Mexicans occasionally pursued Navajos into the northern part of their territory, but it was not until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican War in 1848 that Anglo-Americans were prompted to take action against Navajo raiders. The Mormon colonies of southwestern Utah and the settlers of New Mexico and Arizona reacted against the Navajo by sending military expeditions to halt the threat. Kit Carson and Ute Indian Agent Alfred Pfeiffer encouraged the antagonism already felt by the Utes against their Navajo neighbors. Although the military launched a number of campaigns, it was the continuous pressure of Native American and New Mexican allies that finally caused the massive surrender of an estimated two-thirds of the Navajo population, 8,000 of whom went on the Long Walk before finally being incarcerated at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Those who did not surrender hid in the canyons and mountains to avoid detection. In Utah, men like Hashkeneinii and Kaayelii fled from the Utes and settled at Navajo Mountain and the Bears Ears, two regions where Navajos lived peacefully with the Paiutes. There the Navajos expanded their flocks and land holdings and awaited the release of their relatives from captivity.

In 1868 the Navajos returned from Fort Sumner and took up residence on a reservation one-fourth the size of the original territory they had used before the war. This situation did not last long, however, as the Dine expanded into their old habitat. Between 1868 and 1905 there were eight boundary changes that increased the reservation to the north, east, and west. The most significant changes for the Utah Navajo occurred in 1884 when President Chester Arthur added to the reservation the lands south of the San Juan River. Although this territory politically changed hands a number of times, the Navajo maintained control and added to their holdings around Aneth in 1905. The government made other extensions in this area in 1933 and again in 1958, the latter being in exchange for lands lost to the Glen Canyon Dam project. Thus, from the outset, the Navajos, unlike most Indian tribes, have expanded their reservation at the expense of the public domain.

From 1870 to the 1890s, Navajos were involved in the turbulent jockeying for lands on their northern borders. Non-Mormon expansion into the Montezuma Creek and Aneth area, Mormon settlements in the Tuba City, Moenkopi, and Bluff region, and the burgeoning cattle industry of San Juan County made competition for resources inevitable. The government opened the public domain for both Native American and Anglo use, but the Navajos and Utes utilized the land in ways that were unappreciated by white men.

In addition to being drawn to the northern border of the reservation for livestock grazing and agriculture, there were also unlicensed trading posts on the northern side of the river. These posts flourished by escaping government regulation, but by the 1890s many closed because of a national depression, its accompanying economic impact, and successive crop failures due to drought. By the early 1900s, the government had added Moenkopi and Aneth to the reservation while generally peaceful relations existed in the Bluff area.

From 1900 to the 1930s, changes in Navajo lifestyle increased at a quickening pace. The Shiprock Agency governed the Utah portion of the northern Navajo district and encouraged local self-government under the chapter system. Roads and bridges fed the isolated communities that often coalesced around trading posts, which, in turn, became a hub of economic and social activity. The peace was marred occasionally by such incidents as the Bai-a-lil-le affair in which agency control was challenged by a powerful community leader, and during the influenza epidemic of 1918 that ravaged large portions of San Juan County, particularly in the Navajo communities. But Navajo herds generally prospered and the population increased rapidly.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Navajo life changed rapidly. Livestock reduction under John Collier, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, set in motion a trauma comparable to that of the Long Walk of the 1860s. Because Navajo wealth was measured in sheep, many of the people found it difficult to accept soil erosion and overgrazing as sufficient justification to slaughter their herds. Government agents drove thousands of animals into side canyons and annihilated large portions of individual flocks, thus removing the economic base of many Navajo families. This, coupled with World War II, encouraged many Navajos during the 1940s and 1950s to seek wage labor off the reservation. Some served as migrant workers in seasonal harvesting, others went to cities for employment in factories, while others helped with railroad construction and operations. Males were usually the ones who left, while the women eked out a bare existence on the family holdings, working in economic cooperation with extended family members who were collectively known as an outfit.

During the 1960s and 1970s, opportunities started to return to the reservation. Oil royalty money from wells drilled in the Aneth/Montezuma Creek area was administered through the Utah Navajo Development Council, a private, non-profit organization designed to make available to Utah Navajos offerings in education, health, and economic development. This became particularly important since, according to the 1980 census, many Navajo families, which tend to be large, were crowded into homes with two or fewer bedrooms (81 percent), no bathroom or kitchen facilities (70 percent), no telephones (82 percent), and no water (47 percent). The gap between Anglo and Navajo residents of San Juan County needed to be closed.

Also aiding in achieving this goal were the two new high schools built during the 1970s and 1980s, one in Montezuma Creek, the other in Monument Valley. Not only did this help reduce or eliminate the antiquated boarding school system, but it also prevented students from being bused to the northern end of the county, a ride that in extreme instances required eight hours a day of round-trip travel.

Navajo family sitting on ground by tree, Monument Valley, 1960s

The Navajo today accept change and in some instances encourage it. Many older people want the youth to obtain an education and job skills, but also desire that they stay near home and maintain strong family ties, a theme of importance in Navajo culture.

See: Robert S. McPherson, The Northern Navajo Frontier 1860-1900 (1988); Garrick and Roberta Bailey, A History of the Navajo: The Reservation Years (1986); Alfonso Ortiz, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 10 (1983).