Monday, December 1, 2008

The Navajo Nation

The early Navajo people were homogenous. They came to the southwestfrom Canada in the 1500’s or perhaps earlier. They lived in houses that were here when they came. These were built by an earlier people. Several different tribes and clans of these tribes, not related to the Navajo, claimed other areasleft by these early people.
They were the “Anasazi.” Depending on which tribe translates it, the word has a different meaning. It is, according to those who study such things,a Navajo word.
The Navajo National Monument literature on the reservation in Arizona will tell you it means “the other people.” The cliff dwelling ruins at Aztec, New Mexico are described as the buildings of “pre-Pueblo people.” In other places, the Park’s Service literature and films calls them “the lost people.” There is politics and disagreement here even to the question, “where did we come from?”
A trip through the ruins of the cliff dwelling peoples of the southwest teaches much. It all seems quite straightforward until one finds that the Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and finally the eponymous Pueblo all had clans that used these dwellings at various times. So while the Navajo seem the dominate people here on the reservation, the Hopi would not agree. Many believe these cliff dwellings were stops along a sacred trail for many tribes and clans within those tribes. The largest of the villages that likely held 150 people at one time in the 1200’s were Hopi in its last days. Before they left, perhaps for no better reason than they were nomadic in nature, they sealed the grain and pottery in rooms as if they might return some day. Elders still make pilgrimages there. It is complicated, as all Native American things seem to us. Yet it is indisputable that these cliff houses were first built by a vaguely agrarian people known as the Anasazi before the year 1000.
Civilization in the “New World” as the Europeans who thought they “discovered” it called it, has been operating in community groups since at least 1700 BC. I don’t recall this in any of my history books. My elemental knowledge in school taught me the people on the North American Continent before the white man came, were mere “savage” tribes of hunters and gatherers who seemed to have some idea that planting corn was a useful thing so they taught the early whites how to do it to keep them from starving. How they came to have the corn seeds to plant or learn how to grow it was either not important nor a question asked. That was too many years ago for me to remember with clarity, but it seems I would have a recollection.
This desolate land here in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Colorado seems too arid to support any life at all, much less organized villages of men and women which grew grain, had a network of “roads” and interactions between groups. Yet in these Mesas there is water that seeps from the top when the rains and snow occur which is held in the sandstone rock until it reaches the bottom to form springs. These are in the crevices where there is also shade. When these nomadic people found water, shade and soft rock to build with it was all the Anasazi needed to make a home. Given the steepness of the cliffs, they first lived in the open near them in “pit houses” which were at least partly underground with a fire pit and a roof of animal skins. This provided some relief from the brutal heat in summer and the cold winds of winter.
As they progressed in their invention of tools, learned how to make rope from plant fibers, cut huge timbers from the trees some distance away, they began to stay closer to their “villages” to take care of the corn they had planted--which came originally from nomadic tribes that lived in Mexico. They somehow learned how to construction complex structures and began to fashion the cliff houses in the shaded crevices close to the water sources. They built with a brick they made from the soft rock and made remarkably tight storage areas for their grain to deter rodents. Their living spaces seem very small to us now. The rooms surrounded courtyards where most of their tools were made and the grain was ground to meal. Working and living here might be an extended family or one or two smaller, unrelated ones. A series of these made up the village. In all the ruins, there is one commonality. It is the “Kiva.” It is a room with no windows, and only two openings, both in the roof. This was both the community’s gathering place and the “church.” In all the ruins the “Kiva” represents the place from which they emerged into this world. The larger opening had a ladder. The smaller hole represents the one which they believed was how the ancestral spirits had risen into this new world. Why? Because they had no other explanation for how they happened to be here. The descending to earth did not occur to them since even today they believe they are of the earth, not just placed on it.
In the ruins in this neighborhood, it is generally accepted by those that study such things that some were only lived in for about one generation by the earliest people. One day, or over several days or months, they simply left. No one is sure why. It is possible society frayed. They were now farmers and not hunters so the crops may have failed. It does not appear from the ruins that it was a violent reason. Yet less than 30 years, after all their work and innovation, they left. The homes had everything they needed. Yet they choose to move on or to disappear depending on which tribe’s political answer you want to believe. Whatever the reason, they were gone by 1790 or 1800 BC.
Other people, the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Pueblo tribes came to these plains later. They found these prebuilt “cities,” occupied them, and replicated them. Some were here a long time, until the whites decided there were other places they should live. The Navajo stayed the longest. They are still here, as are the many clans of the Hopi. The Navajo Nation became powerful and lived both in times of peace and mutual distrust with the Hopi and others. Eventually these conflicts annoyed the new white colonists enough to send the Army in to separate them. They sent the Navajo on their “Long Walk,” some 300 miles to eastern New Mexico to a reserve at Fort Sumner in what is now New Mexico. Four years later, under a new treaty, they returned to the lands of the ancient Anasazi with sheep to start again. They still raise them in northern Arizona.
The Navajo Nation dominates and fascinates. They were in many ways the most dominate and bravest and most feared by the whites and the Hopi. They also believe themselves to have a culture superior to the white and hold tightly to their ancestral traditions. There are 300,000 still here on and near the reservation. It is the Navajo one finds at the Four Corners Monument (the place where the surveyors said Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico would meet) selling jewelry and T-shirts and fried bread. They populate Monument Valley. They build churches. They seem to receive little help from their casino-owning brethren in other states but live in this corner of Arizona arid high country on the mesas and grasslands herding sheep in Tsegi Canyon or living in the traditional “hogans” on the snow covered mountains in the Navajo Nation. They do so in poverty so grinding it is hard to look at as you pass through it on land so unforgiving that one wonders how they survive. Faith and government’s minimal assistance help, but clearly only to a subsistence level. Failing banks, subprime mortgages, and Wall Street have no meaning here.
That they do survive here is a tribute to their culture, faith, and tenacity. They seem a gentle people dreaming the same dreams as anyone if you take the time to talk to them. They work for ranchers and small business. The artisans make jewelry from the rock and they silk screen t-shirts with their original images. They pass these skills to their children. They stay in these small businesses here on or near the Navajo Nation. There is a pressure to stay, to be a “real” Navajo. The alcoholism rate is beyond reason, infectious diseases are rampart, and virulent contagious diseases are becoming a huge concern. They lack healthcare, proper diet, and so many things, yet wait for better things that will likely never come. Some have children who have gone on to live in other places and succeed. The telling about them is not immediate, but the pride is apparent when they do and the hope--an expectation-- that they will return to make things better can be heard in their voices.
They are hardy people. They are proud, poetic, and poor. They are pious and hopeful that better things will come to this land of the original North Americans. They live what seems to the traveler in a quiet dignity that their faith supports but that reality chips away at every day of their life.
Perhaps there is a lesson here, perhaps not. Yet there is a sense of wonder of how a people with a tradition of trusting the “new settlers” and of proud warriors could have been left here with only their pride, poverty, poetry, and hope.


  1. Remus:
    I have been through parts of that area. Beautiful and in some ways spiritual and strange.
    I have a piece of pottery that I found in a wash in Arizona. It still has the original smoothing lines of some ancient fingers. I take it out to look at and touch when I need to remember that the world is and was much larger than myself. I envy you your travels. I would love nothing better than to putter along from New Mexico, through Arizona and find my way into Utah.

  2. @ toutay,

    I envy you your piece of pottery. I hope someday, when I have seen the other things I still want to see, I can go back there. It is a beautiful place as you say, and casts a strange peace over the traveler.

  3. Hooray! You're on-line, and it looks great! I'm looking forward to frequent visits.

    This essay was really evocative of the timelessness of the place. Thanks.

  4. We are famous now Reamus. Sempringham has us on his blog.

  5. Yes! If Sempringham has us linked, it must be so!

  6. Reamus.....this is a beautiful and interesting post. Yes, the white man's history books mislead, or maybe they've just written more of them....they have monopoly. It is inspiring to think that the Navajo quietly continue to live according to their traditions. I'm glad to hear that they do.

  7. Farmwife,

    Thanks! It is an almost spiritual place even in its barrenness and poverty.

    Thanks for the kind words.