Navajo people facts for kids

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Cowboy (4013367806)
Navajo cowboy in Monument Valley

The Navajo People (Navajo: Diné or Naabeehó) are a tribe of Native Americans from the southwestern part of the United States. The Navajo tribe has about 300,000 members. It is the second largest tribe in the United States. The Navajo Nation is an independent government that runs a large Native American reservation in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Many Navajo live there, but not all of them. Most Navajo speak English. Some speak the Navajo language, The Navajo have many things in common with the Apache tribe, and the two groups may share a common ancestry.

Government

The Navajo Nation works to maintain an economy for a population of 250,000 plus members. The discovery of oil on Navajo lands in the 1920s started the tribe towards building a systematic form of government. A tribal government was established in 1923 to deal with oil exploration. The Navajo Nation is currently the largest and most sophisticated form of Native American government. The Navajo Nation has become a wealthy nation in it's own rite.

Code talkers

First 29 Navajo U.S. Marine Corps code-talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, NM. - NARA - 295175
First 29 Navajo U.S. Marine Corps code-talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, NM

Navajo code talkers were bilingual Navajo speakers who were recruited during World War II by the U.S. Marines. They served in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. The Navajo code was created by the first 29 Navajo recruits in May of 1942.

About 400 Navajos were trained as code talkers. Their training was intense and all 17 pages of the code had to be memorized. From 1942 to 1945 Navajo Code Talkers took part in every Marine assault in the Pacific Theatre. Navajos served in all six Marine divisions plus parachute units and the Marine Raider battalions. They transmitted messages on the battlefield including orders, troop movements and logistics.

While the Japanese were able to break codes used by the United States Army and the United States Army Air Corps, they were never able to break the Marine codes. Even a Navajo soldier captured during the Battle of Bataan could not figure out the code for the Japanese. Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signal officer at Iwo Jima stated: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

On September 17, 1992, the Navajo code talkers of World War II were honored for their contributions at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The long delay was due to the Navajo code being Classified information.

Culture

Navajo Sheep
Dibé (sheep) remain an important aspect of Navajo culture.

The name "Navajo" comes from the late 18th century via the Spanish (Apaches de) Navajó "(Apaches of) Navajó", which was derived from the Tewa navahū "fields adjoining a ravine". The Navajos call themselves Diné.

Like other Apacheans, the Navajos were semi-nomadic from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Their extended kinship groups had seasonal dwelling areas to accommodate livestock, agriculture, and gathering practices. As part of their traditional economy, Navajo groups may have formed trading or raiding parties, traveling relatively long distances.

There is a system of clans which defines relationships between individuals and families. The clan system is exogamous: people can only marry (and date) partners outside their own clans, which for this purpose include the clans of their four grandparents. While clans are associated with a geographical area, the area is not for the exclusive use of any one clan. Members of a clan may live hundreds of miles apart but still have a clan bond.

Historically, the structure of the Navajo society is largely a matrilineal system, in which the family of the women owned livestock, dwellings, planting areas and livestock grazing areas. Once married, a Navajo man would move to live with his bride in her dwelling and near her mother's family. Daughters (or, if necessary, other female relatives) were traditionally the ones who received the generational property inheritance.

Children are "born to" and belong to the mother's clan, and are "born for" the father's clan. The mother's eldest brother has a strong role in her children's lives. As adults, men represent their mother's clan in tribal politics.

Hogan Navajo
Navajo hogan

Traditional dwellings

A hogan, the traditional Navajo home, is built as a shelter for either a man or for a woman. Since they live in the arid Four Corners area, the houses are made of dried mud. Male hogans are square or conical with a distinct rectangular entrance, while a female hogan is an eight-sided house. Both are made of wood and covered in mud, with the door always facing east to welcome the sun each morning. The Navajos construct hogans out of poles and brush covered with earth. Navajos also have several types of hogans for lodging and ceremonial use. Ceremonies, such as healing ceremonies or the kinaaldá, take place inside a hogan. According to Kehoe, this style of housing is distinctive to the Navajos. She writes, "even today, a solidly constructed, log-walled Hogan is preferred by many Navajo families." Most Navajo members today live in apartments and houses in urban areas.

Those who practice the Navajo religion regard the hogan as sacred. The religious song "The Blessingway" (hózhǫ́ǫ́jí) describes the first hogan as being built by Coyote with help from Beavers to be a house for First Man, First Woman, and Talking God. The Beaver People gave Coyote logs and instructions on how to build the first hogan. Navajos made their hogans in the traditional fashion until the 1900s, when they started to make them in hexagonal and octagonal shapes. Hogans continue to be used as dwellings, especially by older Navajos, although they tend to be made with modern construction materials and techniques. Some are maintained specifically for ceremonial purposes.

Spiritual and religious beliefs

Navajo Yebichai (Yei Bi Chei) dancers. Edward S. Curtis. USA, 1900. The Wellcome Collection, London
Navajo Yebichai (Yei Bi Chei) dancers. Edward S. Curtis. USA, 1900. The Wellcome Collection, London
Hastobíga, Navaho Medicine man
Hastobíga, a Hataałii photographed in 1904 by Edward S. Curtis

Navajo spiritual practice is about restoring balance and harmony to a person's life to produce health and is based on the ideas of Hózhóójí. The Diné believed in two classes of people: Earth People and Holy People.

The Navajo people believe they passed through three worlds before arriving in this world, the Fourth World or the Glittering World. As Earth People, the Diné must do everything within their power to maintain the balance between Mother Earth and man. The Diné also had the expectation of keeping a positive relationship between them and the Diyin Diné.

In the Diné Bahane' (Navajo beliefs about creation), the First, or Dark World is where the four Diyin Diné lived and where First Woman and First Man came into existence. Because the world was so dark, life could not thrive there and they had to move on. The Second, or Blue World, was inhabited by a few of the mammals Earth People know today as well as the Swallow Chief, or Táshchózhii. The First World beings had offended him and were asked to leave. From there, they headed south and arrived in the Third World, or Yellow World. The four sacred mountains were found here, but due to a great flood, First Woman, First Man, and the Holy People were forced to find another world to live in. This time, when they arrived, they stayed in the Fourth World. In the Glittering World, true death came into existence, as well as the creations of the seasons, the moon, stars, and the sun.

The Holy People, or Diyin Diné, had instructed the Earth People to view the four sacred mountains as the boundaries of the homeland (Dinétah) they should never leave: Blanca Peak (Sisnaajiní — Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado; Mount Taylor (Tsoodził — Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico; the San Francisco Peaks (Dookʼoʼoosłííd — Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona; and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa — Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado. Times of day, as well as colors, are used to represent the four sacred mountains. Throughout religions, the importance of a specific number is emphasized and in the Navajo religion, the number four appears to be sacred to their practices. For example, there were four original clans of Diné, four colors and times of day, four Diyin Diné, and for the most part, four songs sung for a ritual.

Navajos have many different ceremonies. For the most part, their ceremonies are to prevent or cure diseases. Corn pollen is used as a blessing and as an offering during prayer. One half of major Navajo song ceremonial complex is the Blessing Way (Hózhǫ́ǫ́jí) and other half is the Enemy Way (Anaʼí Ndááʼ). The Blessing Way ceremonies are based on establishing "peace, harmony, and good things exclusively" within the Dine. The Enemy Way, or Evil Way ceremonies are concerned with counteracting influences that come from outside the Dine. Spiritual healing ceremonies are rooted in Navajo traditional stories. One of them, the Night Chant ceremony, is conducted over several days and involves up to 24 dancers. The ceremony requires the dancers to wear buckskin masks, as do many of the other Navajo ceremonies, and they all represent specific gods. The purpose of the Night Chant is to purify the patients and heal them through prayers to the spirit-beings. Each day of the ceremony entails the performance of certain rites and the creation of detailed sand paintings. One of the songs describes the home of the thunderbirds:

In Tsegihi [White House],
In the house made of the dawn,
In the house made of the evening light

The ceremonial leader proceeds by asking the Holy People to be present in the beginning of the ceremony, then identifying the patient with the power of the spirit-being, and describing the patient's transformation to renewed health with lines such as, "Happily I recover."

Ceremonies are used to correct curses that cause of some illnesses or misfortunes. People may complain of witches who do harm to the minds, bodies, and families of innocent people., though these matters are rarely discussed in detail with those outside of the community.

Music

Navajo music is music made by Navajos, mostly hailing from the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States and the territory of the Navajo Nation. While it traditionally takes the shape of ceremonial chants and echoes themes found in Diné Bahaneʼ, contemporary Navajo music includes a wide range of genres, ranging from country music to rock and rap, performed in both English and Navajo.

Traditional

Traditional Navajo music is always vocal, with most instruments, which include drums, drumsticks, rattles, rasp, flute, whistle, and bullroarer, being used to accompany singing of specific types of song (Frisbie and McAllester 1992). In 1982, there were over 1,000 Hataałii, or Singers, otherwise known as 'Medicine People', qualified to perform one or more of thirty ceremonials and countless prayer rituals (Frisbie and Tso n.d.) which restore hózhǫ́ which holds the semantic field of 'harmonious condition' and 'beauty', good health, serenity, and balance.

These songs are the most sacred holy songs, the "complex and comprehensive" spiritual literature of the Navajo, may be considered classical music (McAllester and Mitchell 1983), while all other songs, including personal, patriotic, daily work, recreation, jokes, and less sacred ceremonial songs, may be considered popular music. The "popular" side is characterized by public performance while the holy songs are preserved of their sacredness by reserving it only for ceremonies (and thus not featured on the recording listed at bottom). (ibid)

Cross Canyon Echoes
Members of the Navajo Song & Dance singing group "Cross Canyon Echoes" sing for a charity event in Window Rock, Arizona.

The longest ceremonies may last up to ten days and nights while performing rituals that restore the balance between good and evil, or positive and negative forces. The hataałii, aided by sandpaintings or masked yéʼii bicheii, as well as numerous other sacred tools used for healing, chant the sacred songs to call upon the Navajo gods and natural forces to restore the person to harmony and balance within the context of the world forces. In ceremonies involving sandpaintings, the person to be supernaturally assisted, the patient, becomes the protagonist, identifying with the gods of the Diné Creation Stories, and at one point becomes part of the Story Cycle by sitting on a sandpainting with iconography pertaining to the specific story and deities. (McAllester 1981-1982)

The lyrics, which may last over an hour and are usually sung in groups, contain narrative epics including the beginning of the world, phenomenology, morality, and other lessons. Longer songs are divided into two or four balanced parts and feature an alternation of chantlike verses and buoyant melodically active choruses concluded by a refrain in the style and including lyrics of the chorus. Lyrics, songs, groups, and topics include cyclic: Changing Woman, an immortal figure in the Navajo traditions, is born in the spring, grows to adolescence in the summer, becomes an adult in the autumn, and then an old lady in the winter, repeating the life cycles over and over. Her sons, the Hero Twins, Monster Slayer and Born-for-the-Water, are also sung about, for they rid the world of giants and evil monsters. Stories such as these are spoken of during these sacred ceremonies.

The "popular" music resembles the highly active melodic motion of the choruses, featuring wide intervallic leaps and melodic range usually an octave to octave and a half. Structurally, the songs are created from the complex repetition, division, and combinations of most often no more than four or five phrases, with short songs often immediately following each other for continuity as needed in work songs. Their lyrics are mostly vocables, with certain vocables specific to genres, but may contain short humorous or satirical texts. (ibid)

Shoegame Songs

Navajo Shoegame
Residents of Fort Defiance, Arizona play a round of Navajo Shoegame.

Long ago when the animals roamed the earth they came together to play Késhjééʼ, or the Navajo moccasin game. Yéʼiitsoh (Giant) and Owl discussed putting a game together and they came up with the Navajo Shoegame. There is a story that goes with this, however it remains only to be heard orally by a Diné. Today throughout the Navajo Nation, many families play the Navajo Shoegame. At times, local communities play against each other during the winter season. There are also many prominent Navajo Shoegame singers throughout the Navajo Nation. Notably the Nez Family of Hunter's Point, Arizona and Pinedale, New Mexico, who are very well known for their singing and playing of the game. Leo Nez Sr. and his son Titus Jay Nez who come from the Nez family are very well known for their singing of Shoegame songs and attendance of Shoegames throughout the Navajo Nation. Other notable members include Jimmy Cody, and Sammie Largo.

Children's Songs

Navajo children's songs are usually about animals, such as pets and livestock. Some songs are about family members, and about chores, games, and other activities as well. It usually includes anything in a child's daily life. A child may learn songs from an early age from the mother. As a baby, if the child cries, the mother will sing to it while it's tied in the cradleboard. Navajo songs are rhythmic, and therefore soothing to a baby. Thus, songs are a major part of Navajo culture.

It may have been a kind of beginner's course in learning the songs and prayers for self-protection from bad things, skinwalkers, and other evil figures in Navajo traditions. Blessings, such as when one does with corn pollen in the early morning, may be learned as well.

In children's songs, a short chant usually starts off the song, followed by at least one stanza of lyrics, and finishing up with the same chant. All traditional songs include chants, and are not made up solely of lyrics. There are specific chants for some types of songs as well. Contemporary children's songs, however, such as Christmas songs and Navajo versions of nursery rhymes, may have lyrics only. Today, both types of songs may be taught in elementary schools on the reservation, depending on the knowledge and ability of the particular teacher.

In earlier times, Navajo children may have sung songs like these to themselves while sheepherding, to pass the time. Sheep were, and still are, a part of Navajo life. Back then, giving a child custody of the entire herd was a way to teach them leadership and responsibility, for one day they would probably own a herd of their own. A child, idle while the sheep grazed, may sing to pass the time.

Visual arts

Silverwork

Squash-blossom-necklace
Squash blossom necklace
Navajowithsilver1891
19th-century Navajo jewelry with the popular concho and dragonfly designs.

Silversmithing is an important art form among Navajos. Atsidi Sani (c. 1830–c. 1918) is considered to be the first Navajo silversmith. He learned silversmithing from a Mexican man called Nakai Tsosi ("Thin Mexican") around 1878 and began teaching other Navajos how to work with silver. By 1880, Navajo silversmiths were creating handmade jewelry including bracelets, tobacco flasks, necklaces and bracers. Later, they added silver earrings, buckles, bolos, hair ornaments, pins and squash blossom necklaces for tribal use, and to sell to tourists as a way to supplement their income.

The Navajos' hallmark jewelry piece called the "squash blossom" necklace first appeared in the 1880s. The term "squash blossom" was apparently attached to the name of the Navajo necklace at an early date, although its bud-shaped beads are thought to derive from Spanish-Mexican pomegranate designs. The Navajo silversmiths also borrowed the "naja" (najahe in Navajo) symbol to shape the silver pendant that hangs from the "squash blossom" necklace.

Turquoise has been part of jewelry for centuries, but Navajo artists did not use inlay techniques to insert turquoise into silver designs until the late 19th century.

Weaving

Navajo sheep & weaver
Navajo weaver with sheep
Navajo Germantown Rug 2008.008.001
Navajo Germantown Eye Dazzler Rug, Science History Institute
Probably Bayeta-style Blanket with Terrace and Stepped Design, 1870-1880, 50.67.54
Probably Bayeta-style Blanket with Terrace and Stepped Design, 1870-1880, 50.67.54, Brooklyn Museum

Navajos came to the southwest with their own weaving traditions; however, they learned to weave cotton on upright looms from Pueblo peoples. The first Spaniards to visit the region wrote about seeing Navajo blankets. By the 18th century the Navajos had begun to import Bayeta red yarn to supplement local black, grey, and white wool, as well as wool dyed with indigo. Using an upright loom, the Navajos made extremely fine utilitarian blankets that were collected by Ute and Plains Indians. These Chief's Blankets, so called because only chiefs or very wealthy individuals could afford them, were characterized by horizontal stripes and minimal patterning in red. First Phase Chief's Blankets have only horizontal stripes, Second Phase feature red rectangular designs, and Third Phase feature red diamonds and partial diamond patterns.

The completion of the railroads dramatically changed Navajo weaving. Cheap blankets were imported, so Navajo weavers shifted their focus to weaving rugs for an increasingly non-Native audience. Rail service also brought in Germantown wool from Philadelphia, commercially dyed wool which greatly expanded the weavers' color palettes.

Some early European-American settlers moved in and set up trading posts, often buying Navajo rugs by the pound and selling them back east by the bale. The traders encouraged the locals to weave blankets and rugs into distinct styles. These included "Two Gray Hills" (predominantly black and white, with traditional patterns); Teec Nos Pos (colorful, with very extensive patterns); "Ganado" (founded by Don Lorenzo Hubbell), red-dominated patterns with black and white; "Crystal" (founded by J. B. Moore); oriental and Persian styles (almost always with natural dyes); "Wide Ruins", "Chinlee", banded geometric patterns; "Klagetoh", diamond-type patterns; "Red Mesa" and bold diamond patterns. Many of these patterns exhibit a fourfold symmetry, which is thought to embody traditional ideas about harmony or hózhǫ́.

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