The Navajo Indians are a Southwestern Native American tribe with a 27,000 square mile (69,930 square kilometer) mostly autonomous reservation called Dine Bikeyah or Navajoland that includes sections of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The Navajo refer to themselves as the Dine or “the people” and are the second largest Indian tribe in the United States with a population that exceeds 250,000 members.
Navajo was the name given to the tribe by 17th century Spanish explorers who were among the first Europeans to encounter it. Navajo Indians are believed to have separated from a single tribe that crossed over the Bering land bridge several thousand years ago into Canada’s Northwest Territories before eventually migrating to and settling in the Southwestern United States by around 1000 AD.
Navajo Indians were originally a semi-nomadic people who moved from one living area to another with the changing of the seasons. The tribe owned some livestock and engaged in hunting, gathering, agricultural practices and trade with neighboring Native American and European groups. Traditional Navajo lodging called a hogan is a distinctive octagonal wooden hut covered in mud with an entrance that faces west. Navajo tribal society is often characterized as matrilocal because married couples traditionally live with or near the bride’s parents. In addition, family lands, livestock and other resources are owned by and passed down to women as opposed to men in Navajo culture.
Contact between the Navajo and Europeans first occurred in the late 1600s. The Spanish settlers who tried to establish a presence near tribal lands in the 17th century came into immediate conflict with the Navajo Indians. The introduction of the horse by Europeans permitted the Navajo to increase raids and improve the effectiveness of their resistance to the Spanish presence. An uneasy relationship persisted until 1846 when the U.S. military arrived and attempted to subdue the tribe by building forts on tribal territory and through the use of force. In 1861, militia forces invaded tribal territory and killed and pillaged indiscriminately until the Navajo Indians began to surrender.
Upon their surrender, the Navajo Indians were made to complete a 9,000-mile (14,484 kilometers) trek to Fort Sumner known as The Long Walk. An insufficient supply of food and water and the proximity of tribes hostile to the Navajo contributed to the difficulties of all who were interred at the fort. A reservation located on a portion of original tribal lands was created for the Navajo in 1868 but conflicts between Navajo Indians and local citizens continued throughout the 20th century.
The U.S. government also harassed the Navajo because of the tribe’s communal society. In the 1930s more than 80 percent of Navajo livestock was killed by the United States and the government later denied the tribe humanitarian assistance during the Second World War.
The Navajo economy was boosted by the discovery of oil in Navajoland in the 1920s and a tribal government headquartered in Window Rock, Az., was soon established although the tribe has yet to ratify a constitution. Despite a strained relationship, the Navajo helped the U.S. government create a code based on the tribe’s language that was used during World War II. A group of nearly 400 Navajo men known as the Code Talkers helped American Marines in almost every military assault undertaken in the Pacific throughout the war. The Navajo Indians are also recognized silversmiths, weavers, musicians and artists.