The Navajo, constitute the largest American Indian tribe in the United States; they numbered about 162,500 in 1981. Their principal reservation covers more than 62,000 sq km (24,000 sq mi) in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. The Navajo speak a language belonging to the Athabascan linguistic family. Their name is derived from a Keresan Indian word; they originally called themselves Dinneh ("the people").
Both the Navajo and their linguistic relatives, the APACHE, are relative newcomers to the Southwest. They are "thought" (True? False?) to have arrived in the region not more than 500 years ago, moving south from the homeland of other Athabascan-speakers in northwest Canada and interior Alaska. Once in the Southwest the Navajo underwent a series of culture changes in adapting to a natural environment vastly different from that of the north and as a result of new contacts with long-established southwestern peoples, particularly the PUEBLO Indians.
The Navajo persistently raided the villages of the Pueblo Indians as well as those of the Spanish and, later, the Mexican colonists from the 1600s on. After the Anglo-Americans took possession of the Southwest the raids continued until 1863, when most of the Navajo were rounded up by militiamen under Col. Kit CARSON and sent to detention for 4 years at Fort Sumner, N.Mex. In 1868 a treaty was concluded with the Navajo, in which they agreed to settle on a reservation in their former homeland. They then numbered about 9,000.
The Navajo Tribal Council was founded (1923) in order for tribe members to deal collectively with the whites. Traditionally, the Navajo had had no centralized tribal government. In the past autonomous bands had existed; each occupied a definite territory and had dual leaders, one for war and one for peace. Only rarely did two or more bands cooperate in any activity, even warfare.
Originally nomadic, the Navajo subsisted through hunting and gathering of wild plant foods. After learning techniques of dry farming (without irrigation) from the Pueblo peoples, they began to raise maize, beans, squash, and melons. Livestock, particularly sheep, acquired (early 17th century) from the Spanish, also became important in their economy.
The Navajo are considered to possess one of the best-preserved native American cultures in North America. Their social structure is based on bonds of kinship, with descent traced through the mother. The preferred pattern is the extended family, consisting of at least two adult generations: an older woman and her husband and unmarried children, plus her married daughters and their husbands and children. The members of an extended family usually live near each other and cooperate in such activities as house building, farming, and herding.
The traditional Navajo dwelling is the hogan, usually six- or eight-sided, constructed of logs, and covered with earth. The most important Navajo craft is weaving of fine rugs, learned from the Pueblo by 1700 and traditionally performed on upright looms by women. Also important is silversmithing, learned in the 19th century from Mexican smiths; typical craft objects include beautifully worked silver as well as turquoise jewelry often decorated with squash blossom symbols.