Navajo children in Monument Valley
The Navajo Indians in Utah reside on a reservation of more than 1,155,000
acres in the southeastern corner of the state. According to the 1990 census,
more than half of the population of San Juan County is comprised of Navajo
people, the majority of whom live south of the San Juan River.
Scholars still debate when the Navajo entered the Southwest. Some argue
that by the fourteenth century, the Dine, or the People, were migrating
into the Four Corners region as the Anasazi departed. Navajo lore is replete
with stories of interaction between the two native groups. Most anthropologists
agree that by the end of the 1500s the Dine were spread throughout northern
New Mexico, a portion of southern Utah, and part of northern Arizona. They
also concur that the Navajos migrated from northern Canada with other Apachean
peoples, who are linguistically related to Athapaskan speakers. Studies
suggest the separation between northern groups and those migrating south
occurred around A.D. 1000, and that the division between Apaches and Navajos
happened about three to four hundred years ago. However, these are only
rough estimates and often vary widely.
Navajo beliefs reject these ideas, saying that there is no evidence in their
oral tradition of this movement. Instead, their religion teaches that they
traveled through three or four worlds beneath this one and emerged into
this sphere in the La Plata mountains of southwestern Colorado or the Navajo
Dam area of northwestern New Mexico. The gods created the four sacred mountains--Blanca
Peak and Hesperus Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, and the
San Francisco Peaks in Arizona--preparing them as supernatural boundaries
within which all was safe and protected. In addition, the gods also established
four rivers, one of which was the San Juan, to serve as defensive guardians.
This river played an important role in some of the Navajo chantway myths
and functioned as a clear line of demarcation between Navajo and Ute territories.
Navajo economy from the 1600s to the first third of the 1900s depended on
two primary sources--agriculture learned from the pueblo peoples and livestock
such as sheep, goats, and horses obtained initially from the Spaniards.
Because the San Juan River was one of the few reliable sources of water
in Navajo territory, during the summer months many Dine planted fields of
corn, beans, and squash on its floodplains or tributaries and pastured their
sheep in the mountains. Winter camps were usually at lower elevations where
wood, water, and protection from cold winds were available. Hunting and
gathering occurred in a variety of ecological zones according to the location
of the foodstuffs being sought.
Spaniards and Mexicans occasionally pursued Navajos into the northern part
of their territory, but it was not until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
at the end of the Mexican War in 1848 that Anglo-Americans were prompted
to take action against Navajo raiders. The Mormon colonies of southwestern
Utah and the settlers of New Mexico and Arizona reacted against the Navajo
by sending military expeditions to halt the threat. Kit Carson and Ute Indian
Agent Alfred Pfeiffer encouraged the antagonism already felt by the Utes
against their Navajo neighbors. Although the military launched a number
of campaigns, it was the continuous pressure of Native American and New
Mexican allies that finally caused the massive surrender of an estimated
two-thirds of the Navajo population, 8,000 of whom went on the Long Walk
before finally being incarcerated at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Those who did not surrender hid in the canyons and mountains to avoid detection.
In Utah, men like Hashkeneinii and Kaayelii fled from the Utes and settled
at Navajo Mountain and the Bears Ears, two regions where Navajos lived peacefully
with the Paiutes. There the Navajos expanded their flocks and land holdings
and awaited the release of their relatives from captivity.
In 1868 the Navajos returned from Fort Sumner and took up residence on a
reservation one-fourth the size of the original territory they had used
before the war. This situation did not last long, however, as the Dine expanded
into their old habitat. Between 1868 and 1905 there were eight boundary
changes that increased the reservation to the north, east, and west. The
most significant changes for the Utah Navajo occurred in 1884 when President
Chester Arthur added to the reservation the lands south of the San Juan
River. Although this territory politically changed hands a number of times,
the Navajo maintained control and added to their holdings around Aneth in
1905. The government made other extensions in this area in 1933 and again
in 1958, the latter being in exchange for lands lost to the Glen Canyon
Dam project. Thus, from the outset, the Navajos, unlike most Indian tribes,
have expanded their reservation at the expense of the public domain.
From 1870 to the 1890s, Navajos were involved in the turbulent jockeying
for lands on their northern borders. Non-Mormon expansion into the Montezuma
Creek and Aneth area, Mormon settlements in the Tuba City, Moenkopi, and
Bluff region, and the burgeoning cattle industry of San Juan County made
competition for resources inevitable. The government opened the public domain
for both Native American and Anglo use, but the Navajos and Utes utilized
the land in ways that were unappreciated by white men.
In addition to being drawn to the northern border of the reservation for
livestock grazing and agriculture, there were also unlicensed trading posts
on the northern side of the river. These posts flourished by escaping government
regulation, but by the 1890s many closed because of a national depression,
its accompanying economic impact, and successive crop failures due to drought.
By the early 1900s, the government had added Moenkopi and Aneth to the reservation
while generally peaceful relations existed in the Bluff area.
From 1900 to the 1930s, changes in Navajo lifestyle increased at a quickening
pace. The Shiprock Agency governed the Utah portion of the northern Navajo
district and encouraged local self-government under the chapter system.
Roads and bridges fed the isolated communities that often coalesced around
trading posts, which, in turn, became a hub of economic and social activity.
The peace was marred occasionally by such incidents as the Bai-a-lil-le
affair in which agency control was challenged by a powerful community leader,
and during the influenza epidemic of 1918 that ravaged large portions of
San Juan County, particularly in the Navajo communities. But Navajo herds
generally prospered and the population increased rapidly.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Navajo life changed rapidly. Livestock reduction
under John Collier, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, set in motion
a trauma comparable to that of the Long Walk of the 1860s. Because Navajo
wealth was measured in sheep, many of the people found it difficult to accept
soil erosion and overgrazing as sufficient justification to slaughter their
herds. Government agents drove thousands of animals into side canyons and
annihilated large portions of individual flocks, thus removing the economic
base of many Navajo families. This, coupled with World War II, encouraged
many Navajos during the 1940s and 1950s to seek wage labor off the reservation.
Some served as migrant workers in seasonal harvesting, others went to cities
for employment in factories, while others helped with railroad construction
and operations. Males were usually the ones who left, while the women eked
out a bare existence on the family holdings, working in economic cooperation
with extended family members who were collectively known as an outfit.
During the 1960s and 1970s, opportunities started to return to the reservation.
Oil royalty money from wells drilled in the Aneth/Montezuma Creek area was
administered through the Utah Navajo Development Council, a private, non-profit
organization designed to make available to Utah Navajos offerings in education,
health, and economic development. This became particularly important since,
according to the 1980 census, many Navajo families, which tend to be large,
were crowded into homes with two or fewer bedrooms (81 percent), no bathroom
or kitchen facilities (70 percent), no telephones (82 percent), and no water
(47 percent). The gap between Anglo and Navajo residents of San Juan County
needed to be closed.
Also aiding in achieving this goal were the two new high schools built during
the 1970s and 1980s, one in Montezuma Creek, the other in Monument Valley.
Not only did this help reduce or eliminate the antiquated boarding school
system, but it also prevented students from being bused to the northern
end of the county, a ride that in extreme instances required eight hours
a day of round-trip travel.
The Navajo today accept change and in some instances encourage it. Many
older people want the youth to obtain an education and job skills, but also
desire that they stay near home and maintain strong family ties, a theme
of importance in Navajo culture.
See: Robert S. McPherson, The Northern Navajo Frontier 1860-1900
(1988); Garrick and Roberta Bailey, A History of the Navajo: The Reservation
Years (1986); Alfonso Ortiz, ed., Handbook of North American Indians,
vol. 10 (1983).
Robert S. McPherson