Exploring Navajo Culture from an Anthropological Perspective
The Navajos came into the Southwest sometime around the 16th century, they were a small group of hunting and gathering people. We know them as Navajo but they would call themselves Dine, which stood for “The People”. “The Navajo are Athapaskan speakers whose language is similar to that of the Apache” (Arizona Board of Regents). They have a broad culture and were known for the ability to survive and adapt really well, especially to local cultures. There primary mode of subsistence is Pastoralists, they utilize farming as a key mode for living.
Looking ahead we will gain in depth more knowledge and understanding about the Navajo culture; what were their beliefs, kinship, social organization and more. The word Navajo comes from the phrase Tewa Navahu, meaning highly cultivated lands (Navajo Indians 2013). In the 1500s they originally started up their tribe and are considered to be one of the largest tribe of all the Native American Indians. There is two areas that are highly populated with the Navajo, New Mexico and Arizona. Navajo are very simple when it comes to their way of living which is much different than other cultures.
Their homes are made of sticks, mud and tree bark, it’s much like a shelter rather than a home. These homes were known as hogans, and their doors faced the east to be sure the sun would shine in (Navajo Indians 2013). In order to get things such as meat and different forms of materials for making weapons and tools they would trade corn crops and things such as blankets that they would make out of woven cotton. Navajo adapted very well to their surroundings, they knew how to survive and make a long living for themselves. They used resources created from the earth and animals that they themselves would hunt and kill.
In the 1600’s the Spanish came into their territory and the Navajo would set up what they called “trading post”, within the Spanish villages that were created, and they would barter for things that they may have needed at the time. Eventually the Spanish villages got fed up with the Navajo sitting in on their land and joined together with the Mexicans and tried to intimidate the tribes. Eventually about 2/3 of them surrendered to their wishes and moved to new territories, including Utah (Navajo Indians 2013). As mentioned on about 2/3 surrendered to them, so what happened to the rest?
Most of them went about and found places in the mountains and canyons to try to hide and avoid being caught. There came a time where the Navajo Indians were able to settle into a place on Fort Sumter right around the late 1800s. The Navajo Indians are religious people but it is very different than what you would typically see religion as. Navajo gods and other supernatural powers are many and varied. Most important among them are a group of anthropomorphic deities, and especially Changing Woman or Spider Woman, the consort of the Sun God, and her twin sons, the Monster Slayers.
Other supernatural powers include animal, bird, and reptile spirits, and natural phenomena or wind, weather, light and darkness, celestial bodies, and monsters. Navajo mythology is enormously rich and poetically expressive. (Advameg, Inc. © 2013). In their beliefs all of creation is divided between what they call “Holy People” and “Earth Surface People”. It sounds just about exactly how it’s meant to be. When we think of “holy” we think of supernatural, those that have set a path that should be followed.
Earth surface people are those that reside, as it seems, on the Earth. After going through a process of passing through succession of underworlds, the Holy people made it to the present world. They created the first of human creation, a man and a woman and all of the kin to the surface people. They then passed on all of the knowledge that would be necessary for the Earth Surfaces to survive such as: practices and rituals. Once the “holy peoples” job was complete that went on to live in other realms that are above the earth.
It is said that they stay in touch on a daily basis with the Earth Surface People in order to stay in complete harmony with them. There are four different practices that we are going to go more in detail with that fall into their religious beliefs. Religious Practitioners. In the Navajo Ritual practitioners they have what they call “singers”. These can be either man or woman, but hardly ever is it a woman who performs this ceremony in its entirety. These men which they call “singers” are the most highly respected person in a traditional society and act as a leader for the community.
Now just because certain men have a lot of knowledge in this area there is times when some men have a less amount of knowledge but they are still able to perform rituals but most of the time it’s only short or incomplete rituals which they refer to as “curers”. The Navajo Indians had several different types of ceremonies, they even had very important ceremonies that were attached with hunting, war, agriculture and even the treatment of illness. As of right now there are or have been at least sixty major ceremonies and each of these consisted of different things such as: songs, magic, prayers, and several other types.
Ceremonies varied in time frames some could last as little as two hours and go up to nine nights, this strictly depended on the seriousness of what was being treated. Artistic. The people in the Navajo culture were very artistic, this was how they showed who they were or what emotion they may have within them at the present time. Some ways that they expressed themselves was through things such as poetry, dance, costumes and songs. One of the most popular forms of art actually come from the women of the Navajo, they weave rugs together out of bright colors.
Dry-paintings were something that singers of each ceremony would execute but they were normally destroyed at the end of each ceremony. Medicine. According to the belief of the Navajo any form illness comes from some type of transgressions against the supernatural. There is certain types of ceremonies that can be performed to treat these types of illness that are caused by the person’s transgressions. Other than ceremonies a lot of times they could use different types of herbs, potions, ointments that a specialist would collect. Death and Afterlife.
Most of the time the Navajo were horrified of death, not only death but also those who were dead, very rarely would they even speak of this topic unless absolutely needed. This was such a finicky area of conversation that when someone would pass away they were buried immediately and wouldn’t receive any type of ceremony. Later on those of close kin would observe the person with some sort of small ritual. Unlike most religions the belief of the Navajo on the afterlife was a little different. It varied from person to person but there was no actual concept of punishments or rewards for how you were while living.
It seems that the afterworld was not thought of as a happy or desirable place for anyone (Navajo Indians 2013). In Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality, Wesley Thomas discusses Navajo gender systems, gender adaptations, relationships, and politics of location. To begin, Thomas explains multiple genders as part of the norm in Navajo culture before the 1890s. Following this time, exposure to pressures from Western culture and the imposition of Christianity caused individuals who deviated from Christian’s norms to be discrete about their identities.
The acculturation and assimilation of the past still cause pressure to persist today (Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang). The Navajo culture recognizes five different types of genders: Woman, Man, Nadleeh, Masculine Female, and Feminine Male. Woman¬- Asdzaan which is what the Navajoh use for the meaning of woman. The female is the main Navajo in the origin stories and is the most important gender. Man- the Navajo word used for a man is “hastiin”. Nadleeh-A hermaphrodite (western medical term) and is considered the third gender in the Navajo culture.
A hermaphrodite is considered as someone who show characteristics of the opposite sex, meaning a male acting as a woman or vice versa. Masculine Female- Is a masculine female or even a female bodied nadleeh. The role of a masculine female is much different than that of just a female so they are viewed differently by the Navajo. A masculine female tends to take on roles that only a man would attend to. Feminine Male- This is the same as a masculine female just flipped the other way around. It is considered the fifth gender, and they would perform works of those of a woman.
Many of the younger Navajos who actually identify themselves as gay or lesbian and not go with the traditional concept. In the Navajo tradition they viewed relationships as gender first and then sexual second. So a relationship between a female-bodied nadleeh (woman acting as a man) and a woman would not be considered a homosexual act. Now if two men or two male bodied nadleeh got together then they would be considered homosexual. On the very last page of Navajo Culture research is a diagram and information that describes types of kinship in two different areas.
There is two charts that are listed from top of the kinship to bottom of the kinship. This is based off of a research study that was taken place, it was stated that it is more accurate than that of others that have been place out there (A note on regional variation in Navajo Kinship Terminology). Anthropologist who work among the Navajo sometimes comment on a certain “fuzzy” quality about their culture. Anthropologist who have not worked with the Navajo sometimes complain of the exasperation about the “sloppy” field work which has thus far failed to define a large number of patterns with any clarity.
This “fuzzy” quality seems largely to be manifested in social organization. All these “Fuzzy” areas fall into two classes: an indeterminacy about allocation of food livestock, inheritance and so on. The example could be multiplied (Vol. 72, No. 1 (Feb. , 1970), pp. 55-65. ) The social system of the Navajo is catergorized by the conceptual or symbolic system. Motherhood is the central symbol of social organization in the Navajo Culture. Motherhood meaning it is found in life, reproduction and even substitence.
The way the this is expressed is through the giving or providing of food and affectionate care. The Substitence residential unit, which is the basic unit of the social system is structured, organized and made by the symbols of motherhood. The Navajo isn’t just a culture that existed in the 1600’s – 1800’s it is a culture that has been around ever since and is still thriving in certain areas. The Navajo Reservation includes an area of about the size of West Virginia and is found in the continguous states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and has a population reaching 172,000 (Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec. , 1984), pp. 885-904. )
The reservation has quite a bit of coal, as well as uranium, which is very important in helping the United States with energy. It is ready for strip mining due to where it is located on the edge of the Colorado Plateau. The energy development is the most recent and most severe type of pressure placed on the Navajo Pastoralist to join in on the extractive industrial economies surrounding them. Until just recently the Navajo would just work on raising livestock, dry land and irrigating farming and wage labor.
The Navajo is active in helping in other areas that they use not be prone to, although they are still thriving on what the culture truly is about but also continuing to adapt to their surroundings. The Navajo has a broad culture and were/are known for the ability to survive and adapt really well, especially to local cultures. There primary mode of subsistence is Pastoralists, they utilize farming as a key mode for living. Looking back we gained in depth more knowledge and understanding about the Navajo culture.
We’ve learned that they have very in depth ceremonies for just about each need/concern that comes up, they have five different gender categories, their kinship is very broad and they are ever adapting and help with the changes in the surrounding areas. The Navajo is a very broad culture, the information collected gives a lot of data into who they are and what they do but still only grazes the top to who they really are. I look forward to digging a little deeper and finding out even more information on these intriguing people.