The history of the Navajo people is usually seen as robust mix of early tribal engagement, conflict with Europeans, and integration into the modern United States. Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the United States, and its home reservation, Navajoland, spans more land than any other. Covering 24,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the sparse, dry lands bear little resemblance to the lands of the tribe's origin. The tribe's immigration from northern Canada in 1400 A.D. is one of the earliest known events in Navajo history. Other key events include migration to the southwestern part of what is now the United States, battling with settlers and militia, adopting the traditions of their neighbors, and a 400-mile forced march known as the Long Walk, which claimed many lives. In more modern times, the tribal language proved invaluable when converted to military code, and Navajo men are credited with many of the U.S.’s victories in the Second World War. These men are known today as “Code Talkers.” Navajo reservations offer a wealth of historical appreciation for both residents and visitors, and the nation’s governmental structure has proved highly successful and effective.
Early Nomadic Life
When the Navajo made their trek to the desert lands of North America in 1400 A.D., they lived a nomadic lifestyle. The tribe hunted, gathered and migrated. Their lives had little in common with the tribal traditions of today. Of course, this history sometimes meets resistance from those who believe the legends linking early Navajo history to sacred landmarks in the area in which they dwell in modern times.
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Raids and Warfare
Over time, the Navajo began to adapt to the ways of their neighboring tribes. By the 1500s, they were raising corn and beans, just like the Pueblo Indians. The Navajo changed again with the coming of foreign settlers, and they began raising sheep and crafting silver jewelry, just like the Spaniards. The Navajo also continued their tradition of raiding neighboring tribes. The Spanish introduction of the horse in the 1700s brought this practice to a head.
In 1804, with help from the Pueblo, Ute and Blackfoot tribes, the Spanish government attacked the Navajo in retaliation. Men died on both sides, and problems between the tribes died down. It wasn't until the U.S. expanded into New Mexico and new settlers moved into Navajo territory that raiding began once again.
U.S. Government Treaty Attempts
In 1849, the U.S. government attempted to forge a treaty with tribal leaders, but the meeting ended in conflict and tragedy. In the end, seven Navajo were killed, including an influential warrior named Narbona. Talks strained between the Indians and the U.S., which had vastly different ways of working out deals, and misunderstandings became a breeding ground for problems.
A series of failed treaties and attacks motivated the U.S. government to form a relocation program for the Navajo and Apache Indian tribes. In 1863, General Kit Carson arrived with plans to move all tribal members to Fort Sumner in southeast New Mexico. The rounding up of Indian tribes was a messy and violent affair.
The Long Walk
In 1864, the Navajo — men, women, and children of all ages — were made to walk 400 miles to an encampment called Bosque Redondo. This trek is known as the Long Walk, and many people died during the 18-day journey. There was suffering at Bosque Redondo, as well, and in 1868, a treaty was drafted that allowed for the Indian tribe's return to its homeland. The Treaty of Bosque Redondo called for numerous provisions, including an end to the raids that had plagued the Southwest for centuries.
The Long Walk was the darkest point in Navajo history, but it also united the people in a way they had never experienced. By 1923, they established a formal governmental body and were working out land lease agreements with companies thirsty for New Mexico oil. By 1924, they were being counted as U.S. citizens and securing the right to vote.
Role in Wartime Coding
In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of Navajo volunteers was recruited to create a secret code using their native language. The code proved unbreakable and was used throughout the efforts of World War II to relay messages without any fear of the enemy intercepting them. They are credited with the victory at Iwo Jima, among others. Nearly 60 years after their efforts, in 2001, the so-called Navajo Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Most modern-day Navajos live on land reserved specifically for the tribe, but not all do; Navajos and their descendants are in nearly all regions of the U.S., and some live abroad, too. No matter where they are, though, registered members are usually entitled to a stake and often a vote in how tribal affairs are handled. Like most U.S. tribes, the Navajo tribe is an autonomous nation-state that acts independently of federal jurisdiction. They have their own flag and their own government, and some of the most advanced medical and educational systems of any tribe. In 1991, they restructured the Navajo National Council to create a three-prong form of government with executive, judicial and legislative branches.