Circle of Life Home Care Blog

History & Culture of the Navajos

    May 10, 2017 Lorita George


    The Navajo Nation (Naabeehó Bináhásdzo) is a semi-autonomous Native American territory covering 27,425 square miles, occupying portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern NewMexico in the United States. This is the largest land area retained by a U.S. tribe, with a total population of 173,667, making it the largest Indian reservation in the United States; it is nearly the size of the West Virginia state.

    The Navajo Nation is, “a wealthy nation within a nation, and in a world of its own.” In early 1920s, oil was discovered on Navajo land which promoted the need for a more systematic form of government. In 1923, the Navajo Tribal Government was established to help meet the growing demands of American oil companies to lease Navajo land for exploration. The Navajo Government has evolved into the largest and most sophisticated form of American Indian government.

    "Dinétah", "DinéBikéyah", "NaabeehóBikéyah", "NaabeehóBikéyah"are the terms used for the traditional homeland of the Navajo, it is situated in the area among the four sacred Navajo mountains of Dookʼoʼoosłííd (San Francisco Peaks), DibéNtsaa (Hesperus Mountain), Sisnaajiní (Blanca Peak), and Tsoodził (Mount Taylor)". In the mid-19th century, 9500 Navajo were forced from their lands by the US Army following defeat, and marched on the Long Walk to imprisonment(1863-1868) in Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. After they were allowed to return, they returned to this special place now called the "Navajo Indian Reservation" which was established according to the Treaty of 1868 with the United States.

    In the face of extreme hardship, isolation, sickness and death, the Navajo emerged from Bosque Redondo proud and admired for their dignity, resilience, endurance, courage, and strength.

    Navajos are known for their exquisite art in silversmith, rug weaving, basket weaving, and sand painting. It is believed that Navajos began working with turquoise after returning from the "Long Walk" to and from Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1868. Aside from its ornamental value, turquoise is especially important to the Navajo people because of its religious significance and its representation of a well-being in an individual.

    Navajo rugs is recognized throughout the world, not only because of its aesthetic qualities, but also because of its unique stylistic changes. Today, distinct styles of rugs identify designs woven in different regions: Two Gray Hills, Ganado, Teec Nos Pos, and Crystal--all famous world-wide.

    Sand painting, another unique and symbolic art form still is primarily ceremonial. Sand paintings represent an array of ceremonies and sacred songs. The Navajo culture used Sandpainting as a spiritual way to heal the sick. When they sand painted, they made the painting in a smooth bed of sand, which was only temporary. Crushed yellow ochre, red sandstone, gypsum, and charcoal were used to create the images during their chants. The chants were for the Earth people and for the Holy people to come back into harmony, which provides them protection and healing.


    In the Navajo culture, color has many symbolic meanings. For example, a single color can have many different meanings, it all depends on the context in which the color is used. The four main colors used are black, white, yellow, and blue. As part of the Navajo culture and traditions, these colors define direction. Black is referred to as north, white represents east, blue represents south, and yellow is represented as west. The colors could also represent the time of day. Black- night, white-dawn, blue- day, yellow- dusk.

    Navajo baskets vary and are used in religious ceremonies and at traditional Navajo weddings, the woven baskets have a distinct pattern of representation.

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    Used in religious ceremonies at traditional Navajo weddings, the woven wedding basket has a distinct pattern of representation. The edge of the basket, a lighter color, represents the brightening skies as dawn approaches. The center design features four points to represent the Navajo's four sacred mountains, and the opening into the center (which Navajos believe should never be pointed downward) signifies an outlet for our thoughts. The bright red weave is the hallmark of sunshine, and is a blessing for Navajo health and spirituality. Black is for darkness, and a time to restore our bodies and minds. The lacing of the weave around the basket's edge represent our roots and human life. And the very center of the basket is representative of the emergence of the Diné, the opening for the First Holy One to come into the First World.

    The Navajo people believe, the Diné, passed through three different worlds before emerging into this world. The Fourth World, or Glittering World.

    The Diné believe there are two classes of beings: the Earth People and the Holy People. The Holy People are believed to have the power to aid or harm the Earth People. Since Earth People of the Diné are an integral part of the universe, they must do everything they can to maintain harmony or balance on Mother Earth.

    It is believed that centuries ago the Holy People taught the Diné how to live the right way and to conduct their many acts of everyday life. They were taught to live in harmony with Mother Earth, Father Sky and the many other elements such as man, animals, plants, and insects.

    The Holy People put four sacred mountains in four different directions, Mt. Blanca to the east, Mt. Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peak to the west, and Mt. Hesperus to the north near Durango, Colorado, thus creating Navajo land. The four directions are represented by four colors: White Shell represents the east, Turquoise the south, Yellow Abalone the west, and Jet Black the north.

    The number four permeates traditional Navajo philosophy. In the Navajo culture there are four directions, four seasons, the first four clans and four colors that are associated with the four sacred mountains. In most Navajo rituals there are four songs and multiples thereof, as well as many other symbolic uses of four.

    When disorder evolves in a Navajo's life, such as an illness, medicine men use herbs, prayers, songs and ceremonies to help cure patients. Some tribal members choose to be cured at the many hospitals on the Navajo Nation. Some will seek the assistance of a traditional Navajo medicine man. A qualified medicine man is a unique individual bestowed with supernatural powers to diagnose a person's problem and to heal or cure an illness and restore harmony to the patient.

    There are more than 50 different kinds of ceremonies that may be used in the Navajo culture--all performed at various times for a specific reason. Some ceremonies last several hours, while others may last as long as nine days.


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