The Navajo Nation, Our Nearby Neighbors in Arizona
Page, Arizona might be known for its incredible natural landmarks - including Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Tower Butte - but these sights are actually property of the Navajo, the second-largest Native tribe in the United States. The Navajo Nation covers over 27,000 square miles of land - more than Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware combined. The territory is considered one of the largest land areas allocated to a Native American jurisdiction within the states. All of northeast Arizona, and stretches of New Mexico and Utah, are Navajo territory.
The Navajo, who have for centuries called themselves the “Diné”, are a self-governing nation with their own sets of laws and traditions; however, the tribe allows non-members to enter the territory so that the mystery and beauty of their world-famous landmarks can be experienced by all. Learn more about the history and culture of this enigmatic tribe and the incredible nature that they call home.
It is not explicitly known when the Navajo migrated to the Desert Southwest, but various archaeological accounts have placed the tribe in the region as early as 900 A.D. Others believe they arrived in the 15th century from the Alaskan/northwestern Canadian area. Additional accounts place the migration of the Navajo tribe from the Great Plains to the east. Many anthropologists and archaeologists believe the tribe descended from the Asian region thousands of years ago, with some reports speculating a similarity between Tibetan people and the Navajo. Archaeologically, evidence to suggest their origin in these regions has been minimal at best; linguistic evidence still in use today suggests their connection to the Athabaskan tribes.
These early peoples likely formed two tribes, referred to as the Northern and Southern Athabaskan tribes, with the Southern group migrating south and becoming known today as the Navajo. In the 1500s, Spaniards took note of the assorted tribes residing in the Desert Southwest. In an attempt to locate the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came upon the Navajo and observed them in their camps. Coronado was later killed in a confrontation with the Zuni tribe while proclaiming that he was immortal. With the discovery of the southwestern area by the Spaniards, European influence began to take control of the Navajo people. In their quest to militarily colonize the Southwest, the Spaniards sought to force their way of life on the Navajo, converting them to Christianity and baptizing members of the tribe. Many were killed not long after being baptized. The Spanish took a foothold in the region as they declared their intentions to take over the Southwest by any means necessary. Soon, disease brought by the Spaniards decimated the Navajo people, the lack of immunity from European illnesses ultimately wiping out several tribes and villages.
The Navajo take pride in their sacred ceremonies, taught to the apprentices of medicine men. With over 50 different ceremonies to memorize, most specialize in only a handful of them. To the Navajo, they are a way of learning invaluable lessons on not only stay alive, but to thrive responsibly in the Navajo way. Other ceremonies are simply celebrations of life's occurrences - such as the first time a child laughs out loud. In Navajo culture, each dawn is a new day; a day for renewal regardless of past transgressions. They believe that each morning their prayers are answered by the Creator.
The number four is a highly-regarded symbol in their culture as well: the original four clans, the four mountains surrounding their land, four directions, four seasons, and their four colors. The number plays an additional role elsewhere in many ceremonies. Compared to other societies that focus more firmly on traditional male roles, the Navajo people historically are more focused to the females as the head of the household. When marrying, the men move into the homes of their wives and into their clans. Also in Navajo tradition, women were historically the ones who received inheritances passed down through the generations.
In Navajo folklore, the coyote is considered the most mischievous, yet pleasant animals. Navajo legend describes the coyote is cunning and deceptive, working off of tricks to fool those he comes in contact with. It is said that the animal cannot be killed as he is a god, and a powerful one at that. The tale of the origin of the Navajos is one that is deeply rooted in mythology all on its own. Although it is not history in the literal sense, it is history from the Navajo perspective on where they came from. The stories of their ancestry are often told as oral history. It is believed their origin began in the First World. Here, the world is enveloped in darkness. With that, the Diné moved forward through different stages into the present world in which they now live.
In the beginning of the dark world there was moisture, mist, and darkness. And in the mists, the four directional points (north, south, east, west) became associated with it. After the four points, the connections to the four main colors (black, white, yellow, blue) became present. Spiritual beings and insect-like people resided in this world as well. The Ant People were the first being to live in this world. The spiritual beings that also lived in the world of darkness included the Water Spirit or Water Monster, Fish People, and Underwater People. As time went on, additional Holy Beings lived in the realm of the first world. Although they were created by the mist, they still carried human attributes. It was here that the First Man, First Woman, First Boy, First Girl, Black God, Talking God, Hogan God, and Coyote emerged. As the story goes, a universal language connected them, allowing them to communicate. But soon disagreements arose and the beings were told to leave through an exit to the east, taking all their issues with them. From here, they moved on to the Blue World where they met with blue jays, bluebirds, and blue herons along with other animals such as mountain lions, wolves, foxes, badgers, and bobcats. Like the First World though, conflict soon took a foothold and once again, the beings were asked to leave, this time going south, bringing their issues with them. As the beings moved into the Yellow World, they soon met other animals such as snakes, squirrels, mice, deer, turkeys, and spider people. But as with the previous worlds, their troubles arose once more leading to problems and frequent bickering. With that, the First Man and the First Woman were separated and placed on separate sides of the river. The women, however, were not as skilled at hunting as the men. Starving and begging to return, the women returned to the men within four years. The reuniting of the two genders sparked Coyote's mischievous nature and as a result, he stole the Water Spirit's baby. Water Spirit became infuriated and created a big flood. The people escaped after their friend, the Locust, led them out of a giant reed, one by one. As they emerged from the waters, the people found themselves in the present world. Various stories put the people at either the mountains of Colorado or near Durango.
Continuing with ancestral language, the Navajos still speak the language they've known for hundreds of years. The language of the Navajo is derived from a dialect of the language group known as Athabaskan. Linguistic evidence has shown a connection between the two tribes and ancient petroglyphs found throughout the southwest are still recognized and understood by today's Navajo. The Navajo language is considered one of the most complex and difficult to learn. While close to the Apache language, it has no relation to other Native American languages. The first known writing of the Navajo language surfaced in 1849 in the Journal of a Military Reconnaissance by Lt. James H. Simpson. A word list was published in this text.
As missionaries developed and created different spellings and forms of grammar, and as varying religious texts and dictionaries emerged, it was realized that a standard alphabet would need to be implemented. John Collier, head of Indian Affairs, along with Willard Beatty, head of Indian Education, hired four men to create the Navajo alphabet along with Navajo publications and language documents. The push for literacy and the newly created alphabet was not held in high regard by the tribal members.
On their land, the Navajo live in what is called a “hogan” (pronounced “ho-gun”). The hogans are considered sacred to tribal members and have served as family dwellings in addition to sacred and ceremonial dwellings. Up until the beginning of the 1900s, hogans were built to represent a male and female being.The male or “forked” hogans contained vestibules, or small entryways in the front of the structure, which resembled a pyramid with five triangular faces. The male hogans were used only for private and sacred ceremonies. Female or “circular” hogans were much larger and built to support the family. Female hogans do not have vestibules. The song entitled “The Blessingway” describes the first hogan as being built by Coyote with help from the beavers. The hogans were built for the First Woman, the First Man, and Talking God. The structures, when built, faced the east so the morning sun can be welcomed and good blessings made.
Until the discovery of oil in the Navajo lands, a formal government was essentially non-existent. To properly certify release of minerals, the Navajo Nation Tribal Council was formed in 1923 through the United States Secretary of the Interior. The Navajo tribe rejected creation and establishment of a constitution three separate times. On the third attempt in 1968, the draft for a constitution was approved by the tribal council but never brought to the people for ratification. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was brought forth in an attempt to reorganize along constitutional lines. The Navajo people rejected the act believing it would put an end to the Livestock Reduction Program set forth by John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
The program led to a dramatic decrease in the amount of sheep allowed on the Navajo lands. In 1933, the sheep population totaled over 1.3 million and there was not enough grass to adequately feed the animals. Erosion was also becoming a sore spot to the government, who felt it would be best to reduce the sheep population by half. Such a move altered the social and economic structures of the tribe. In 1991, a complete reorganization of the Navajo government emerged forming a three branch government: executive, judicial, and legislative. The present day government, which meets a minimum of four to five times a year in the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Arizona, consists of 88 delegates representing 110 chapters.
In modern day, the Navajo Nation economy relies heavily on tourism. Fortunately, demand to visit the reservation is consistently high due to its containment of such world-recognized landmarks as Antelope Canyon, Tower Butte, Rainbow Bridge, and the nearby Horseshoe Bend. While non-natives are forbidden to enter Navajo territory without a permit, the tribe does allow Papillon to transport passengers from Las Vegas and the surrounding area to the reservation for touring. In fact, Papillon is the only tour operator that is approved to land atop Tower Butte. Guests to the area can also embark on a guided tour through Antelope Canyon, led by a knowledgeable Navajo that will relay ancient legends and point out unique rock formations within the canyon. Browse Antelope Canyon tours from Las Vegas and experience the magic of the Navajo Nation for yourself!