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The Navajos

women and children outside a hogan

A Navajo dwelling, called a hogan. No date.

Scientists say Navajos migrated from northern Canada centuries ago--but they don't know exactly when they arrived in this area.

However, Navajo oral tradition says that when they first came to the Southwest they interacted with the Ancestral Pueblo people (the Navajo called them Anasazi). If so, Navajos could have been here as early as 900 A.D.

We know at least that by the end of the 1500s the Dine' (as they call themselves) lived in northern New Mexico, southern Utah, and northern Arizona.

Spanish troubles and more

two children on a donkey

Navajo children on a donkey.

When the Spanish began to explore and colonize the Southwest, they brought diseases, slavery, brutality, and death to the Navajos. The Navajo helped the Pueblo people revolt against the Spanish in 1680. After that, many Pueblo people joined the Navajo on their lands for a time. The two groups intermarried and shared cultural practices.

Perhaps at this time, Navajos learned how to farm and began to herd sheep.

When Mexico gained independence from Spain, slave raids and massacres continued. Things didn’t get much better when the United States gained control of the land in 1846.

The Long March

an elderly man and boy

Haashkeneinii-Begay (age 83) and his son (age 11). The old man was the son of Haashkeneinii, the leader who evaded Kit Carson's troops and lived in the Navajo Mountain area.

Navajos resisted the whites who wanted their land.

If you were President of the United States at that time, and Anglo people wanted Navajo land, what would you do?

In 1863 the government sent Kit Carson came to Navajo country with soldiers. His goal was to force Navajos off their land and take them to Bosque Redondo, in New Mexico.

Carson burned Navajo homes and fields, cut down fruit trees, destroyed water sources, and stole livestock.

As the people began to starve, they surrendered. Soldiers forced them to walk 300 miles in bitter cold weather, with inadequate food and water. Many died or were shot when they fell behind.

This horrible experience is called the Long March. The Long March ended in a bleak desert place where the people suffered from lack of food and shelter.

Resistors

However, some Navajos avoided the March. A leader named Haashkeneinii helped a small group escape to the remote land around Navajo Mountain, where they hid and lived peacefully.

In 1868 the U.S. government allowed the Navajos to return to a reservation on their homelands. Part of the Navajo Reservation lies in San Juan County, Utah.

More conflicts

Conflicts continued among Mormon settlers, prospectors, ranchers, Utes, and the Navajos. The government also removed many Navajo children and sent them away to boarding school, forcing them to stop speaking in their own language. This was a bitter experience for both children and parents.

Developments in the 20th century

boy on horse and men on foot

12-year-old Laughing Boy receives a silver-mounted bridle as 1st place in the biggest racing event of a four-day celebration in Monument Valley, 1930s.

Sheep became an important source of food and income. Navajo women wove beautiful rugs from the wool and sold them.

The Navajos had so many sheep, however, that the land could not support them all. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. government forced the Navajos to reduce the size of their sheep herds. This caused much suffering and anger. 

During World War II, the government used young Navajo soldiers to send “secret-code” messages that the enemy could not interpret. The men who sent the messages were called Navajo Code Talkers.

Today, the Navajo tribe is the largest American Indian tribe in the United States. About 7,000 members of the tribe live in Utah.

Learn more

As with all tribes, there is much more to the Navajos’ history. Read "The Navajos of Utah," by Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay. Read "Navajo Indians," by Robert S. McPherson. See more pictures of Navajos. See the Navajo section of the Utah American Indian Digital Archive. Learn how the Navajos governed themselves.

People gathered in a circle, pouring batter into a pit

Pouring batter into a pit to make ceremonial bread used in the
Kin-nhl-dah celebration--when a girl reaches womanhood.