The Diné* migrated from the lands of their Athabaskan ancestors in Northwest Canada and Alaska and settled in the Southwest in the 15th century. Through contact with Puebloan tribes, agriculture centered on corn, beans, and squash - the Three Sisters - became a cornerstone of Diné society. Sheep and goats were later introduced to the region by the Spanish, and the meat and wool they produced quickly became important to everyday life in the Dinétah (traditional Diné lands).
Relationships between the Diné and nearby Puebloan Peoples were complicated, consisting of both trade and intercultural exchange as well as conflict. Intermingling and occasional conflict between the Diné, the Pueblo Peoples (including the Hopi) and the Spanish continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
The arrival of the US Military to Diné lands in 1846 spelled war, violence, and territorial loss for the Native people caught in the wake of manifest destiny. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, US settlers poured into the newly conquered territories of the Southwest. Violent confrontations between settlers and the Diné became more and more frequent, treaties were made and broken between US Army officials and local Diné leaders, and American military forts were established across Dinétah. In this era, militia raids of Diné villages were common - militiamen from the New Mexico territory killed countless Diné warriors, enslaved women and children, and razed homes and farmlands. This time period became known as the Fearing Time, or Naahondzood in Diné.
At the onset of the Civil War in the East, Indigenous lands in the Southwest became the setting of renewed expansionist efforts by the US Army. Troops led by Colonel Kit Carson employed a scorched-earth strategy that destroyed Diné crops and villages, poisoned water wells, killed livestock, and aimed to starve out Diné and Mescalero Apache families and force them to flee to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. By the end of Carson’s campaign in 1864, over 9,000 Diné were forced to make the 300-mile journey from their homelands to the Bosque Redondo Reservation on foot. Many died along the route - which came to be known as the Long Walk of the Navajo, or Hwéeldi. Conditions on the Reservation were horrific, and while the Diné were able to return to their homelands four years later, the trauma of the Long Walk continues to have an impact on Diné people today.
Even after returning to what is now the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah), life for the Diné was challenging. The 20th century saw the advent of boarding schools, uranium and coal-mining, and forced livestock reduction on the Navajo Nation. The toll taken on Diné children, the Diné language, and the land in the wake of these changes is still palpable in the modern day. Despite this difficult history, Diné culture and the resilient Diné people are still here today.
THE DINÉ PEOPLE
With over 399,494 enrolled members, the Navajo Nation is the largest federally-recognized tribe in the country. Diné culture is matrilineal, with livestock and land being passed down through the mother’s side. A sophisticated clan system plays an important role in defining one’s family relationships.
Some Diné still live in hogans, a distinctive style of wood & mud architecture that served as the traditional dwelling of Diné people for centuries. Most live in modern homes, though lack of access to running water and adequate shelter afflicts some communities. Many Diné still move through the world according to Hózhó (The Beauty Way), the traditional spirituality of their people.
Efforts to preserve the Diné language - of which there are over 120,000 speakers - persist, and cultural lifeways including traditional ceremonies, weaving, and sheep-herding continue to be practiced and celebrated across the reservation. Diné leaders have made an impact in their communities and across the nation - many Indigenous code-talkers, credited with aiding the success of the Allied Forces in World War II, came from the Navajo Nation. Diné people have gone on to make history in the fields of medicine, sport, and beyond.
Diné people and their cultural traditions remain a vibrant and important presence in the Southwest and across the Nation.
The Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah) is the largest reservation in the country, covering 16 million acres. It encompasses the northeast corner of Arizona as well as parts of northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. The tribe has recently acquired lands in Colorado as well. The landscape and climate of the reservation is diverse, featuring areas of high desert, steppe, and mountainous terrain. It is home to several national monuments and parks, including the famous Monument Valley. Rich in coal, uranium, natural gas, and oil, the Navajo Reservation has been the site of many development projects by large corporations since the 1960s. The Black Mesa and Kayenta mines - two of the largest coal operations led by Peabody Coal on the Hopi & Navajo reservations - were shut down in 2005 and 2019, respectively, due to their negative environmental impacts and groundwater usage.
Diné Bikéyah is a vast and stunning land that has inspired and grounded the spirituality of the Diné people for countless generations. It is a place of both struggle and beauty, where residents and visitors alike experience the spirit of Hózhó with each step taken on its sacred lands.
Many families and communities across Diné Bikéyah face complex challenges today: inadequate housing, isolation due to limited infrastructure, a dearth of economic opportunity, poverty and food insecurity make daily life difficult across the reservation.
Lifestyle changes forced onto tribes throughout colonization have left a legacy of poor health outcomes, language endangerment, and other threats to traditional ways. Nearly thirty percent of homes on the Navajo Nation lack electricity (Brookings), and the large distances between homes and communities due to the size and rurality of the reservation can make it challenging to access public services, hospitals, schools and grocery stores.
One of the most pressing issues facing Diné people on the Navajo Nation today is water access: 30% of households on the Navajo Nation do not have access to running water (Navajo Water Project). Even those with running water run the risk of drinking contaminated water - extensive uranium mining by outside corporations on the reservation in the mid-20th century has left many water sources tainted with dangerous levels of uranium and other contaminants. This contamination is connected with high rates of cancer, kidney failure, neuropathy and other illnesses on the Navajo Nation (Pulitzer Center). These issues are compounded by a June 2023 Supreme Court decision which ruled that the federal government is not obligated to identify nor secure water rights for the Navajo Nation - making it difficult for the tribe to ensure access to vital water resources from the Colorado River (Native American Rights Fund).
* A note on the word Navajo: The term Navajo was originally used by the Spanish upon first contact with the tribe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Believed to have originated either from the Tewa word Navahu, meaning “place of large, planted fields” or a Spanish word referring to a type of clasp knife, many of the tribe’s members prefer the autonym Diné, meaning "the People." Out of respect for the Diné People and in service of a more accurate shared vocabulary around tribal names, we use the word Diné here. You may, however, see the word Navajo used in reference to the reservation on which the tribe lives, as the official name of the area as determined by the tribe’s council is the Navajo Nation.
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