The Navajo’s origin story tells of their eternal presence in the region where the Holy People ordered the universe and charged them with maintaining that order. Archaeologists, however, postulate that the Navajo, or Dine people, as they call themselves, migrated from the northwestern parts of the continent to their current home in the Southwest.
The Navajo remain tied to the native peoples to the north through their Athapaskan language. One of only two groups in the Southwest of Athapaskan origin, the Navajo reached the region sometime between 900 and 1500 c.e. Their migration was long and gradual, following the front range of the Rocky Mountains southward into northern New Mexico. Their arrival prompted a general reshuffling of the native peoples in the region. The territory they chose as their homeland (Dine’tah) was a vast, sprawling region marked off by their four sacred mountains: the San Francisco Peaks to the west, Mount Taylor to the south, Blanca Peak to the north, and Hesperus Peak to the south. Essentially a hunting people, the Navajo learned from their Pueblo neighbors and fully adapted to their new environment in the centuries before Spanish contact. Adaptability was central to the Navajo character, for the great strength of the Navajo has been their ability to learn from others and incorporate new methods into their culture.
In the 1540s, an expedition led by Francisco Coronado lumbered through the region. This expedition gave the Spaniards their first contact with the Apaches de Nabajo. The Spaniards referred to all Athapaskan-speaking peoples as Apache and then located them geographically. The first contact between Navajos and Spaniards occurred at the base of Mount Taylor and was initially friendly, but fighting soon erupted as a result of the Spaniards’ desire to retain some Navajo captives obtained from the Hopi.
With Spanish settlement came new pressures on the Navajo people. The Navajo adopted little Spanish culture, evidenced by the lack of Navajo names in baptismal records and the lack of Spanish words in their vocabulary. Spanish livestock, however, was another story. Because of their sedentary lifestyle and large territorial holdings, the Navajo readily accepted the new animals into their culture, completely remaking their economy. In true Navajo fashion, the people created new traditions that told of how the Holy People had given them the livestock, thus negating the Spanish influence. In this way, relations between the Navajo and the Spanish remained cordial until 1680.
In 1680, a native revolt, designed to overthrow the Spanish, erupted in the region. The Navajo were ready participants, as throughout the seventeenth century the Spanish had been unable to control their growth and cultural independence. When the Spanish regained control over the region in 1692, the Navajo were flooded with refugees from the Pueblo tribes. The arrival of the Pueblo in Navajo territory brought together the two roots of historic Navajo culture, the Athapaskan-Apachean and the Anasazi-Puebloan. Navajo culture was again transformed. Spanish stock-raising supplanted agriculture, and pottery and weaving techniques became more advanced as a result of the Pueblo influence.
Intermittent warfare with the Spaniards marked Navajo society until sometime around 1716, after which a gradual peace was forged, as both Spaniards and Navajos found a new enemy in the Ute. Once peace with Spain was secured, the Navajo faced new pressures that tested their culture’s flexibility. In the face of severe drought and increasing attacks from the Ute, the Navajo abandoned their Puebloan traits and began to raise livestock in widely dispersed communities.
In expanding their territory, Navajos came into contact with Spanish settlement in the region. As a result, in 1774, war with the Spanish resumed, when the Navajo drove Spanish settlers from eastern portions of their territory. Their success in war with the Spanish demonstrates the strength of the new Navajo way of life that developed during this period. Now secure, the Navajo continued to expand their territories, moving into areas left vacant by the Spanish.
Held together socially by a vast ceremonial system designed to restore the universe to harmony, the Navajo absorbed, traded with, and raided other peoples, always learning from various groups in the region. Despite their adaptability, the Navajo had little knowledge of the onslaught that lay ahead. Despite the massive toll taken by disease, Spanish imperial policy, missionary work, and other crises caused by contact, the Navajo continued to believe that they could retain the order the Holy People had given to the universe.
Todd Leahy See also: Native American-European Conflict; Native American-European Relations; Native Americans; New Mexico; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Iverson, Peter. Dine: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Milner, Clyde, Carol O’Connor, and Martha Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Sturtevant, William, ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.