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Religious Beliefs
Social and Family Structure



The Navajos (1990 pop., 219,198) constitute the largest The Navajos (1990 pop., 219,198) constitute the largest Native American tribe in the United States. They also occupy the largest reservation in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. Some of the people live in towns bordering the reservation, such as Flagstaff, Ariz., or Gallup, N.Mex., or in major western cities, including Phoenix and Albuquerque. In their own language, the Navajos call themselves DinČ (the people) and their land DinČ Bikeyah (the people's country). The word Navajo may be a corruption of a term used by some of the Pueblo Indians to designate an area of northern New Mexico that the Navajos occupied near the time of the Spanish incursion into the region.

The people who were to become the Navajo tribe settled in what would be the mountains of New Mexico in or around the 1600's. Prior to that time the area was the home of the Anasazi (The Ancient Ones). The latter had lived there for approximately 1200 years but, for as yet unexplained reasons, they abandoned their highly developed dwellings and moved westward and southward. A new group of people, the Athapascans, migrated from what is now Canada, Alaska and the American Northwest southward to settle in the American Southwest. Some of this group of Southern Athapascans settled the mountainous region of New Mexico and came to be known as the Navajos, or as they prefer to be called, DinČ (the People). Other Athapascans continued moving southward and settled in Arizona where they became known as the Apache Tribe. In the 1600's the Spanish began to intrude on the Pueblo Indians of Arizona; the hostility thus engendered gradually spread northward to involve the Navajos. In 1680, the Pueblos revolted against these European invaders and succeeded in temporarily throwing off their yoke of suppression. At this time many Pueblos moved northward to join Navajo settlements. The Navajo then began 
to adopt the Pueblo agriculturalThe Navajo then began to adopt the Pueblo agricultural, sheep raising and weaving methods that are still evident today. The Navajo adapted well to the new farming methods but continued their warlike behavior of raiding Spanish settlements as well as those of their Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni neighbors major defeat for the Navajos occurred in Canyon de Muertes in 1804 when a group of Navajos confronted a party of Spanish horsemen. The Indians were trapped on a ledge of the canyon with Spanish soldiers armed with rifles above and below them; all but one of the Navajo were slain. In 1848, after the Mexican War, the U.S. began to send troops and settlers into the area of New Mexico. As happened with so many of the tribes throughout the U.S., the government and white settlers eventually confiscated the Navajo's land.
Religious Beliefs

The traditional Navajo way contains no concept for religion as a sphere of activity separate from daily life. Navajo religion has been described as "life itself, the land, and well-being." In other words, all living things - people, plants, animals, mountains and the Earth itself - are relatives. Each being is infused with its own spirit, or 'inner form', which gives it life and purpose within an orderly and interconnected universe. The inter-relatedness of all creation is recognized through daily prayer offerings and an elaborate system of ceremonies. The purpose of Navajo life is to maintain balance between the individual and the universe and to live in harmony with nature and the Creator. In order to achieve this goal, Navajos must perform their religious practices on the specific, time-honored areas, which they inhabit. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian religions which tend to celebrate people and events, and thus can be practiced anywhere, the Navajo religion is founded on relationships to specific places. The Navajo religion is defined by and cannot be separated from its relationship to specific geographical places. These sites are sacred because of special religious events, which have occurred in that particular site. The Navajo people believe that the Creator placed them on land between four sacred mountains: Blanca Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, and Hesperus Peak in Colorado. According to their own history, the Navajos have always lived between these mountains. The Navajo people have been instructed by the Creator never to leave their sacred homeland.

The Navajo family's dwelling,The Navajo family's dwelling, the hogan, is a microcosm of their homeland. The posts of the hogan represent the four sacred mountains. A traditional hogan is constructed of logs, bark, and packed earth in a round dome-roofed shape, according to instructions found in the Navajo creation story. The sections of the hogan correspond to the structures of the universe, for instance, the earthen floor represents Mother Earth and the round roof symbolizes Father Sky. A hogan can never be abandoned unless it is struck by lightning or someone dies in it from a cause other than old age. The hogan is the site for all religious ceremonies, which sanctify it through use. The hogan constitutes one of the most sacred places for the members of a Navajo family and binds them to the land of their birth. A Navajo's relationship to the land where he or she is born is established at birth, when his or her umbilical cord is buried near the hogan. The burying of the umbilical cord symbolizes the transition from nourishment by one's natural mother to a life of nurturing by one's spiritual mother, Mother Earth. The child's afterbirth is offered to a young tree, such as Juniper or Pinon. The tree and the child grow together and share a sacred bond that continues throughout the life of each. The child's cradle board is cut from the same tree, and is offered back to it when the child can walk.

As the child grows older, parents and grandparents instruct him or her on how to perform ceremonial obligations to the land. Offerings of turquoise, white shell, jet and abalone are made to sacred sites such as rocks, springs, buttes, herbal gathering areas, and trees, to obtain blessings and protection. The Navajos believe they have a responsibility to remain on and care for the land where the Creator placed them. Knowledge of sacred places carries with it the obligation to care for them through the appropriate offerings, prayers and songs. Such ceremonies necessitate regular, sometimes daily, access to sacred places and plants. Thus, for the Navajos, respect for the sacredness of their land requires occupancy. The story of the creation of the Navajo people and their emergence onto their sacred homeland is recounted in a ceremony known as the Blessingway, which is the foundation of the Navajo way of life. Blessingway focuses on the story of the Changing Woman, who is the inner form of the Earth through its seasonal transformations. She is the major deity for the Navajo.

The Navajo are instructed that in the beginning,The Navajo are instructed that in the beginning, First Man and First Woman emerged onto this world near Huerfano Mountain in New Mexico. One day, First Man found a baby on a nearby mountain. The baby matured in four days and became the Changing Woman. The Changing Woman created the four original Navajo clans from her body. Her sons rid the land between the four sacred mountains of dangerous monsters and made it safe for the clans to inhabit. The Blessingway recounts in detail the instructions the Changing Woman gave to the Navajo people she created. These teachings concern history and major religious practices, such as girl's puberty rite and the consecration of a family's hogan. When performed in its entirety, the Blessingway is a two-day ceremony whose purpose is to obtain peace, harmony, protection, and to help realize the goal of a long happy life.

Navajo healing ceremonies are used to cope with theNavajo healing ceremonies are used to cope with the uncertainties and dangers that occur in the universe. They are usually performed to bring the dangerous powers under control and to restore physical or spiritual imbalances in an individual. A specially trained medicine person must perform these curative ceremonies, which can last up to nine days, in a hogan. The medicine person often uses sandpaintings and herbal remedies made from local minerals and plants to heal the patient. Plants must be collected for each individual ceremony; they cannot be gathered in advance or stored in a kit. For example a medicine person must walk to the spot where a plant is growing and tell the plant the name of the person who is sick. Each plant is addressed as an individual with offerings of corn pollen, songs and prayers. The use of local plants for Navajo ceremonies illustrates the need for the Navajos to remain on their sacred land. The essence of the Navajo religion is the relationship between the people and their land. Their religion can only be practiced on the land they and their ancestors have held sacred for generations. Thousands of Navajos are currently threatened by the forced relocation mandated by Public Law 93-531. Forcibly removing the people from their land would deny them the ability to practice their religion, a right protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Some recent news of the American Native People's struggle for religious freedom comes from the magazine Shaman's Drum which reports that the US Congress has finally legalized the use of the cactus, Peyote, for spiritual purposes by the indigenous people of the United States. This legislation is Public Law 103-344 which (to quote) 'Prohibits Federal and State Governments from banning the use, possession or transportation of Peyote by Indians for traditional uses.' This is, one presumes, because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the prohibition of the Sacred Peyote inhibits that freedom.


The Navajo people are very dynamic and creative people who strongly believe in the power of the mind to think and create; finding expression in the myriad symbolic creations of the Navajo language, art and ritual ceremonies. Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. Also the Navajo language embodies a high prevalence of humor in day to day conversation. Humor transforms difficult and frustrating circumstances into bearable and even pleasant situations. The strong emphasis and value Navajos place on humor is evidenced in the First Laugh rite. The first time a Navajo child laughs out loud is a time for honor and celebration. Aside from being the mother tongue of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo language also has played a highly significant role in helping the entire nation. During World War II, the Navajo language was used as a code to confuse the enemy. Navajo bravery and patriotism is unequaled. Navajos were inducted and trained in the U.S. Marine Corps to become "code talkers"on the front-line. Shrouded in secrecy at the time, these men are known today as the famed Navajo Code Talkers, proved to be the only code that could not be broken during World War II. Although not all-tribal members speak the language fluently, most Navajos have a deep respect for it.

Social and Family Structure

When a Navajo baby is born, he or she belongs to the clan of the mother. The clan name passes on through her to her children. When a young man marries, it must be to someone completely outside of his clan. Even though people in his clan are not all blood-related, it is considered inappropriate to marry within one's own clan. This rule is strictly observed. Should it occur, it would be considered as "incest" to the Navajo people. An important Navajo custom is to introduce one's maternal and paternal clans on both sides of his family when meeting another Navajo or introducing yourself to the Navajo public for the first time. In the Navajo way, this is how Navajos know where you came from. Navajo children are "born to" the mother's clan and take her clan name, and are "born for" the father's clan. Therefore, Navajos precisely know who they are through identification by their mother's, father's, maternal grandfather's and paternal grandfather's clans. Residence after marriage was usually with the family of the wife. Inheritance usually correlated with the post marital residence patterns. The Navajo kinship system traces descent through the mother.

According to tradition, two Navajos of the same clan, meeting for the first time, will refer to each other as "brother" or "sister." Navajos that are cousins to each other in the American sense, think of each other as "brother" or "sister." Father's and mother's cousins in the American way are thought of as aunts and uncles in the Navajo way. Grandparent's brothers and sisters in the American way are thought of as grandma's and grandpa's in the Navajo way. When a Navajo is in strange surroundings, it is not uncommon for his relatives (according to Navajo tradition) or his clan members, to have the responsibility for his housing, food, and welfare, while this individual is in the immediate area. A Navajo through his own clan (his mom's clan) and the clan groups to which his father as well as his spouse belong, has a great potential for personal contacts. This complex network of inter-relationships served in the past to fuse the scattered bands of Navajos and other Native Americans together as a Navajo Tribe.

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