The Navajo lands, which they call, “Dine Bikeyah.” Four Sacred Mountains (San Francisco Peaks, Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, and La Plata Mountain) approximately delimited the sacred land. The Navajo Tribe live in close proximity to other groups who also came to the southwest and brought with them their ancestral language of the Athabaskan family: the Na-Dené Southern Athabaskan language. The Navajo and Apaches share this language, known as “the people’s language,” or “Diné bizaad.” The word, “Navajo,” came from the Spanish adaptation of the word, “navahu’u.” It means “farm fields in the valley.” (Center, 2011, 2014).
Today’s knowledge of the pre-Columbian Navajo comes from the tribe’s oral traditions and archeological remains. The Navajo creation story, in which the Navajo people emerge from four sequential worlds of different colors, full of the symbols so familiar in Southwestern art, reflects the diversity of the lands through which the Dine passed in their journey to “Dine Bikeyah.”
Linguists and archaeologists have found that a group of people, during the last Ice Age, migrated from Asia, across the Bering Strait, to eastern Alaska and western Canada. From there, some of them continued onward to the Southwestern United States, around 1400 AD. Descendants of the immigrants who settled in the Four-Corners region of the present-day U.S. now call themselves “Dine,” or “The People.” They are the Navajo, and their oral tradition refers to this migration.
The Navajo peoples, though, were not farmers until they met up with the Pueblo Indians, already present in the region. Early Dime families lived as hunters and gatherers, consuming naturally occurring plants and local game. The buffalo, central to their culture, provided many of the raw materials that they used in their daily life.
By the time that the Spanish explorers found them, toward the end of the 18th Century, the Navajos were true farmers, having learned the ways of the Pueblo Indians. The Spanish found Navajos who cultivated their own food and lived in settlements, mastering the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash.
Although European invasion and colonization of the Navajo lands by Europeans resulted in centuries of dislocation and tragedies, like Hwéedi Baa Hane (the Long Walk), for the Navajos, a strong oral history tradition preserved much of their cultural identity. For example, even today, they practice many of the traditions of the matrilineal clan identity. Families and individuals identify themselves based upon the maternal clan, and Changing Woman, a principal deity of the Navajo religion, accompanies the Navajo through ceremony and celebration.
Today the Navajo Indians manage a 27,000-square-mile reservation, and recognize more than 250,000 members, making it the largest Native American Indian Tribe in the United States. The Mesa Verde region, delineated by the sacred mountains, demarks the greater Navajo distribution, with more than 1,000 individuals living off the reservation.