The Navajo Nation

Navajo Reservation - Largest in the United States

The Navajo Nation (population 200,000) and Navajo reservation (28,000 square miles) are the largest in the United States. The Navajo (Diné) Reservation is in the Great Basin Desert region on the Colorado Plateau and occupies most of the northeastern portion of Arizona, extending into northwest New Mexico and the southern strip of Utah.

The Navajo and Apache peoples are recent arrivals (sometime after A.D. 1000) into the Plains and the Southwest, originating in the Far North/Subarctic. These people adapted well to the desert environs, with the Navajo employing hunting and gathering, farming and sheepherding.

The Navajo learned pottery and weaving from the Pueblos, but adapted sheep's wool to weaving and refined the art by creating large, spectacular blankets. Navajo jewelers are also some of the most renowned in the Southwest.

During World War II, the Navajo language was one of the Native American languages used to create cryptographic codes that were never broken.

The Navajos emerged as a distinctive culture in northwestern New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries, when scattered Athapaskan bands formed a coalition of their own peoples and forged an alliance with Puebloan war refugees. The peoples all joined for the common purpose of defending themselves, first, against Spanish oppression and, later, against Ute raiding. The Spanish, who had been driven from their New Mexico colonies and missions by the Puebloans in a bloody revolt in 1680, had returned to northern New Mexico to reassert control – with a vengeance – in 1692. The Utes, pirates mounted on horses stolen during raids on Spanish haciendas, came southward like a plague from their Rocky Mountain range to ravage the Athapaskan and Puebloan villages.

In the arid, wooded mesas and canyons of the upper San Juan River basin, the Athapaskans and their Puebloan allies built a carefully planned, ingenious network of more than 100 small villages – called "pueblitos," the Spanish word for "small villages" – and outposts designed specifically for defense (see the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management publications Defensive Sites of Dinetah and Rethinking Navajo Pueblitos). Drawing on a stunningly detailed knowledge of their 1600-square-mile area (a region a third again larger than Rhode Island), they were able to choose building sites which met, not only their needs for defense, but also the multiple requirements for commanding views, farmland, water, construction materials, firewood and visual or audible inter-village signaling and alarms—an accomplishment which archaeologists have not been able to duplicate, even with sophisticated computerized mapping programs.

Using locally available stone and timbers, the Athapaskans and Puebloans built villages with fortified wall structures, maze-like entrances and dead-ends to frustrate attackers. They built towers (presumably defensive), much like those of the Anasazi Hovenweep ruins in southeastern Utah or the Mesa Verde ruins in southwestern Colorado. They built portals in wall structures, allowing shielded defenders to fire on their enemies. They camouflaged many structures so effectively that they could scarcely be seen from a distance. Both the Athapaskans and the Puebloans left their specific imprints on the pueblitos. Within the same living complex, the Athapaskans built their traditional lodges of forked poles and brush, and the Puebloans built their traditional masonry room blocks with stone and mud walls. Surprisingly, like the Spanish, the Puebloans sometimes built hooded fireplaces in the corners of their living quarters.

For more details on their history click on the links below.

J. W. Sharp


Northwestern New Mexico's Pueblitos: A Navajo Legacy

The Athapaskan Speakers 1
The Athapaskan Speakers 2

Native American Desert Peoples Index
Prehistoric Desert Peoples Index
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Trail Ride to Rainbow Bridge

Monument Valley Adventure


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