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Navajo Indians

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Navajo Indians, numbering about 20,000, constitute the largest group of Indians belonging to the Athapaskan, or Déné stock. Other groups of the same stock are the Apaches (Ndé), Lipanes (Lipa Ndé), Hupas of California, and various Déné tribe inhabiting British Columbia and Alaska (see DÉNÉS). This points to a migration of the Navajo, centuries ago, from the extreme north. They themselves have a vague tradition of the "Diné Nahodoni", i.e., "other Navajos", living far away. According to their myths they emerged from lower worlds somewhere in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. At present they occupy an extensive reservation in the north-east corner of Arizona and the northwest corner of New Mexico; but many of them live beyond its borders, especially towards the south. Formerly their habitat extended somewhat farther to the north-east.

They are first mentioned in the writings of Zarate-Salmerón in 1626, as Apaches de Nabaju. In 1630, a Franciscan, Alonzo Benavides, in his memorial to the King of Spain, mentions the "Province of the Apaches of Navajo" and adds that "these of Navajo are very great farmers, for that is what Navajo signifies — great planted fields". Consequently the word "Navajo" may be derived from the Spanish word nava meaning "plain, or field". The Navajo call themselves Diné, that is, people. Benavides then mentions the treaty of peace he concluded between the Navajo and Pueblo Indians at Santa Clara in 1630. Previous to this date, as Benavides states, and subsequently, until 1862, an almost continuous guerrilla war existed between the Navajo and the Pueblo Indians and Mexicans. The number of Navajo captives in Mexican families in 1862 has been estimated between 1500 and 3000. In 1856 Colonel Doniphan made an expedition into Navajo country, in 1849, Colonel Washington, in 1845 General Sumner. In 1859 war again broke out, and in 1860 the Navajos attacked Fort Defiance. Colonel Miles and Colonel Bonneville and General Canby made campaigns against them. When the rebellion broke out and the Texans made their invasion, all the troops were removed from the Navajo country, whereupon Navajos rode over the country rough-shod. In 1862 General Carleton sent Colonel Kit Carson with a force against the Navajos. He subdued them, and, mainly by killing their stock and destroying their crops, forced them by starvation to surrender, whereupon about 7300 were transferred to Fort Sumner in south-eastern New Mexico. About 1500 never surrendered; about 400 fled from Fort Sumner to their old homes. On 1 June, 1868, General Sherman concluded a treaty with them by which they were permitted to return.

Ever since they are a peaceful and pastoral people, living by, with, and off their flocks of sheep and goats. Though the arid character of their country — good for grazing purposes only — forces them to lead a nomadic life, yet most of the families have one abode for their main home, generally in a well-watered valley, where they raise corn, beans, potatoes, melons, oats, alfalfa, etc. The Navajo women weave the renown Navajo blankets, noted for their durability, beauty, and variety of design, and careful execution, whilst a number of men are clever silversmiths, making silver necklaces, belts, bracelets, wristlets, rings, buttons, etc., of rare beauty, out of Mexican silver dollars. They have always been self-supporting. They have little of the sullen, reticent disposition attributed to Indians generally, and are cheerful, friendly, hospitable, and industrious. Their government is democratic; there is no chief over the whole tribe, and their local chiefs are men of temporary and ill-defined authority, whose power depends largely upon their personal influence, their eloquence, and their reputation for wisdom and justice. The tribe is divided into about 58 clans or gentes, grouped under several original or nuclear clans. Exogamous marriages with Mexicans, Utes, Apaches, but especially with the neighbouring Pueblo Indians, captured or enslaved and eventually adopted into the tribe, are responsible for a number of clans. In consequence there is nothing like a pronounced or a prevailing Navajo type. Every variety of form and figure can be found among them. Marriage is contracted early in life. Polygamy and divorce are still prevalent. Their marriage ceremony is only permissible at the marriage of a virgin. The vices of abortion, infanticide, race suicide, are practically unknown among them.

The elaborate system of pagan worship, expressed in chants, sacrifices, sand painting, dances, ceremonies, some of which last nine days, make the Navajo appear very religious. Though they have no conception of one supreme being, their anthropomorphous deities are numerous and strikingly democratic. The ideas of heaven and hell being unknown to them, they believe in a hereafter consisting in a life of happiness with the people of the lower worlds. They are firm believers in witchcraft and charms. Their pathology is largely mythological. Diseases are attributed to evil beings, to malign influences of enemies, and to various occult agencies. Their remedies are largely magical and constitute an integral part of their religion. The superstitions, ceremonies, and customs are diligently kept alive by an extraordinarily large number of medicine men who wield a powerful influence among them. Though Protestant missionaries have been among the Navajos since the early eighties, and have at present (1910) eleven different missions, an hospital, and three small schools, the number of their adherents is very insignificant.

After the unsuccessful attempt of Fray Benavides in 1630 to Christianize the Navajos, Padre Menchero, in 1746, induced several hundred to settle at Cebolleta, now a Mexican town north of Laguna; but the enterprise soon came to an end. In 1749 Padre Menchero made another attempt, re-establishing the Ceboleta mission and founding another at Encinal, now a Laguna village; but on 24 June, 1750, the Indians abandoned them to return to their wilderness. On 13 October, 1897, the Franciscans of Cincinnati, Ohio, accepted the Navajo mission at the request of Mgr. Stephan, director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, and of Mother Drexel. The Missionaries took charge at St. Michael's, Arizona, on 7 October, 1898. On 3 December, 1902, an industrial boarding-school for the Navajos, erected by Mother Drexel, was opened at St. Michael's, and has since been conducted by her community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. At present (1910), the school is attended by 150 Navajo pupils. A branch chapel was established at Chin Lee, Arizona, in 1905, and a chapel built at Lukachukai, Arizona. 231 children and adults have been baptized at St. Michael's and 78 have made their First Holy Communion. The way has been prepared: the Navajos are well-disposed toward the Catholic missionaries and give founded hopes for an abundant harvest of souls.

Much attention has been given by the Franciscans to the study and construction of the Navajo language. In 1910 they published "An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language" and also "A Navajo English Catechism of Christian Doctrine for the Use of Navajo Children"; other works are in preparation.


MATTHEWS, Navajo Legends (Boston, 1897); Idem., The Mountain Chant, in Fifth Ann. Rept. of the Bur. of Ethnol. (Washington, 1887); Idem, The Night Chant, a Navajo Ceremony, in Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History VI (New York, 1902); FRANCISCAN FATHERS, An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language (St. Michael's, Arizona, 1910); MENDILEEF, Navajo Houses, in Seventh Ann. Rept. of the Bur. of Ethnol. (Washington, 1898); STEVENSON, Ceremonial of Hasjelti Dailjis, etc. in Eighth Ann. Rept. of the Bur. of Ethnol. (Washington, 1891); SIMPSON, Report on the Navajo Country (1850); CULEN, Games of North American Indians, in Twenty-fourth Ann. Rept. of the Bur. of Ethnol. (Washington, 1902); BENAVIDES, Memorial, 1630, in Land of Sunshine, XIII (1900).

About this page

APA citation. Weber, A. (1911). Navajo Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Anselm. "Navajo Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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