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The Navajo

INTRODUCTION

The Navajo are relative newcomers to this area, settling in the Southwest by the 15th century. But their landscape is so tied to them that now one cannot be imagined without the other: The land of the Navajo is Navajoland.

Navajoland is a place of striking beauty and stark contrasts. Redrock spires reach to Father Sky. Canyons run long, sometimes deep, and many times with hidden caves, petroglyphs, and even star chambers deep within Mother Earth, the chasms like character lines on her weathered and loving face. The Holy Ones dwell on snowcapped mountains and look down on ancient dunes painted in pastels. The people who live here call the land Dinetah and themselves the Dine, and you can see the reflection of this great landscape in their appearance: sun-warmed skin, keen eyes to see across the vastness of their homeland, and a quietness to hear the wind's whispered words of wisdom.

The geological history of the area is so visible and stunning that it begs to be explored. Some of the most photographed land in the Southwest is on the Navajo Reservation, including Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, volcanic plugs and cinder cones, and the Bisti Badlands of hoodoos and standing rock formations.

Dinetah, the land, plays an integral part in the Navajo Creation stories, where twin heroes fight monsters. The stories explain land formations (for instance, lava flows are the blood from slain monsters), and also are teaching stories for raising children, thus weaving the landscape into the culture.

HISTORY

Riding into this landscape came the Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s, bringing with them an advanced horse culture. Unlike the land which does not change, the Navajo are adept at assimilation and adapting, taking what they like from cultures of another while keeping their own beliefs strong, secure and vital. And from the Spanish, the Navajo took horses. Fearless and independent, they soon became Lords of the Land. Relative newcomers, they soon dominated the region, though in the beginning they were befriended by the original natives, the Puebloans. Early Navajo rock art shows this Puebloan influence.

You can see some of this early rock art at Canyon de Chelly, at the heart of Navajoland. The Navajo were not the first canyon dwellers. There is an unbroken record of Anasazi habitation for more than 1000 years. Before them, the Archaics; after them the Hopi. But it is the Navajo the canyon walls seem to embrace above all others.

Canyon de Chelly is their sacred place. She is the home of Spider Grandmother, one of the First People. Her walls are a gallery of Navajo rock art chronicling their history, their culture, and the rules of the stars.

It is also where the Navajo made their last stand against the U.S. Government.

By the mid-1800s, the Navajo had been at war for 200 years: first with the Spanish, then the Mexican, and finally the Anglo. In 1846, the Navajo made their first treaty with the U.S. Government, but disagreements led to hostilities by 1849 and to chronic warfare with the US until 1863 when Kit Carson and General Carlton waged a ruthless war on the Navajo. Canyon de Chelly is where they cornered the Navajo, burning them out of crops, peach groves, and home.

Nearly 8000 Navajo were captured and forced to march to Fort Sumner in NM, a horrific hardship known as “The Long Walk.” The Navajo suffered starvation, abuse, even kidnapping of their children during the walk. The whole purpose then and later was ethnic cleansing and so conditions at the destination of Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner) were not much better. The tribe suffered severe hardships from disease and starvation, in addition to being attacked by other Native Americans. A new treaty was signed in 1868, and the surviving Navajo were allowed to leave and go to a reservation set aside in their former territory.

CULTURE and RELIGION

Their culture is an interesting juxtaposition of independence and responsibility. Descendants of nomads, Navajo are still very independent and can typically live miles apart. At the same time, the tribe is divided into more than 50 clans, and their extended family includes clan members. And so a clan member can show up at another Navajo's home asking for and receiving help, even if he is a complete stranger.

The Navajo are matrilineal, with clan descent traced through the female line and cultural mores in marriage and possessions giving power to the female. And as mentioned, one of their most important deities is Spider Grandmother.

A large body of mythology exists in forms of stories, songs, chants, prayers, sandpaintings. At the heart could be described a philosophy of the precept of duality. That is, a belief in good and evil existing side by side in us and placing the responsibility on the individual and his choices. Thus, ceremonies are in large part about helping an individual discover how he went off course and seeking guidance to regain his balance.

The four cardinal colors for the Navajo are:

  • North – Black
  • South – Blue
  • East – White
  • West – Yellow

The drives of independence, responsibility, and balance are equally strong.

JEWELRY MAKING

The best of the Navajo craftsmen exemplify this ability of remaining open to innovation while honoring the power of strong traditions.

The Navajo were the first of the Southwest tribes to produce jewelry that required the working of metal. Their love of the metal working can be traced to the Spanish arrival in the Southwest. The silver bridles and horse trappings of the conquistadors were admired and often stolen by the raiding Navajo.

Around 1850, a Navajo Medicine man, Atsidi Sani, convinced a Mexican blacksmith living in the New Mexico territory to teach him the art of working iron. Most scholars agree that he was the first Navajo to work with metal and some evidence exists to show that he later became the first Navajo to make silver coins. American coins were the primary source until 1890 (after which defacing a US coin was outlawed). Mexican pesos were substituted until 1930 when their export to the American Southwest was forbidden. Sterling silver ingots with a slightly purer silver content replaced the coins. In the 1930's, sterling silver in convenient sheets and wire forms became increasingly available from Indian traders.

In 1868 (after the Navajo were released from Bosque Redondo back to their homeland), traders arrived with silver coins, and between 1884 and 1899 turquoise stones began to appear set in silver jewelry. This was a natural development given the love of the stone by the indigenous peoples of the Southwest (mines worked for centuries, valued in trade to native peoples in South America, inlaid on shells by pre-Puebloans).

A major hallmark of Navajo jewelry has always been the emphasis on the turquoise stone through the use of great metalworking including fine stampwork. But the Navajo silversmith and his keen eye look to the horizon for new styles and challenges. Thus we have stone inlay work and in other cases overlay silverwork.