The Navajo are a large tribe. In fact, they are the second largest Native American tribe in the United States at the present time. As one of the most influential and recognizable American Indian cultures in history, they have entered public consciousness through popular culture and frequent interactions with European settlers, both friendly and unfriendly.
Religion and the Navajo Indians
The majority of living Navajo tribespeople are in the southwestern United States, but are spread evenly across the Navajo Nation (Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico).
Like many other tribes in the USA, the Navajo commonly follow syncretic forms of Christianity which integrate aspects of Catholicism, Mormonism, traditional Navajo religion, or elements of the new Native American Church that arose after the advent of Pan-Indian philosophical thought.
Emerging first in history as a hunter-gatherer civilization, initial contact with the Spanish invaders and Pueblo cultures introduced the idea of structured agriculture and domestication to the Navajo tribes.
Sharing linguistic roots with an assortment of other Native American tribes from Canada and the United States, the Navajo find common cultural and historical origins with other Athabascan peoples.
Symbols Are a Cornerstone of Navajo Culture
Symbols have been used by the Navajo Indians since ancient times to represent who they are and their beliefs. One of the most famous symbols of the Navajo people is the Yei, a spirit figure that symbolizes healing, protection, and good luck.
The Navajo people also have a strong connection to the eagle, which is considered a powerful spirit animal. Eagles are often seen in Navajo art and are believed to represent strength, courage, and wisdom.
The four-pointed star, or “Star of the Dawn”, is a symbol of the four directions and is used to bring balance and harmony to all things. The star is often used as a symbol of hope and guidance. In that same vein, the Navajo Nation Flag is one of the most recognizable symbols of Native American culture. The flag was designed by Navajo artist Jay R. Degroat and adopted by the Navajo Nation in 1968.
It features a white background with a central red stripe. The upper left corner contains a yellow sun with a human face, while the lower right corner features a blue-green spiral. The flag is meant to represent the four sacred mountains of the Navajo people, as well as the four seasons.
The Tó Bighánílíní, or “Whirling Logs”, is a symbol of a never-ending cycle of life and is often used to represent the Navajo’s connection to their ancestors.
The Kokopelli is a fertility symbol associated with rain and agriculture. It’s a popular symbol that is often seen in many forms, from sculptures to jewelry.
To the Navajo, butterflies symbolize transformation and hope, and the rainbow symbolizes the promise of a better future.
Animal symbols are also important to the Navajo people and are believed to have spiritual power. The eagle, mentioned briefly above, is seen as a protector of their land and a symbol of strength, courage, and happiness.
The Navajo people also have a great respect for bears, considered the national symbol and at the center of the Great Seal. Bears are seen as healers and protectors, and their fur is used in ceremonies and rituals.
Other animals that are important to the Navajo people include snakes, deer, buffalo, and sheep.
A few other symbols important to the Navajo are the sun (comfort and guidance), water (life and renewal), and sandpainting (used in healing ceremonies).
Symbols are everywhere within traditional Navajo culture and are believed to be powerful tools that can bring balance, harmony, and protection to those who use them.
The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo
Infamously, the Navajo people were forced on the Long Walk, or a 300-mile walk to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The Navajo were interned within Bosque Redondo, and suffered greatly at the hands of a neglectful federal administration and soldiers who subjected them regularly to physical and psychological abuse.
A lack of proper planning ensured great suffering for the Navajo prisoners when resources were mismanaged, leading to widespread starvation within the camps.
Frequent armed encounters with the Navajo and allied Apache tribes cemented the Navajo tribe in the minds of the white settlers as inherently savage. Thankfully, relations are recovering and steps are being taken to help the Navajo recover from historic losses incurred during the brutal industrial expansion characteristic of the age of Manifest Destiny in the United States.
Navajo Code Talkers Help Win Pacific Victory in World War II
As a people with a deep connection to family life and social events, the Navajo civilization was a robust one, and celebrated friendship and interaction between individuals.
The Navajo as a culture have always focused strongly on communication, and played a key role in World War II in the recruitment of the deeply revered Code Talkers into the United States armed forces.
The bilingual Navajo forces were recruited to take advantage of the lack of mutual intelligibility characteristic of the Navajo language. Since the language was not widely known, it proved effective in helping U.S. forces conceal strategic information from the Japanese in the Pacific Theater.
Navajo Jewelry and Language
Renowned for their jewelry, the ornamentations that adorned the bodies of Navajo chiefs and tribesmen alike played a key role in their personal expression and in the communication ideas.
Lacking a written language, the Navajo people relied on other means of communication to pass ideas onto the next generation, which is a characteristic shared by many tribes possessed of a similar culture to their own.
It is fortunate that the Navajo culture has survived and prospered in the modern age. Recuperating from unjustified cruelty at the hands of white settlers, the Navajo people are a bright and vibrant culture that has clearly outlasted the horrors of the past.