A Clash of Cultures
The Navajo of the Southwestern United States are the largest single federally recognized tribe of the United States of America. The Navajo Nation has 300,048 enrolled tribal members. The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body which manages the Navajo Indian reservation in the Four Corners area of the United States. The Navajo language is spoken throughout the region, although most Navajo speak English as well.
Until they came into contact with the Spanish and Pueblos, the Navajo were hunters and gatherers. They adopted farming techniques and crops from the Pueblo people, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. As a result of Spanish influence, they began herding sheep and goats, depending on them for food and trade. They spun and wove sheared wool into blankets and clothing which could be used for personal use or trading. They also depended on their flocks of sheep for meat. Their lives depended on sheep so much that, to the Navajo, sheep were a kind of currency and the size of the herd was a mark of social status.
The Navajo speak dialects of the language family referred to as Athabaskan. The Navajo and Apache are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside. The Dene First Nations, who live near from Tadoule Lake in Manitoba to the Great Slave Lake in Northwest Territories, also speak Athabaskan languages. Despite the time elapsed, these people reportedly can still understand the language of their distant cousins the Navajo. Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajo and Apache entered the Southwest by 1400 CE. Navajo oral traditions are said to retain references of this migration.
Navajo oral history also seems to indicate a long relationship with Pueblo people and a willingness to adapt foreign ideas into their own culture. Trade between the long-established Pueblo peoples and the Athabaskans was important to both groups. The Spanish records say by the mid-16th century, the Pueblos exchanged maize and woven cotton goods for bison meat, hides and material for stone tools from Athabaskans who either traveled to them or lived around them. In the 18th century, the Spanish reported that the Navajo had large numbers of livestock and large areas of crops. The Navajo probably adapted many Pueblo ideas into their own different culture.
The Spanish first used the term Apachu de Nabajo in the 1620s to refer to the people in the Chama Valley region east of the San Juan River and northwest of present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico. By the 1640s, they were using "Navajo" for these indigenous people. The Spanish recorded in 1670s that they lived in a region called Dinetah, about sixty miles (100 km) west of the Rio Chama valley region. In the 1780s, the Spanish sent military expeditions against the Navajo in the southwest and west of that area, in the Mount Taylor and Chuska Mountain regions of New Mexico.
In the last 1,000 years, Navajos have had a history of expanding their range and refining their self-identity and their significance to other groups. This probably resulted from a cultural combination of endemic warfare (raids) and commerce with the Pueblo, Apache, Ute, Comanche and Spanish peoples, set in the changing natural environment of the Southwest.