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The Navajo originally descended from western territories of Canada and Alaska. They make up the Athabasca speakers who migrated around the 1600s to occupy the South West region of the United States (Trimble, 1993). This is the area covered by the present-day mountains of New Mexico. The Navajo comprise of the various Apachean tribes. Through ethnographic and ethnological studies of the Navajo, various aspects of their tribes have been well understood. Day to day activities of the community that they carry out to ensure their survival usually influence more than one aspect of their culture. This normally comes out in the relationship that exists between these activities and different aspects of their life. Analysis of their subsistence modes has been found to have greater impact on their culture, most notably on their beliefs and values, economic organization and kinship.
Before their migration, the Navajo were largely hunters and gatherers (foragers).They hunted deer, elks, rabbits, squirrels and other animals as well as foraged for wild fruits. During the Spanish invasion that occurred around 1600 , the Navajo got involved in trading and raiding the Spanish and the neighboring Pueblo Indians. The Spanish drove the Pueblo Indians of Arizona into the New Mexico region and consequently. The Navajo and Pueblo Indians merged and lived together and by that move the Navajo contributed they culture adopting most of the Pueblo way of life. The most notable result of that cultural interaction was the adoption of agriculture, sheep-rearing, pottery, and weaving of which the Navajo are well known to date (Trimble, 1993). Hence, agriculture and pastoralism became the main Navajo mode of subsistence.
The Navajo cultivated corn, squash and beans and took to rearing the mountain sheep as domestic animals. Further uprising in the region led to the Jemez Pueblo Indians joining the Navajo and that particular cultural interaction introduced concepts of religion and ceremonial practices to the Navajo.The primary mode of subsistence for the Navajo, thus largely identified as agriculture and pastoralism, became an intrinsic part of their culture. Those practices eventually had an impact on other aspects of Navajo culture such as beliefs and values, economic organization and kinship.
Culture and beliefs
The Navajo have a rich culture and beliefs that trace their way back to their origin. The Navajo have an equivalent of the Christian story creation that tells about their origin. The story is preserved in myths and is recounted in the ceremony known as ‘blessing way’ which is the foundation of the Navajo way of life (Trimble, 1993). The story goes that the first man and the first woman appeared into the World and they found a baby near the mountains of New Mexico. The baby grew up in four days to become the Changing Woman, who is the main deity of the Navajo. Perhaps this myth explains the Navajo’s matrilineal clan system and its role in their culture. In regard to their mode of subsistence which is cultivation and pastoralism, the Navajo women typically own the land and livestock.
Through generations property is inherited mostly by female relatives and this is done according to the traditions. The Changing Woman also gave the Navajo instructions regarding their religious practices. The Navajo believe that there are two classes of beings: the Earth people and the Holy people. The Earth people form an integral part of the Universe and the Holy people take on the spiritual form, and they have the power to help or harm the Earth people. The Navajo teaching that came to us through their spiritual beliefs says that there is need to stay with Mother Earth in harmony. The same relationship shall be with Sky and other elements of Nature including human beings, birds, and animals among others. By practicing agriculture and pastoralism, the Navajo are obeying the command by so nurturing the plants and animals that in turn, provide them with food and support their lifestyle.
The Navajo believe in existence of the four elements of the Earth. These are Rain, Light, Air and Pollen. Rain is the most revered among these elements. A critical look at them shows they are necessary for the growth of plants. Pollen is responsible for fertilization of seeds. Germination requires Light, Air and water in form of Rain to sustain the growth of the plants. Clearly, this indicates the importance of cultivation to the Navajo. Water is also important for sustaining other forms of life, be it human or animal.
Corn is the major crop cultivated by the Navajo. Apart from being their staple source of food, corn has a major role to play in the culture. For instance, the pollen of corn is used in various religious ceremonies as a blessing. A major Navajo’s ceremony is the Kinaalda. The highlight of this ceremony is the baking of a huge corn cake. Another ceremony is blessing a new baby’s cradleboard, where corn pollen is used. When a baby is born, its umbilical cord is buried under a tree. This ritual symbolizes the transition that occurs when a child stops relying on its natural mother for nourishment and now turns to its spiritual mother who is Mother Earth, to provide its food. The baby’s cradleboard is made from this very tree and as the child and the tree grow up together, some connection develops between them. This sacred bond shows a deep, spiritual reverence for plants. Here we can see the concept of the Navajo regarding Mother Earth as the source of their foods. This directly points out the fact that the Navajo are ardent cultivators and pastoralists, relying on the land for the provision of crops and animals that they use for food (Iverson, N.D & Deer, 2006).
The Navajo are well-known for rearing sheep. The availability of wool from the sheep set a platform for the weaving industry. The Navajo are famous for their colorful woven blankets and baskets. The art of weaving has been passed down many generations and is quite a distinctive aspect of their culture, apart from being an artistic expression. In this way, weaving became a culture synonymous with the Navajo and which arose from their pastoral lifestyle.
The Navajo ceremonies, whether religious, healing or as rites of passage, all aim at restoring beauty, harmony, balance and health in the same concept that the Universe is ordered. Being an agricultural community, the Navajo take full advantage of the plant life around them. In case of sickness, a traditional medicine man is given the mandate to make herbal cures from special healing plants found within the Navajo land. The ritual involves the medicine man approaching the plant and calling out the sick person’s name. Each plant is viewed as an individual and during these healing ceremonies, the plant is given “offerings of pollen from corn, songs and prayers” (Witherspoon, 1996). The use of plants for these ceremonies indicates the familiarity and proficiency of the Navajo people with plant cultivation.
The practice of cultivation and pastoralism that the Navajo are engaged in requiring the use of large tracts of fertile land. The area covered by the Navajo’s territory is surrounded by the four major mountains in New Mexico, making it fertile and able to sustain these modes of subsistence. Relating this choice of geographical location to their culture and beliefs, the Navajo religion has a strong relationship with their land. They believe that the Creator placed them on the land between the four mountains and were instructed to tend the land and never to leave it. Local plants have been in use in ceremonies. This is an indication of a clear understanding of their land and the need to keep it sacred.
The modes of subsistence of the Navajo also have a great impact on their economic organization. The Navajo are pastoralists. Domestically, they keep sheep, goats, and cattle which they trade in exchange with other commodities. Herding has therefore become a major part of the Navajo economic activities. Sheep have become a form of currency and a significant symbol of status in the community (Witherspoon, 1996). This is done based on the number of sheep that a family possesses. The wool that is shorn off the sheep is used in the production of wool and yarn. Spinning and weaving of wool into colorfully artistic blankets, rugs, baskets and clothes transformed the Navajo art into a well-recognized and profitable industry. The products are sold within and outside the region.
The Navajo traded their farm and animal products. During these instances, they interacted with various people who had varied skills. That way the Navajo learnt the art of making silver jewellery from the Mexicans. The jewelry included handmade bracelets, necklaces, earrings and hairpins which are sold to supplement their income (Iverson, N.D & Deer, 2006). The ‘squash blossom’ necklace was a famous Navajo ornament made from silver and turquoise gemstones. The name itself shows an appreciation of the squash plant which they also cultivated in large scale.
The Navajo have a kinship system that is matrilineal (Witherspoon, 1996). It is said that the Changing woman created the four major Navajo clans. The Navajo practice of cultivation and farming require nurturing, just as the upbringing of a clan or community is dependent upon the nurturing hands of a woman. Women were given the mandate to be at the top hierarchy of the clans. A married man lived with the mother’s people and clan together with his wife. The children in such a setup were taken to be a part of the father’s clan but belonged at the same time to the mother’s. The clan property, which basically comprised of the sheep, goats and cattle and the cultivated plants (corn, squash and beans) made up the generational property which was the rightful inheritance of the daughters and the female relatives of the clan. Another important aspect of the Navajo clan was its exogamous nature. This means that marriage was only allowed outside the clan. It was considered that people belonging to one clan were related as brothers and sisters, therefore it was an act of incest to marry a person from the same clan.
The Navajo Indians that occupied the southwest United States are an ethnic tribe whose cultural practices have stood the test of time over centuries of their existence. Ethnographic and ethnological studies into their origin, social stratification, religion and economic organization have revealed that these cultural practices emerged as a result of influence from their daily activities. The Navajo’s major activities upon which they relied in order to survive were predominantly cultivation and pastoralism. Of course, it was established that the Navajo were involved in other modes of subsistence such as trading and raiding.
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The Navajo acquired the practice of pastoralism and agriculture from the Pueblo Indians with whom they interacted during the Spanish conquest. The major crops to be extensively cultivated by the Navajo were corn, squash and beans. Consequently, corn became a major symbol of their culture, as well as economic organization. Corn was sold or given in exchange for other commodities to earn them income. The use of corn during religious and other ceremonies as a blessing shows the importance attached to the crop. The major animal kept by the Navajo was the sheep. Sheep are an important status symbol among the Navajo. The more sheep a family has, the higher their status in the clan is. Sheep was a form of currency and thus indicates wealth.
Wool derived from sheep also played an important role in the development of the weaving industry. The yarn was dyed and spun or woven to make colorful Navajo items like blankets, rugs and clothes. Those authentic symbols of Navajo art were sold to boost the community’s economic base.
The Navajo have a very rich culture that permeates through their ceremonies. Their beliefs, such as the story of their origin in which they were instructed to nurture the Earth explain the reason why the Navajo’s primary mode of subsistence is cultivation and rearing animals. Most of the Navajo ceremonies incorporate the use of plants, notably the use of corn pollen as a blessing. The ceremony that celebrates puberty in girls and the baby’s ‘first laugh’ ritual both have corn as major parts of the rituals. This portrays the deep regard that they have for crops. Local plants are also used by medicine men for healing purposes.
The Navajo matrilineal system of kinship is derived from their religion where it is believed that a deity called the Changing Woman created the four major Navajo clans and instructed them on religious practices, other ceremonies and how to care about the Earth. Tribute is given to women in this regard. A man relocates to live with his wife’s people upon marriage and any children born to the couple actually belong to the mother’s clan and her people. Similarly, the females of the Navajo are the ones who inherit all the generational property. Women are seen as a symbol of fertility and continuation, the same way that Mother Earth, the provider of food is. Furthermore, the nurturing hands of women can only be compared to the way plants or even animals are tended to.
It is therefore apparent the extent to which culture is shaped and influenced by the daily activities of a community, which often comprises their predominant modes of subsistence.
Iverson, P., N.D, J., & Deer, A. E. (2006). The Navajo. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
Trimble, S. (1993). The people:Indians of the American southwest. New Mexico: School of American Research Press.
Witherspoon, G. (1996). Navajo kinship and marriage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.